Hail, Mary

She was there at the Cross. Yet Protestants seldom talk about Jesus' mother at Easter — or at most other times. But they are starting to now

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What she read--and what Protestants had been more or less skimming for centuries--was a skein of appearances longer and more strategically placed than those of any other character in the Gospels except Jesus. There is, of course, the Annunciation, where Mary's earnest question "How shall this be, since I have no husband?" is followed (once Gabriel has answered) by her famous assent, "Let it be." Less often preached or parsed was her interaction with her kinswoman Elizabeth, John the Baptist's mother, or Mary's hymn beginning "My soul magnifies the Lord" (hence its Latin title, the Magnificat), which in addition to the prediction "Generations shall call me blessed" presents a powerful vision of a God it describes as having "put down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of low degree ... filled the hungry with good things, and the rich ... sent empty away."

While Mary's role in the Nativity is recalled dutifully each December, largely overlooked is the subsequent presentation of Jesus at the temple, during which the righteous old man Simeon tells Mary that "a sword will pierce your own soul also." Also neglected are her maternal frenzy when her 12-year-old son goes missing to debate the temple elders and her role at the wedding at Cana, where, at her behest, he performs (somewhat grudgingly) his first miracle, changing water into wine. The most striking omission, at least from Protestant sermons, is a recognition of the import of her role at the Cross. Although the first three Gospels don't place Mary there by name, many readings assume she is one of the women who remain, watching Christ's agony, after the male disciples have fled. In John's Gospel she shares that witness with an unnamed disciple (often thought to be John), and Jesus, near death, commends them to each other, telling her, "Woman, behold your son!" and telling John, "Behold your mother." Mary makes one final appearance, as the only named woman in a mostly male group gathered in an "upper room" who, guided by the Holy Spirit, will make up the new church.

Gaventa's conclusion was that although Mary's appearances can be brief and frustratingly devoid of anecdote, "there isn't a figure comparable to her." No major player appears earlier in the story, and none, she notes, "is present in all these key situations: at Jesus' birth, at his death, in the upper room." Protestant treatments, Gaventa asserted, tended to limit themselves to what God does through Mary rather than talk about Mary herself. "You could say the same thing about the Apostle Peter--that the stories are not really about him," Gaventa says. "But that doesn't keep people from talking about Peter as a role model from whom Christians can learn things."

And so, in the book she finally wrote, Mary: Glimpses of the Mother of Jesus, and in essays and lectures, Gaventa began reviving or establishing Marian titles that, unlike Queen of Heaven, are more appropriate for Protestant use. One was First Disciple. Traditional commentary saw Mary's "Let it be" primarily as a statement of obedience. But Gaventa, and many who followed, heard in it a thought-through acceptance of Jesus as the Messiah made long before any other believer's. In a Christianity Today article, Timothy George, dean of Beeson Divinity School at Samford University in Birmingham, Ala., paraphrases some of the original reformers, saying, "If she had not believed, she would not have conceived."

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