By Glenn Pease
It was August of 1683, and Vienna was about to fall into the hands of the Grand Vizier of all the Turks, Kara Mustafa. It would be a great victory for the Moslem Empire, and would open the door of all Europe for the warriors of Mohammed. Christians were praying all over Europe for a miracle. Vienna had to hold out for a few more days. Then one morning the Viennese heard the booming of cannons from Mt. Kalen. This was a signal for the arrival of John Sobieski and 20 thousand Polish troops. In spite of the odds which were 10 to 1 against them, their surprise attack put the Turks to rout, and Christianity was spared from a devastating defeat. Pope Innocent XI, issued a decree establishing a great feast in honor of the virgin Mary for this deliverance.
As Protestants, we ask; what in the world did Mary have to do with this providential guidance of God in saving Christianity? It is hard for us to imagine a Christian life, so dominated by Mary, that she is exalted above her Son, the Savior of the world. But for centuries, the virgin mother of our Lord had an influence that eclipsed even that of her divine Son.
Back in 431 A. D., at the Council of Ephesus, Cyril of Alexandria, established the level of veneration that Mary would have for the next 1,000 years. He praised the virgin mother in this fashion: "Though whom the Trinity is glorified and worshiped, the cross of the Savior exalted and honored, though whom heaven triumphs, the angels are made glad, the devils driven forth, the temper overcome, and the fallen creature raised up even to heaven."
Web Garrison in his book, Women In The Life Of Jesus, points out that zeal for Mary's honor sparked the Crusades and the age of Knighthood. All of the creative arts flourished to honor her. Feasts of the Virgin multiplied until they dominated the civil, as well as the religious, calendar. Schools, Cathedrals, hospitals, libraries, and shrines without number, were named for Mary. At one point, one third of the women of the western world, bore some form of her name.
Mary had her millennium where she was queen of heaven, and she reigned also on the earth. Legends and traditions formed around her until she dominated the theological thinking of the people. Stories were told of how she was taken to the temple at age 3, and, like Samuel of old, was left as a servant in the house of the Lord. She was fed by angels from the Tree of Life. At 14, the High Priest informed her he received a message from God that she should wed. All the widowers of the land were called to the temple. One by one, they passed by her as she held the golden rod in her hand. When Joseph walked by, a dove flew out of the end of the rod and landed on his head. This was the sign that he was the one.
At her death, Jesus and the angels came for her soul. After three days she rose from the dead and ascended to God's right hand to be with her Son in the work of intercession. She became the goddess of Christianity and took the place of all the goddesses of the pagan world. Where Venus once stood, statues of Mary were erected. Thousands of paintings of the Madonna did much to spread the worship of Mary. Masterpieces like Raphaels Sistine Madonna, made her the object of adoration to all who loved beauty.
The veneration of Mary has continued into modern times. In 1854, the Immaculate Conception was made official dogma. This means Mary was born without original sin. In 1950, The Assumption of Mary was made dogma. This means she did not decay, but her body was raised up to heaven miraculously. Bishop Fulton Sheen, said in his message, The Role of Mary in the Church, "It is easier to understand the meek and humble heart of Christ by looking at His mother. She holds all the great truths of Christianity together, as a piece of wood holds a kite. Children wrap the string of a kite around a stick, and release the string as the kite climbs to the heavens. Mary is like that piece of wood. Around her we wrap all the precious strings of the great truths of our holy faith-for example, the Incarnation, the Eucharist, the Church. No matter how far we get above the earth, as the kite may, we always have need of Mary to hold the doctrines of the Creed together. If we threw away the stick, we would no longer have the kite; if we threw away Mary, we would never have our Lord. He would be lost in the heavens, like our run away kite, and that would be terrible, indeed., for us on earth."
We could go on and on showing how the Catholic Church has exalted Mary. This explains why Protestants have had a hard time being honest and fair about Mary. It is the age old psychology: if something is taken to an extreme, go to the other extreme, to offset it. It is called over-compensation. If the Catholics adore her, let us ignore her. The result is, Protestants have become anti-Mary. The popular preacher, John Linton said, "I doubt if there is an important character in the Scriptures who have suffered the neglect that Mary has. Many of you, I venture to say, have never listened to an entire sermon on the virgin mother of Christ. Plenty of sermons on the Virgin Birth, but few upon the Virgin herself; many sermons about the disciple who leaned on Jesus' bosom, but few about the mother on whose bosom the Lord Christ pillowed His baby head. Character studies on Peter who denied Christ, Thomas who doubted Christ, Pilate who sentenced Christ, Judas who betrayed Christ, but the Protestant pulpit is strangely silent concerning the pure quiet woman who mothered Christ."
We are so afraid of giving any support to the Catholic view, that we would rather neglect her than respect her, and give her, her rightful place in the plan of God. There are false Christs too, but God forbid that we take our eyes off Jesus, because there are perversions. It is folly to neglect any part of God's revelation just because men abuse it.
The facts are clear in the New Testament; Mary was with the 120 at Pentecost, and thus, part of the foundation of the church. She was a sinner who needed a Savior, like all the rest. There is no hint that she was lifted up as an object of veneration. There is not one reference to her in all the New Testament Epistles. She is never prayed to, and so all of the excessive exaltation of Mary is not based on the New Testament, but on the traditions of men.
Only once in the Gospels did someone try to praise Mary. In Luke 11:27, we read, "a woman in the crowd called out, blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you." Jesus replied, "blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it." Mary is blessed because she heard the word of God and obeyed it. She is to be honored as an example of the blessed. But in no way is she made equal to Christ in anything.
As we approach Christmas, the role of Mary stands out as crucial. We want to give her the rightful place that is her's, in this greatest love story ever told. She was a star and deserves her name up in lights. Let's examine Dr. Luke's record of this, one of a kind, woman. First look at-
I. THE VIRGIN'S VISITOR.
Gabriel was the messenger who came to Mary from God. He and Michael are the only two angels in the Bible that are named. They are very special messengers. They do not just pop in on people for a visit. There are only three people in the Bible who ever got a visit from Gabriel. Daniel in the Old Testament, and Zechariah in the New Testament; and then Mary. Mary is the only woman in all of history to get a visit from this special messenger. I think we can safely conclude: Mary was somebody super special to God. She is, therefore, to be admired and looked up to as a great example. When you are the only woman in history to receive a visit from God's personal messenger, you qualify for VIP treatment.
Gabriel's first word to Mary was, "Greetings." It is equivalent to the Hebrew, Shalom, meaning peace. In our culture it would be, "Hello Mary." In Latin it was, "Ava Maria." Some translated it into English as, "Hail Mary." This is where you get the famous Catholic prayer, Hail Mary full of grace. Gabriel said to her, "you are highly favored!" Not, somewhat favored, or moderately favored, but, highly favored. This leads us to the second point which is-
II. THE VIRGIN'S VALUE.
Her value to God has already been established by the nature of the visitor she received from God. It is also clearly stated in words. Gabriel says in verse 30, "you have found favor with God." Keep in mind, that without faith, it is impossible to please God. Mary pleased God, and that is why we know, she was a great woman of faith.
Elizabeth exclaimed in verse 42, "Blessed are you among women." Then, in her own song of praise, Mary says in verse 48, "From now on all generations shall call me blessed." It goes against the grain of clear revelation to ignore Mary, or to put her down. Because of her value to God, the name Mary became the most popular female name in the world of Christians and Moslems. It was already very popular in Judaism. So common was the name among His followers; three out of the four women at the cross, were named Mary. John 19:25 says,"Near the cross of Jesus stood His mother, His mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary of Magdala." There were others named Mary as well, such as Mary the mother of John Mark, but Mary of Nazareth was the most valued of them all.
Mary, alone, was chosen to be the mother of the Messiah. There had been millions of young virgins in Israel's history. There were, no doubt, many others even in Mary's own day, but God chose her. She was to be the most unique mother in all of history. Much of what we do at Christmas does not last, but what Mary did that first Christmas lasts forever. The gift that came from God through her goes on giving and giving and giving. It is the only gift that never ends. It is the only part of Christmas that does not past away. The poet wrote,
"Your Christmas lights will go out.
Your Christmas tree will fade.
Your Christmas gifts will wear out.
Your Christmas tinsel will be forgotten.
Your Christmas cards will be put away or destroyed...
Only Christ will remain.
Long after the Christmas dinner is eaten.
Long after the merry making is hushed.
Long after the guests have departed.
Long after the gift certificate is cashed.
Long after the monetary thrill is dead.
Christ will remain." Author Unknown
Mary was only the box God's gift came in. She was the pretty wrapping, but not the gift itself. There is no escaping the facts, however, that God needed Mary to achieve His purpose.
I have often wondered why God did not send His Son like He did the first Adam. Jesus could have come, walking out of the desert, as a full grown teacher. He could have avoided all the hassle that Joseph and Mary had to endure. Why would God chose the complex and complicated route of the virgin birth? It was all so slow and inefficient compared to what we see in the creation of the first Adam. God did not need a woman then: why does He need one for the second Adam?
I am sure we do not know all the reasons, but some of them are revealed by Gabriel. In verses 32-33, he tells Mary that her child will be given the throne of His father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever. The second Adam had to be an authentic descendant of David. He had to have an historic right to the throne of God's people. Jesus could not just step into history with no genealogy and have any rights at all to be King. He would not be an authentic heir to the throne.
The point is, God goes by the book. He works through channels to fulfill His purpose. He needed an ideal girl from the line of David to achieve His purpose. The Virgin Mary was not a mere incidental piece of furniture on the stage for effect. She was crucial, and thus, a highly valued star in this great Christmas drama. She was not merely a temporary tool: a body God needed to make His Son authentically human. God needed her mind and her character as well. His Son needed a mother to love, teach, and train Him. Edward T. Sullivan wrote in, How God Works, "When God wants an important thing done in this world, or a wrong righted, He goes about it in a very singular way. He does not release His thunderbolts or stir up His earthquakes. He simply has a tiny, helpless baby born.... Then He puts an idea or purpose into the mother's heart, she puts it into the baby's mind, and then... God waits."
God waited a long time for His Son to be raised by, and conditioned by, His mother. At age 12, Jesus could have broken away from His home. Mary and Joseph found Him in the temple. It was common for gifted boys to stay in the temple and study with the scholars. Samuel, you recall, was taken to the temple as a small boy. He was trained there for his role as the last of the judges. Paul was probably only 15 years old when he went to study at the feet of Gamaliel. Promising youth were recruited as a temple policy. When the scholars in the temple, who were astonished by the wisdom of Jesus, saw His potential, they would likely want to recruit Him. But Jesus went home with His parents. God chose that His Son would be a product of a Godly home and mother and not the product of a Godly institution. Mary's heart and mind became His primary school room.
We are not suggesting that this Galilean girl knew more than the temple scholars, but she had something more than scholarship that God wanted for His Son. Her song in Luke 1:46-55, reveals her spirit of praise and humility, her love for God and people, and her compassion for the needy. These were values that Jesus may not have learned so well from the temple scholars. God wanted the very best for His Son. The fact that He stayed home with His mother until He was 30 years old, tells us plenty about the valuable role Mary played in shaping the humanity of God's Son.
Those who exalt Mary above what the Bible authorizes have missed the whole point of her value. Her role was to help God produce a Messiah, with such balance of the male and female virtues, that He would be the ideal man, lacking nothing to appeal to all mankind. Every quality that made her great in the eyes of God are embodied in her Son to perfection. The idea that we need a more warm and compassionate spirit to intercede for us before the throne of God, other than Christ, is a rejection of Mary's success. Her Son is all that she ever was and more. To imply that she is more loving and compassionate than her Son, is to say, she failed to be all God wanted her to be. There is only one mediator between God and man, and that one is Jesus, because Mary succeeded in helping Him to become the best of all men. Mary was so successful in her role that she is no longer needed. The product of her obedience is all that we need-the Lord Jesus Christ.
The Virgins value in God's plan is beyond calculation. Let us never detract from that value by even a hint that her Son is in any way inadequate to be our one and only Mediator. Next, look at-
III. THE VIRGIN'S VOLITION.
When Mary heard the message of Gabriel, she responded in verse 38, "I am the Lord's servant, may it be to me as you have said." By her own volition, Mary said yes to God. She was not forced to be the mother of the Messiah. She chose to cooperate with God by an act of her will. It was a fearful responsibility, and Mary had her fears, but we do not hear any of the excuses that are commonly heard when God calls someone to do His will. There is none of the objection that she was too young or that she did not speak well. She could have made an excuse, but she believed the words of Gabriel in verse 37, "nothing is impossible with God."
Washington Lewis said about Mary at this point, "The Incarnation began when Mary said into thy hands I commend my body and ended when Jesus said into thy hands I commend my spirit." Many feel that it was at this precise point, when Mary submitted, that the Incarnation took place. She said yes to God's plan, and the Holy Spirit did His work to make her conceive the God-man.
On March 25, just nine months before Christmas, many celebrate the feast of the Annunciation. It could also be called the feast of the Conception, or the feast of the Incarnation. The God-man did not begin at His birth. Christmas is the celebration of Christ's birth, but the Incarnation began at His conception, and the conception took place at the moment of the Virgin's voluntary surrender. She was Christlike in so doing. Jesus became our Savior when He said yes to God. Nobody took the life of Jesus, He voluntarily chose to lay it down for our salvation. He said, "Not my will but Thine be done." He volunteered to be the Savior and Mary volunteered to be the mother of the Savior.
The only way for any of us to be truly great in the Kingdom of God is to, like Mary, volunteer our lives and our gifts to accomplish God's purpose in history. We do not worship Mary, but we honor her as one of the greatest of God's volunteers.