BY ALBERTA LINDSEY
TIMES-DISPATCH STAFF WRITER
Dec 24, 2005
Mary, the mother of Jesus, is shrouded in mystery.
The Bible says little about her. But in Christianity, Mary is among the most important biblical characters and a wonderful example of faith, according to area religious scholars.
It’s because of Mary’s faith that Christians around the world celebrate Christmas.
"Mary was the bearer of Jesus, who was God incarnate in every step of his life and development," said Donald Dawe, professor emeritus of systematic theology at Union Theological Seminary and Presbyterian School of Christian Education.
"Mary’s act of faith is what makes the story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection possible," added Dawe, a former president of the Ecumenical Society of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The group was founded in England in 1967.
"Much of the most beautiful and profound material about Mary comes from Luke’s first two chapters," said John Carroll, professor of New Testament at Union-PSCE. "There she receives an extraordinary revelation from God, through the messenger Gabriel, about her pregnancy and the son she will give birth to. She is at first puzzled but then trustingly accepts the message. For Luke, she is in some ways a model of faith."
Only two of the four gospels in the Bible — Matthew and Luke — tell the story of Jesus’ birth. The birth isn’t mentioned in Mark and John, Dawe said.
Dawe doesn’t like to speculate about what life was like for Mary and Jewish women of the first century.
"I’m leery about creating history. We really don’t know much about her and that time," he said.
However, the fact that little is known about the mother of Jesus makes two important points, Carroll said. She probably came from an ordinary Jewish family, likely one of low social status. And second, "early Christians worried about such things a lot less than we moderns do. What mattered for them was the life, actions and message of the adult Jesus," he said.
"Mary is a young woman of marriageable age when we meet her in the beginning portions of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. That means, in her culture, she would have been a young teenager, somewhere around 12 to 14 years old," Carroll said.
The Bible says Mary was "betrothed" to Joseph, about whom little is known, Carroll said. "In our categories, this was something like being engaged, but with a set of role expectations that might in some ways be closer to marriage for us. Mary would have remained in her own household until the major public celebration of her marriage to Joseph, when she would move into Joseph’s household."
Mary became pregnant before her marriage to Joseph, which clearly was a problem for early Christians, Carroll said. It was a slander that had to be defended.
The Gospels and other writings responded to the slander by noting that Mary became pregnant in an extraordinary way because the child she would bear would be an extraordinary child, he added.
Dawe returned to Mary’s message for today.
"At a time when we are desperately in need of models for piety in spiritual life, Mary is a prime example," he said. "We get a vision of what it’s like to live in God’s grace."