Including Mary the Mother of Jesus
When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.
The evangelist we know as St. Luke is the author of the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles. Luke, a gentile, was one of the Apostle Paul’s travelling companions and was with Paul in Rome when Paul could see that his trial before Emperor Nero was not going to end well for him. On that occasion Paul had written to Timothy that “the time of my departure has come” and noted “only Luke is with me.” (2 Timothy 4:6, 11) In addition to Luke’s steady friendship with Paul, and skills as a writer we also know that he was a doctor—the Apostle Paul referred to him as “Luke, the beloved physician.” (Colossians 4:14) As well, there is a tradition that Luke was also a painter and had created a portrait of Jesus’ mother Mary.
Luke was obviously a well-educated and gifted man with many skills and abilities. Luke is the gospel writer who gives us all the detail about the birth of Jesus from Mary’s perspective; he tells us of the angel’s annunciation to Mary, of the visit to Elizabeth, of her song of justice, of the stable birth with visiting shepherds. He tells us repeatedly of how Mary pondered these things and treasured them in her heart. It is my conviction that Luke has met Mary and interviewed her when gathering what he needed to write his gospel. Here, in the opening story of the Acts of the Apostles, Luke is careful to tell us that among those who saw Jesus’ ascension and embraced the mission Jesus gave them to be witnesses is Mary the mother of Jesus. This is the last mention of Mary in the New Testament—Luke thinks it important for us to know that Mary is among these foundational, even Apostolic, witnesses to Jesus.
1. It is remarkable that Mary is still here among them, notes Luke. It is not easy for us to imagine what this journey has been like for Mary. I wonder what Jesus said to her the day he left the family carpentry business and headed to the Jordon valley to see his cousin John who was calling people to prepare for the coming of the Lord. And then that day at the wedding in Cana when Jesus turned water into wine. Of course, the news of his popularity had to reach her; no doubt it was disquieting to see the opposition to Jesus flare up at their hometown synagogue. And there was the day that Mary and the rest of the family had gone to bring Jesus home because they thought he had cracked up under the strain and exhaustion of ministry demands. And then she saw the ugliness of his trail and march to Golgotha and crucifixion and burial; she had witnessed the whole gut-wrenching mess.
At that moment she must have been questioning what the angel told her—“he will be great, and will be called the Son of the most high, and the Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” She had memorized those words trusting God—a trust that at the grave must have seemed foolish. But Mary is here now among the Apostles. She had seen her son risen from the dead. Her presence speaks volumes about Jesus and his prayer on the night of betrayal when he asked God to “protect them from the evil one.” We would never know of Mary except that Jesus was risen from the dead and made himself known to her alive. She would have ever remained another of the disgraced unknown families of one more victim of Rome’s crucifixion machine.
But we do know of Mary the mother of Jesus. She too has joined this apostolic mission to be together with the Apostles and to be a witness to Jesus Christ. And we have her witness. I think that we need to understand this mention of Mary in the book of Acts in light of the gospel Luke has written. Mary has told her story of Jesus in her life. There is a sense in which Mary shows us what to do. Tell the story of Jesus’ incursion into our own lives to others.
2. Let us think a little today about Mary’s witness. “ Born of the virgin Mary;” we repeat these words with respect to what we believe about Jesus every time we recite the Apostles’ Creed or also those who say the Nicene Creed. Both creeds are normative for the church universal; both maintain that the virginal conception of our Lord is as essential to the substance of the faith as is the bodily resurrection of our Lord.
Yet many people tell me either they don’t see the point of ‘born of the Virgin Mary’ or they can’t affirm its historicity, its facticity. I happen to uphold ‘born of the virgin Mary’. And I agree with the worldwide church over the centuries that it is a crucial ingredient, a necessary ingredient, in what Christians believe. I believe Mary’s witness to Jesus.
Some object that “the virgin birth isn’t a core item in Christian doctrine, since it is mentioned by only two New Testament writers, Matthew and Luke. It can’t be important.”
To be sure, Matthew and Luke speak of it explicitly. Mark, John, and Paul, however, certainly speak of it implicitly. When Jesus begins his public ministry in his hometown, hearers are astounded, and they cry out, Mark tells us, “Where did he get his wisdom and power? Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary?” (Mk 6:3) In Jewish circles a man was named by his father, always by his father. Mark doesn’t mention Joseph at all. Mark traces Jesus to his mother only: “Isn’t this man the son of Mary?” Mark is telling us, in so many words, that he agrees with Matthew and Luke concerning the virginal conception of our Lord.
John: in 1st John 1:18 John writes, “We know that those who are born of God do not sin, but the one who was born of God protects them.” You and I: we are “those who are born of God.” In another sense, Jesus Christ alone is “the one, the Son, who is born of God.” In speaking of these two categories John uses two different verb tenses. The verb tense he uses of Jesus highlights our Lord’s unique birth, a unique birth that is essential to our ‘new birth’.
What about Paul? Paul implicitly upholds the virgin birth in several places, only one of which I shall mention. In Galatians 4 Paul speaks three times of human generation, and every time he uses the normal Greek word ‘to be born’. When he speaks of Christ’s birth, however, he uses an entirely different word. The word he uses of Christ’s birth isn’t the word that speaks of normal human generation. It’s a word that speaks of the arrival of Jesus, the event of Jesus, the coming of Jesus—tacitly denying that Jesus was generated in the way that all other humans are procreated. Unquestionably Paul upholds the virginal conception of Jesus—as do Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
The Apostles’ Creed are a collection of faith assertions that all the Apostles assert. We may indeed find Mary’s witness about the birth of her son and the Apostles’ agreement with that story challenging. Nonetheless it is what the Apostles witness about Jesus.
3. Before we look into what ‘born of the virgin Mary’ is telling us, we should be sure to grasp what it isn’t telling us.
[a] It isn’t telling us that normal human procreation is tainted. The Hebrew mind rejoices in children and rejoices in how children are brought forth. The book of Proverbs insists that “the way of a man with a maid” is glorious. Scripture nowhere casts aspersion on human procreation.
[b] It isn’t telling us that Mary is a biological freak. Strictly speaking, the virgin birth isn’t about Mary at all: it’s about Jesus.
[c] It isn’t telling us that the virgin birth proves our Lord’s deity. The virgin birth doesn’t prove anything. But it does point to something; it’s a sign of something; it attests something. Then what does it point to? What’s it a sign of? What does it attest?
4. It’s a sign that Jesus Christ, the saviour of the world, has to be given to us. Humankind cannot produce its own saviour. History cannot produce history’s redeemer. We sinners all need a fresh start, what scripture calls, in various places, “new birth” or “new creature” or “heart of flesh” (rather than “heart of stone”) or “renewed mind”. The point is, human history cannot generate its rescuer. Its rescuer has to be given to it.
Make no mistake: people are slow, very slow, to admit this. The world staggers from one ‘sure fix’ to another ‘sure fix’, the previous ‘sure fix’ having failed miserably. In the preceding century there were two attempts at remaking humankind, one from the political left (communism), and one from the right (fascism). Not only did they fail to inaugurate a ‘new day’ for humankind; they brought with them unparalleled savagery and suffering.
We should distinguish here between the human situation and the human condition. The human situation can always be improved humanly. We can always assist the needy neighbour, share our abundance with those who lack, address glaring inequities and reduce criminality. We can always correct deficits and deficiencies in education and health care and social assistance.
The human condition, on the other hand, our condition before God, is different: this we can’t correct. Only the direct intervention of God himself can affect it. Because Christians are the beneficiaries of such intervention we now know, have long known, that the innermost twist to the human heart; the human perverseness beyond anyone’s understanding; the profoundest self-contradiction – all of this we know we cannot remedy ourselves; we know the remedy has to be given to us, since we cannot generate it ourselves.
In all of this I am not slighting at all those cultural riches that do ever so much concerning the human situation. Pharmacology can reduce pain. Surgery can relieve distress. Psychotherapy can untie emotional knots. Literature can provide a diagnostic tool for understanding human complexity. Nevertheless, humankind’s ultimate problem isn’t complexity; it’s corruption, self-contradiction. We have to admit that the root human condition is oceans deeper than the human situation, and the cure for the root human condition only God can provide.
Then is the human condition hopeless? Not at all: we’ve been given the saviour we’ll never give ourselves. We’ve been provided the rescuer we long for yet know we can’t generate. We’ve been given the One who has guaranteed our reconciliation to God and our restoration with God and our new life in God.
‘Born of the virgin Mary;’ Mary’s witness preserved in Luke’s gospel about the child that she was to bear is constant reminder that only the intervention of God himself can save us.
5. Finally a word about the ascension. At the end of Luke’s gospel he describes this group of followers—followers that include Mary—as returning to Jerusalem with great joy. Jesus departure in the cloud was not experienced as a great loss, else why all the joy. “Ascension” does not mean departure into a remote region of the universe but, rather, the continuing closeness that the disciples experience so strongly that it becomes a source of lasting joy.
The cloud that took Jesus is theological language for entering into the mystery of God; the cloud reminds us of all those places in the Bible where a cloud speaks of the presence of God. The New Testament describes the “place” to which the cloud took Jesus using the language of Psalm 110:1, as sitting at God’s right hand. What does that mean? It doesn’t refer to some distant cosmic space where God has, as it were, set up a throne and gave Jesus a place beside the throne. God is not in one space alongside other spaces. God is God—he is the premise and ground of all the space there is, but he himself is not part of it. God stands in relation to all spaces as Lord and Creator. “Sitting at God’s right hand” means participating in this divine dominion over space.
The departing Jesus does not make his way to some distant star. He enters into communion of power and life with the living God, into God’s dominion over space. Hence he has not “gone away”, but now and forever by God’s power he is present with us and for us. Great enough to embrace the universe but close enough to enter our hearts.