The commercialized Christmas we experience every year wears thin for many by the time Christmas Day arrives. With malls all decorated with snowflakes, carols turned into background music, and disappointed retailers complaining that Christmas sales are down Christmas has become a chore. Then there the arguments over nativity scenes in courthouse lawns, along the pagan rituals of Yule logs and mistletoe, Christians have to take the time to think of Mary the mother of Jesus as most vital to the Christmas story and celebration.
Among non-liturgical Christians, Mary is written out of the Gospels, except at Christmas. Even among some Christian communities, Christmas is written out of the calendar as idolatry. Nevertheless, Episcopalians have the Virgin Mary firmly entrenched in our Anglican doctrine, and venerated in various ways by Anglicans around the world. Some very high Anglo-Catholics place her at nearly the same canonical status as the Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox. Most Anglicans acknowledge her as the ever blessed Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus, or as the Orthodox call her, the Theotokos—the Mother of God. I probably would not be amiss in suggesting that many Episcopalians have images of Mary in their churches or their homes. There is a Society of Mary in Anglican and Episcopal communities dedicated to raising Mary’s place in the doctrines of the Church. There is even a devotion to Mary in England based on a vision of English noblewoman in 1061 at a place called Walsingham. I have a small statuette of Our Lady of Grace adorns my workspace at home.
The place of Mary in Christian life depends on how one reads the Scriptures and holds to tradition or legend concerning her. Many Roman Catholics, and probably some Anglicans, elevate her to being co-equal with Christ and is referred to as the co-redemptrix.
Mary is the daughter of Jewish nobility
Let us examine her place in the Gospel accounts.
- She is mentioned only once in the Gospel according to Mark,
- six times in Matthew, twice in John,
- and twelve times in the Gospel according to Luke.
- Mary also appears but is not named, in the Revelation to John.
- Additionally, Mary is the subject of a few of the Christian apocryphal books written in the first through third centuries known as the pseudopigrapha—notably a text called the Gospel of James.
- In the Islamic holy book, the Qur’an, Mary is mentioned fifty times and takes up an entire chapter named after her. The Islamic story goes into detail about her life, providing the names of her parents, her immaculate conception, the spiritual conception of Jesus, and the ministry of Jesus as a messenger of God. In this Qur’anic chapter, the Trinitarian doctrine of Christianity is refuted. Nonetheless, the story of Mary and Jesus in the Qur’an closely follows the account in the Gospel according to Luke.
She is the daughter of a Jewish noble family in the line of David and also of the priestly class that traced its origins to the Aaron, the Hebrew high priest of the Exodus. Often, the Davidic line is believed to have belonged solely to Joseph as outlined in the genealogy in the Gospels, but Mary held a place in the same history.
According to Luke, Mary knows the nature of her pregnancy and the son she will birth. Because later stories in the Gospels indicate that she and other members of the family wonder about the nature and stability of her son. There is a troubled relationship between mother and child. Jesus even denounces his mother when his embarrassed family came to fetch him back to Nazareth. Nevertheless, Mary stayed with him at the cross and watched him die. Later, in the Acts of the Apostles, she is among the eleven in the secret chamber on the Day of Pentecost. Tongues of fire also must have been seen over her head on that Pentecost Day.
Of course, Mary is recognized as the virgin mother of Jesus every time Christians recite the Apostles and Nicene Creeds. Anglican adherence to the ancient creedal statements of the Church places Episcopalians—whether high, low, or in between churchmanship—clearly in the cult of Mary.
What about those siblings?
The question sometimes arises concerning her perpetual virginity. Many Christians refer to her as the Ever-Virgin Blessed Mary. For Episcopalians and most Anglicans such a statement is not theologically sound—in fact, there is no Anglican theology about Mary’s perpetual virginity. The Gospel accounts speak of an extended family, so there is a question concerning Jesus’ brothers and sisters. Therefore, it is correct for Episcopalians to refer to Mary as Blessed instead of ever Virgin. Well, what about those siblings? Roman doctrine teaches they are relatives—cousins. Orthodox teaching is that they are the children of Joseph from a previous marriage—thus, step brothers and sisters. Does any of this matter? To some extent yes, depending on how you wish to venerate the mother of our Lord.
There is another view of Mary worth considering. In the Gospel according to Luke, when she arrives at her Cousin Elizabeth’s home, she makes a declaration with political overtones. Further, her declaration has the sound of the Song of Hannah in the First Book of Samuel, but Mary’s is more than a song of praise—it is the proclamation of a teenage political activist.
Mary understands her pregnancy, and the birth of her son is a change in the political atmosphere of her country. Unless she was politically aware, and an uninformed-backcountry-peasant girl was not likely to use the words of the Magnificat:
[In me, God] has shown the strength of his arm, he has scattered the proud in their conceit. He has cast down the mighty from their thrones and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.
In Nazareth today, there is a large and beautiful church built on a site believed to be Mary’s home. The home is a cave dug into the limestone of a hillside—Nazareth sits on the top of a Galilean hill. It appears it was less than a humble dwelling place—a backwoods log cabin is a simple place. Living conditions must have been difficult, and there seemed to be no relief from the poverty of Nazareth. The village was a backwater, a slum. Nazareth’s low position in the reputation of Galilean communities is why Nathan will ask Andrew some thirty years later, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?”
Mary, the political activist
Apparently, Mary observed the conditions of her people, of her life, as imposed by the inequality of the society. Imperial Rome and power of the extreme elements of Judaism—the Temple rulers in Jerusalem. Because of Christmas cards, and “Silent Night,” we tend to think of Mary as meek and mild, not as a revolutionary supporting radical change in the structure of her society, but it appears she and Joseph were very much a part of a group of Galileans who wanted social change.
The story of Mary is that she was a young woman of ideas and action. She was prepared to do whatever was necessary to prepare for the coming change in her society, even bearing the shame of an out-of-wedlock pregnancy. There’s not much in the story of Mary that reminds us of Christmas trees, mistletoe, holly, or yule logs. The story of Mary is one of sacrifice, willingness to serve the greater cause of God and community, and one of action in the face of oppression. We can do no less than say the words of Elizabeth as she greeted Mary in the Judean hills two millennia ago, “Hail, Mary, blessed are you among women.”
 The chapter is titled “Maryam”.