Aug 15, 2018

St. Mary, Icon of Vocation

By Katy Cloninger

Martin Luther famously wrote that faith “is a living, busy, active thing. . . . It is impossible for it not to be doing good works incessantly. It does not ask whether good works are to be done, but before the question is asked, it has already done them, and is constantly doing them.” This is not to say that we never struggle against our Old Adam to perform good works—Romans 7 and experience tell us otherwise—but we have this struggle only because, in our fallenness, we do not possess perfect faith. Nevertheless, as baptized Christians who, according to the New Man, delight to do good works, we indeed rejoice in and seek out opportunities to love and serve our neighbors. There is perhaps no finer example of this “faith active in love” than Mary the Mother of Our Lord.

For all the ink spilled over Mary, there are precious few words written about her in the New Testament. Yet where she is mentioned, Mary is usually depicted either as receiving from God or serving the people around her. In her receiving role, for instance, she hears the message of the angel Gabriel and accepts it (Luke 1:26–38), and she is commended to John, whom Jesus appoints to care for her in her old age (John 19:26–27). Examples of her serving include her going to help Elizabeth (Luke 1:39–56) and seeing that plenty of wine is provided for the wedding at Cana (John 2:1–5). In response to the woman who praises His mother merely for her biological connection to Him, Jesus doesn’t disparage His mother, but He praises that which is most praiseworthy about her and all who emulate her faith: “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” (Luke 11:28; cf. Matthew 12:50, Mark 3:35, and Luke 8:21). Scripture shows us, in Mary, someone who receives God’s Word,  meditates upon it (Luke 2:19, 51), and acts upon it in a way that is simultaneously submissive and bold.

Martin Luther had a deep admiration for Mary and saw in her a great deal to imitate. In a 1532 sermon, Luther points out that immediately after conceiving Christ within her, she “traveled such a long way to visit her relative and troubled herself to help her in childbed.” Luther in many places—in sermons and especially in his commentary on the Magnificat—loves to point out that Mary calls herself a handmaid or servant. In his Magnificat commentary, alluding to 1 Corinthians 13, Luther writes, “She is not puffed up, does not vaunt herself or proclaim with a loud voice that she is to become the Mother of God. She seeks not any glory, but goes about her usual household duties, milking the cows, cooking the meals, washing pots and kettles, sweeping out the rooms, and performing the work of maidservant or housemother in lowly and despised tasks . . .” And in a 1523 Candlemas sermon, Luther observes that Mary kept the law regarding purification even though her Son had been conceived without sin: “Mary and Jesus put themselves under the Law out of love, although they did not need to, because they were not subject to the Law. So we should do all of our good works out of freely given love for our neighbor for their benefit, not because we are required to, but, like Mary, because we do these things to honor God and love our neighbors.”

As this last passage from Luther points out, Mary becomes like the Son she has received. Just as Jesus Christ took flesh from His mother and was made in her physical image, so Mary, being overshadowed by the Holy Spirit and filled with faith in the Christ child who physically indwelt her, was being conformed to the image of her Son, the Son of God. For our Lord’s example was one of humble service, not earthly kingship. Jesus told His disciples, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:42–45). Famously, Jesus washed His disciples’ feet at the Last Supper (John 13:3–5) and gave them the commandment, “just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another” (John 13:34).

Like Son, like mother—and like our mother in the faith, so are we. Mary is an archetype of every Christian, for just like her, we receive faith by hearing the good news of Jesus Christ, and then we act upon it. Much of what happens to Mary physically is what happens to us spiritually. Mary hears the angel’s good news and, by God’s grace, believes it. The Holy Spirit overshadows her, causing her literally to conceive the Son of God, who then dwells in her bodily. Though none of us will ever share the unique honor God bestowed upon Mary, all of us, through faith, have Christ dwelling within us—and not just Christ, but the entire Godhead. Rejoicing in the good news of God’s salvation and filled with love for Him and our neighbor, we are moved by the indwelling God to serve our neighbors, often without thinking about it. The Lutheran Confessions put it this way: “In the elect (who are justified by Christ and reconciled with God), God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (who is the eternal and essential righteousness) dwells by faith. (For all Christians are temples of God [1 Corinthians 3:16–17] the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who also moves them to do right).” We who are the sheep Jesus describes in Matthew 25:31–40 do good works without even realizing it, simply because Christ is in us and we are in Him.

Like Mary, we don’t always know what God is up to. Mary seems puzzled about Jesus’ remaining behind in the temple (Luke 2:41–51), His mission and timing of revealing Himself (John 2:1–5), and possibly His ministry (Mark 3:21, 31–35). Yet she remains faithful, continuing to hear the Word of God and keep it, and to ponder the will, words, and deeds of her Son ever more deeply, even if these pierce her soul like a sword (Luke 2:35). As Luther’s Table of Duties indicates, perhaps our foremost vocation is that of “hearer,” followed by all of our other vocations within the civil and familial spheres. Mary the Mother of Our Lord serves as an icon of many of these vocations. We would do well to learn from her and imitate her in her faith, even as she imitated Christ.


Katy is a sister, daughter, and mother, as well as a freelance copyeditor and a member of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church (LCMS) in Columbia, SC. She has a BA in English from Newberry College, loves studying theology and teaching it to her son, and is currently enrolled in the school of hard knocks.

1 comment:

  1. Well said! I think that, in an effort to entirely distance themselves from Mary-worship, Protestants too often ignore Mary entirely. When surely we can learn just as much from what the Bible tells us about her as we do from what it says about people like Paul or Moses.


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