Soon it will be Christmas–the one time in the year that most evangelicals think about the Virgin Mary. When the staff at Christian History & Biography decided a few years back to do an issue on the Virgin Mary (issue #83), there was some skepticism in the office. My art director, the late Rai Whitlock, was worried we would get hate mail from some of our loyal evangelical Protestant readers.
In the end, the hate mail didn’t materialize. What we got instead was the Evangelical Press Association award for best thematic magazine issue (sorry, indulging a little paternal pride). I guess evangelicals, too, are interested in Mary! At the front of the issue, in my Editor’s Note, I reflected on my own ambivalence going into the issue. Why should evangelicals join in the long tradition of what we called, in that issue’s title, “Mary in the Imagination of the Church”?
[For some choice further reading on this topic, see here.]
From the Editor
Mary and the Flabbergasting Fact
It’s a sleepy Wednesday night and I’m the only one left in the office, on the top floor of CTI’s modest Carol Stream, Illinois facilities, across from the Aldi’s grocery store and the MacDonalds restaurant. I’ve been looking through the images on the layouts for this issue—picture after picture of scenes starring Mary, the mother of Jesus—until they have all begun to blur together in one big scene; kind of like Memling’s “Seven Joys of Mary” on our opening pages.
And I’m wondering: Do I know the mother of Jesus—the theotokos, or in Jaroslav Pelikan’s phrase, “the one who gave birth to the one who is God”—any better now than when we started this issue?
I’m just not sure. Part of me still feels like a kid in a museum: The Renaissance masterpieces, the Byzantine icons, the 15th-century German wood carvings … these are all too lofty and alien—something from a different age and a different religious sensibility. Can all of this really mean anything to me: a college-educated twenty-first century suburbanite, an “evangelical,” used to thinking of Mary for only a few days around Christmas?
Honestly, I’m a bit frustrated with myself: I’m a historian—I should be able to leap these distances and penetrate to the meanings and emotions beneath. I should be able to peel away the shell of historical particularity and get to the nourishing kernel of my spiritual heritage, enriching my devotional life.
At least, that’s the burden of most of our authors. And it has been mine since we began to work on this issue. Yet for some reason, I’m just not quite able to jump the confessional fence and embrace Mary in even pale imitation of my Catholic and Orthodox brothers and sisters.
Although I haven’t become any more “Catholic” through my close journalistic encounter with the Blessed Virgin Mary, I have been captivated again by the central, flabbergasting fact of Christianity: that God himself came down and chose to be conceived, and carried to term, and born the son of a real, living woman.
As the church historian Timothy George said to me in conversation, “God didn’t have to do it that way. He could have descended from heaven as a little fresh baby God just made and plopped down on earth.”
But he did choose to do it “that way”—the normal, human way. Aside from the divine conception, he came the same way we all do: through pregnancy, labor, birth, infancy. … And that fact elevates not only all humanity, but especially all womankind. In the Incarnation, as in all human births, nothing happened without the loving, sacrificial participation of a woman. “Be it unto me according to thy word,” said Mary.
The angel called her “highly favored.” Elizabeth called her “blessed among women.” And Mary, in her paean of faith, the Magnificat, cried out: “He that is mighty hath done to me great things; and holy is his name.”
But what should all this mean for us, today? At the very least, I hope “meeting” Mary will face you, as it has me, with the extraordinary truth of the Incarnation. Look: Here is the flesh-and-blood woman who bore our savior, suckled him, clothed him, taught him, and followed him. Then, at the Cross, she sorrowed over him. And then at last, in the Upper Room, she participated in the birth of his church. No wonder his church has dwelt on her so lovingly.
Copyright © 2004 by the author or Christianity Today International/Christian History & Biography magazine.
Click here for reprint information on Christian History & Biography.