Responding to God with Simple Faith
The songs of Christmas, Part 5
Today’s Scripture reading: Luke 1:26-38
Luke pairs the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth (Luke 1:5-25) with the story of Mary so that, among other things, we can compare and contrast them for our spiritual benefit.
Let’s begin with the comparisons. In both cases, the angel Gabriel announces the imminent birth of a baby boy who will play a decisive role in Israel’s history (and in the world’s). In both cases, the conception is miraculous, either because Elizabeth is barren or because Mary is a virgin. And in both cases, the women experience God’s blessing upon them.
The NIV uses one word, favor, of both Elizabeth (Luke 1:25) and Mary (verse 30), but in Greek, there are two different words: epeidon (“to consider”) and charis (“grace”). Both words connote God’s favorable disposition toward Elizabeth and Mary. Interestingly, Luke also uses charis to describe God’s blessing on Jesus’ childhood (Luke 2:40,52).
Now, consider the contrasts:
- Zechariah and Elizabeth are old; Mary is young.
- They are married; she is an unmarried virgin.
- They live in Judea, near Jerusalem; she lives far north in Nazareth of Galilee.
- They are priestly; she is a peasant.
- Zechariah doubts. Mary believes.
Isn’t that just what salvation is all about — the grace of God calling out for a response of faith?
That last contrast is the important one. Staring an angel in the face, Zechariah doubted the good news. Staring at the same angel with similar good news, Mary believed. By pairing Zechariah and Elizabeth so closely with Mary, Luke shows us the importance of simple faith.
Over the years, based on my theological reading and experience with Christians of different denominations, I have come to believe that Catholics place too much emphasis on Mary and Protestants not enough. Some time ago, one of the networks aired a two-part docudrama on the life of Pope John Paul II, for whom I have great respect.
Just after being elected pope, John Paul II prayed, “Totus tuus, ego sum,” which is Latin for “I am wholly yours.” And he said that to Mary! Despite my admiration for the late pope, I cannot help but think that this is fundamentally wrong. We are wholly Christ’s alone, in my judgment. That does not preclude loyalties to other Christians, but it does preclude total loyalty.
On the other hand, Protestants give Mary little credit. Perhaps as an overreaction to Catholics, we downplay Mary's role in the story of our own salvation. Think of it this way. Without Jesus dying on a cross for our sins and rising from the dead three days later, we cannot be saved. But Jesus could not have died or risen again without being human, and being human requires birth.
So Jesus could not have been born without Mary. And Mary could not have given birth unless she had given assent to becoming “the Lord’s servant” (verse 38). Therefore, to a certain degree, the progress of the gospel hinged on whether Mary said “Yes” or “No” to the angel’s announcement.
But isn’t that just what salvation is all about — the grace (charis) of God calling out for a response of faith? The progress of the gospel in us, it turns out, also hinges on whether we say “Yes” or “No” to God’s grace.
See also:The Songs of Christmas, Part 1
The Songs of Christmas, Part 2
The Songs of Christmas, Part 3
The Songs of Christmas, Part 4