Hail Mary, Full of Grace

If you walk into a Roman Catholic Church, you won’t have to look far to find some image of Mary. For 2,000 years, Mary has held a special place in the hearts of Christians. In art and iconography, Mary radiates holiness. She is immortalized in such titles as the Immaculate One, Blessed Mother of Jesus, Queen of Heaven. The Eastern Orthodox tradition has given Mary the title, “Theotokos,” or “God-bearer,” for she gave birth to the Second Person of the Trinity. And across the world, millions of Catholic Christians ask her to intercede on their behalf, praying a prayer that begins, “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee! Blessed art thou and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus!”

This adoration and exaltation of Mary might seem strange to us in Churches of Christ. (Certainly, we might object to praying to anyone but God!) This is because our primary encounters with Mary come from the scriptures, not later church traditions and early medieval theology. And when we look at the Gospel story as told by Luke—the writer who pays the most attention to Mary—we see a picture that is difficult to reconcile with the image immortalized in the church’s memory.

Mary is introduced to us as a young woman from the little town of Nazareth, a town so insignificant that the first mention of it in ancient literature is the New Testament. In a culture that cares about where you’re from, you’d get more social credibility being from Dime Box, Texas than Nazareth. She’s a nobody-girl from a nowhere-town. And she, an unmarried girl, is pregnant.

Now we have the inside story about her pregnancy, but the rest of the world doesn’t. In fact, even Joseph assumes the worst (Matt. 1:19). And no matter the miraculous truth about her pregnancy, the people noticing her growing belly will leap to the only conclusion that makes any sense. And this is how the Great Story begins. Not among the wealthy and powerful elite. Not in a palace court. Not among the educated or even the respectable middle class. It begins in the margins of society, and it begins in a scandal.

But that is what is so amazing about this gospel! It’s the story of a kingdom so completely upside-down, it’s scandalous. It’s a kingdom in which the first is last and the last is first. It’s where angels appear to shepherd and not to princes. It’s a kingdom in which your fitness for citizenship isn’t based on your faithfulness, but on the king’s. And it’s a kingdom in which Mary, the peasant girl from Nazareth, is invited to become Mary, the Mother of Jesus, whom angels address, “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee!”