Believe it or not, Mary has a lot to say to us about mission and discipleship.
We can have a number of focal points in telling the Christmas story; prophecies (especially from Isaiah), Joseph, and the trek to Bethlehem, shepherds, angels, a star, Wise Men (the Wise Men are a separate story from the birth narrative). Then there is Mary.
In protestant theology, Mary gets a bad rap in terms of her role in salvation and church history. People are stunned by the thought that in some places Mary is worshipped essentially as a part of the Godhead and at the very least the early church moved Mary into the role of mediator. Some may ask Why? And How did that happen?
The early church pushed Jesus so far into His deity, downplaying his humanity, that He was no longer able to be a mediator. Humanity needs a mediator with Almighty God. Like Moses, we are unable to stand before the Lord on our own and live. In the mind of the Church, Mary became the Go-To person, Mother Mary ask your Son Jesus…
As the Protestant Reformation developed, this was one of the Roman doctrines it took head-on and refuted. Leaning on 1 Timothy 2:5, “For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus,” and for fear of being too Roman, not wanting to appear “popish” in any shape or form, the protestant church relegated Mary with some intentionality to a minor role in salvation history. The early reformation scholars degraded Mary, I believe wrongly, for fear that she might be worshipped. Let us recapture rightly the place of Mary and give her the honor due her as scripture rightly acknowledges her as most favored one and most blessed among women.Mary becomes a model for us of authentic mission and discipleship. Click To Tweet
Mary was compromised and exposed in her world: she was a child in a society that revered age; she was female in a world dominated by men; she was poor, in a world of the haves and have-nots, she would always be a have-not. Yet in the midst of this position and posture comes a calling- a surprising vocation. Mary becomes a model for us of authentic mission and discipleship.
A Dangerous Prayer
For a number of years as the executive director of a retreat and conference center, I hosted a Dangerous Prayer Retreat. Throughout the scriptures, we find individuals who pray dangerous prayers and in doing so their lives are changed and transformed, even turned upside down. Moses praying, Show me Thy glory (Exodus 33:18); Isaiah praying, Here I am Lord send me (Isaiah 6:8); Peter’s and Paul’s encounter with the Lord leave them so transformed their names are changed and they are given a new identity in Christ. There are many more dangerous prayers in the Bible and in the communion of saints. I now see them all the time, in the scriptures, liturgies, histories, commentaries, and the like.
We find in Luke 1:38 one the most dangerous prayers in the bible, it comes from the lips of Mary; Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word. Mary says, “Yes!” We get the sense her yes comes without consideration of all it would mean. She says yes and in her, a focused determination emerges. With that surrender, the Christmas story and the story of redemption takes on a new shape and form.
The last recorded words we hear from Mary in the Gospels comes in John 2:5; Do whatever he tells you. It is another way of saying Yes! In many ways, this is an externalization of what she said some 30 years earlier. These statements become bookends of Mary’s faith and obedience to God, even her Son.
Years ago, I was a guest preacher at a church where the pastor was a life-long friend. I do not remember the sermon being exceptional but sometimes you never know. About a week later I received a package in the mail from the pastor’s wife. There was a note thanking me for my sermon, our years of friendship and there was a rock with the word YES engraved on it. The note went on to thank me for all the yesses I had given to the Lord in my life. I was humbled by the comment and gift.
One way to think about our discipleship, our faith formation is, like Mary, to simply live a life that says YES to the Lord in every way we can. By hearing, knowing, and obeying the commands of Jesus we build our lives upon the rock. (Matthew 7: 24) This idea is anchored in the Great Commission, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded (Matthew 28:19-20). Ultimately, discipleship begins not with what we know or even do. It begins with who we are; and we are to be a people, who like Mary without reservation say yes to Almighty God.Ultimately, discipleship begins not with what we know or even do. It begins with who we are; and we are to be a people, who like Mary without reservation say yes to Almighty God. Click To Tweet
Imagine how the world would change if people took this to heart. This Christmas make your gift, your offering to the Lord a resounding YES. Give yourself to Him, surrender as Mary did, let your life be changed and made new. It is a Dangerous Prayer but one worth praying as it leads to encounter, revelation, transformation, and into a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17)
Theotokos / Θεοτόκος
In the Greek Mary is called Theotokos; The one who gives birth to God, more accurately translated God-Bearer. There are icons and stained glass that depict this title and calling.
God chose this young girl to bring forth the Incarnate King of Glory into this world so that He may save and redeem humanity from sin and death. This moment stops all of history and everything changes. Mary bore the Son of God into this world. The two greatest moments of paradox in all of human history; how Jesus, the Son of God, came into this world and how He left this world.
Mary, in this act of surrender, becomes a model of mission for us. We too become Theotokos! We bear Jesus into the world. In the same way that Jesus clothed himself in humanity, taking on human form, He now clothes Himself with us. Jesus who was born in a stable and laid in a manger is now born in us and takes up residence in our hearts and lives. He Christmases in us!Mary, in this act of surrender, becomes a model of mission for us. We too become Theotokos! We bear Jesus into the world. Click To Tweet
As the carol we sing declares…
O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel!
God intrudes upon the world and He now chooses us as the conduit of His intervention. This is the everyday Christianity you and I are to live. By simply saying yes to God we become a means of grace in a fallen world. Kindness, mercy, generosity, compassion, forgiveness, are all expressions of the love of God. When we behave with this in mind the world changes, maybe just one life at a time.
The motivation for the mission of the church, for Fresh Expressions, must be birthed in the very love of God. This is what Christmas teaches us; Love has come! The unending, unconditional, overwhelming, transforming, and making new power of Love is first manifest in the promise fulfilled in the birth of Jesus. Then it is made manifest in us as we say YES to God and by the power of the Holy Spirit we live as Paul describes the More Excellent Way. The defining characteristic of our witness to Christ is the love we have for one another (John 13:35). Love for others is paramount and this is what we bear to the world.
A few years back I found myself in a lonely and isolated place, somewhat lost with deep questions emerging in my heart and mind. I felt like a failure and was somewhat wounded and exposed. Many knew the situation I was journeying through but did not know that it had caused me to despair and doubt. People wrote me notes, called, texted, emailed, and more. Three men I know, love and respect spoke words of encouragement over my life. It was like a healing balm to my heart and mind. For me they became Theotokos! They bore Christ to me in a profound way that began to set my feet back on solid ground. At that moment I received grace upon grace. I can only pray that I have been able to do that for others.
The mission we all have is to be a God-Bearer, a Theotokos! God gives us His presence. Receive this amazing gift into your life this Christmas. Take up the mantle and presence of Christ every day and in doing so you will see a world transformed, more so people will respond when God comes near through you.
The Mission of Mary (and us too!)
The Protestant church hasn’t always known what to do with Mary. It also hasn’t always known how to engage in mission outside the walls of the Church building. Mary’s story teaches us that when God shows up things change and when God calls, we answer. God is wanting to show up where you live your life; as you shop, run errands, go to class or the gym, have zoom meetings, post on social media; basically everywhere. He may still send an angel from time to time but more likely is sending you and me with Good News. God will make His presence known in us and through us in everyday normal ways. Some will recognize it like Elizabeth and the child she carried or the shepherds who received the announcement with joy. Some sadly will make no room for it in their lives like the innkeeper in Bethlehem. Regardless we remain constant in our witness.
Like Mary, our discipleship is saying yes. We forgive, go the extra mile, turn the other cheek; we pray, fast, give, and serve. We become light in the midst of darkness. When we say yes to Jesus in these foundational ways; some people will take notice, ask questions, and engage. Though they might not admit it, they are hungry, thirsty for something that will satisfy. They are sick and wounded and have learned to navigate life carrying their pain. In Christ Jesus, we carry a medicine that will heal; body, soul, mind, and spirit and we are to bear it to the world.
If we modeled our life after Mary in just these two aspects; saying yes to God and bearing Christ into the world, what would change? The mission of the church would be everywhere.
Mary was pregnant with the Savior of the world! In a way, so are we. Will we allow Him to enter in and be born in us today?
The Rev. Jon Davis PhD is an Episcopal Priest, church planter, teacher, worship leader. He is on staff with Fresh Expressions as a mission strategist and is launching some Fresh Expression gatherings through the Abbey Mission in a NE suburb of Orlando. email@example.com