Does God Laugh at Our Worship?

This announcement popped up at an institution I serve and as I started to let it just slide by, it occurred to me that perhaps God didn’t find our humor so funny.


Putting theology aside for a moment, does the mother of our Lord deserve a bit more respect? Are we guilty of treating worship too casually? Maybe it’s just me. What do you think?

Fourth Sunday in Advent – Micah and Mary

image In logical ordering of the world God created, the darkness must precede the light. We must endure the night to know the sunrise and warmth of a new day. This ordering extends to the extension of God’s mercy; our repentance leads to the light of the Lord’s mercy. Reading the words of the prophet Micah paints a vivid picture of this contrast. The Lord rebukes his children and follows it with the promises of mercy to be received by those who turn away from their sin. The greatest promise is a featured part of the Advent tradition,

But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times. (v 5:2)

Mary too knew the sweet longing of anticipation. Carrying the precious gift she bore closer and closer to His birth, Mary was overwhelmed at the change that was about to take place in the world. She was perhaps at a point similar to those moments just before the crown of the sun breaks the horizon, when the purples mix with the deep blue and black of the night sky and the sliver of light pushes the sphere of darkness to the west; though many weeks would still pass the day of the birth of the Lord was nearer than farther! Her heart sang,

My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me—holy is His name. (Lk vv 1:46b-49)

The day is near for us as well, rejoice for Immanuel!

The Words That Cannot Be Spoken

Scot McKnight again asks an important question at Jesus Creed, “Can anyone tell me why Mary is so often neglected when it comes to talking about women in ministry?”  The answer obviously has a number of complexities based on the nuances of belief that one brings to their practice of following Christ but in its simplest form, I think the answer is fear.

For the same reason that Mary is often a subject of irrational fear in Evangelical circles, the topic of women in ministry is often cloaked in apprehension as though the very discussion of the topic is heretical. Mary suffers from the Catholic bias in Protestant thought; because she plays such an important role in Catholic practice, the evangelical unreasonably avoids her contribution to the gospel outside of the birth event. After spending a few months reading The Real Mary, meditating on her appearances in the Scriptures, and coming to realize the enormous role she plays and commenting upon it, Mary is no longer an object of fear. 

In the same way that Mary is avoided or involved in heated debate, the topic of women in ministry is a flashpoint that either is shunted or argued vociferously. As a believer in the leadership of women in the Church, I have come to the belief through careful study and prayer that just as God calls men to positions of leadership, he is also sovereignly free to elect women into those same positions. If God gifts a women to lead and preach, who are we to throw up patriarchal tradition roadblocks?

Perhaps a discussion about Mary as a minister and leader is just the thing to tear down the curtain that hides our need to reconsider the equality of women in ministry. The risk we run in not carefully considering this topic is the same risk we run in avoiding Mary; we miss what God was and is doing through our sisters and we are poorer for it.


Embracing The Real Mary

With many satisfying books that you are hesitant to place in the library, there is a tendency to linger with the volume, realign the jacket perhaps, smile as you recall some especially poignant passage, and maybe scan Amazon for the author’s other works to be added to your wishlist. Such is the case for McKnight’s The Real Mary. His scholarly habits in place, McKnight closes this thin volume with a summary chapter. His heart for God, His Church, and the role that Mary plays in its history wins out and this final chapter becomes a summary call to remembrance and embrace.

The final chapter reads as follows:

“Perhaps on a day dedicated to honoring Mary we could be empowered to dream the Magnificat dream for our society. Perhaps we could be encouraged to let our hearts and minds swell with bigger thoughts for our world. People of courageous faith change the world.”

The evangelical church can and should embrace Mary for her courage and faith. She is a model for us as we struggle to sort out what we ‘know’ about Jesus and what God reveals to us as we shuffle along, growing in our faith. Mary has numerous dimensions that instruct us in how to relate to her Son as His relationship to us transforms through our discipleship. The Mary that we hardly know shows us what it means to answer ‘Yes’ to God when we are unable the scope of the mission but our faith says we must proceed.

Scot McKnight has done a service to both the evangelical and Catholic communities, bridging the deep chasm that divides them by bringing clarity to the truth of the beliefs and traditions surrounding The Virgin. This alone may offer opportunities for dialog that were absent in the past and may foster a more ecumenical future.

Embrace Mary as you comprehend the scope of her role in the ministry of the Savior. Honor her for her faith in the face of danger and rejection. Allow her to touch your own life and feel the sword the pierced her soul. Know the agony of kneeling with her at the foot of the cross. See Jesus through a loving mother’s eyes.


The Real Venerated Mary

 In the final pair of chapters in The Real Mary, McKnight leads Protestants to understand the Roman Catholic traditions regarding The Virgin and the ways in which these beliefs become divisive. Especially in this last chapter, he cautions the evangelical who is uncomfortable at some Catholic practice to differentiate between the Church’s actual teaching and its application. It’s here then that we face the traditions that have formed around Mary that appear to have drifted into the worship of Mary.

The evangelical who investigates the traditions surrounding Mary finds that Catholic tradition is often developed to fill the silences of the Bible. In response to theological question regarding the absence of Original Sin in Jesus, born of the human Mary, Catholicism develops the position of immaculate conception. If one adheres to this position, Mary is sinless and therefore not subject to the ravages of human life like aging, disease, and death. To explain her movement from earth to heaven without suffering death, the tradition of the glorious assumption develops. On both the Bible is silent but theological questions demand answers and the Catholic theologians responded.

Mary as mediatrix is one of the more threatening positions standing between the evangelical and the Catholic. Much of this schism is rooted in a lack of understanding on the part of the Catholic laity who fail to explain their prayers to saints correctly. The Church’s position is founded on a much more active belief in the communion of the Body. The Catholic view enlivens the saints in their heavenly abode and is not hesitant to ask them for prayer, much as the evangelical asks their friends and family for intercession. Mary, being among the saints in heaven, is asked for her intercession.  Nothing more.

To those who spend time constructing and researching things theological, each of these positions that the Roman Catholic church has taken makes sense. The danger in these positions lies in their transference to the laity who don’t take the time to deconstruct and carefully explain the foundations as each becomes tradition. The dangerous precipice of tradition is that it can easily tip into worship and adoration of Mary, elevating her to a fourth position in the Trinity. Teaching says that Mary is not to be worshipped nor adored, tradition often veers otherwise.

As for Mary’s miraculous appearance in a piece of cheese toast? We’ll leave that for another day but ask the same question. Does such an appearance honor the Real Mary, whose words “may it be to me as you have said” inspire us also to live in reverent obedience?


The Influential Real Mary

Scot McKnight turns the page on our discovery of the story of Mary. We have followed the biblical record to the foot of the cross where we find Jesus’ mother suffering the crushing realization of her fears. She is not recorded as having witnessed the resurrected Lord and the next encounter that we have is to see her huddled in an upper room with other disciples and Jesus’ brothers. Her faith in the promise of God, made so many years prior, has not been shaken by the events of the weeks prior. Mary has fully committed her life to the Way.

The question proposed in this chapter of The Real Mary is, what influence did Mary exert on the life of Jesus? Much like the divisive controversy of Mary’s perpetual virginity, there is a school of belief that gives Jesus full realization and maturity while he simply played the role of a child and adolescent in human form. The Scriptures lead us to understand kenosis, and the simpler explanation for Jesus’ development points to Mary and Joseph and the influence that they had on the boy’s life.

We must always be conservative when filling in our understanding of the ‘missing parts’ of the Lord’s life. It is safe to conclude that Mary and Joseph had at least the normal input into the boy’s life. This input would have been colored by the facts that His parents knew about but nonetheless, he grows and develops,  affected by His parents just as the majority of the people on this planet have.

This same knowledge, combined with Mary’s eyewitness memories of the Lord’s early years, point to her later influence on the life of the nascent Church. Surely she was consulted by the Apostles as they sought to fill in their own knowledge of the Savior and the fullness of His life. So, it is here gathered with the others in Jerusalem that we say goodbye to the biographical account of Mary in the Bible. Her influence does not end, however.

(See the broad international portrayals of Mary at



The Real Faithful Mary

Scot completes his excursus of the biblical account of Mary’s life, locating her at the foot of the cross with John , Mary Magdalene and others. Their desire to remain close and committed to Jesus is beautifully and horrifically portrayed in the pen and ink by Pietro da Cortana to the right. Our view of Mary is radically changed by this vignette of discipleship; she can no longer simply be the passive Mary who nods her assent to the angel informing her that the Messiah is about to be brought into the world through her service. She is here, her heart pierced by the sword of sorrow, seeing both her son and her Lord radically changing the course of history.

Does she know at this moment that her messianic understandings are being completely upturned or does she fear that Jesus’ whole life has gone wrong, ending disastrously? Mary possesses the most complete revelation of His vocation so it is reasonable to read into her discipleship a resignation to the horror of the cross that is leading to the long expected salvation. To quote McKnight,

Jesus would not wear the crown of Caesar Augustus or the fine apparel of Herod Antipas. He would hang there, naked and beaten, and give to Mary and the world a radically new view of what it means to reign in this world. To reign in this world, Mary began to learn, was to give one’s life for others as Jesus had given his.

This is the real Mary, the mother and disciple, who followed her Son and her God to what might have seemed like the bitter end. Her transformation from an unknown young woman to becoming a member of John’s and Jesus’ families is complete. Though her biblical story comes to end in the nineteenth chapter of John, her legend expands through extra-biblical accounts. Perhaps though, the best way to view Mary is as we see her here, at the feet of the Lord, following him despite the personal cost. Faithful. The same faith that we all pray to be able to demonstrate at our most critical moments.


The Real Mary: Revelation

McKnight offers a chapter today entitled Woman of Ambivalence that encourages us to offer Mary a more charitable reading as she struggles to correlate the Jesus that is gradually being revealed to her with the Messiah of long term Jewish expectation. We often helicopter in to the scriptures in which Mary plays a role and, with our advantage of knowing how the story will play out, wonder why she is not more astute in choosing the Jesus that is present before her.

The mother Mary watches her baby grow into a child and then a man knowing that he is the child of God, the promised Messiah. What troubles her is that, as far as we can tell from the Scriptures, he is a normal child in every way. How does the mother see God in a sick child felled by the flu? How will this be the Messiah destined to restore her people when He is but a rebellious teenager struggling through adolescence? Do our own children correspond exactly to what they will be in their adult years? My own parents might give witness to the unexpected changes that come over time. Why then do we expect Mary to be able to theologically process the young man she is watching grow up.

As we process who Jesus is, do we face the same struggles that Mary does? Our devotional life is sometimes littered with expectations that He will conform to the script that we have Him following for our benefit. We do well to struggle along with Mary.


The Real Mary Wonders

In the compressed narrative of Mary’s relationship with her son Jesus, twelve years have passed since the birth and consecration of the boy. In the four gospels we are not invited to peer into this era but his mother, at his side during this formative period has had plenty of time to consider who the man Jesus is going to be. Since Simeon dashed her original impressions of the Messiah, she has watched the development of her son for clues about his future. Does Mary wonder why God has delivered the Christ as a child? Does she ever consider, as the boy goes through all of the struggles and triumphs of childhood and early adolescence, that perhaps there may have been a mistake in her understanding of the what has been revealed to her?

During the Passover celebration of his twelfth year, Jesus acknowledges his vocation. When Mary notices him missing from the caravan and she and Joseph hurry back to Jerusalem we can sense her alarm. Is she frightened because her child has gone astray, or more worried that she has failed to protect the Christ? To her astonishment, her frenzied search through the city finds Jesus at the center of a theological discussion in the Temple. Not listening and learning, but leading and clarifying.

Mary’s admonishment of Jesus momentarily puts aside the divine history for the love of a mother. Her frustrated, maternal relief is evident in the anger of her question. Jesus, not disrespecting her but clarifying a shift in their relationship, asks why she is alarmed at his being in His Father’s house. As we picture this scene in our minds, we see yet another change Mary’s understanding of the child she has brought into the world. Though tacitly He will be known as her son, Mary must confront the stark realization that His greater allegiance is to their Father. Was she broken, humbled, or proud of this moment? Given the history of revelation to her, can she have come to any other conclusion? We are left to wonder.


The Real Mary: Witness

Mary is the woman who all believers wish they could be because of her enviable status as the Witness. She alone has seen and heard every miraculous proclamation, watched the life take shape in her womb, and now holds the child Jesus in her arms. We believe from a distance rooted in faith; Mary holds the child in her hands.

She has had nine months to contemplate what everything that has happened to her means, and her theology obtains from the old and new alike. Her belief that Jesus will one day reign on the throne in Jerusalem is unassailed because her witness cannot deduce otherwise. Her people have longed for this king and now He is here. A living, breathing, crying king who draws the Magi and shepherds alike to look upon his countenance and add their knowledge to Mary’s understanding of what she has brought into the world.

Her testimony is about to be challenged by the man she encounters in the temple, Simeon. Does her witness grow with addition of new information or she deadlock her belief against it? How do we respond as our faith is challenged by our maturity? Do we maintain the same simple theology we had as newborn Christians or do we allow or even encourage God to reveal more and more about Himself and His plans as our witness ages?

Luke 2:1-20, Matthew 1:18-2:12

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