Did you ever notice that the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds mention only three people by name? There’s Jesus, of course, and then Mary, and then Pilate. Mary and Pilate stand for the two responses we can make to God’s living with us in Jesus. With Pilate, we can reject it and kill it off, or with Mary we can welcome it and give it life. Mary was the first to recognize that something was about to begin in her that would change the world forever, and the first to say, “Then let it be so.”
Our creeds do always call her “the Virgin Mary.” But that’s more a statement about her character than a lesson in biology. In fact, the Bible never says exactly how she got pregnant. It says that she was a virgin when Gabriel broke the news. It says that her future husband was not the father (Matthew 1:18). It says that the pregnancy will be prompted and overshadowed by God. But most surprisingly it says that what by any human measure was an illegitimate pregnancy would be holy in God’s eyes and in the eyes of God’s people. From this day all generations will call her blessed. So what we’ve come to call Mary’s virginity is the holiness of her indecent condition. It’s her conspiring with God to bring about redemption without the immediate help of a husband or the benefit of a decent reputation.
So despite what our male-dominated culture would prefer, Mary doesn’t teach women to be “nice girls.” This is the Mary of the Magnificat, the Mary who sings of God turning the tables on the proud, the powerful and the rich. When angels showed up on her doorstep she had to argue her way into believing: “Tell me again, Gabriel, just how do you expect this to happen?”
Above all, we honor Mary, not for showing us how to be well-behaved, but for showing us how to be holy, showing us how to live what one recent author calls “the godbearing life.”* One of her official titles, after all, is “the God-bearer,” and it points to one of the central mysteries of our faith—that the God who brought us and the whole world to birth wants to be the God we bring to birth in our own lives.
In one of my favorite poems,** W. H. Auden has Gabriel say these words to Mary: “Hear, child, what I am sent to tell: Love wills your dream to happen, so Love’s will on earth may be, through you, No longer a pretend but true … What I am willed to ask, your own Will has to answer; child, it lies Within your power of choosing to Conceive the Child who chooses you.”
What Gabriel asks of Mary is what God asks of each of us in a different way. It lies within our power of choosing to conceive the God who chooses us. We all stand with Mary, summoned to an adventure filled with peril and misunderstanding and mystery and unspeakable grief and joy.
In the poem Mary answers: “My flesh in terror and fire Rejoices that the Word Who utters the world out of nothing, As a pledge of His word to love her Against her will, and turn Her desperate longing to love, Should ask to wear me, From now to their wedding day, For an engagement ring.”
Mary is God’s pledge one day to live in all of us the life begun in her. And with Mary God asks each of us together to be worn by God as God’s engagement ring offered to the whole world.
*Kenda Creasy Dean and Ron Foster, The Godbearing Life: The Art of Soul Tending for Youth Ministry (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 1998).
**W. H. Auden, “For the Time Being,” in Collected Poems (New York: Random House, 1991), pp. 359-360.