If Mary's life was typical up until the point of her betrothal to a carpenter named Joseph, it was during the time that she was espoused to Joseph that her life became extraordinary. The New Testament records that "the angel Gabriel was sent from God" to tell Mary that she was "highly favored" of God and that she would "conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus" (Luke 1: 26-31).
"He shall be great," the angel continued, "and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David:
"And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end" (Luke 1: 32-33).
Although Mary wondered about the physical details of the angel's message to her, she didn't question the miracle or the part she was being asked to play in it. "Behold the handmaid of the Lord," she said. "Be it unto me according to thy word" (Luke 1: 38).
"Mary is a great example for all of us — men and women — today," Pastor Wolf said. "Look at how she yields herself to God without questioning or doubt. That's encouraging to me. That tells me if I yield myself to God, he can use me."
To Pastor Wolf, Mary's willingness to be used by God for his purposes is the perfect counterpoint to what he sees as a popular notion today that "God can't use me because I'm not perfect."
"Mary was human," he points out. "Mary wasn't perfect. And yet when God called, she yielded to him in such a way that he could use her."
Father Virgen agreed that from a Catholic perspective, "we can imitate her because of her 'yes' to the will of God."
"She was able to say 'yes' to the calling God gave her to be the mother of Jesus," he said. "We can imitate Mary in doing God's will in our daily lives. She is a model of faith and acceptance."
Beyond the power of her exemplary submission to God's will — or perhaps because of it — Mary is an iconic figure in Christian history, complete with a set of doctrines to which many denominations subscribe.
For example, Father Virgen points out that Catholics believe that as the mother of Jesus, "she has the power to intercede for us" in our pleas and prayers to God.
"As a mother knows her children so well, Mary knows her son Jesus," he said. "As a mortal, she also knows our special needs and the dangers of our lives. Because she knows her son and she understands our lives, she has a unique role of being able to intercede for us to him."
Father Virgen illustrates the concept with the New Testament story of the miracle at the wedding feast, during which the bridegroom "was embarrassed that he didn't have enough wine to serve his guests, and Mary went to Jesus and said, 'My Son, they don't have wine.' And then she said to the servants, 'Do whatever he tells you to do.'
"By this act, Mary shows the power of her intercession," Father Virgen said.
While other Christians are touched by the story, they don't believe Mary has an ongoing intercessory role in their spiritual lives.
"I believe we already have all the access we need to God," Pastor Wolf said. "The Bible focuses me directly on Jesus Christ. It's a God-centered perspective. The danger comes when you take Mary or David or Paul and elevate them to that level."
Other Marian doctrines considered in different ways by different faith groups include:
The Immaculate Conception of Mary, which holds that Mary was "one of only two persons — Jesus being the other — granted the privilege of being born without original sin," according to Father Virgen;
The Assumption of Mary, which Father Virgen says is a Catholic dogma indicating that "thanks to the merits of Jesus Christ, his passion, death and resurrection, Mary didn't die, but was taken up to heaven without experiencing death;"
The Perpetual Virginity of Mary, another Catholic dogma holding that Mary remained a virgin her entire life.
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