Feast Day of St. Mary, mother of Jesus: Nigel Bunce
Today, August 15, we celebrate St. Mary outside Christmas. We usually meet the mother of Jesus in the Advent story of the Annunciation, and on Christmas Eve. Today, I want to explore where the Christmas story comes from. This is definitely not a homily for Christmas Eve, when we immerse ourselves in the magic of the Christmas story.
What the New Testament authors wrote about Jesus’ birth
The most important New Testament writings are Paul’s letters and the four Gospels. Paul’s letters predate all the Gospels. The usual chronology is that Jesus died in 33 CE. Paul’s letters date from mid 40s to early 60s. Mark, the earliest Gospel, from the late 60s.
Paul, Mark, and John say nothing about Jesus’ birth. This suggests that they did not see it as remarkable. Mark’s Gospel describes Jesus’ adult life from his baptism to his death. For John, Jesus is the Christ figure, who was part of God the Father since time began.
Of the other two Gospels, Matthew reports simply that the Holy Spirit conceived Jesus supernaturally. Thus, our familiar Christmas story comes entirely from Luke. The Angel Gabriel, the stable behind the inn, the manger scene, the shepherds who heard angels and ran to see the newborn child.
St. Mary outside Christmas: Protestant ideas
Today, on her Feast Day, we meet St. Mary outside Christmas, and its excitement. Protestants often think that only Roman Catholics have any regard for Mary. However, the Anglican Reformation kept Mary, along with the twelve named Apostles, the four Gospel writers, and St Paul as named saints.
But the Protestant Reformation made one incalculably important change. We are all worthy to pray directly to God, as Jesus explained when he taught his disciples the Lord’s Prayer. We do not have to use saints like the Virgin Mary as intermediaries.
St. Mary outside Christmas: the early Church
The early Church gave Mary legendary parents, Anne and Joachim An angel promised they would have a child after years of childlessness. In return, Anne promised to dedicate Mary to God. That is a parallel to Hannah’s dedication of Samuel to God in the Hebrew Scriptures.
St. Mary outside Christmas; doctrines
Early on. the western (Roman) Church specified several doctrines about Mary that believers must accept. The Nicene Creed includes her virginal conception of Jesus. Thus, we think of her as a rather milk and water figure, rather than a strong woman, busy with family responsibilities.
Less familiar to Protestants are the doctrines of Mary’s perpetual virginity, the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption. The latter two are, respectively, that Mary was free of original sin from the moment of her conception, and that after her death Mary’s body and soul ascended to heavenly glory.
The Immaculate Conception and the Assumption are modern official Roman Catholic doctrines, 1854 and 1950 respectively. That’s odd, because science had discovered the ovum before 1854. Supernatural phenomena were rapidly losing favour in the 19th century.
Mary’s virginity and Original Sin
A small sidetrack. The link to original sin comes from the ancient world’s misunderstanding about human reproduction. The ovum (egg) was unknown. People believed that the woman merely provided a seed bed for the man’s seeds.
Like growing lettuces! According to Augustine, Original Sin was the “stain of Adam”. It passed down to all humans through defective seed (Pagels p. 105). In modern terms, a genetic defect. Jesus virgin birth broke the chain. It explained how Jesus could be the perfect, sinless man.
Virginity doctrines contradict Gospel evidence
Besides, virginity doctrines contradict clear Gospel evidence about St. Mary outside Christmas: that Jesus was part of a regular family. Mark relates that Jesus had brothers and sisters who called for him outside the synagogue. That’s when he said that his disciples were his true family.
Just last week, we heard these words from John’s Gospel. The Jewish leadership said, “Isn’t this Jesus, son of Joseph, whose mother and father we know?” These words surely indicate that Jesus had a normal family
So: how did Jesus’ mother become the Blessed Virgin Mary?
It’s a fascinating story. Partly, it’s because the Gospels use the Greek language to describe a Jewish Messiah. The authors were probably Jews who lived in Greek-speaking cities, or maybe Gentile converts.
The text from Isaiah Chapter 7 says, “Look, the young woman is with child and will bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” I hear Handel’s Messiah. ‘Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son and shall call his name Immanuel.’
Luke’s Greek translation of Hebrew Scripture mistranslated “young woman” as ‘virgin’. Also, there’s the inevitable influence of surrounding culture. A Greek language Gospel surely means Greek influences. In Greek mythology, the Greek gods regularly interfered in human affairs.
Luke’s Christmas story as a parable
My belief is that Luke’s Christmas story is an elaborate parable. The Angel Gabriel comes from the heavenly realms bringing news to a virgin that she will conceive a holy child. Luke didn’t lie. His story tells us about Jesus’ divinity. It foretells his message and ministry. But within his own culture.
Thus, Jesus came in recognizable human form. But not as a prince, born in a palace. His birth took place in humble circumstances, to ordinary parents, and with shepherds as humble bystanders. The part of the parable about shepherds and angels says, “heaven and earth were in close proximity that night.”
In Christmas Eve homilies, I have quoted Black Elk. “I don’t know if it all happened that way, but the story is true.” Luke wrote his Christmas story from his Greek perspective as a parable, to explain the unexplainable. We 21st century Canadians can’t shake the habit of reading Scripture literally.
Why Christians should nevertheless venerate St. Mary
Ordinary Christians through the ages have revered Mary the mother of Jesus. Like Mary Magdalene, whose feast day we celebrated last month, she is a feminine presence in a Church where most images are male – God the Father, male apostles, male human Jesus.
The late Anglican Bishop of Birmingham (UK) said about Mary, “Christians rightly honour and venerate her as one of the great saints [whom] God had signally honoured by choosing her to be the mother of Jesus.” Amen to that.