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There's Something About Mary

How I made my peace with the Mother of God.
by Sarah Hinlicky Wilson | posted 05/17/2005 04:00 p.m.

Late last fall I realized that I really didn't like Mary. More specifically, I disliked Mary. And I had disliked Mary for quite some time. There was no apparent reason; the Lutheran tradition I had been raised in and chosen for myself was at worst indifferent to Mary, not hostile. But I was definitely verging on hostility.

The realization didn't occur in a vacuum. It came out of my housing arrangements. I was living in New York City at the time, in a brick building called by its inhabitants the Community of Christ in the City. It was populated then, as it had been since its inception about twenty years previously, by Christians of various traditions all engaged in some kind of church work. As part of our communal life, we said nightly evening prayer together, using the order of service found in the Lutheran Book of Worship. The last canticle we sang every night was the Magnificat, the hymn of praise that Mary sang when Gabriel announced to her that she would bear a son who would redeem Israel at last (Luke 1:46-55). I would guess that during the course of my stay in New York, I sang the Magnificat about 350 times. Let me just tell you, after that many times, the words start to sink in. Occasionally it would even run in my head unbidden, but I liked the tune, so it was okay.

After I'd sung this maybe a hundred times, a few important things dawned on me. The first thing, of course, was that I disliked Mary, which was followed quickly by the conviction that this was a totally unacceptable attitude. Next it dawned on me that Mary is theologically important, and fancying myself to be a budding theologian, I had to take that seriously. And third it dawned on me that Mary is the model for the Christian life. Doubtless there are millions, probably hundreds of millions, of people who had all this figured out long before me. I was slow to catch on.

Now as to why I had disliked Mary. Part of it, I suppose, was that she is the subject of such controversy in ecumenical discussions, and I have been in the habit of taking ecclesial disunity very much to heart. (Though it's not like it's her fault that there is disagreement about her.) And I am vigorously non-sentimental, and most of the Marian art I'd seen up to that point in my life was grotesquely sentimental. But more than either of those, I'm embarrassed to admit, the problem was sheer jealousy. I wanted to keep the pursuit of God to myself and not need anyone's instruction on how to get there (which in practice meant rejection of God's plan for my finding him, too). Worse yet, Mary was the chosen one; she was the one everyone was calling blessed; and as patently absurd as it sounds to me now, I envied her the attention and didn't see why she was so extraordinary and I wasn't. Of course it was my own desire for glory, projected onto her, that was afflicting me. Once that unpleasant revelation came to me, I found Mary a lot more likeable.

So I started to make my peace with the Mother of God. It wasn't just an abrupt one-eighty into "Now I like Mary!" but entailed, as I mentioned before, some other realizations as well. First, the theological one.

The essential thing about Mary, I discovered, is that she safeguards what we know about Jesus Christ—a most appropriate task for the woman who held the infant Jesus in her arms. She is a christological protector, you might say, making sure we always remember that her Son is both truly human and truly divine. Her christological role comes out most clearly in the one dogma about Mary that is shared by all the churches, the dogma of the Theotokos . At the third ecumenical council in Ephesus in the year 431, there was a big controversy over whether Mary should get the title Theotokos or Christotokos . Nestorius preferred the latter. He was willing to admit that for nine months Mary bore Christ in her womb (as in Christo-tokos , Greek for "Christ-bearer"), but he wouldn't go so far as to say that she bore God in her womb ( Theo-tokos , "God-bearer"). This opinion inflamed those who said that Nestorius was denying the full divinity of Jesus Christ from the very beginning. If Jesus wasn't God from the start, then everything else would crumble, most horrifyingly Jesus' accomplishment of our salvation by taking on human flesh and saving it with a divine sacrifice. Furthermore, if Jesus were not both fully God and fully man, then his place with the Father and Spirit in the Trinity was a big hoax. Happily, Nestorius lost. Now all of us honor Mary as the God-bearer, the one who held the infinite inside the finite constraints of her body. (Christianity loves a good paradox.) Mary, in truth, is not a distraction from Jesus, but a path to him. Before, I had been mostly concerned with the abuse of this fondness for Mary, but I was gradually seeing that I had thrown out the baby with the bathwater, or in this case, the mother with the bathwater.

As a teacher of the Christian life, you can't get a much better model than Mary, either. She epitomizes what it means to live by faith through the power of grace. The church has long been mightily impressed that God permitted his plan of salvation to depend on the cooperation of a little Jewish girl in a little Jewish town. Mary's fiat ("Let it be done" in Latin) is an act of staggering obedience. Completely impossible things were happening to her: a visit from an angel, a message that she was going to bear the Messiah of Israel, and the conception of that son without a husband. The repercussions would be terrible: Joseph would want to leave her, the birth would occur in a stable, Herod would try to kill the baby, a flight to Egypt would be necessary, and once the boy had been saved from all that, he would still end up murdered on a cross like a common criminal. It sounds like a rotten deal all around, especially for a mom. Yet she took it, persevered till the end, and trusted God to make it all come out right#151;and, well, it did. That is the kind of faith that moves mountains.

Having finally come to these three very important conclusions about Mary and me, it seemed only right that I should do something to make amends, so to speak. I decided that as part of my Advent devotion I would read every night a section from a book called On the Mother of God, a collection of poems on Mary by Jacob of Serug. Jacob was a liturgical poet and theologian from the easternmost reaches of the Christian world in the late fifth and early sixth centuries. He wrote in Syriac, which is a dialect of Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke. Syriac survives to this day, used in the Oriental Orthodox churches in the Middle East. Jacob of Serug wasn't trying to establish dogmatic guidelines for beliefs about Mary, but experimenting with different and interesting connections about Mary's role in salvation history that would lead to faith. Some of his poems are quite strange (for instance, that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit entering Mary's ear!), but others are quite compelling. I was especially charmed by his comparison of Eve and Mary. Jacob writes about Mary's meeting with Gabriel:

She said to him: "How will this be as you say, since I am a virgin and there is no fruit of virgins?"
In that moment it was very necessary to question, so that the mystery of the Son dwelling in her might be explained to her.
Mary inquired in order that we might learn from the angel concerning that conception which is a sublime matter beyond understanding.
Behold how most fair is Mary to the one who beholds her, and how loveable these things of hers to the ones who are capable of discerning.
This one inquires that she might learn from him about her conception,
because it was hers and for the profit of the ones who listen to her.

In other words, Mary was intelligent, thoughtful, and wily, determined to know the angel's credentials for making such a bold proclamation to her. She wasn't just interested for her own benefit, either, but for all those after her who would want to know what happened and how. Eve, by contrast, was dumb as a post:

Eve had not questioned the serpent when he led her astray, she who by her will kept silent and firmly believed the treachery.
The latter maiden heard truth from the faithful one, nevertheless in this way she had sought out an explanation.
The former heard of becoming a goddess from a tree, but she did not say: "How will what you mention ever happen?"
The Watcher told this one that she would conceive the Son of God, but she did not accept it until she was well informed.
That she in her person would ascend to the divine rank, the virgin wife of Adam did not doubt the liar.

Eve was told that she'd become a goddess and she didn't bat an eyelash; Mary was told she'd have a baby boy and wanted some proof. I liked this Mary a lot, smart and willing to wrangle with an angel. In the end, I apologized for having been so snotty towards Jesus' own mother and was delighted with the new theological and spiritual worlds that she had opened up for me.

Then something unexpected happened.

While I was coming to terms with Mary, I wasn't coming to terms with something else. Namely, the sneaking suspicion that God was calling me into the ministry of the Word and Sacrament. Even though I had grown to love theology in college, I had never wanted to be a pastor. It was enough for me that countless relatives of mine were pastors themselves. (A genetic conspiracy?) I felt no need to imitate, and if anything needed to break out and do something different. I thought up every imaginable excuse not to become a pastor myself (for a long time I was determined that women should not be pastors because it was the strongest safeguard against my becoming one!). But I began to suspect that I could go willingly or I could go kicking and screaming, but either way I would go. As usual, I chose kicking and screaming. (This seems to be a recurring theme in my life.) I avoided thinking about the subject. I knew that I needed to get down on my knees and pray about it, but I always managed not to. My own pastor kept wanting me to talk to her about it, but I delayed as long as I could without seeming like I was delaying, because I was too embarrassed to admit how immature I was being about it. This went on all autumn.

It was at the beginning of Advent, 1998 that I had my three realizations about Mary. The first Sunday of Advent that year was November 29, and a week after November 29 was December 6. On December 6, a week after I had made my peace with Mary and had started studying Jacob of Serug's devotion to her, I received my call into the ministry. It was as simple as that: I went in still deploring and fearing the prospect of giving up my life to be a pastor, and came out with my soul magnifying the Lord.

Somehow, I doubt it's a coincidence.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 1999/2000 issue of Re:Generation Quarterly. At the time, Sarah E. Hinlicky was an M.Div. junior at Princeton Theological Seminary. She is now married and a Ph.D. student in systematic theology at the seminary.