The group is currently engaged in studying what can be said together about the Blessed Virgin Mary, and a number of participants were asked to prepare preliminary papers. With the permission of the authors, we will be posting five of these papers over the next five dayspapers by Edward T. Oakes, J.I. Packer, T.M. Moore, Cornelius Plantinga Jr., and Matthew Levering.eds.
This essay is a plain Bible study focusing on the first two chapters of Luke's gospel (the annunciation, Elizabeth's welcome, Mary's song, the birth narrative, the circumcision narrative, and Jesus in the Temple at age 12), plus Luke 8:19–21 (Jesus' spiritual family), and on two passages from John's gospel, 2:1–12 (the Cana wedding) and 19:25–27 (John to care for Mary).
I ought to begin by announcing the assumptions on which I proceed. None of them is unanimously accepted by the scholars, but in my view far more can be said for each than can be said against it; but I shall not argue any of them here. I simply state them so that my readers will know where I am coming from. Here they are.
1. Both Luke and John wrote for publication, as Mark had done before them. This meant writing to what we would call a preset word length, since the publication process was to have the writer's script copied into an already manufactured codex (a set of bound sheets), either a long codex or a short one. Mark wrote at the length of a short codex; John, like Matthew and Luke (both volumes) before him, for a long codex. This meant, as we who today write assignments of so many thousand words well know, constantly having to decide what will go in, on what scale to present it, and what will have to be left out, and you never end up telling all that you know in the way in which you would have liked to tell it. But, in fact, through making these decisions, your personal angle on the material comes out that much more clearly in the finished product, and so it is here.
2. Luke's gospel was indeed written by the beloved physician, Paul's companion, who finished writing Acts, its sequel, in 64 A.D., after Paul had waited two years in Rome for his trial and before the trial took place. It is a natural guess that he was working on the gospel during the two years of Paul's incarceration at Caesarea before being sent to Rome, and that during those years he was able to interview Mary, now an old woman but with a very retentive memory as to things that happened in her teens during the years when she was bringing up Jesus. The twice-repeated picturesque statement that Mary "treasured up" all these things in her heart (2:19, 51) seems to indicate that Mary was Luke's oral source at this point.
3. John the apostle, who wrote the gospel that bears his name, was Jesus' cousin. This is an old view, commonly ignored today, but there is much to be said for it. One gets to it biblically by identifying Mary's sister (Jesus' aunt, therefore), who stood by Mary at the cross (John 19:25), with the mother of of the sons of Zebedee, whom Matthew places there (Matt. 27:56)perhaps the seemingly well-known Salome, whom Mark places there (Mark 15:40). Though this identification cannot be proved, it fits strikingly with John's apparent embarrassment about mentioning his own name, preferring, rather awkwardly, to refer to himself as "the disciple whom Jesus (specially) loved," who was, it seems, specially close to him. Add to this the fact that it was John rather than anyone else whom Jesus from the cross told to care for his mother, as if he was now the closest relative for the purpose; and with the remarkable readiness of James and John to leave their father in the boat, in the middle of the day's work of net mending, when Jesus called them to follow him on the peripatetic ministry that he was just about to move into; and with the extraordinary boldness of "the mother of the sons of Zebedee" in asking a special privilege for (if this is right) Jesus' cousins (Matt. 20:20–21)aunts still do that kind of thing. At all events, I work on this assumption.
4. Luke had Mark’s gospel before him as he wrote (otherwise many verbal echoes of Mark become inexplicable), and John wrote to supplement some form of what we will call the synoptic tradition (otherwise his enigmatic allusion to Jesus’ baptism by John and his total omission of the Lord’s Supper become inexplicable).
Also, I think I should announce here where I come from conventionally. I do not believe in Mary’s immaculate conception, nor her perpetual virginity, nor her assumption, nor the appropriateness of prayer to her. As an Anglican, I have been drilled in the liturgical use of Mary’s song, the Magnificat, and have long taught that we should notice how she celebrates God as her Savior and should think of her as head of the line of sinners, saved by the atoning death and resurrection of her own son. England’s 1662 Book of Common Prayer teaches me to celebrate the feasts of the Annunciation and Purification of the one whom it calls Saint Mary the Virgin and the Blessed Virgin Mary, and provides Collects for both occasions, though neither mentions Mary by name. (Anglican circumspection could hardly go further.) I should add, though, that the 1962 Canadian revision provides a supplementary Collect that does use her name, though without altering the Christological and soteriological focus of its 1662 predecessors. It is a lovely prayer that runs as follows:
O God Most High, who didst endue with wonderful virtue and grace the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of our Lord; Grant that we, who now call her blessed, may be made very members of the heavenly family of him who was pleased to be called the first-born among many brethren; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end.
I have no difficulties in using this prayer, or reluctance to do so.
Enough, now, of preliminaries. Let us get to business.
Luke, who gives us our information about young Mary, wrote biographical history in the established manner of Greek and Roman historians (Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, Livy, Polybius, Tacitus) and, of course, the Old Testament historians too. They focused on the people who moved things forward and turned reported conversations into direct speechthe exact opposite of what we do. There is, of course, no denying that direct speech, if skillfully done, adds vividness and makes the story come alive. As a human being, a physician, and a Christian, Luke shows himself very interested in people as such, but the personal details he gives are always and only those that move his story forward. What he is doing is narrating how the long-promised, long-hoped-for kingdom of God was inaugurated and became reality through Jesus; and, as we would say, he keeps his eye on the ball.
It is from this perspective that he presents young Mary, a Nazareth girl betrothed to a young man named Joseph. Thus, we may confidently say, she is revealed to us as an older teen, since that was betrothal age. Clearly, Luke thought her a very remarkable woman, over and above her remarkable vocation, and he incorporated her into his story in a way that is meant to lead thoughtful readers to share his view. Note what it is about her that he highlights.
First comes the annunciation story, which works up to Mary’s response after being told that she is to be the mother of the Messiah, not through Joseph, descendant of David, as she might have first supposed, but through a virginal pregnancy: “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:30). Calmly, submissively, obediently, and matter-of-factly, Mary embraced her destiny, unfazed it would seem by the prospect of short-term embarrassment that the virginal pregnancy was sure to bring. She had been flustered when Gabriel first appeared and greeted her so grandly (1:28–29)and who in her shoes would not have been? She became alert to what she was being told and asked at once the question that it raised: “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” (1:34). The news that it would be by supernatural conception, rather than through her forthcoming marriage to Joseph, which surely was what she was hoping to hear, did not daunt her: She was now dedicated, surrendered to her high calling, and would face anything that might confront her. As a model of devotion, it is not possible for Mary to be eclipsed.
As soon as she could she went to visit her older relative Elizabeth, who according to Gabriel was already supernaturally pregnant, though well past the change. Elizabeth, who was indeed pregnant with the one who was to be the forerunner, John the Baptist, greeted her straight away with prophetic afflatus: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. . . . And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord” (1:42–45). If Mary was still in her heart seeking confirmation of the amazing announcement she had received, she surely got it from Elizabeth. She told Luke all about it, and Luke included it in his gospel.
Luke recorded the psalm that she composed at that time, modeling it on the psalm Hannah had come up with after what she felt was the supernatural birth of Samuel. Teenagers still write poetry by adapting models; there is nothing unusual about that. What is unusual is the poetic quality and the grandeur of Mary’s vision of God in gracious action, countering the injustice of the proud and powerful and bringing to Israel and beyond Israel something of the shalom that had long been foretold. Mary is a gifted poet, though still in her teens. I imagine that, because of its personal quality and beginning, she had kept it by her as something private until she let Luke have it for his gospel. Be that as it may, Luke certainly wants us to appreciate Mary as a very gifted, as well as a very godly, soul.
Then comes the birth story, where we are shown the apparently uncomplaining resourcefulness of Mary, making a cradle out of a cattle trough in what was probably a cave or a cattle shed behind the inn. We may guess that she had brought the “swaddling-clothes” with her, in case the birth happened while they were traveling, and in light of Gabriel’s words we may guess that, as baby clothes go, they were rather grand. Also, we are told of the shepherds’ visit and what, presumably, they told Mary about seeing and hearing the angels celebrating the Messiah’s birth. Mary, Luke tells us, “treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart” (2:19). Next in what Mary told Luke comes the meeting with Simeon, who told her with enigmatic grandeur that her son would be a controversial and embattled figure, and that “a sword will pierce through your own soul also” (2:34–35), and then the meeting with Anna, the old prophetess, who “began to give thanks to God and to speak of him (Jesus) to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem” (2:38).
The last of what appear to be Mary’s reminiscences is the story of how at twelve Jesus, unaware that the Nazareth party had already left for home, somehow linked up with the theological pundits of the Jerusalem Temple and was eventually found there amazing them by his questions and answers. We do not know what Mary and Joseph had or had not told Jesus about his paternity, but, whatever they had told him, his surprised question“Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”must have taken their breath away. As Luke says, “They did not understand” (2:50)that is, they had no idea how much Jesus’ words might imply. Again, this surely must be Mary’s story, told to Luke, who once more records that she “treasured up all these things in her heart” (2:51).
The only other mention of Mary in Luke is in 8:19–21, where Jesus apparently declines to break off his teaching session because his mother and brothers have arrived and are asking, one supposes, for some family time with him. Jesus simply says, “My mother and my brother are those who hear the word of God and do it,” and then (one imagines) carries on. If what has been said so far is right, Mary would have nodded her head at that dictum, whatever Jesus’ brothers might have thought of it; for Jesus’ mother, middle-aged, Jewish mother that she is, is learning to be Jesus’ disciple. She sees him, one may suppose, as certainly a prophet, more like Samuel than anyone else she knows of. And just as Hannah resolved to lend Samuel to the Lord Yahweh for life, so she is resolved to do with Jesus; since he is certainly a prophet, quite apart from the royal destiny that Gabriel had marked out for him, Mary is resolved always to be guided by his word.
This brings us to John 2:1–11, where we watch Mary learning this lesson, or practicing this principle, in what turns out to be a quite momentous way. It is the story of a wedding feast saved from disaster by the miraculous provision of a huge quantity of excellent wine. John’s gospel, as we know, is a carefully wrought theological document, full of patterns and layers of meaning that carry a deep symbolism and significance. At bottom, however, the gospel appears to be, and in my view actually is, the eyewitness and earwitness of a very attentive and retentive observer who watched Jesus like a hawk, memorized his discourses as if his life depended on it (as, spiritually, we may properly say that it did), and was living close to Jesus both as his disciple and, as I think, his cousin too. The Cana miracle is the first in the so-called book of signs, and in the gospel’s design it carries a heavy weight of theological meaning. Yet the heart of it, according to the text, is an exchange between Jesus and his mother that John either overheard of learned of in full from his aunt Mary afterward. I focus now on this exchange.
Mary tells Jesus, “They have no wine.” She does not know what he can do about it, but her words show that she thinks he can do something about it and is asking him to take some action.
Jesus’ reply has caused head scratchings. Here I state, without argument, what I believe to be the natural meaning of John’s Greek, the meaning that his own first readers would have drawn from his words. It is not a brush-off, just the reverse.
“Dear lady” (gune here expressed respect for his motherlike ma’amshort for madam in the older culture of the Southern United States)“do you realize that we’re not on the same page here? My (appointed) time for taking action has not yet come.” He is telling her, or reminding her, in the gentlest possible way, that she must not try to manipulate or program or otherwise control him, for he marches to the beat of a different drummer. She must deny herself the privilege ordinarily allowed to a Jewish mother, and so the conversation ends. But her hopes of some action on her son’s part to meet the immediate need do not end, as her words to the servants showand in the event she is not disappointed. Thus, Jesus’ mother is displayed as a disciple and follower of her son, which is one of the things that John tells this story to show us.
John adds that Jesus went back to Capernaum after the wedding and stayed therein the family home, one assumesfor some time. John no doubt added this to rule out any supposition that Jesus’ declining actually to tell Mary what he was going to do about the lack of wine led to any cooling or estrangement in the mother-son relationship. As we noted earlier, Jesus’ loving care for his mother later found expression in one of the three words from the cross that John records.
Thus, then, Luke and John present mother Mary to us as Jesus’ disciple: a model for us all.
J.I. Packer is Board of Governors' Professor of Theology at Regent College (Vancouver, B.C.) and an executive editor for Christianity Today. He is also author of the perennial bestseller Knowing God.