Advent is the season to think about the coming Christ child. It is a time to remember that Mary was pregnant with God’s great gift of self-giving to redeem the world, a great gift coming in the unusual form of a child. Mary received the word that a mystery was to be revealed: God would become a baby. As the angel said to Mary, “You are favored by God. The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the child to be born will be holy. He will be great, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”1

As a Protestant, I have had trouble honoring that pregnant woman even though I am so committed to proclaiming the gift of her son. Yet Luke gives us her prophetic word that all generations would call her blessed because she agreed to carry the child (Luke 1:48). Perhaps Luke didn’t know about Protestants. It is not that I do not honor other biblical figures; I have relative ease honoring Paul for his willingness to respond to God’s call on his life. As the Lord told Ananias, “[Paul] is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel,” and with Ananias’s words, the Holy Spirit came upon Paul and he began his ministry of proclaiming Jesus as Messiah (Acts 9:15, 17, and 22).

It is hard not to notice the parallels between these two lives. Both are chosen by God. Both are animated by the Holy Spirit. Both are given an essential part in the story of God’s salvation. So might Paul be able to instruct me about honoring Mary? Might my strong Protestant confidence in Paul show me a way to honor Mary?

In fact, Paul, throughout his letters, encourages such a pattern of honoring. He holds up his own experience as a model for the experience of other Christians. And he finds the model for interpreting his own experience in the life and death of Christ—a model he calls all who would follow Christ to use. The Pauline word is imitation; he encourages his readers to be imitators of him as he was of Christ.2 And the pattern of imitation is present in Paul’s writings even without the word imitation. Consider Colossians for an example. Although Paul does not use the word imitation there, the letter is simultaneously an expression of Paul’s obedient call to follow Jesus—his apostleship—and an exhortation to the Colossians to embody their call faithfully. And both that expression and exhortation are based on the life of Christ, whom he praises in the first part of the letter.

I easily understand Paul’s obedience. He is a servant according to the commission of God: to make the word of God fully known (Col. 1:25). The word of God he proclaims has been hidden, and it is now revealed in Jesus’s death and life. God planned to effect for the world the same salvation that had been known by Israel, and this has now happened through Jesus Christ. Paul was called by God to make this mystery known. Paul proclaims this revelation of God, “warning everyone and teaching everyone in all wisdom,” toiling and struggling to present everyone mature in Christ (1:28, 29).

The letter is an embodiment of Paul’s call and an exhortation for the Colossians to embody their call. He is concerned with both their religious identity and their life practices. He reminds them that their identity has been renewed according to the image of the Creator (Col. 3:10–11) and that their renewed life requires an interpretation of their role in society as Christian people (3:18–4:1). I don’t think a twenty-first-century interpretation will look exactly as it did for the first century—our household codes are quite different—but I do think my faith has implications for my life. And I hear the importance of Paul’s instruction to the Colossian saints to conduct themselves wisely toward outsiders (4:5–6). There is certainly something to learn there.

Throughout the letter, Paul shapes the way he presents his life using the pattern of the life of our Lord Jesus Christ. He describes his suffering as participating in Christ’s afflictions, even to the degree that he sees that suffering as completing Christ’s work (Col. 1:24). Protestants often balk at this language because it calls for a level of participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus beyond an initial assent to the efficacy of Jesus’s work on our behalf. It calls for a re-imagination of our whole lives as lived in Christ.3 The language of baptism, the rite that imitates the dying and rising of Christ, shapes Paul’s exhortations to the Colossians. Paul speaks of putting off or putting to death the earthly, the body of flesh, and being raised or clothed through faith in compassion (2:11–12 and 3:5–17); he describes the Colossians as dead in trespasses and made alive together with Christ (2:13, 2:20, and 3:1).

The letter articulates an expectation of continuity between the life of Christ, Paul’s faithful ministry, and the Christian pattern of life Paul expects of his readers. In Paul’s own words, the Colossians are to continue their lives in Christ Jesus the Lord in the same manner as they received him, being rooted and built up in him and established in faith, just as they were taught, abounding in thanksgiving (Col. 2:6–7).4 They are to imitate him as he imitates the Lord Jesus.

Jesus, who both creates and redeems, is the focus of this way of life. In the hymn of praise in Colossians 1, Christ is proclaimed as preeminent over creation and redemption. In this work, Christ reveals the mystery of God’s cosmic purposes and accomplishes those purposes at the same time. The maker of the universe is also its redeemer. Jesus Christ is praised as the image of the invisible God, firstborn of all creation, creator of all things (Col. 1:15–16) and the beginning, the firstborn from the dead (1:17–18). Together, these statements fill out what it means that the beloved Son is preeminent, above all; he is both the one in whom all things consist and the one who is the head of the body, which is the church (1:16). These statements are first and foremost a declaration about the person of our Lord, but they also provide the pattern for participation in Christ, for Christian vocation, such as Paul uses it in this letter. Redemption is an earthly concern based in a heavenly reality.

With this turn to a focus on Christ Jesus the Lord, Paul reminds me of Mary again. When God called Mary to her role as the bearer of the child, Mary’s response was a song of praise to God. The hymn in Colossians is like Mary’s song of praise when she met her cousin Elizabeth. Both Paul and Mary make sense of their calling by recalling God’s character and work. I do not honor Paul for Paul’s sake but because of who Paul knew God to be, because of how Paul’s life and words proclaimed the truthfulness of God’s character and actions. I do not honor Mary for Mary’s sake but because of who she knew God to be, because of how her life and words proclaimed the truthfulness of God’s character and actions. I honor her for her faithful witness to the person and work of God, which is why I honor Paul.

Mary’s song also recalls the cosmic scope of the efforts of the Mighty One on our behalf (Luke 1:49). But where Paul’s hymn draws me into the new purposes of God for the Gentiles, Mary’s song draws me into the continuity of God’s purposes throughout the generations. And her song articulates God’s hopes in ways that Paul’s hymn does not. Mary reminds us that God’s ways are not our ways: God’s power is with the lowly, God’s hope is to fill the hungry, God’s plan is in fulfillment of the promise to Abraham. In a word, her song hints that God’s way of working is often unusual; it might look like death on a Roman cross.

Drawing the comparison between Mary and Paul makes concrete Paul’s command to continue to live my life, being rooted and built up in Jesus Christ and established in faith, just as I have been taught, abounding in thanksgiving. It is easy to spiritualize spirituality, to think that being Christian is about what I believe in an intellectual way rather than what I trust in all the choices and practices of my life. But honoring a pregnant woman reminds me of the very earthly—perhaps even earthy—character of my obedience.

I rejoice every Advent. In part, my glad heart comes because it is a time to remember that God called a faithful Jewish woman to play a key role in God’s self-revelation and to remember that she was faithful to that call. She agreed to bear God, to participate in the plan of God to redeem the world with her body. Mary reminds me that God does not always work in the usual way—the Virgin bears a child. God’s ways are not my ways.

But even though God’s ways are a mystery, God calls us to join in these ways and in so doing to participate in God’s plan of salvation. Like Mary, we are favored by God. The Holy Spirit has come upon us, and we are being made holy as we work within God’s purposes. Advent is the season of rejoicing that the mystery that was hidden throughout the ages and generations has now been revealed to God’s saints. It is the time to give thanks that God has been made known in Mary’s child and that we now all have access to the riches and glory of this mystery.

  1. My paraphrase of Luke 1:30, 35, and 32 NRSV.
  2. For the language of imitation in Paul’s letters: 1 Corinthians 4:16 and 11:1; Philippians 3:17; 1 Thessalonians 1:6 and 2:14; 2 Thessalonians 3:7, 9; Ephesians 5:1. A good introduction to the ideas and significance of imitation in Paul’s letters can be found in Stephen E. Fowl, “Imitation of Paul/of Christ,” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, ed. Gerald F. Hawthorne and Ralph P. Martin (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1993), 428–31.
  3. This framework for Paul’s re-imagination of Christian life can be demonstrated throughout the Pauline corpus, not just in Colossians. See Michael J. Gorman, “‘Although/Because He was in the Form of God’: The Theological Significance of Paul’s Master Story (Phil 2:6–11),” Journal of Theological Interpretation 1 (2007): 147–69; Gorman, Apostle of the Crucified Lord: A Theological Introduction to Paul and His Letters (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004); and Stephen E. Fowl, “Some Uses of Story in Moral Discourse: Reflections on Paul’s Moral Discourse and Our Own,” Modern Theology 4 (1988): 293–308.
  4. Paul reiterates this central idea in Colossians 3:17.