Behold the Handmaiden of the Lord: Mary as the Model Christian Disciple
Luke presents Mary to us as a model of Christian faith and discipleship. On this Festival of the Annunciation, I invite you to consider this view of the Virgin Mary for your own life of devotion and faith in Christ.
On March 25th, many churches throughout the world will celebrate the Annunciation of Jesus’ conception to the Virgin Mary through the Angel Gabriel. While not all Christians hold Mary in the same regard, it is fitting on this day that all those who believe in Jesus Christ would pause to reflect on his mother and the role she played in God’s plan of salvation.
All Christians should be able to agree on a number of basic things about Mary. She was really a virgin when Jesus was conceived in her. She is the Mother of God (since Jesus is true God). And Mary, as the mother of our Lord, was given a great honor none of us will ever share.
What’s more, Mary is an example of discipleship and, indeed, the first disciple of Jesus.
Martin Luther and the modern Roman Catholic biblical scholar, Father Raymond Brown, both make a convincing case for Mary as the first and model disciple of Christ. In Luke’s gospel, Mary functions as the first disciple because she  receives the grace of God,  responds to this grace by confessing her faith in Christ, and  then proclaims the Gospel of Christ to others.
Let’s talk about each of these in turn.
As a disciple, Mary receives God’s grace. While many Christians may be familiar with the words of the Ave Maria, “Hail Mary, full of grace,” Mary is not herself the source of such grace. Thus, in his Personal Prayer Book, Luther says that it is appropriate for Christians to speak the “Hail Mary” as an acclamation rather than as a prayer, because it acclaims the grace God gave to Mary rather than something produced by Mary. As Father Brown notes, this gift of grace was not even foreseen by Mary but came to her as a complete surprise. Unlike Zachariah and Elizabeth, who yearned for a child, “Mary is a virgin who has not yet been intimate with her husband, so that what happens is not a response to her yearning but a surprise initiative by God that neither Mary nor Joseph could have anticipated” (A Coming Christ in Advent, 62).
Mary was given this grace by God the Holy Spirit working through the Word. As Luther says in his Notes on the Gospel, the grace of God given to Mary through the conception of Jesus within her womb comes to her through the proclamation of God’s Word. The preacher of this Word, says Luther, is Gabriel, but it was God’s Word that worked the miracle of grace in Mary’s life.
This is no different than how all Christians are given God’s grace: through the preaching of the Word, which we receive passively. Mary stands unique, however, in that she hears the Word of the Gospel before all of us who follow in her footsteps. As Father Brown says, “It is no exaggeration to say that for Luke, Mary has heard the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and indeed is the first one to have done so.,” (A Coming Christ in Advent, 65.)
The second aspect of discipleship that Mary demonstrates is her response of faith to God’s Word. The Holy Spirit’s work of grace through the preached Word of God creates faith in the heart of the receiver. As other Christians who will follow in her footsteps, Mary receives the gift of faith, which the Holy Spirit enkindles in her heart through the hearing of the Word.
The image of Mary as a devoted believer and worshipper of God was well-known throughout the Middle Ages and continues in popular Roman Catholic piety today. Luke’s narrative of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth demonstrates the reality of Mary’s faith. Luke relates to us that Elizabeth exclaims of Mary: “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord” (Luke 1:45). Mary then turns and offers what may be the most beautiful confession of faith that has ever been spoken: the Magnificat.
In this unparalleled psalm, Mary confesses her faith that God is her Savior. Her salvation and the gift of the Christ child growing in her womb are indeed one and the same. By saying that God has “looked on the humble estate of His servant,” Mary acknowledges in faith that her salvation has come to her as a gift through her child (Luke 1:48).
In his commentary on the Magnificat, Luther uplifts Mary’s trust in God her Savior as an example of faith to all Christians. Mary, says Luther, could not see the fulfillment of God’s promise to her yet, but she nevertheless believed. Mary trusted in a promise given to her by God that was incomprehensible in its simplicity and depth. She shows us what it means to trust God revealed in Christ as our Savior, even though this means trusting in a promise we cannot see completely fulfilled.
But Mary’s expression of her faith does not end with her own confession of God as her Savior. In the Magnificat, Mary moves beyond personal confession to proclamation. This is the third aspect of discipleship exhibited by Mary. She proclaims God’s greatness. She is a witness of his works of “scattering the proud,” bringing down the mighty, uplifting the humble, and feeding the hungry (Luke 1:51-53).
Most importantly, Mary proclaims God’s faithfulness to keep his promises to his people Israel. Luther observes that in Luke 1:54-55, Mary directly acknowledges, proclaims, and celebrates that God is fulfilling his promise to Abraham to bless all nations via Abraham’s seed through the Son conceived within her womb. How awesome that Mary proclaims the Good News of God’s fulfillment of his promise to Abraham! Mary, who would herself be the vehicle for that fulfillment!
All Christians have been commissioned by their Lord to “proclaim the Gospel to the whole creation” (Mark 16:15) to make disciples, and to baptize (Matt. 28:18-20). The entire Church on earth bears this Great Commission of Christ in sacred trust until his return. By sharing the Gospel, Mary becomes the model for all disciples of Jesus who come after her.
Luke presents Mary to us as a model of Christian faith and discipleship. On this Festival of the Annunciation, I invite you to consider this view of the Virgin Mary for your own life of devotion and faith in Christ. Moreover, I invite you to follow the example of Mary, as she received God’s grace, trusted by faith in God’s promise, and proclaimed God’s salvation to others.