Mary is prominent for all Christians during the Nativity season, and she is particularly on my mind this year as my family and I have all just entered the Orthodox church. Raised in a deeply loving and devout Presbyterian home, I have come to believe that the Protestant and Evangelical churches (as well as Roman Catholics in some overlapping ways) have lost and grown to misunderstand a tremendous amount of the goodness and truth regarding Mary that was well known and cherished by the early Christians (who knew and loved Mary as one of their own community). Here is a very basic outline of what I have come to believe about Mary.
John Calvin, Huldrych Zwingli, Martin Luther, and John Wesley all wrote that Mary had no other children after giving birth to Jesus, and they each defended this ancient teaching as a theologically significant tenant of the Christian faith.
Why would Jesus have placed Mary into John’s care as he died if Mary had other sons of her own? This would have been a flagrant violation of the Law of Moses. Nowhere does Scripture (or any early Christian author) suggest that Mary had other children. James, a publicly recognized leader in the earliest church in Jerusalem, was know as one of several brothers of Jesus, raised in the same household. However, nothing in Scripture and none of the widespread early stories about Mary suggest that James cared for Mary as his own mother after Jesus died.
Many of the most revered early Christian writers use three titles for Mary regularly and in passing, as if these three titles were common knowledge and completely uncontroversial among all Christians: mother of God, ever-virgin, and all-pure. Orthodox Christians reject the Roman Catholic idea that Mary herself was conceived in any special way without sin (in fact, the Orthodox believe that it is a sad distortion of Scripture to teach that our fallen condition is in any way passed on through the God-given responsibilities of conceiving, birthing, and raising children). The Orthodox teach that Mary was a completely normal human who became the greatest example of humble obedience to God, pointing everyone only and ever to God. In this, she is all-holy or all-pure, that is a saint who has fully welcomed God into her life and who reveals Jesus Christ to us all.
To understand the title of “ever virgin,” it helps very much to understand one of the most basic descriptions of Mary used by two New Testament authors (who each clearly came to know Mary well during her life with the early church after Jesus Christ ascended into heaven). These two New Testament authors both understood and described Mary as the Ark of the New Covenant. They understand Mary to be the most sacred and set-apart vessel of God’s presence with us: the ark covered in gold, overshadowed by the wings of cherubim, kept within the Holy of Holies, so set-apart that it brought death to many who treated it as something that they could touch. One of these New Testament authors was John, with whom Mary lived and traveled according to all the earliest stories and traditions of the church. The other was Luke who, according to the earliest church traditions, interviewed Mary personally as part of his research for his gospel account. (Some of these same traditions also claim that Luke was trained in drawing the human figure as a standard part of his education as a doctor and that he painted the first image of Mary.)
The greatest feast days of the church that celebrate Mary’s life, center on readings from the Old Testament about the Ark of the Covenant. These readings are strange without an understanding of how Luke and John clearly reflected the earliest understanding of the Christian community of Mary herself as the Ark of the New Covenant.
This article by Scott Hahn (a Presbyterian scholar who converted to the Roman Catholic faith) expounds this wonderfully:
There is much more to be said about all the confusion that we have today around the interrelated ideas of purity, virginity, sexuality, and gender. As we moderns hear titles such as “ever virgin,” we subconsciously hear a condemnation of sex as dirty and of women as weak. These sad distortions and misunderstandings are based on long and complex abuses and arguments that grow more and more sinister and disconnected from the truth with each passing year. We need good thinking and writing on these topics to be sure. However, the most basic need and “solution” is not intellectual. Most importantly, we need to learn to love and respect some real and specific people. We need to learn to love and commune with Jesus and his mother Mary as revered and beloved members of their remarkable family. Everything else connects back to these two beautiful people and our relationships with them.
Because of the incarnation and life of Jesus Christ, God’s family is and always will be a real human family, with many ancestors of God, stretching all the way back to Noah and Adam. (In this sense, Eve and Adam are forbearers of God, just as Mary is the mother of God.) This family is a royal family, the product and fulfillment of David’s dynasty. And this kingdom is established forever with Jesus as the King and with Mary as the Queen Mother (Gebhirah and Malketha in Hebrew, a very prominent and powerful position in the courts of all Biblical kings). The book on this topic by Scott Hahn expounds this wonderfully (Hail, Holy Queen: The Mother of God in the Word of God). I recommend it highly as a starting place.
As Scott Hahn reflects on John’s relationship to Mary (from the lecture linked above), he points to the fact that we all receive Mary as our mother as we are united to Christ:
“[John] recognizes that he himself as the beloved disciple is merely a symbol of all of Christ’s disciples who are equally beloved. But he also recognized [this], I’ll bet, as he took Mary to his own home that very hour (it says in John 19). I mean, can you imagine living with Mary after the crucifixion, after the resurrection, after the ascension? She is now your mother. She is living in your home. What do you think you would do?”
Wherever you are in life and worship during this year, may your Nativity Season be blessed richly by Jesus Christ, the Son of Mary. May he and his mother both be at home in your home.