We Don't Talk About Mary...
10 things about Mary (and I LOVE #3)
One of the most ear-catching songs of the last year was We Don’t Talk About Bruno, a fun song written by wunderkind Lin-Manuel Miranda for Disney’s animated film, Encanto. For a while the song was everywhere, depicting an odd, reclusive relative that everyone knew but no one talked about. Don’t you feel like that about Mary sometimes? She’s everywhere at Christmas time, and also nowhere—a caricature more than a real live person—and when we do hear about her in a sermon or a pageant, she is usually depicted as passive: listening to the angel, agreeing to serve, carrying her baby for 9 months, then traveling to Bethlehem and holding Jesus after he’s born as she welcomes shepherds and later wise men from the East.
But the bottom line is this: Mary says yes to a very unusual request (maybe the most unusual request of any woman, ever) and then births and raises the son of God. In the last few years I’ve felt a strong desire to get to know the women of the New Testament, and started seminary in 2018 to pursue my quest. I quickly realized—maybe even the first day of school—that Mary was the most prominent woman in the New Testament! But I didn’t feel like I knew her much at all; I only knew the symbol. Who is the real Mary? Enter a book, The Real Mary, by Scot McKnight, that has helped me get to know her better.
First of all, promise me you’ll read this book. I read it every year in December. Sisters, this is the most extraordinary woman who’s ever lived! And we can get to know her through the pages of Scripture, and through Scot’s book.
Sisters, this is the most extraordinary woman who’s ever lived.
Second, one of the reasons those of us in the Protestant branch of the Church haven’t heard much about Mary is that her memory and legacy has been at the center of many an argument and a dispute among Church leaders, teachers, and thinkers. So Protestants left her behind, in a sense, relegating her and the baggage assigned to her (without her permission, of course) to the other branches of the church.
Quick primer: There are three branches of the Church: Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox. Originally there was only one Church, but disagreements and disputes, plus politics, eventually tore it into three branches. Each branch holds to the truth of the Gospel message.
Enter The Real Mary, which Scot explains he wrote because “a book about Mary for evangelicals that focuses on the real Mary, so far as I know, has never been written…[so] why write a book about Mary? Because the real Mary always leads us to Jesus” (pp 5-6). The more we know about Mary, the more we can learn about Jesus, because she was the first Christ follower, the first disciple.
Here are 10 things about Mary, from The Real Mary:
Mary understood that saying yes to the angel Gabriel meant both taking a huge personal risk, and upending her life. When she responded to Gabriel telling her God’s plan, she said, “May it be” (Luke 1:38). Yet with those three words this teenager understood and accepted that she would be pregnant before marriage in a culture that did not accept this, that her fiance Joseph and her family might reject her, and that she would have a reputation as an adultress that would follow her to her grave and could result in a trial and public humiliation. This was no fairy tale fantasy; it had the potential to be a nightmare. Mary had incredible, mind-bending, unfathomable courage; this is the real Mary.
Mary not only said yes to birthing the Messiah, she created and sang a prophetic song that called for justice and the upending of the culture of power. This astonishing song is prophetic, powerful, and full of promise for the future: “Oh, how my soul praises the Lord. How my spirit rejoices in God my Savior! For he took notice of his lowly servant girl, and from now on all generations will call me blessed…He has scattered the proud and haughty ones. He has brought down princes from their thrones and exalted the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things…” (Luke 1:46-55, NLT). Mary understood the world was broken and needed to be turned upside down to right all wrongs; this is the real Mary.
What Mary shared with Jesus:
Her DNA. Jesus’ genes came from Mary only, not Joseph. Her genetic history, her mutations, her eye and hair color, her size and shape, the possibility that he might inherit male pattern baldness, her intellect, her personality, her trauma—all that is encoded in our DNA was shared with her son.
Her uterus. She gave this baby what only a woman can provide—her most intimate, safe, elemental place for growth and for nurture.
Her blood. Oxygen and nutrients from the mother's blood were transferred across the placenta to her baby. Enriched blood flows through the umbilical cord to the liver and splits into three branches. The blood then reaches the inferior vena cava, a major vein connected to the heart. Elements of Mary’s blood literally nourished and flowed through Jesus.
Her brain. Have you seen this study? Mother and fetus exchange DNA and cells. Research work has shown that fetal cells can linger in the mother's blood and bone for decades, a condition researchers call fetal microchimerism. Mary likely carried his cells inside of her for her entire life.
Her presence. We already know Mary created and sang songs. In the womb, Jesus heard her not only her heartbeat and her breath, but her voice and her song.
Mary had the closest embodied relationship with him anyone would ever have, sharing her very essence with Jesus and carrying him with her; this is the real Mary.
Mary risked her life to carry and bear Jesus, because childbirth was exceedingly dangerous. She likely had a midwife for assistance and medical care, and she probably sat on a birthing stool and experienced incredible pain over hours, and maybe days. Yes, she had faith as she remembered God’s promise, but she also knew that many women died in childbirth. The possibility was very real. Mary knew what labor and delivery would cost her in pain and risk, and she still said “May it be”; this is the real Mary.
Mary knew she had given birth to the real king, not the one known as Herod the Great who sat on the throne. The magical Magi, Gentiles from the East, brought gifts for a king, and Mary knew something no one else knew: Jesus was king (Herod was not), and Jesus was for Jews and for Gentiles. Mary was right in the middle of one of the biggest secrets every unveiled; this is the real Mary.
Mary was poor. Instead of purchasing a lamb for the dedication and purification ritual at the temple, Joseph and Mary purchased two turtledoves. This was a substitution allowed those who couldn’t afford the lamb. Mary had given birth to a future king, but dedicated him with the offering of the poor and humble; this is the real Mary.
Mary’s son would be a different kind of king than what the people were hoping for. When she brought him to the Temple to be dedicated, an old man named Simeon picked him up and prophesied over him (Luke 2 NLT) with these glorious words: “He is a light to reveal God to the nations, and he is the glory of your people Israel!” Then he turned to Mary, maybe even whispered in her ear, this: “This child is destined to cause many in Israel to fall, and many others to rise. He has been sent as a sign from God, but many will oppose him. As a result, the deepest thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your very soul.” Mary had survived childbirth, but would she survive the coming pain of raising a son who was destined to be hated as he turned the world upside down? Mary’s destiny was going to be sorrow; this is the real Mary.
Mary lost Jesus. Have you ever had that experience? Losing track of a child, or someone else vulnerable, in a crowded and perhaps even dangerous place? I once lost my five year old son for 15 minutes in a shopping mall. It was a nightmare. Yet Mary lost Jesus for three days in a busy city during Passover celebrations. When she finally found his twelve-year-old self, she asked him, “Why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been frantic” (Luke 2:40). Jesus explained he was with the Temple leaders, listening, asking questions and teaching: “Didn’t you know that I must be in my Father’s house?” Mary knew Jesus was growing and moving ahead into his destiny, and the father he spoke of was not Joseph. What she saw was a picture of the future Jesus teaching and discipling, and she would be among them. This is the real Mary.
Mary saw Jesus’ first miracle, when he turned the water into wine at a community wedding. In fact, she demanded the first miracle. Jesus responded to her this time not as an obedient child, but as a man who was now following the will of God. Things were changing. The tide was turning, and Mary was caught up in a complex miracle that hinted at transformation and joy and all things being made anew. Mary was no longer a power in Jesus’ life, she was now a witness to his God-given power; this is the real Mary.
Mary was an uncredited contributor to the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. “It was Mary who began to tell the story that became our Gospels” (p29). I’d never thought much about this and somehow this question had escaped me. Where did the stories about Jesus’ birth come from? Who was the primary witness, participant, story keeper, and story teller? And who remains uncredited as such? I would propose that our Bibles be amended to read: The Gospel of Matthew, with Mary. The Gospel of Mark, with Mary. The Gospel of Luke, with Mary, And, the Gospel of John, with Mary. She was the first to see and know Jesus, and she told her stories; this is the real Mary.
Mary is more than a beautiful statue or painting or Nativity figure; she was a real woman who was there for Jesus’ life on earth from before the cradle and after the grave. She carried Jesus, his story, and the prophecies, with her. She lost Jesus, then pursued him. She stayed when most others left, and once again bore the pain of being his mother. She knew the worst would happen, but not when or how. She also didn’t know exactly what would happen next, until he walked out of that grave and everything changed.
Why haven’t I had more questions about the most extraordinary woman of all time? That question haunts me. Scot, thank you for this book, and for the invitation to get to know the real Mary.
To read more: The Real Mary, by Scot McKnight.
QUESTION GIRL QUESTION: Have you had questions about Mary?
By the way, this Substack is all about asking questions about women in the Bible or the Church. Do you have any questions? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and your question may appear anonymously here on Question Girl!
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I love this book. It opened my eyes to so many things that were never talked about in my evangelical upbringing!
Loving this newsletter, Question Girl!