The mother of Jesus fascinates some people to the point of controversy. A lot of Protestants find the Roman Catholic devotion to Mary disturbing, particularly if that love seems to elevate her to a godlike status.
Scripturally, Mary is to be understood as human. We Protestants, however, need to be careful not to throw momma out with the baby’s bath water—Mary is perhaps the most important mere human to have ever lived. (I say “mere” human to take Jesus, who was in some mysterious way both fully human and fully divine, out of contention.)
After all, Mary was the “favored one,” the first chapter of Luke’s gospel tells us. God found Mary worthy to carry the messiah, God in flesh, in her womb. Jesus’ devotion to and love for her was evident even as he hung dying on a cross.
So, what made Mary so special?
Earlier, when I described her as perhaps the most important mere human to have ever lived, some of you may have flinched a little. Did you begin to run other possible candidates through your mind: biblical characters like Abraham or Moses, or great historic figures?
If you did so, consider whether you’re attaching worldly standards to the word “important.” God’s standards are different from worldly standards; humility and unwavering faith would seem to top the divine list.
Oh, and we shouldn’t forget bravery. Stoning was the punishment of the day for a poor, unwed pregnant girl, which is how her neighbors would have viewed Mary. To follow God while facing such dire circumstances required a heart wide-open to God’s will, one willing to disregard the potential personal cost.
God chose Mary, it seems, because she had the right soul for the task. She was young, perhaps as young as 14, but Luke 1:46-55 demonstrates her remarkable understanding of the meaning of Christ’s coming.
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant,” Mary said. She was rejoicing with her much older cousin Elizabeth, who carried in her womb John the Baptist, the prophet who would announce the coming of Jesus’ ministry in adulthood.
As Mary continued in her prophetic rejoicing, she laid out the radical mission of Christ. He brings mercy to those who believe and follow God. He scatters the proud. He brings down the powerful. He lifts up the lowly and the hungry. He does all of this as a fulfillment of a promise made to the world through Abraham long ago.
And of course, we now understand that Jesus grew up to accomplish this radical realignment of power through his death on the cross, a sacrifice designed to break the grip of sin.
Governments and armies still seem to have power, but none can help you establish a relationship with God. At best, they can keep the relationship freely available.
Mary’s song also calls us to magnify the Lord, regardless of our ability to carry children. The baby in her womb would reveal God’s nature to all; as the body of Christ on earth today, Christians similarly exhibit God’s Spirit to a hurting world.
And while this task requires humility and faith, it also makes us revolutionaries, like the quiet, demure Mary who suddenly sang of a world to be turned upside down.
The great Scottish theologian William Barclay noted that Mary’s song declares three great “revolutions” that her child would spark in the world.
First, God “has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.” That is a moral revolution, Barclay noted, bringing about the death of pride. People cannot understand their brokenness and their need for Christ and at the same time remain convinced they are somehow superior to others.
Second, Mary sang that God “has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.” That, Barclay said, is a social revolution.
If we are to magnify God, we ignore labels used to sort people as important or unimportant. In every face, the Christian sees God’s creation. In every person, a Christian sees a life for whom Christ died.
Third, Mary tells us that the hungry are filled and the rich are sent away empty. Barclay called this part of the song a declaration of an economic revolution.
“A non-Christian society is an acquisitive society where each man is out to amass as much as he can get,” Barclay wrote. “A Christian society is a society where no man dares to have too much while others have too little, where every man must get only to give away.”
Oh, to magnify the Lord in every moment of our lives, to allow revolution to occur in every choice we make. It isn’t easy, of course.
Fortunately, the baby who grew to be a man and live out his mother’s prophecies did not shrink from the difficult task of the cross. May God grant us similar courage in this season.