Mary as Role Model (Luke 1:26-38)

This article appeared in the Christian Century, November 26, 1986, p. 1062. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Neither Catholic nor Protestant tradition and practice have done Mary justice. Her story reminds us that the oddest, most inglorious moments are packed with the annunciation of God’s presence and God’s call to serve.

What comes to mind at the mention of Mary, Jesus’ mother? Pale blue? Alabaster statues? An unnatural look of chaste perfection? Sneers about front-yard grottoes and dashboard figurines? In Mary in the New Testament (Fortress, 1978) , in which collaborating Roman Catholic and Protestant scholars examine what the churches and the New Testament have said about Mary, the authors confess that neither Catholic nor Protestant tradition and practice have done Mary justiceThe volume chases down a host of unbiblical doctrines, some all the way to the second century. Heresy-prone ascetics used the virgin birth to develop the illegitimate dogma that chastity is a higher calling than marriage. Yet the idea of Mary’s perpetual virginity became so popular that in the late fourth century the faithful greeted with horror two pro-marriage churchmen’s suggestion that it was biblically and historically justifiable to believe that, following Jesus’ birth, Mary had children by her husband just as any other wife would. An outraged Jerome, then the church’s leading biblical scholar, proposed that the brothers and sisters of Jesus mentioned in the Bible were really cousins. The simple, humble woman who gave birth in a barn would come to be hailed by one fifth-century writer as the one from whom came forth the divine power which created heaven and earth. "Mother of God," a title intended to stress Christ’s full humanity and divinity, came to be taken literally. Mary became a mother goddess.

Some years ago a vandal attacked Michelangelo’s Pietà with a hammer, seriously damaging the face and arm of the figure of Mary. A magazine article suggested that the act was a parable of the violence done Mary by the church -- by Roman Catholics who have idolized her and by Protestants who have ignored her. While Protestants have criticized Catholics for coming close to ascribing to Mary the lead role in God’s salvation drama. Protestants could be accused of making her into a prop. But we can be thankful that Luke’s witness to the annunciation (Luke 1:26-38) stands as a corrective.

Luke s account shows the parallels between the announcement to Mary and the foretelling to Zechariah of John’s birth. In both scenes the angel Gabriel brings word and is greeted with fear. Both Zechariah and Mary are addressed by name, urged not to fear and told they are about to become parents of sons, each under extraordinary circumstances. They are given their children’s names, an interpretation of the names and predictions of the children’s future. When Zechariah and Mary each wonder aloud how such things could happen, each is given a sign that will bear out the prediction. Wondrous, indeed. But similar things have happened before, such as Ishmael’s birth to Hagar in Genesis 16 and Isaac’s birth to Sarah in Genesis 17. Similar details surround the birth of Samson in Judges.

‘The Holy Spirit will come over you," the angels told Mary. Only when discovering a point before salvation history, before time, before anything, does the Bible use similar language.

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void and darkness was on the face of the deep; and the spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters [Gen. 1:1-2].

As God’s Spirit moved over the void before it was filled with the heavens and the earth, so the same spirit overshadowed Mary to place within her God’s own Son. As Karl Barth stressed, human initiative (particularly that of the human male) is excluded. It is not conception at all: it is creation.

Although Luke emphasizes God’s initiative, he also records the human response. "I am the handmaid of the Lord," Mary pledged. "let it be to me according to your word." Luke recalls this when relating two other incidents. In chapter 8, when Jesus is told that his mother and brothers await him, he replies that his mother and brothers are those who hear and do God’s word. Then in chapter 11, when a well-meaning woman pronounces blessings on Jesus’ mother, Jesus responds that the blessed are those who hear and do God’s word. These stories by Luke (who is fairest to women of all the evangelists) portray Mary as the first disciple. Indeed, in Luke’s second volume, she is listed among those huddled in the upper room (Acts 1). In Here I Stand, Roland Bainton wrote that Martin Luther saw three miracles in Christ’s nativity: God became human, a virgin conceived and Mary believed. In Luther’s mind, the greatest was the last.

A headline I clipped during Advent several years ago declared, "Mary May Emerge as Significant Model for Today’s Women." That would be tragic. Half of humanity would miss Luke’s point. Luke perceived Mary as a significant role model for all of us. We discover anew each day that we have trusted in people and things that can’t deliver and, like Luke’s original readers, we need direction and hope. Luke points us to Mary. He presents her not as a goddess, nor a stiff statue gathering cobwebs in a musty cathedral, nor a plastic figurine molded with a sweet and innocent countenance to stand lifeless in a coffee-table crèche. Luke’s Mary is a genuine example of faith acted out in discipleship and response to God’s word.

If Mary’s ears had been less keen and her soul less willing, she might not have understood. If her eyes had been able to see only the broad, bold outlines of trial, tragedy, rejection and hardship, she might not have sensed the divine presence or heard God’s word of grace and favor. But she heard and responded, even to such an odd call in such a common hour of life. Her story reminds us that the oddest, most inglorious moments are packed with the annunciation of God’s presence and God’s call to serve.