We interrupt our regularly scheduled Advent programming to focus on a crucial character and moment in the Christmas story.
Today is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, when Catholics celebrate the Virgin Mary’s conception, which is believed to be without sin. (This is frequently confused with the Virgin Birth, when Jesus Christ was conceived and born. It is not the same thing.)
Typically any mention of Mary causes Protestants, especially those of a Reformed or evangelical bent, to see red. Yet today we find her an inescapable character playing a front-and-center role in the story of how Jesus Christ came into the world.
We go to Luke 1:26-38:
In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”
Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.”
“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”
The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. For nothing is impossible with God.”
“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said.” Then the angel left her.
In the evangelical world, women’s bodies are commonly believed to be a bad thing that causes men to sin. (Yet God came to us via the body of a woman. That is worthy of pondering.)
This belief that women’s bodies are a bad thing that causes men to sin has led to all manner of prohibitions in many parts of the evangelical universe. Don’t dance. Don’t wear spaghetti straps. Don’t show too much skin.
Evangelical preaching and culture are rife with messages directed toward women to the effect of: Your body is something to be ashamed of. It is a weapon that causes men to sin. Your body–your very identity as a woman–caused sin to enter the world. All the Bible stories you hear in church are about men, and the ones about women are all about how they brought sin into the world and are dangerous to men.
There are two images of women: the Madonna/virgin, or the whore. The virgin Mary, or Mary Magdalene. Take your pick. And when total depravity enters the mix, telling you that the virgin/Madonna is unattainable…well, what else is left?
What is left when we are told that the Virgin Birth (or the Immaculate Conception, if you will) is impossible unless God works a miracle? That we can never be good–certainly not good enough for God–without the dead body of a man to wash our sin away?
What is left when we are told that virginity is the only way to be a good woman but virginity is defined by sexual experience with a man (or the lack thereof)? In that way of looking at things, everything about women’s bodies is all about men.
Don’t you think there’s something wrong with this picture?
As noted above, the mention of Mary frequently causes those of us of a Reformed or evangelical bent to see red. We in the evangelical universe do not have a very high view of Mary. After all, there is only one way to the Father, and that through Jesus Christ, so why on earth would you waste your time deifying (that’s what it looks like from our perspective) someone who is not a member of the Trinity?
Yet there is another way of looking at this story. It is this: God took up residence in the body of a woman. And if you believe that it was through women’s bodies (Eve, original sin, etc) that sin entered the world, well here we see that it is through a woman’s body that God enters the world. The very thing that brought sin and pain and suffering and brokenness into our world is the ting that God used to bring the remedy for all those ills into our world.