By Sarah Hinlicky Wilson
I have had a fraught relationship with Mary. Kitschy artwork, dogmatic disputes, the paucity of New Testament data have all conspired to leave me perplexed, if not simply cold, toward the Mother of God. A big help came in the form of St. Jacob of Serug’s spiritual poetry, which contrasts thick-headed Eve with smart and sensible Mary. This was a much more appealing image, to me anyway, than the cloyingly sweet virgin mother. But you can’t get away from Mary-the-mother. It’s her number one job, her claim to fame. Mary is the mother to end all mothers.
But then, maybe Mary so endlessly appears and reappears across the centuries because of the way she surprises, how she breaks out of the Styrofoam mold of convention. Long ago, as I was struggling with a call into ministry, the smart Mary commanded my attention. Now, years later, another Mary has won me over: Mary the adoptive mother.
Of course, she’s not Jesus’ adoptive mother. We’ll not have any subtle denials of Jesus’ full humanity or divinity lurking about here. But it is no accident that Jesus’ final act in John’s Gospel is to effect a transfer of parental and filial titles. To be appallingly bureaucratic about it, Jesus’ last job is as an adoption agency. “Woman, behold, your son … Behold, your mother!” (John 19:26–27, ESV here and below). Yes, she’s old and he’s grown up. So what? Age has not been known to impede God’s parental plans before (cf. Sarah, Elizabeth). As soon as he’s done with this happy exchange, Jesus knows that “all was now finished.” He breathes his last. He dies. Adoption is Jesus’ final work, other than death itself, and it involves none other than his own mother and his beloved disciple.
Coincidence? Never. Adoption is at the heart of the New Testament’s upending of the world’s social arrangements. Luke and Matthew both recount long and tedious genealogies for Jesus through Joseph’s line, all the while strenuously assuring the gentle reader that Joseph is not Jesus’ biological father. What, then, is the point? The point is that already now we are being socialized into a new pattern of family and community, where adoption counts as much as — in fact more than — blood. Jesus legitimately derives his family tree from his adoptive father Joseph. It’s quiet preparation for the forthcoming shock of the ingrafting of the Gentiles.
And then there’s Paul, who speaks plainly of the adoption of the believer by God to a new status of not slave but son. The only-begotten Son was “born of woman” — Paul’s sole reference to Mary — “so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Gal. 4:4–5). God is known as Trinity most acutely and profoundly when the Spirit of adoption from the Son enters our hearts and causes us to cry, “Abba! Father!” Jesus’ is the last “biological” birth of any consequence; what matters now is the adoption of all the nations, their rebirth in baptism. And so Paul the unmarried man has a new job: mom. “I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you!” (Gal. 4:19). He’s to birth all these new babies in Christ, feed them with milk until they are ready to be weaned onto meat. He has his hands as full as any exhausted mother with an unruly brood.
Now the big reveal: I’m an adoptive mother. I haven’t given birth. But the most famous of all biological mothers, Mary, makes sense to me in a new way, because she became an adoptive mother, too. In this very fact she becomes the point of transition from tribe to Church. Her adoption of the disciple, and his adoption of her, breaks open the line of Jesus — son of Adam, Son of God — to the whole world.
This adoptive reality that is the Church lays a claim on me in another way, too. My son is of a different color, race, and nation from me. As a baby in my arms, without even knowing it, he began to show me the shape of the Church that the evangelists and apostles sketched out for us in the New Testament. It is the family of all the nations, the family of God, where adoptive baptism takes place over the most respectable lineage of birth. And this, like all New Testament truths, was already underscored in the Old Testament: Moses and Samuel, prophets extraordinaire, were adopted, too — and Moses’ adoption was even crosscultural and transracial.
I cringe now when I hear the term “adoptionism” attached to a heresy. It is, certainly, wrong to suggest that Jesus was not conceived fully divine and fully human, to push the divinity off to a later date. But what a tragedy to label that christological error with the name of adoption. Jesus is not adopted by God, but the Church certainly is. The nations can only become the Church, we can only become God’s children, by adoption. It is not a shame or second-best compromise but our glory and our joy.
Christmas can become a suffocating exercise in family togetherness, or a sharp pang of reproach when the family is torn or just plain missing. The saccharine scene of the crèche does little to help. Let’s leaven our December festivities with the recollection that Jesus was born that we might be reborn into a bigger family. The manger is also the birthplace of the Church, and that family never cuts off but only gathers in.
Mary’s heart was pierced with a sword at the death of her firstborn, but as Jesus promised,
There is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life (Mark 10:29–30).
Mary did it; so can we; and she will gladly show the way.
The Rev. Dr. Sarah Hinlicky Wilson is the editor of Lutheran Forum, an adjunct professor of the Institute for Ecumenical Research in Strasbourg, France, and the author of A Guide to Pentecostal Movements for Lutherans (Wipf & Stock, 2016). She lives with her family in St. Paul, Minnesota.