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.
All these [apostles] were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers. (Acts 1:14)
The "Crucifixus" of Bach's Mass in B Minor is an E-minor lament, heavy with sorrow and loss. But then, to make us sit up, Bach unexpectedly ends the movement in G-major. In his genius, Bach does not then start the following "Et Resurrexit" with music. No, "Et Resurrexit" begins with a beat-and-a-half rest that, someone has suggested, may be the most eloquent silence Bach ever wrote into a score. For a beat and a half, the silence fills with expectation and hope until trumpets and timpani burst out in a D-major celebration of Jesus walking out of his tomb.
The great pause between Ascension and Pentecost is like that beat-and-a-half rest. Luke tells us that, before he left the apostles, Jesus had spoken to them about the kingdom of God (Acts 1:3) and had parried their question about whether he was restoring the kingdom now, at long last, before he left, before it would be forever too late. He told them to wait in the city till they would be "baptized with Holy Spirit" and "receive power" to be his witnesses (1:68).
So the apostles gather in Jerusalem with Jesus' brothers and "certain women," including Jesus' mother, Mary. They have no timetable. They have no mission but to wait. They have nothing to do but to pray. Given Jesus' teaching about the kingdom of God, and the Lord's Prayer for the kingdom to come, and Jesus' yoking of the poured-out Holy Spirit with the restoration of the kingdomgiven these things, we may safely speculate that the apostles prayed as Jesus had taught them, and that Mary joined them in an atmosphere of expectation and hope. In this pause, "Come, Creator Spirit" and "Your kingdom come" merge into one prayer.
Then, as Luke tells us in chapter two, one day the place was shaken and the power came. We're naturally attracted to the wind and fire of Pentecost, but these are only attention-getters, signs that the Spirit of God is stirring again. The main event of Pentecost is that Peter preached Jesus Christ to Jews who were wearing the heavy armor of a corrupt generation, and the Spirit of God cut through their armor and got them in the heart and saved them. The Pentecost miracle, the Holy Ghost miracle, the God-almighty miracle of Acts 2 is the regeneration of the human heart, a miracle no less spectacular than creation or the resurrection of the dead. All the things that follow in Actsrepentance, baptism, forgiveness of sins, koinonia, sharing of goods, care for the poor, proclamation, apologetics, church plants, evangelism, martyrdom, prison ministry, healings, exorcismsare models, witnesses, and agencies of the in-breaking kingdom of God that took people's hearts at Pentecost. In fact, just as Matthew is framed by "God with us" and John by the testimony that Jesus is God, so the Acts of the Apostles is framed by "speaking about the kingdom of God" (1:3) and "proclaiming the kingdom of God" (28:31).
Acts is a book about God. It's called "The Acts of the Apostles," but the title fits only loosely, because what we have in it are twenty-eight chapters of the mighty acts of God done through human deputies. Paul's missionary journeys are God's mission to the world. When Peter heals a crippled beggar, it's a divine healing. When the apostles go on trial, it's God in the dock. The whole book, one might say, is a record of God's answer to prayers by the apostles and Mary.
So it's unsurprising that the first accounts of Mary in Luke fit the pattern. They're about GodGod's initiative, God's favor, God's election of the mother of God for an astonishing role within the drama of redemption. Mary is so unlikely a major role player that the news of her destiny is bewildering even to her. Mary is like Israel, or like the barren Hannah, or like the aged Sarah: She has nothing to recommend her as the choice of God's electing grace. She's probably young, certainly female. The text gives us no reason to think she's pedigreed or accomplished. Of such other Lukan characters in the birth narratives as Zechariah and Elizabeth, Simeon and Anna, we are told upfront that they are righteous, blameless, devout, prophetic. All we know of Mary is her name, her town, and her betrothed. Joel Green writes, "God chooses Mary, as it were, for no good reasonat least for no reason that would be convincing to persons whose values are at home in the world of honor and shame of the ancient Mediterranean."
Once more God chooses "what is weak in the world to shame the strong" (1 Cor. 1:27). Contrary to conventional wisdom, Mary isn't blessed just because her womb bears Jesus and her breasts nurse him. She's blessed because she "hears the world of God and obeys it" (Luke 11:2728). Moreover, she places herself in "God's own household" as "a servant of the Lord," and then, in her Magnificat, prophesies of the mighty acts of God in her, and among the generations, and in Israel, and everywhere the covenant with Abraham extends. She speaks politically, and she does so, as C. S. Lewis put it, "with a terrible gladness." The topic of the Magnificat is, once more, the kingdom of God and the revolutionary mercy and justice churning within it.
So when in Acts 1:14 we get our last glimpse of Mary at prayer with the apostles, we can guess the topic. She's been praying for the kingdom of God from the start. This was the cradle in which Jesus was raised. Would it be too much to speculate that Jesus learned "Thy Kingdom come; they will be done on earth" from his mother? And that when she is at prayer with the apostles, they are praying with her the same words she had taught her son? Or even that Mary prays to her son with words she had taught him?
In any event, it's hard to imagine a more revealing and encouraging last glimpse of the mother of God. She's had the Consolation of Israel in her womb and in her home. But now, like all the others who have had no such distinction, she simply prays for the coming of the kingdom of God.
Cornelius Plantinga Jr. is an ordained minister in the Christian Reformed Church and president of Calvin Theological Seminary.