March 15, 2018
Wheaton College Associate Professor of New Testament Dr. Amy Peeler is currently completing a sabbatical fellowship at the Logos Institute of the University of St. Andrews. During her sabbatical, Peeler is continuing her work on familial language and themes throughout the New Testament, provisionally titled A Theology of the Family of God.
This excerpt was first published on the Logos Institute blog and has been edited for length and clarity.
Mary as Affirmation of God’s Humility
Mary represents the intersection between God and the world. She is one of the places where heaven and earth meet, and she is the one place where this meeting is embodied, literally in-bodied, with her bearing of the incarnation. This embodied meeting answers the question, “Why Mary?” for she functions in the Christian confession as the necessary affirmation of God’s presence with humanity.
Perhaps God could have reconciled creation in any way that God chose, but the canonical texts attest that God chose to become human. The decision that God made to become human—comprehensively human— not as an adult who appeared on earth but as an infant who was born of a woman, discloses the humility of God.
Humility in Suffering
This humility in becoming human culminates in a willingness to suffer. Entry into the human condition itself includes suffering, even before the point of Jesus’ death on the cross. In Galatians 4, Paul describes how God sent this Son into the same condition in which Paul and his fellow Jews found themselves under the law. God was willing to send his Son, and the Son was willing to go, into the bounded human condition. Hebrews employs a similar framework. In taking on flesh and blood, the Son Jesus relinquishes any shame in calling humanity his siblings, and enters with them into the condition of enslavement to the fear of death (hence his display of unease in the face of death in 5:7). Becoming human, living in the human condition, and dying, especially in the public shame of a traitor, clearly is an act of descent for One who is God.
Humility in Birth
Attention to Mary’s strong but silent place in such “humanity” texts yields one more element of God’s humility. The Son of God’s coming is an even more intense act of humility in the way in which God became human by being born. Despising birth is rather self-destructive since all humans undergo this journey. Nevertheless, birth was regarded in cultures of the first-century as a dirty and dangerous process. Plutarch notes the gracious love of the gods that they attend birth “with its accompaniment of blood and travail is no lovely thing.” He praises Nature who has so designed parents to love their offspring even when humans come as they do:
For there is nothing so imperfect, so helpless, so naked, so shapeless, so foul, as man observed at birth, to whom alone, one might almost say, Nature has given not even a clean passage to the light; but, defiled with blood and covered with filth and resembling more one just slain than one just born, he is an object for none to touch or lift up or kiss or embrace except for someone who loves with a natural affection.
Gore that accompanies birth shows close association—as the quotes of Plutarch show—with death. Although numbers vary, birth was an intense time for the possibility of death either of the mother and/or the infant. There were few other times in life in which the gripping power of the fear of death must have pervaded the thoughts of the family of the baby.
A brush with this reality could be the reason why ancient cultures viewed birth as polluting for those who experienced it and attended it. Greek religion demanded a sacrifice after birth, and Roman culture recommended washing for the mother after birth. In Leviticus 12, the law lays out the purification rituals following birth. It is no moral failure to have a child, but it is unclean. Hence, if it would be an act of grace for the gods to attend and preserve birth, how much more so would it be an astounding act of grace, a great humiliation for the God of Israel, God above all gods, to be born, to enter this place of filth and death. As the ancient liturgy said, he abhorred not the virgin’s womb. To assert that Jesus the Son of God is human is to assert that he, God, willingly humbled himself not only even to the point of death on a cross but also even to the point of death-threatened birth.