One of my family’s favorite Christmas traditions is reading the hilarious and touching book The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. We especially enjoy the main protagonist, Imogene Herdman, as she plays the role of Mary in a church’s Christmas play. Though a rough and tumble troublemaker herself, Imogene is fascinated with an idealized Mary portrayed in a Bible-story illustration: “all pink and white and pure-looking.” The actor is the exact opposite of the character she is playing, but Imogene views Mary as a perfect model.
As evangelicals, we often struggle with how to view Mary. Is she the holiest of saints? The sinless disciple of her son, Jesus? The perfect model of faith and obedience? As we wrestle with our view of Mary, the best place to start is Luke’s portrayal of her in the narrative of Jesus’s birth. You might even try re-reading Luke 1:26–38 now as a reminder. Several elements of this narrative help us form a biblical view of Mary (with application for our own lives).
Mary Was Unremarkable (and so are we)
The first highlight is actually an anti-highlight: Mary’s obscurity or un-remarkableness. Earlier in Luke’s account, he had emphasized the holy character of Zechariah and Elizabeth: “they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord” (v. 6). Significant attention is also paid to Joseph, the man to whom Mary was betrothed, and his lineage “of the house of David” (v. 27). Most importantly, the angel Gabriel prophesies eloquently and at length about the one to whom Mary was to give birth: Jesus will be great, the Son of the Most High, the possessor of the Davidic throne, the ruler of God’s people, and the King of an eternal kingdom (vv. 32–33).
By stunning contrast, Luke offers a thin description of Mary: a betrothed virgin living in Nazareth (vv. 26–27). What should strike us is Mary’s unremarkableness: she is a run-of-the-mill, commonplace thirteen or fourteen-year-old girl living in obscurity in the middle of nowhere.
What transpires next is indeed remarkable, as God who is remarkable does a remarkable work in Mary. But it certainly is not because she is herself anything special. And if God can still use unremarkable people, then we should find encouragement in Mary’s common status: even if we are ordinary Christians struggling just to get by, we can hope that God will use us for his remarkable purposes.
Mary Found Favor (and so may we)
The second (now actual) highlight is the mighty work that God plans to do in and through Mary. According to Gabriel, Mary will become the mother of the incarnate Son of God—certainly a one-of-a-kind event in the history of the world! Most importantly, God’s action toward her is unmerited and undeserved. That is the whole idea of God’s favor, the point made twice by Gabriel in his announcement to her: Mary is the “favored one” in that she has “found favor with God,” the Lord who is “with her” (vv. 28–29).
In a word, this narrative is about grace, the unmerited, undeserved, unearned blessing of God. Mary is not special in somehow attracting God’s attention to her. She is not remarkable in somehow prompting the Lord to be favorable to her. Mary is not worthy in somehow being prepared or preparing herself to be the recipient of God’s grace. Grace is unmerited favor; Mary did not deserve to become the mother of Jesus.
What transpires, then, between Mary and God is all of grace. Gabriel’s answer to Mary’s probing question about how his annunciation would come about is straightforward: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you” (v. 35). The incarnation is not the result of Mary’s virtue; on the contrary, it is wholly by God’s grace. And if God is still being gracious today, then we who cannot merit his goodness can take hope that he will show favor to us despite our unworthiness.
Mary Faithfully Obeyed (and so can we)
The third highlight is Mary’s response to the word of God spoken by the angel: “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (v. 38). By such a reply, Mary is presented as a stellar model of the obedience of faith.
An unremarkable virgin girl who faces the most challenging of responsibilities—to give birth to the Son of God—yields to God and his will. Most importantly, the object of her faith—not Mary herself—is the focus of Luke’s story. She believes that God himself will fulfill his promised word. If we somehow become preoccupied with Mary—her flawless faith, her unqualified obedience—we miss the point. We may wrongly view her as an other-worldly disciple whose exceptional perfection lies far beyond the reach of us ordinary Christians.
What transpires, then, is wholly the gracious work of God that Mary embraces with faith. Gabriel’s affirmation that “nothing will be impossible with God” applies not only to the actual miracle to which he points: “your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren.” It also applies to the miracle about to take place in Mary: the incarnation of the Son of God. Even that impossibility will not be impossible with God! Impossible with Mary, certainly. Impossible with Mary, even as she exercises the obedience of faith. But not impossible with God. And if God is still the God of the impossible today, then we may hope that God will do miracles in and through us—even we who fall into unfaithfulness and descend into disobedience far too often.
How Should Evangelicals View Mary?
As evangelicals, how should we view Mary? Not as a perfect saint or sinless disciple, but as an unremarkable girl who consented by faith to the will of the Lord who graciously favored her: “Let it be to me according to your word!” That response is an example for us to imitate. And at Mary’s urging, we call her blessed, “for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name” (Luke 1:48–49).