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Who is Mary of Nazareth?
Coming Home Network ^ | Kenneth J. Howell, Ph. D.

Posted on 04/08/2008 3:40:51 PM PDT by annalex

Who is Mary of Nazareth?

By Kenneth J. Howell, Ph. D.

What kind of woman was Mary of Nazareth? As is true of Jesus, we know nothing of Mary’s physical appearance or demeanor. But the historical sources give us a rather detailed picture of Mary’s character. 

Several historical sources give us much biographical information about Mary and they may be fairly reliable documents, but in this article I want to ask what we can learn from the canonical Scriptures about Mary’s life and character.

It’s often heard that the Bible says very little about Mary, but a closer look at Scripture reveals something quite different. If we use even the most superficial of criteria (i.e.,number of words and verses), the New Testament says more about Mary than it does on topics everyone considers essential. For example, the very important parallelism between Adam and Christ in Paul’s epistles occupies only two passages with a total of thirteen verses (Rom 5:12-21, ten verses & I Cor. 15:21-23, three verses). Passages about Mary in the birth narrative of Luke’s Gospel alone occupy eighty-two verses. And this isn’t counting Matthew, Mark and John.

My personal experience as a non-Catholic Christian convinced me that I couldn’t find much about Mary because I wasn’t looking for it. Also, the Scriptures sometimes teach deep and rich truths in a very short space. For example, the topic of justification by faith occupies a very small portion of the New Testament—it’s only discussed directly in Romans, Galatians and James 2:14-26—but it has played an enormously important role in the history of the Christian faith. Thus, it is unwise to conclude that the amount of verses devoted to a topic in the Bible is directly linked to its importance. In any case, there’s more in the Bible about Mary than is often supposed.

A Woman for Our Times
Mary of Nazareth seems on the surface to be an ordinary Jewish woman whose life was indistinguishable from many others. She cooked, sewed and cleaned. She prayed, conversed and served the needs of her family. Yet what we see in the biblical stories of Jesus’ birth shows that Mary’s life was extraordinary. Her extraordinariness did not lie in herself; it was a divine gift. By the free choice of God the Father, she was predestined to be the mother of the Redeemer. By His mercy, the heavenly Father filled her soul with His grace and His presence. In divine providence, Mary became the Spouse of the Holy Spirit by receiving in her womb the Son of God. In the silence of her Son’s infant life, she contemplated the astounding truths of heaven.

This contrast between the ordinary and the extraordinary is important. The significance of Mary’s life was hidden from everyday view. Rarely could others around her see the remarkable power and meaning of her life, just as many could see nothing remarkable about the life of her Son. And Mary precedes us all in that same respect. Paul says our life is also hidden with Christ in God (Col 3:3,4). Our outward life may seem very ordinary, but the inner strength of our life is the same as Mary’s. The source of that strength is the One whom Mary bore—the Savior of Bethlehem.

We share so much with Mary. Like her, we are called to be disciples of her Son. When she and Joseph found Jesus in the temple, they both learned more of what being disciples meant. It means giving over to God the Father the things in our lives which are most precious to us. But discipleship is impossible without faith, and Mary’s example of faith calls us to the same commitment. When she said YES to God (Lk 1:38), she called us to faith in Christ by her example. Faith also means walking with God in the dark times when we can’t see where the road ahead is leading. Mary knew that experience by her hidden life. She won no awards and received no acclaim from the world in her day. Yet her hidden life was brimming with importance and power.

 Though her life appeared insignificant, her greatest influence came through the suffering she would endure. Simeon’s words in Luke 2:35 call us to the same life as Mary’s—a life of blessing through suffering. And not just any suffering. Her suffering and ours must be united with and flow from the sufferings of Mary’s Son, Mary’s Lord and ours.

We must recognize that while we are like Mary in many ways, she is also unique. The Mother of Jesus became a unique channel of Christ’s bodily presence in the world. Through her body the Son of God, indeed God Himself, took His shape and form. Her eyes, her face, her stature, her blood, her DNA. Whatever natural makeup His body had, it came from this blessed virgin. We can never give to Jesus what Mary gave to Him. She cooperated in God’s plan of salvation in a unique way. We can never give the substance of our bodies to Jesus the way Mary did, but we can do what others around Mary did. We can welcome Jesus into our lives, our world, our businesses, our homes, our schools and our hearts. We can welcome both the Son of God into our lives, and His mother who is blessed above all women (Lk 1:42).

Imagine yourself to be Simeon and you see the salvation of Israel (Lk 2:30,31). Would it have been possible to hail the One who would redeem the world, and not also call His mother blessed among women? Don’t we call them happy, even blessed, who receive great gifts from God? Isn’t Mary then the most blessed person to have ever lived? She received in her own body the greatest gift that anyone has ever received.

Mary is an instrument of the presence of God. She is a tabernacle where the Son of God came to dwell in the midst of His people (cf. John 1:14). We can look at the experience and promise of God’s presence in the Old Testament among the people of Israel because it is there that we learn of God’s yearning to live among His people.

When the people of Israel were in the desert and saw the pillar of cloud by day and of fire by night, they bowed down and worshiped the Lord who had come to visit them with His special, local presence (Ex 33: 9,10). The same experience happened at the birth of Jesus. Matthew tells us that the Magi "found the child with Mary his mother." Their response was like that of the ancient Israelites who encountered the presence of God directly. "They fell down and worshiped him" (Mt 2:11). The Magi didn’t simply feel God’s general presence around them. They came to a specific place where God had given His presence in a specific way. They worshiped an infant boy who was God’s presence made specific and local. They did not worship Mary just as the Israelites did not worship the tabernacle itself. But the Magi did honor Mary with their gifts because they recognized that she was the instrument of bringing God’s presence into the world.

Our goal as Christians is to find those places where God manifests His presence in our times, and to go there with the expectation of worshiping Him and of honoring those who are the instruments of His presence. God transforms and unifies His people by giving them His presence. And God’s presence, once it fills the hearts of God’s people, brings unity in their relationships with one another. I believe that if Christians recognized Mary as God’s chosen instrument of unity for Christians, we would see a level of spiritual life and unity among Christians unprecedented in the last four hundred years of western Christianity.

Mary’s Response and Ours
Mary’s response to God’s grace in her life helps us to understand that unity among Christians comes through faith and obedience. Mary is a sign, an indicator of how we must respond to God. What were Mary’s responses? The most justly famous is her response to God’s invitation through Gabriel, "Behold the handmaiden of the Lord. Be it done to me according to your word" (Lk 1:38). With this commitment she showed herself to be Jesus’ mother in both the natural and supernatural orders. It was a response prompted by grace and fulfilled by obedience. And obedience leads to praise. Mary praised her heavenly Father in the Magnificat (Lk 1:46-55) for the salvation that had dawned on the human race. Any parent knows the delight of having a child express thanks for favors done. Mary knew instinctively that the Father in heaven would be pleased with her song of thanksgiving. She wanted to give praise to Him because she wanted to delight His heart.

What moved Mary to obedience and praise? Wasn’t it her contemplative spirit? She constantly "treasured up these words" turning them over in her mind and heart again and again (Lk 2:19, 51). Mary knew, as Paul would later write, that the life of her Son, the Christ, was a mystery (see Col 1:24-2:3 esp. 2:2). Indeed, Christ’s life contained "the mystery that was hidden for ages and generations, but now has been revealed to the saints" (Col 1:26).

Mystery in the Bible is not a five dollar novel but a priceless revelation of the Father’s glory (cf. Jn 1:14-18). Paul calls it a mystery because it is at once revealed and concealed. Concealed to the spiritually obtuse; revealed to those with open hearts.

Since Mary’s life was inseparably bound to Jesus, her life becomes a mystery just like His. In fact, their lives are not two separate mysteries but one grand mystery—the mystery of salvation. Jesus’ life is the saving mystery and Mary was drawn into it by grace. That’s why Mary’s life is a sign of salvation, because her life is drawn into the mystery of her Son’s life. Salvation is to be drawn into the love and power of the Son of God. Christ humbled himself to share in our humanity that we might share His divinity. Mary is a harbinger of our future.

Our response to Mary is indicated by how others around her responded to her extraordinary life. Those responses strike me as compelling because I looked on Mary as little more than the virgin-mother for the first forty years of my life. Mary was simply a biblical fact. Even then I never plumbed the depths of her virginity or maternity. But the responses to Mary in the Bible compel us because they provide wisdom and guidance on how we should respond to God’s extraordinary work in her life. They compel us because they are responses to God’s grace. And what does our salvation depend on? On how we respond to God’s grace and salvation!

No better clue to our response can be found than Elizabeth’s, John the Baptist’s mother. Her spirit-filled words to Mary (cf Lk 1:41) should penetrate every Christian’s heart, "Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb" (Lk 1:42). We can scarcely imagine what it would be like for the mother of our Lord to come to our home as she carried God within her womb (Lk 1:43). We can and should be no less amazed than Elizabeth to have Mary in our lives.

Simeon provides a further indicator of the proper response to Mary. For Simeon, the baby in Mary’s arms was "the light of revelation for the Gentiles and the glory of Israel." The old prophet knew that this child was destined for "the falling and rising of many in Israel and a sign to be contradicted" (Lk 2:34). But Simeon also knew that Mary’s future life was so intimately bound to her Son’s that he promised her, under the direct inspiration of the Spirit, that "a sword will also pierce your soul" (Lk 2:35). The future sufferings of Jesus would be so profuse that they would overflow into Mary’s life. Her life would become a mirror of His life. Today, we can look upon Mary as a reflection of Jesus her Son. Mary is our window into the one and only Son of God who alone can unify people torn apart by misunderstanding and prejudice.

But perhaps our most important response to Mary is guided by that of Joseph. It is almost impossible to imagine the puzzlement and pain he must have felt when he learned that his espoused was pregnant (Mt 1:20). Yet Matthew’s account shows clearly how Joseph obediently played the role that divine providence had set for him. In the quiet background, Joseph took his place in the kingdom of God to perform God’s will no less than Mary. And his love for Mary and Jesus flowed from a truly just and holy heart (Mt 1:19). His love for his wife Mary was a perfect picture of Christ’s love for the Church (cf. Eph 5:29). It is the same love we are called to have for Jesus and Mary.

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To: Always Right
who is 'well informed' and what is 'dreck', that is nothing but your biased opinion

I enumerated the elements that point to the former Catholic being badly informed: the ideas that the Church does not teach or know the scripture, that the sacraments are rituals, that obedience to rules saves, that personal relationship with Jesus cannot exist in a liturgical hierarchical church -- all come from ignorance of Catholicism.

Do these differences "mean little to God"? The scripture tells us that they are of great concern to God: St. Paul was furious that there were divisions in Corinth; Christ prayed fervently that we be one as His Father and He are one. Surely we can cooperate, for example, in pro-life politics, and very much in Protestantism remains Catholic and is therefore authentic Christianity, even though it is rarely acknowledged. However, the religious belief dictates culture and culture drives politics; it is hard for me to observe the centrifugal trajectory of Protestant Christianity in the past few centuries and not to expect even weaker bonds between us in the future.

61 posted on 04/09/2008 11:28:29 AM PDT by annalex (
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To: annalex

The division Paul spoke of was not about things like what title to call Mary by. The divisions Paul spoke against was that who to follow. Some were saying Paul, others were saying Appolo, others were saying Christ. That is what Paul was upset by. People are saved by belief in Christ Jesus, not by any church or its numerous doctrines.

62 posted on 04/09/2008 11:47:08 AM PDT by Always Right (Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?)
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To: Always Right

What to call Mary by is indeed unimportant, unless, like the objectin to the “Mother of God”, it betrays a christological disagreement. Our marian devotions differ, for example, in the West and in the East. I was always puzzled by the vehemence with which Roman Catholic expressions of piety are attacked by the Protestants.

The true problem is indeed whom to follow: the followers of Luther, and, especially, Calvin simply don’t have the Catohlic belief system intact, starting with its core, the Eucharist. We don’t have visible communion because we don’t have the sacramental union.

63 posted on 04/09/2008 12:01:11 PM PDT by annalex (
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To: annalex
I was always puzzled by the vehemence with which Roman Catholic expressions of piety are attacked by the Protestants.

Well, some, anyway.

64 posted on 04/09/2008 12:05:18 PM PDT by Petronski (Nice job, Hillary. Now go home and get your shine box.)
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To: annalex
I was always puzzled by the vehemence with which Roman Catholic expressions of piety are attacked by the Protestants.

Because many Protestants view your reverence towards Mary as going beyond piety to deity.

65 posted on 04/09/2008 12:16:50 PM PDT by Always Right (Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?)
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To: Always Right

Well, talking past each other on that is surely a sign of schism that should matter a great deal to God.

66 posted on 04/09/2008 12:21:29 PM PDT by annalex (
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To: Always Right

Mary IS the mother of God. One cannot separate Christ’s humanity from his deity. This, in fact, is what raised the issue of Mary’s role at the Council of Chalcedon.

People came to the orthodox conclusions about Mary because of what was known by the orthodox to be true about Christ, but was denied by the Arians and others.

Marian doctrines always have Christological issues at their core; they’re not promulgated merely to magnify Mary further.

67 posted on 04/09/2008 12:45:23 PM PDT by Philo-Junius (One precedent creates another. They soon accumulate and constitute law.)
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To: Always Right
I know you get my ping, but my next post is precisely on the issue of Christian unity, which I don't want the readers of our conversation here to miss:

Mary and the Problem of Christian Unity.

68 posted on 04/09/2008 12:50:36 PM PDT by annalex (
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To: Philo-Junius
One cannot separate Christ’s humanity from his deity.

You don't have to to make the argument.

69 posted on 04/09/2008 12:55:13 PM PDT by Always Right (Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?)
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To: annalex
I never read a convincing Protestant conversion story. The template is always
— The Catholic Church does not teach from scripture

— I was told that rituals and rules save me

— Now I have a personal relationship with Jesus and read the Bible.
The template, many times, is ...
... as a Catholic, I felt like I was just going through the motions

As a Protestant, ... I have found a far richer, and more intimate relationship with Jesus Christ.

Whereas I used to relate through Mary, and saints, and priests, etc., ... now I relate directly with Jesus, my Saviour, Himself, ... as in the manner of David the king.
Psalm 63:1 O God, thou art my God; early will I seek thee: my soul thirsteth for thee, my flesh longeth for thee in a dry and thirsty land, where no water is;

70 posted on 04/09/2008 2:00:33 PM PDT by Quester
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To: FormerLib
How about in addition to Christ, perhaps as His first Saint?

Abraham beat Mary by about 2000 years. So did Sarah his wife. Moses by about 1500 years. David beat her by 1000 years. What about Samuel? Or his mother. There's also Elijah. And Elisha. How about Rahab, the prostitute ?

All people reknown for their faith, and before Mary.

And also, as long as Mary isn't in addition to Christ for salvation.

71 posted on 04/09/2008 5:00:47 PM PDT by mountn man (The pleasure you get from life, is equal to the attitude you put into it.)
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To: mountn man

You can choose to refer to people who preceded Christ as being counted among His Saints if you like, but most being counting after His incarnation.

And rightfully referring to Mary as His first Saint does not diminish anyone’s faith.

72 posted on 04/09/2008 5:22:32 PM PDT by FormerLib (Sacrificing our land and our blood cannot buy protection from jihad.-Bishop Artemije of Kosovo)
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To: mountn man

I’d score Noah as the first person in the Bible to have demonstrated faith in God, although Enoch has a claim implied.

The Blessed Virgin Mary, though, has to be scored as the first person to have faith in Christ, though, with St. John the Baptist in utero as the historically debated runner-up.

73 posted on 04/09/2008 6:55:18 PM PDT by Philo-Junius (One precedent creates another. They soon accumulate and constitute law.)
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To: dangus
Why is it that so many people interpret prophecies in such a way as to say, “No, it can’t mean A because it means B!”?

Aren't you doing the same thing?

Read the Bible, or large sections of it, as a whole. Two of the Gospels include extensive geneologies of Jesus' heritage - tracing his origin back as a product (son) of Israel. Why is B so hard to grasp, then?

74 posted on 04/09/2008 6:55:30 PM PDT by fwdude
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To: FormerLib

Classical Hebrew has a documented vocabulary of about 25,000 words. This is approximately 1/40th the size of the current English vocabulary. The case of classical Greek is similar.

Even discounting the explosion of technological terms in the past couple centuries, words in classical languages almost always had a wider and less precise range of meanings than we expect from modern English usage.

To squint through 21st century spectacles at a seventeenth century translation is a conspicuously error-prone method of determining the meaning of difficult parts of God’s word.

75 posted on 04/09/2008 7:13:41 PM PDT by Philo-Junius (One precedent creates another. They soon accumulate and constitute law.)
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To: Philo-Junius; Always Right

P-J, you said: Mary IS the mother of God.

Show me chapter and verse where Mary is refered to, word for word, as “the mother of God”.

What Mary was mother to died. Diety doesn’t die, not even for a second. God was IN Christ. God is a Spirit. God the Father was in Christ doing the miracles.

P-J, you also say: One cannot separate Christ’s humanity from his deity.

AR gives you no arguement, but I will.

Christ DID separate his humanity from his diety.
That was the power in the Christ that enabled him to lay down his life, and take it back up again.

Consider the testamony of Peter to Cornelius in Acts 10:34-43: “..How God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Ghost and with power....for God was with him....Him God raised up the third is he which was ordained of God to be the Judge of quick and dead”. That’s how Jesus Christ can say: “All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth”.

Mary was given the great honor of giving birth to the human that God would give his Spirit to without measure. John 3:34
Yet, Mary did not give Jesus Christ any power whatsoever; and therefore is not “the mother of God”.

76 posted on 04/09/2008 10:22:48 PM PDT by Zuriel (Acts 2:38,39....nearly 2,000 years and still working today!)
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To: fwdude

>> Aren’t you doing the same thing? <<

How so? I’m exactly acknowledging that the lady in Revelations does represent the covenant Israel. All I’m saying is that it is highly meaningful that the blessed virgin Mary re-presents the covenant Israel. She is the re-presentation, the embodiment, the fulfillment of Israel.

>> Read the Bible, or large sections of it, as a whole. Two of the Gospels include extensive geneologies of Jesus’ heritage - tracing his origin back as a product (son) of Israel. Why is B so hard to grasp, then? <<

Read the geneaology of Matthew. It’s told in a way which would be quite shocking to an ancient who read it for the first time:

“And Jacob begat Joseph, husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ.”

Notice the wording casts Joseph (and his entire lineage) as notable because of his relationship to Mary, just as it casts Mary as notable because of her relationship to Christ. What a shocking upheaval! The entire history of the Jews, leading to Joseph, whose significance is only that he is the husband of Mary.

Luke, on the other hand, uses his geneaology to emphasize that Jesus was the son of God.

77 posted on 04/10/2008 5:42:58 AM PDT by dangus
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To: Zuriel

>> What Mary was mother to died. <<

Take care what you state, that you do not commit blasphemy! Christ still lives! He was resurrected, body and soul, from the dead! What part of Christ do you deny? Seriously, you cannot call yourself a Christian and say that any part of Christ died! There is no corpse of Christ; there is no dead “historical Jesus.” He was not given a new flesh; his risen flesh still bore the wounds where the stakes were driven through his hands and feet, and still bore the hole where the spear pierced his side. So how can Mary be mother to anything which died?

This is the very reason why Orthodox, Catholic are so mystified by Mary, and why the ancients doctrinally established the title of “Mother of God” (Theotokos): because to deny that God had a mother is to deny that God became Man.

78 posted on 04/10/2008 5:51:28 AM PDT by dangus
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To: dangus

**Take care what you state, that you do not commit blasphemy! Christ still lives!**

Hello?? FRiend, I quoted the words of Jesus from Matt. 28:18; (after the resurrection...from...the...dead) “All power is GIVEN unto me in heaven and in earth.” I absolutely affirm he has risen from the dead.

So I ask you, who gave him all power? Certainly not Mary.
I referred to John 3:34. Here’s the next verse: “The Father loveth the Son, and hath GIVEN ALL things into his Hand

Who raised the Christ from the dead? Certainly not Mary.
The Spirit of God left the Christ while on the cross, or he would...never...have...died. As simply as the bread and fishes was multiplied by God, so would an endless supply of oxygen charged blood sustained his body while on the cross.
But, as the passover lamb, he had to die. That’s the object Mary was blessed to help bring forth; the man Christ Jesus, not the God that chose to dwell in him without measure.

**This is the very reason why Orthodox, Catholic are so mystified by Mary**

Your problem, not mine.

**the ancients doctrinally established the title of “Mother of God”**

And that is probably where your problem started. One could make a case that the one that transforms himself into an angel of light (Satan) has also transformed into an ‘ancient’ in time past.

I realize that man-made tradition dies hard, for the pride that sustains it has been passed on for generations.

Let God be true, and every man a liar.

79 posted on 04/10/2008 7:21:02 AM PDT by Zuriel (Acts 2:38,39....nearly 2,000 years and still working today!)
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To: Quester

Yes, that is a common variation as well. In other words, the poor man did not get Catholicism, — he was going through motions. Those indeed should educate themselves or leave.

80 posted on 04/10/2008 9:20:07 AM PDT by annalex (
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