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Luke’s portrait of Mary

Luke’s portrait of Mary

Marie-Louise Gubler. (Prof. Bibl. Theol.)
Theology Digest, St.Louis Univ., Missouri. 36:1 (Spring, 1989)

Women today are beginning to question the traditional typology of the mother of Jesus that exclusively fixes on motherhood or the ascetic understanding of virginity. Marie-Louise Gubler looks at Luke’s portrait of Mary from a woman’s perspective.

“Selig, die geglaubt hat—Das Marienbild des Lukas,” Theologisch-praktische Quartalschrift 136:2 (1988)130-39.

We center exclusively on Luke’s understanding of Mary not only because it is the richest source, but also because it is one of the most frequently misunderstood. The oldest pauline tradition (Gal 4:4) does not once mention the name of Jesus’ mother, and the oldest synoptic tradition is clearly delimited by Jesus’ “eschatological family” (Mk 3:21f; 31-35). Matthew’s genealogy concludes by mentioning Mary’s name, and Matthew is aware of Jesus’ virginal conception, but Mary - in contrast to Joseph - is not active. In the Johannine tradition Jesus’ mother is mentioned, without naming her, in two significant places (Cana: Jn 2:1-12; the cross: Jn 19:25-27).

But in the Lucan tradition, Mary, from the beginning, fulfills the criteria of discipleship. In Luke, Jesus’ mother cannot get near Jesus because of the crowd (Lk 8:19-21, par Mk 3:31-35); she is no longer marked off from the disciples. Jesus even relativizes the praise of a woman from the crowd. The woman says: “Blessed is the womb that bore you.” But Jesus says: “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it” (Lk 11:27-28). However, both words of blessing refer to Mary who belongs to those who hear the word, hold it fast and bring forth enduring fruit (cf Lk 8:15).

The first two chapters of Luke’s Gospel are composed as a “prelude to Pentecost” and to Acts. Jesus’ mother appears for the last time in the midst of the community waiting and praying for the Spirit: “All these with one accord devoted themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers” (Acts 1:14). This summary contains the important group in the post-Easter community: the “Twelve” eyewitnesses of Jesus’ acts, “beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up . . .” (Acts 1:22); the women of Galilee who followed Jesus all the way to the cross and who were “servants” in the fullest sense (Lk 8:1-3); Jesus’ mother, who is uniquely aware, knows about “the beginning” and joins with the Pentecost community; and Jesus’ brothers who are the normative authorities in the Jerusalem community (esp. James).

This summary permits the conjecture that Mary, unlike the Galilean women, did not belong to the community of disciples from the beginning. Such a conjecture - despite Lk 1-2 - is historically plausible given the synoptic reserve concerning Jesus’ mother. This community experienced Pentecost and the fulfillment of Joel’s promise (Acts 2:17f; Joel 3:1-5, LXX) which provides us with an egalitarian vision of community; no longer is community based on age, sex, or social status (cf Gal 3:28).

A pentecostal prelude: Lk 1:26-38

According to Luke, what was experienced as the Spirit’s overpowering in the upper room in Jerusalem had already begun 30 years before in the Galilean village of Nazareth. Luke must have found the extraordinarily concise annunciation narrative (Lk 1 :26-38) outlined in his tradition. The three similarly structured angelic announcements (Lk 1:5-25: to Zechariah; 1:26-38: to Mary; 1:9-12: to the shepherds) and four hymns (Lk 1:46-55: Magnificat; 1:67-79: Benedictus; 2:14: Gloria; 2:29-32: Nunc dimittis), give the two chapters a joyful, celebrative ring. By juxtaposing John the Baptizer’s annunciation and birth with that of Jesus’, Luke binds both prophetic figures together, and in the meeting of their two mothers, Mary and Elizabeth, Jesus - despite his lowly birth - is proclaimed the greater.

Even though his wife is childless, Zachariah stands at the highpoint of his life. Partial to a “theology of signs,” he demands proof for the announcement: “How shall I know this is true” (Lk 1:18). That he is struck dumb is a sign of the new time in which Zachariah’s son will be the “voice” of the coming one.

By contrast, note how discreetly Gabriel comes to Mary. He “enters” into the daily life of a young woman hardly more than 12 years old who is engaged to a carpenter. The scandal to Jesus’ messianic significance is created by the fact that his lineage is from Nazareth (cf Jn 1 :46). And this scandal is heightened by this revelation to a young engaged woman. From now on God’s revelation no longer occurs in the priestly cult, but in the daily events which rank very low on society’s value scale. This young woman also has a question: “How can this happen” (Lk 1:34)? But her question conveys no doubt. Rather, it evokes the angel’s explanation. The angelic proclamation sounds an important theme in Lucan theology: the reversal of all values in a new world where the gospel will be preached to the poor. This theme permeates Jesus’ preaching in Nazareth (Lk 4:16-30), and Peter’s Pentecost sermon (Acts 2:16f). The joyful message is already contained in the angel’s greeting: “Hail, favored one, the Lord is with you” (Lk 1 :28). Mary has “found favor with God” even before God’s act is announced. The joyful message, intended for the lowly, is first proclaimed to Mary, but is meant for all the downtrodden and miserable, all those “waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem” (Lk 2:38).

The Holy Spirit comes (Lk 1:35)

The aim of the annunciation narrative is the christological confession of Jesus the Son of God. The fact that this confession is cast in the form of a proclamation which speaks of “procreation” by the Spirit, and is further connected to a virginal conception, shows extended reflection that has christological, theological and mariological significance. The christological predicate proceeds from Rom 1:3-4 where in a pre-pauline confession Jesus’ messiahship is grounded by his Davidic lineage (“according to the flesh”) and his divine sonship is bound up with his Spirit produced resurrection (“the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead”). By means of Ps 2:7, Luke interprets the resurrection (by the Spirit’s power) in Acts 13:32, 33 as “procreation” to the Son of God and antedates it in Lk 1:35 to Jesus’ conception.

The theological predicate is revealed at Pentecost by the “outpouring of the Spirit over all flesh.” The angel’s answer to Mary’s “how” question needs a parallel: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you ....” God’s Spirit comes upon Mary (as it did upon the community in Acts 2) as an “overshadowing” cloud; an image that points to God’s presence (cf Lk 9:34). This Holy Spirit is the “power of the Most High” who creates something new and sets it in motion. But what does this mean?

God’s Spirit seeks his “home in the flesh” (K. Marti). As long as “the power of the Most High” is not “enfleshed” in the frailty, transitoriness and concreteness of human history, it is “in exile.” The concept of incarnation (“enfleshment”) receives new currency and, according to Luke, is grounded by the Pentecost experience at the beginning.

That this emphasis on enfleshment is not arbitrary is clear from the Lucan baptismal pericope where the Spirit’s descent is visible (Lk 3:21f): somatikos!), and the Easter story where the resurrected one speaks of “flesh and bones” (Lk 24:39; only once in the NT).

On the basis of this strong theological “concentration” on the temporal realm, which Luke understands in terms of social change (Lk 4:16f), a few one-sided mariological consequences were drawn. The activity of the Spirit and the virginal conception can be misunderstood as “removed,” “apart from,” the created order. In Luke’s annunciation narrative Mary gives her assent (Lk 1:38), so that God’s creative Spirit becomes “at home” in the world; she allows herself to be touched and moved by the “power of the Most High” that wants to be the living breath in all flesh (cf Nm 27:16). Mary—a young woman in a patriarchal society - carried and brought her child into the world. She did not do it in an angelic manner (as the Scholastics maintained), but in the manner of poor people, without the security of a home. Luke’s theological emphases make it necessary to consider the relationship between spirit and “flesh” because one of the most dangerous heresies in the (orthodox) great church is the separation of the natural and the supernatural (flesh/spirit), and the reduction of the “spirit” to the intellect. Such separation and reductionism can easily lead to contempt for women and the world which ultimately affects both women and men. D. Sölle calls this separation “apartheid theology.” All too often the exegesis of Lk 1:26-38 has proceeded from the “angelic perspective” that makes Mary’s conception into an extraordinary event that endangers Jesus’ humanity (docetism).

Mary, the virgin

Twice Luke connects Jesus’ spiritual origin with that of the “virgin” (Lk 1 :27; 1 :35). Jesus’ origin is of the Spirit. Comparably, it is said of the Baptizer that “even in his mother’s womb he will be filled with the Spirit” Lk 1:15), and the virgin’s conception is compared to the conception of those who are barren.

For Luke, the new that Jesus incarnates (Matthew: “Immanuel”) stands under the sign of the Spirit’s creation. Mary, the virgin, stands for the redemption of waiting Israel, but also for human beings who have their own worth (feminist theology speaks of a sign of autonomy").

To see in Mary simply “the woman as such,” even an ideal image of woman, does not correspond to women’s concrete reality, and is dangerous. Mary, says S. Heine, cannot be an ideal. Rather, she is a woman seized by the Spirit because of God’s love for the world. Idealization, says S. Heine, leads ultimately to demonization. They are a blasphemous pair.

This criticism is very sharp. However, the long history of interpretation of Lk 1 :26f shows that it is not unwarranted. The virgin Mary has been understood as a model of “spiritual” womanhood in contrast to “normal” women who, furthermore, present a threat to men. This history also shows that the women who were especially dangerous (thought to be witches) were those who escaped male authority (old women, the unmarried, the publicly active).

Mary, the prophetess

After Mary’s assent, the angel departs. Mary has the final word (Lk 1:38). Then “in haste” she goes to Elizabeth whose pregnancy was proclaimed to Mary as a sign (Lk 1:26, 36). The scene in Lk 1:39-56 where the two women meet is very beautiful. As Gabriel had entered into Mary’s house, Mary enters Elizabeth’s (Zachariah’s); as the angel had greeted Mary, she greets Elizabeth (Lk 1:28, 40). When Elizabeth heard the greeting her child leaped in her womb and she was filled with the Holy Spirit (Lk 1:41). Two elements are connected here: the sign is fulfilled (Mary sees), and John’s witness resounds (in the prophetic Spirit of jubilation). Thus, Luke antedates the Baptizer’s witness to Jesus in Elizabeth’s womb.

Elizabeth replied with a “loud cry” and a glorification of Mary:

You are more blessed than all women and blessed is the fruit of your body.
Who am I, that the mother of my Lord comes to me . .?
Blessed is the one who believed that what the Lord said to her would be fulfilled (Lk 1:4 1-45).

The loud cry is a prophetic proclamation (pneumatic gift) and is reminiscent of Judith’s praise (Jdt 13:18) and the praise of the woman in Lk 11:27f (cf Dt 28:1-4). Elizabeth praises Mary because Mary believed. Then Mary sings her song (Magnificat, Lk 1:46-55). Apparently, Luke took this song over from his tradition and saw it as consonant with his own theology. This song celebrates comprehensive social (he exalted the lowly), political (he put down the mighty from their thrones), and economic revolution (he has filled the hungry with good things). In Luke’s view, Mary anticipates the gospel proclamation of the reversal of all values. Her prophetic speech characterizes God’s intervention into a patriarchal-hierarchical social order as the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham, and as “mercy.”

The patristic tradition contains statements concerning “Mary-prophetess” (which later developed into the honorific title “queen of the prophets"). This tradition is dependent on the Magnificat and understands prophetess in a narrow relationship to the virgin. (The virgin of Is 7:14 is tied to the prophetess of Is 8:3).

But in Lucan theology Mary prophetess is in close proximity to the Pentecost event (where everyone is seized by the prophetic Spirit).

Here again with respect to women: how is it possible to pray Mary’s song each night at vespers without drawing spiritual and structural consequences for the church? Unlike the priest Zachariah, Mary, Elizabeth, Hanna and the women from Galilee do not need authenticating signs. For them daily life provides adequate signs for faith (the fertility of the infertile). And a look at Luke’s Gospel shows how Jesus put his body (i.e., his earthly existence) into women’s hands: his mother wrapped him in diapers (2:7); women served him and showed him hospitality in their homes (8:1-3; 10:42); at a banquet an unknown woman washed and anointed his feet (7:1f); as he stumbled toward his execution women cried over him and accompanied him (23:38); and finally it was women who wanted to anoint his tortured body and who received the resurrection message (23:55; 24: 1-10). These women - believing sisters of Jesus’ believing mother - first grasped that from the time of the message of Nazareth onward, God is no longer to be sought in the clouds (as the men of Galilee thought, Acts 1:10), but “below,” in the flesh, in a birth and in a grave, in daily encounters, in tears and in the laughter of the poor, in the “damned of this earth” (K. Marx) and in the groaning of creation (Rom 8). And Mary’s prophetic song stands at the beginning of all this. How is it, then, that the body of the resurrected one (in the dual sense of sacrament and the church) has ended up exclusively in the hands of men?

Mary, believing and pondering

I.uke makes a final important statement in chapter 2. Jesus’ birth is proclaimed to the shepherds who are not only aware of the sign (a manger), but who take the angelic message and proclaim its significance to Mary and Joseph. Mary, it is said, “kept all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Lk 2:19). In OT prophetic terms, “all these things,” referred to “all the words to the shepherds” - the word is the event. Mary’s reaction shows an inner movement: she engraved the words on her heart, pondered them, reflected on them and sought to understand them. We find something similar after the twelve-yearold Jesus is found in the temple: “. . . and his mother kept all these things in her heart” (Lk 2:51). Between Lk 2:19 and 2:51 Luke interposes the enigmatic witness of Simeon (and Hanna) to Mary: “. . . a sword will pierce through your own soul” (2:34f). This word ahout the sword is a judgment metaphor that emphasizes a decision: As Israel will be judged on the basis of its attitude toward Jesus (fall or rise), so also Mary’s faith journey must confront the same decision. It is not her motherhood that makes Mary a believer. Her faith journey too will involve a difficult learning process filled with pain and dangers (sword), but it is not an Easter faith - it cannot be. That this is not mere conjecture is evident from the fact that Jesus’ parents did not understand what he was doing in the temple (Lk 2:41-52; cf Mk 3:31ff). Even Mary, despite the angelic message and twelve years of reflection, did not understand! What is Luke trying to say? It is this: Mary is a model of the believing disciple of Jesus, not in a rigid, normative, unchanging sense, but open, in the process of becoming. She stands in the community of the disciples and also learns faith on the long road of discipleship. (Even on the way toward Jerusalem it is said that the meaning of Jesus’ words were “hidden” from the disciples, Lk 18:34). The typology of Mary as “model of the church/woman” removes her from the realm of history. Such an “unhistorical” Mary is not only someone “unique,” torn from the circle of Jesus’ disciples, but a Mary devoid of dynamic transformation. Such typologizing threatens to turn mariology into ideology and provides a “way of escape” into immature piety.

For Luke, Mary cannot be separated from those women and men who placed their hope in Jesus and whose journey ended in the darkness of Good Friday but led to the astonishing turn after Easter and Pentecost. For Luke, the favored one of the beginning (Lk 1:28) cannot be separated from the favored criminal of Jesus’ last minutes (“Today you will be with me in paradise,” Lk 23:42) Mary’s song proclaims that the grace of the first and last hour are equal expressions of God’s mercy.

Mary and women today

In view of the fatal historical effects of mariology (founded mostly in Luke), women today are seeking the historical contours of Jesus’ mother. Legitimate mariological statements need to be measured not against the “facts,” but against their liberating potential (the hermeneutical principle of liberation and feminist theology).

Mary of Nazareth, Jesus’ mother, belongs to the “forgotten ones,” to the world of the poor that lies in the darkness of history: those who lived in the colonial situation of the Roman province of Palestine, in hunger, in frightful living conditions, who were oppressed, whose Galilean villages were fiercely attacked, and who expected salvation. Just as the history of Jesus (as history “from below”) began after thirty years of silence and ended in an execution, so also the history of his mother is largely unknown. We do not know what happened over those years. Nevertheless, the little Luke does tell us goes beyond mere speculation: In the oppressive situation of the time Mary found the way to Jesus’ new world and in faith bore the hardship of a poor woman’s life. Thus, Mary believed the gospel for the downtrodden. Just as an exegesis of the Lucan texts cannot preserve a speculative mariology, but gives Mary back her concrete history, so also women’s theological reflection does not want to design a new theology of “the woman” or to understand Mary as “type of woman,” but to give women back their faith history and place in the church.


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