What kind of woman was Mary of Nazareth? As is true of Jesus, we know nothing of Mary’s physical appearance or demeanor. But the historical sources give us a rather detailed picture of Mary’s character. Several historical sources give us much biographical information about Mary and they may be fairly reliable documents, but I want to ask what we can learn from the canonical Scriptures about Mary’s life and character.
It’s often heard that the Bible says very little about Mary, but a closer look at Scripture reveals something quite different. If we use even the most superficial of criteria (i.e. number of words and verses), the New Testament says more about Mary than it does on topics everyone considers essential. For example, the very important parallelism between Adam and Christ in Paul’s epistles occupies only two passages with a total of thirteen verses (Rom. 5:12-21 ten verses and I Cor. 15:21-23 three verses). Passages about Mary in the birth narrative of Luke’s Gospel alone occupy eighty-two verses. And this isn’t counting Matthew, Mark and John. My personal experience as a non-Catholic Christian convinced me that I couldn’t find much about Mary because I wasn’t looking for it. Also, the Scriptures sometimes teach deep and rich truths in a very short space. For example, the topic of justification by faith occupies a very small portion of the New Testament—it’s only discussed directly in Romans, Galatians and James 2:14-26—but it has played an enormously important role in the history of the Christian faith. Thus, it is unwise to conclude that the amount of verses devoted to a topic in the Bible is directly linked to its importance. In any case, there’s more in the Bible about Mary than is often supposed.
The course of Mary’s life follows that of Jesus’ life, a fact that shows how her life was united with his throughout her earthly pilgrimage. We first meet Mary, of course, in the stories of Jesus’ birth. God in his wisdom has chosen to give us the account of Jesus’ birth in much greater detail than was necessary. And from two quite different vantage points. Only two of the four evangelists give us any detail regarding Jesus’ conception, Matthew and Luke. Their accounts are very different but not in contradiction with one another. Matthew concentrates on Joseph and Luke on Mary but both accounts are detailed and intricate. In this article, we will look at Mary’s life leading up to the birth and early life of her Son…. Why did the Holy Spirit inspire the scriptural writers to say so much where less would do? Part of the reason has to do with Mary herself. Let’s look at her life in the New Testament.
Gabriel Announces Jesus’ Conception (Luke 1:26-38)
Luke gives us the events that happen first, beginning even before Mary finds out that she will give birth to God’s Son. In the ancient world, the arrival of a king was preceded by a herald who was to announce the coming of the King. This is why Luke spends so much time telling us about the birth of John the Baptist. He is the one who will announce the arrival of the new king. Only in John’s case, his birth is also remarkable, if not miraculous. This birth confirms the pattern of salvation of the Old Testament. God’s saving action is accompanied by astounding births to emphasize that this salvation can only come from God. John the Baptist is born of a woman who was beyond the years of childbearing to prepare for an even more miraculous birth than his own, a birth from a virgin. John announces Jesus’ arrival not only by his words but by his own birth. Both births cause wonder but the virgin birth stresses that what is impossible with human power is within God’s power “because nothing will be impossible with God” (Lk. 1:37).
Gabriel’s greeting to Mary is very unusual. “Hail, full of grace one. The Lord is with you.” (Lk. 1:28)…. Let’s note here how Mary responds to Gabriel’s greeting. Mary is immediately troubled and begins to reason out the meaning of the greeting. Beyond the obvious fact that any normal person would have been startled by the presence of an angel, Luke tells us the greeting itself troubled Mary (Lk. 1:29). Why? Probably because he calls her “full of grace or highly favored.” I will explain the full meaning of this word later. What does Mary’s response tell us about her attitude? It shows Mary’s humility in that she did not think herself worthy of this title. Mary was full of grace, as Gabriel said, but she was not aware of it. This is true of many people who have great humility. They are unaware of their virtue.
Mary asks all the normal human questions when Gabriel tells her that she will conceive the Son of God in her womb through the Holy Spirit (Lk. 1:34). Yet I don’t think that it was just the manner of the birth that was startling. It was also that the child within her would be God himself (“the Son of the most High”). For a normal Jewish woman of the first century nothing could have been more unbelievable. The Jews emphasized in their creed that God is sovereign Lord of all (Dt 6:4 “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is One”). This belief was reinforced in the story of the building of the first temple when Solomon prayed “But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, the highest heavens cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built!” (I Kings 8:27). And yet God did choose to place his presence in that temple as was shown through the descent of the pillar of cloud that came down (see I Kings 8:10-11). Mary could have legitimately reasoned, “The temple is one thing; my womb is another.” Gabriel’s words assure her that the Holy Spirit will overshadow her just as he once did the temple of God in Israel. In a very real sense, Mary becomes a tabernacle or temple where God dwells on earth. This is why she has been called the Ark of the New Covenant in the history of the Church. She was to the new covenant people of God what the Ark of the Covenant was to Israel. She brought the presence of God to the people of God.
The most remarkable part of Mary’s response is her faith. Luke 1:38 reads, “Behold, the handmaid of the Lord. Let it be to me according to your word.” The words “let it be” (genoito) are translated into Latin as fiat, a word that has passed into English to describe God’s creation of the world when he said, “Let there be light etc.” Mary’s fiat is her yes to God and shows that she really is what Gabriel called her, full of grace. How could she say yes to God’s will for her life unless she had been prepared by grace to respond so positively and so readily to God? There is more here than meets the eye. When Mary says, “let it be to me” she is giving her full consent to the will of God for her life. Imagine the shame she knew she would have to bear because of this event.
Imagine her natural doubt and understandable questions. Yet her heart and soul were so detached from the world’s praise or condemnation that she responded without any hesitancy by saying yes to God. Through her cooperation with God’s plan of salvation, we have the Savior who rescues us from sin.
Mary’s humility and faith are clear examples for us. Both virtues come from the same source, a heart that has been filled with grace. Humility in our lives will produce the same response that Mary had. It will make us also say that we are the Lord’s servants and that we are ready to do his will. If we have Mary’s faith, we will say yes to God when he asks of us the unusual and even the heroic. You and I can never duplicate Mary’s role of bearing the Son of God, but we can respond with the same humble submission to the will of God as we are enabled by grace to do so. Luke tells us so much about Mary’s faith because he wants us to see her as our example of faith and humility.
Mary Visits Elizabeth (Luke 1:39-56)
Almost immediately after Mary learned that she was to bear the Son of God, she hurried to visit her relative Elizabeth. Like the Annunciation, this event in Mary’s life holds a deep meaning for those who meditate on its truth. Most Catholics are familiar with this story since it is the second of the Joyful Mysteries that one meditates on in the Rosary. The Visitation unveils much about Mary for here is where we find her song of joy, her Magnificat. Understanding this famous song requires seeing the relationship between Elizabeth and Mary. Mary’s natural reaction to Gabriel’s news was to go to Elizabeth because she now understood that the birth of her Son, the Messiah, had a much wider significance than for her personally. When she was told that her relative Elizabeth, who had been called barren (Lk. 1:36), was to give birth, Mary wanted to share in Elizabeth’s joy. She also wanted to tell of her own pregnancy that Gabriel had announced. Luke tells us that Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit (Lk. 1:41), and spoke words of prophecy to Mary. Her first words were, “blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb” (Lk. 1:42). It would have been natural for Elizabeth to tell Mary of her own supernatural pregnancy. She had given up the hope of ever having her own child. The six months of her pregnancy before Mary came must have been a time of constant joy because there was nothing greater for Jewish women in the ancient world than to bear a child. Yet Elizabeth’s words do not reflect the natural response of her own joy, but her happiness in now seeing the mother of the Lord come to her (Lk. 1:43). Luke does not indicate that Mary told Elizabeth anything, only that she greeted her. It was the movement of John the Baptist in Elizabeth’s womb that told her of the Holy One who was coming hidden in Mary’s womb.
The fruit of Mary’s womb is also blessed, says Elizabeth (Lk. 1:42). This is true but for a very different reason than Mary’s being blessed. Mary was blessed because God dwelt within her, but the fruit of her womb was God himself. When Elizabeth calls Mary’s child blessed, it is more akin to the Psalmist who says, “Bless the Lord, O my soul. All that is within me bless his holy name” (Ps. 103:1). When blessing is ascribed to a human being like Mary, it means that she is the recipient of divine favor and goodness. When blessing is ascribed to God, it is a recognition that God has blessedness in and of himself. He has not received that blessing from anyone but rather is the source of blessing for others. The fruit of Mary’s womb is blessed because that child possesses all blessing and happiness within himself. He became the source of Mary’s being blessed.
Elizabeth knew herself to be blessed as well because the mother of God had come to her. These few short words say volumes, how is it then that the mother of my Lord would come to me? (Lk. 1:43). Elizabeth’s sense of being blessed is balanced by her amazement at being visited by God himself. If we had been Elizabeth, we might have said, how is it that God himself would come to me? And our words would not have been inappropriate. Yet Elizabeth’s actual words afford insight into a biblical view of Mary and her Son Jesus. These words suggest a theme resident in the Old Testament Scriptures. When God comes to earth, the ground he touches becomes holy (see Ex. 3:5). So here, God comes in an unprecedented manner, in bodily fashion, and the ground on which he stands becomes holy too. Mary’s womb becomes holy ground, a sacred dwelling of the Most High, because God’s glory is too radiant and effervescent to be contained within the few decimeters of a Virgin’s womb. Elizabeth honors Mary because God has honored Mary with his presence.
Why was Mary blessed? Because she was the physical bearer of God’s Son? Yes, but more. It was because she believed what Gabriel told her. This is stressed in Luke 1:38 when she says yes to God’s plan and in Luke 1:45 when Elizabeth recognizes Mary’s implicit trust in God (“Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of the things spoken by the Lord”). Mary’s greatest blessing comes from her faith in God’s plan of salvation, and she rejoiced just to be a part of it. And the same is true for each of us who follow Jesus. Paul speaks of himself as an instrument of reconciling the world to God in 2 Corinthians 5:16-21. Paul pleads for reconciliation “as if God were making his appeal through us.” The ministry of reconciliation that Paul had was God’s work through Paul. Mary and Paul become examples for each of us who are baptized into Christ. We become God’s instruments of salvation for others when we give ourselves to God in faith as Mary did.
Mary’s faith had to be expressed verbally, and the most natural way for a young Jewish woman was to break forth in song. But Mary’s Magnificat—the name derives from the first word in the Latin translation—is more than an impromptu canticle. It is a song modeled on the pattern of the Old Testament Psalms that adore the true and living God for his redeeming love. In addition to the entire one hundred and fifty Psalms, Mary’s song recalls the Songs of Moses (Ex. 15:1-18) and of Deborah (Jud. 5:1-31). Both these Old Testament hymns celebrate God’s saving victory over his enemies. Yet the closest parallel is unquestionably Hannah’s song of praise in 1 Samuel 2:1-10. Here are a few of the parallels:
The Opening Words of Praise
My heart rejoices in the Lord
My horn exalts in the Lord…
For I rejoiced in Your salvation (1 Sam. 2:1).
My soul magnifies the Lord
My spirit is glad in God my Savior (Lk. 1:46).
The Character of God
There is none holy like the Lord
There is none besides you
There is no rock like our God (1 Sam. 2:2).
The Mighty One has done great things
Holy is His name
His mercy is forever and ever
On those who fear him (Lk. 1:49, 50).
The Reversal of Human Fortunes
The Lord kills and gives life
He brings down to Sheol and lifts up
The Lord makes poor and makes rich
He degrades and he exalts
He raises the poor from the dust
He lifts the beggar from the ash heap (1 Sam. 2:6, 7).
He threw down the powerful from their thrones
And exalted the humble
He filled the hungry with good things
And sent the rich away empty (Lk. 1:52, 53).
Hannah’s and Mary’s responses to God are controlled by the theme of God looking on the lowliness and humility of His servants. Their joy in God’s saving power comes from their humble recognition of His sovereign choice of each of them as the divine instrument. Hannah knew that the boy given to her was destined to be a prophet.
Mary knew that the boy given to her was destined to be the Messiah…. The songs of Mary and Hannah are not simply those of Jewish women wanting children. They express the joy of God’s handmaidens in the salvation He brought to His people. Mary called God her Savior (Lk. 1: 47) because she had completely identified herself with Israel as God’s people, and therefore longed for the redemption of her people. But Mary’s situation also differed from Hannah’s too. Hannah carried within her womb a future prophet of Israel. Mary carried the Hope of Israel. Hanna’s son would point to the future redemption. Mary’s Son was the redemption. Hannah’s pregnancy was an answer to her prayer. Mary’s pregnancy was a complete surprise. Hannah lived in hope of the fulfillment; Mary lived the fulfillment.
Mary and Elizabeth perceived with a skill, with which women seem especially endowed, that their lives would be henceforth bound to God’s saving plan. Any woman knows that motherhood never ceases once the child is conceived, but these two women shared something far more significant that day. Mary and Elizabeth shared the realization that they would play very central roles in the accomplishment of redemption. And Elizabeth knew that her own role paled in significance compared to the mother of God (Lk. 1:43). No wonder Mary’s soul magnified the Lord. Wouldn’t you?
God revealed to Elizabeth what he wants each of us to embrace. That’s why we are told that Elizabeth spoke by the prompting of the Holy Spirit. We too must recognize God coming to us in Mary’s womb, an act that eclipses even our greatest personal joys. Why must we say with Elizabeth that Mary is most blessed of all women?
Because our greatest happiness in life rests not on earthly joys, but in receiving Jesus into our homes and lives. We are most blessed among all people, just as Israel was, if we see God’s dwelling among us as the center of our joy. As in the Old Testament, God does not dwell in thin air. He comes to us through the tangible things of this world such as a tabernacle or a temple. He comes to us through his servants. Elizabeth immediately recognized God’s presence in Mary. Mary is the most blessed of women because she had experienced the dwelling of God within herself. She experienced what we all will experience in eternity, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God” (Rev. 21:3). The Holy Spirit within Elizabeth recognized the Holy One within Mary. If we are listening to the Spirit of God, if we are filled with God’s presence like Elizabeth, we will spontaneously say of Mary, “blessed are you among women.”
Mary, the Shepherds and the Birth of Jesus (Luke 2:1-20)
Only Luke gives us the events of the actual night of Jesus’ birth so we must pay special attention to the details of his account to appreciate our Lord’s first night in the world. To all human appearance the birth of a Jewish boy in the quiet recesses of the Judean hills of the first century could hardly be called spectacular. Yet the very note that Luke strikes is a universal one, a sound that heralds the worldwide impact of this birth. He tells us that Jesus was born in the time of the census decreed by Caesar Augustus when Quirinius was governor of Syria (Lk. 2:1, 2)….
The visit of the shepherds signals that Jesus’ birth is more than a global event on earth. Even the heavens are enlisted to proclaim how nothing will remain untouched by this birth. The angels appear to lowly shepherds who receive the heavenly message with joy and humility. What could be more different, more odd than the union of pure celestial messengers and poor shepherds! Yet this is precisely the significance of Jesus’ birth, that the King of the angels has come to visit and minister to shepherds. Surely he who was rich became poor for our sake that we might be enriched by his poverty (cf. 2 Cor. 8:9). The actual message of the angels declares the union of heaven and earth, glory to God in the highest and on earth peace among men of his good pleasure(Lk. 2:14). The birth of Christ yields maximum glory to God in heaven and ushers in the peace of God’s kingdom.
Mary contemplated all this—the worldwide scope of her Son’s saving life, the union of heaven and earth, the humble worship of poor shepherds, not to mention all the glorious truths she had learned earlier—she drank in all the meaning of these events for her life, and that of her Son and husband. But Mary, for her part, treasured all these words contemplating them in her heart (Lk. 2:19). The verb translated treasure up (suntereo) means to guard, to keep safe. Luke uses the verb in the imperfect tense and it could be translated, “Mary kept guarding all these things in her heart.” Mary didn’t simply think about these events on occasion. She devoted her life to them. She turned them over again and again in her thoughts. She mused over them. She penetrated their depths. She lingered in their holy precincts. She drew on their holy power.
Mary is a model of a Christian who contemplates the holy mysteries. The term mystery is not well understood by Christians. In popular parlance, mystery is an event we don’t understand because we don’t have enough information, such as a murder mystery. Once the relevant information is supplied, we understand how the event happens and we “solve” the mystery. But this meaning is very far from its usage in a Christian context. Mysteryin Christian history is an event (e.g. Jesus’ birth) or truth (e.g. Trinity) whose meaning we do understand but whose depths we could never plumb. It is a mystery precisely because we do understand it. It baffles us because it is too good to be true. Knowledge of a mystery is more like knowing a person than knowing a mathematical equation. My wife and I have been married a little over twenty-three years. Even though we knew one another when we first married, our knowledge of one another now overshadows that earlier experience of knowledge. Our present experience is so much deeper and full of intimacy. Yet the more we know one another, the more we realize how far we still have to go. It seems that no matter how deeply we know one another, one will never fully comprehend the other. If this is true on a human level, how much more is it true of God.
Paul speaks of the mystery of Christ in Ephesians 3:4. This pithy expression means that the entirety of Christ’s life, the whole incarnation, is a mystery. It is the mystery of Christ because he is the subject of the mystery and because Christ is the one who gave it. Luke 2:19 teaches that Mary contemplated the mystery of Christ. She no doubt realized that the gift of her Son was also the Giver of the gift. She meditated on the entire scope of his incarnate life. She understood it, but she still sat in awe before its ineffable depth. Could Mary have also understood what Paul says about the mystery of Christ in Ephesians 3:6? Could she see with her eye of faith that the Gentiles would be fellow heirs, joined in the same body, and fellow partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus! Could she possibly have seen that the union of her Son and her Son’s Church was also a mystery (Eph. 5:32)? She knew she was the mother of the Redeemer. Could she possibly be the mother of the redeemed? If her Son’s church was as intimately united to him as she was, how could she be separated from that church, either as member or as mother? One thing seems clear: whatever Mary contemplated on the night of her Son’s birth, she knew her Son was destined for a universal ministry of salvation. And she knew her own life was destined to be bound up with his. His life had cosmic significance and so hers must have the same.
Joseph and Mary Present Jesus in the Temple (Luke 2:21-38)
Mary’s life continued to be one of obedience after Jesus was born. Luke stresses how Joseph and Mary were faithful to the law of Moses by circumcising him on the eighth day and by dedicating him to God. Yet this dedication was like that of no other Jewish boy. This presentation was accompanied by the witness of two elderly servants of God, Simeon and Anna. Why did Luke recount this incident beyond the obvious fact that it was historically true? Part of the answer must be the Old Testament requirement that the truth of any matter demanded the confirmation of two or three witnesses (Dt. 17:6). Simeon and Anna function as witnesses to the redemptive ministry that this child will have. For whom are they witnesses? The most likely answer is for Joseph and Mary. There’s no evidence in the story that anyone else heard Simeon’s words. Surely, Joseph and Mary already knew that their Son was the Savior of the world! Yet we forget how easy it would have been for Joseph and Mary to lose faith. Yes, they had been told many of the wonderful things their Jesus would do, but that was precisely the problem. Those things were so wonderful that they bordered on the unbelievable. They both needed constant assurance that their calling to be the parents of the world’s Redeemer was from God. Normal parenthood requires heroic faith. How much more being parents of the Son of God!
Simeon’s song of praise in Luke 2:29-32, traditionally called the Nunc Dimittis, reflects the longing of this old man’s heart. Now he has seen “the consolation of Israel” (Lk. 2:25). Now he knows that Israel will be redeemed and that is enough for him. Like Mary’s Magnificat, Simeon’s song weaves together quotations from the Old Testament to emphasize the universal scope of the Messiah’s salvation.
Now dismiss your servant, O Sovereign Lord
According to your word.
For my eyes have seen your salvation
Which you prepared in sight of all peoples
A light for revelation to the Gentiles
And the glory of your people Israel (Lk. 2:29-32).
….This child will not only save Israel but will become a “light of revelation for the Gentiles” (Lk. 2:32). We must appreciate how difficult it would have been for the average Jewish man or woman of the first century to believe that God would extend his salvation to the world. We can see that difficulty when we look at Peter’s reluctance later in the Book of Acts (ch. 10). Yet the universal scope of Jesus’ salvation is centerstage for Mary and Joseph as they presented Jesus in the temple.
The story of the presentation also adds another truth that Joseph and Mary had to learn, that their exalted calling as Jesus’ parents involved suffering. Simeon’s message mixes joy and sadness, happiness and sorrow. This child’s life will be the salvation of God’s people, but he will also be the occasion of many to reject the Lord. He will cause the rising and falling of many in Israel and will be a sign spoken against (Lk. 2:34).
The pattern of acceptance and rejection can be found throughout biblical history. When God comes to save his people, some among his people choose to reject him. Not every Hebrew left Egypt; some stayed behind. And the prophets warned that the Messiah would be the one whom many would reject. All this implies the sufferings of the Messiah.
Simeon tells Mary specifically that the sufferings and pains of her Son will affect her directly. A sword will pierce your very soul that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed. (Lk. 2:34,35). It’s perhaps significant that Joseph is not told this. This is not to minimize Joseph’s role as the foster-father of our Lord, but only that the intense suffering of the soul will affect Mary more directly because she alone gave of her own body to the Son of God. Mary will join her Son in his sufferings as he redeems the world. His fate will be her fate. His joys will be hers, but his experience of sorrow will also touch her heart.
A suffering Messiah was a stumbling block to many Jews and that same suffering Savior is still an obstacle for many Christians. They want Jesus as long as he can do something positive for them, but they recoil from him when he asks them to suffer. That’s why Mary is given to us as an example. No one suffers like a mother when her child has been hurt. And no one has suffered more than Mary because she joined her heart to the greatest suffering the world has ever known. The wages of sin is death. What greater suffering could there be than the sins of the world placed upon Jesus?
Mary could have recoiled from the pain she was promised, but the gospel record says she embraced her Son all the more. Jesus endured the sufferings of the world, and Mary endured them too as she joined in his sufferings.
The Magi’s Great Discovery (Matthew 2:1-12)
I mentioned earlier that Matthew’s Gospel focuses on Joseph rather than on Mary. The two Gospel writers are complimentary, but their different emphases show us that we cannot separate Mary from Joseph and neither of them from Jesus himself. Yet the visit of the Magi, celebrated on the Feast of the Epiphany, shows us how Matthew and Luke both announce the world-wide scope of Christ’s salvation. The prophets of Israel predicted the spread of the Messiah’s saving work to the whole earth. This message demands the universal (catholic) nature of the Church. The Church must be universal because Christ’s salvation is universal. Matthew’s inclusion of the Magi shows that the “Light of the Gentiles” is already shining in his infancy. And the Magi provide us with an example of how all people should come and adore the Savior of the world.
There are several other important themes in the Magi’s adoration of Christ. Matthew stresses how Herod opposed the plan of God with a ruthless cunning that rivals the worst hatred of any ancient king. Jesus’ birth engenders royal conflict because Herod rightly perceives it as a threat to his kingdom. Any Jew could have seen this if he knew the promises of the Messiah as King (see Ps 110, Ps 2). The Magi are not kings—despite the traditional hymn We Three Kings—but are rather ancient wisemen, a profession that gave advice to kings by reading the stars. The Magi are royal dignitaries, however, and their obeisance to the infant King is properly read by Herod as a declaration of the destruction of his kingdom. Christ’s birth is the beginning of a new kingdom, one that will be universal in scope and call for total allegiance.
Matthew does not tell us any of Joseph’s or Mary’s inner thoughts (compare Luke 2:19). He does not even mention Joseph although the entire birth narrative in his Gospel revolves around him. The major actors in the story are the Magi of course. Yet when he comes to the point of their arrival at the Holy Family’s house, Matthew says, “they found the child with Mary his mother” (Mt.. 2:11). To appreciate this phrase, we must understand the historical context of Matthew’s readers. These early Christians probably knew the basic outline of Jesus’ birth before Matthew wrote his Gospel. They may have already known about the visit of the Magi. There’s nothing in the Bible nor historical documents to make us think that all the information in the Gospels was brand new to their first readers. In fact, history suggests the opposite. We know many stories about Jesus circulated in the early Christian communities before the Gospels were written.
Luke tells us that the purpose of his Gospel is to set down accurately the account of Jesus’ birth, suggesting that some stories about Jesus’ life may have been inaccurate.
If Matthew’s first readers had some exposure to the stories of Jesus’ birth, part of his purpose was to instruct them further about the actual events. But Matthew also wanted them to apply the truths of Jesus’ life to their own lives. This concern for application of the truth to daily life helps us realize that the story of the Magi functions on two levels. One is the historical narrative about what the Magi did. The other is what the Church Fathers called “moral interpretation” i.e. interpretation that applies to our lives and challenges us to holiness.
The main point of the visit of the Magi is that we, the readers, are to do exactly what the Magi did i.e. fall down and worship the child, opening before him all our gifts and treasures (Mt. 2:11, 12). But if we choose to worship the child Messiah, we must realize that it means entering his kingdom, an act that will bring us into conflict with the kingdoms of this world. In this same line of thinking, the statement they found the child with Mary his mother(v. 11) takes on a moral as well as an historical meaning.
Like the Magi, we too are to enter Jesus’ house and find him there. We must search diligently for the child who is our Savior. We must want him, love him and be willing to sacrifice everything for him. But the astonishing truth is that when we find Jesus, we find him with his mother Mary. Their lives are completely bound to one another and intertwined.
Jesus and Mary are inseparable.
That is the most basic truth of all the Catholic Church teaches about Mary. The Church insists that what God has joined together, let no mere human separate (Mt. 19:6). And that is why the Catholic Church can no more relinquish its teachings on Mary than it can deny the inseparability of the marriage bond. Both are divine bindings. If the Church cuts the cord of God’s binding, it relinquishes its own right to speak for God in the world. We’ve seen in Luke’s Gospel how Mary’s whole life was dedicated to her Son. In her heart, her whole existence was for his glory. So, it is more than a historical fact that Jesus was with his mother. He was always with her because she was always with him. The orthodox Christian has no difficulty understanding that Christ always was. He was “in the beginning with God … and was God” (Jn. 1:1). But how was Mary always with Jesus? She was there in his eternal plan before the world began. She was prepared by God in her very conception in her mother’s womb. Her heart was being readied by the Holy Spirit to receive the Son of God in her womb. When the Magi found the child with his mother, they only discovered what had been true, but hidden, from the beginning. So they worshipped him. When we worship Jesus, we worship him alone, as the Magi did, for he alone is God. Jesus alone on earth is God but Jesus is never alone. Jesus alone is worshipped but Jesus is with his mother Mary. We worship Him. We honor her as the one who brought him to us.
Jesus and the World’s Hatred (Matthew 2:13-23)
Matthew’s theme of kingdoms in conflict continues in the story of the flight into Egypt. Herod’s anger and thirst for power knew no bounds as he sought to do away with the rival to his throne. Before Jesus is ever able to speak a word, his kingdom threatens to undo the kingdoms of this world. Someday the kingdoms of this world will become the kingdoms of our Lord and of his Christ (cf. Rev. 11:15). That day is foreshadowed in the story of Herod’s treachery against the Holy Family.
God’s mercy and protection cover Jesus and Mary through the dreams that are revealed to Joseph (Mt. 2:13, 19). Joseph takes center stage in this story as he protects and cares for the child and his mother. Joseph, the righteous man, performs the role assigned to him by God in the same humility that characterized Mary’s life. Just as Mary said yes to God in conceiving God’s Son, so Joseph said yes to God in his divine task of protecting the Savior of the world.
Why does the angel instruct them to go to Egypt? Surely other places closer would have been sufficient to protect them from Herod’s hatred. The key is in the quotation from Hosea 11:1 found in Mt. 2:15, Out of Egypt have I called my son. The escape to Egypt fulfills prophecy, a prominent theme in Matthew’s way of telling about Jesus’ life. How does this action fulfill prophecy? Hosea 11:1 looked back to the Exodus from Egypt when Yahweh’s rescue of Israel was told in terms of the first-born son. Israel is God’s first-born (cf. Ex. 4:22). Yet Hosea’s words were also applicable to the future exodus when God would bring his first-born out of Egypt for the second and last time. Jesus and Israel are both first-born sons because Jesus is the perfect Israel. The Father begins his final redeeming acts through the actions of his infant son. Joseph and Mary cooperate with God’s plan of redemption by the role each of them plays in the story.
It is significant for our understanding of Mary that she is referred to as Jesus’ mother in this account. When Jesus was not yet born, Matthew refers to Mary as Joseph’s wife (1:20, 25) but afterwards she is mentioned only as the child’s mother. Three times it says that Joseph “took the child and his mother” (2:14, 20, 21). Again, Mary’s significance comes from the relationship that she has with Jesus. The focus is on Jesus of course. Normally, we would expect it to be worded, “Joseph took Mary and the child.” But since the child is the focus of the story, Matthew reverses the normal order and speaks of the “child and his mother.” Mary recedes into the background, a role that she no doubt wanted since her humility pointed to the greatness of her Son (cf. Lk. 1:48) As the handmaid of the Lord, she knew her task in life was totally attached to Jesus.
Mary’s Growing Faith: Jesus’ Bar-Mitzvah (Luke 2:40-52)
The New Testament is silent about Jesus’ years from infancy to the age of twelve, another fact that indicates how the inspired writers have selected certain events to portray our Lord in selected hues and tones. It is significant that of all the events of Jesus’ life before the age of thirty, the one chosen teaches us much about Joseph and Mary. Jesus’ bar-mitzvah at age twelve shows how Mary advanced in her pilgrimage of faith. Her faith was no static belief that needed no development. She had understood from Gabriel that her Son would be the Savior of the world, but she surely did not comprehend all that this entailed. Luke no doubt chose to tell us of Jesus’ bar-mitzvah because it indicated his transition from boyhood to manhood. Yet his account of the story also emphasizes that Mary and Joseph had much to learn of Jesus’ eventual mission.
Mary takes the lead role in their encounter with Jesus when they return to Jerusalem and find him in the temple conversing with the teachers of the law. It is Mary who asks, why have you done this to us? (Lk. 2:48) Normally, it would have been expected that the man of the home would speak under such public circumstances. As we have seen, Luke focuses our attention on Mary. Though full of grace and showing that humility of heart which allowed her to cooperate with God’s plan, Mary still didn’t fully grasp the intimate link with Jesus’ earthly life and his resolve to do the will of his heavenly Father (Lk. 2:50). What she still had to learn was how absorbed Jesus must be in the divine will. This is why Jesus responded to her, didn’t you know that I had to be in my Father’s house? (Lk. 1:49) This rather traditional translation is possible, and yet lacks something of the power of the original Greek. A better translation might be: didn’t you know that I must be about the things of my Father?, or didn’t you know that I must be absorbed in the things of my Father? The grammatical construction is the same as Paul uses when he commands Timothy: Be absorbed in them (I Tim 4:15). It indicates a total commitment to those things which belong to the Father. The language of Luke 1:49 foreshadows what Jesus would later tell his disciples, My food is to do the will of Him who sent me and to finish His work (Jn. 4:34).
Mary had taught her Son as a boy, and now, on the verge of his manhood, he taught her one more lesson in obedience. She had willingly submitted to the Father’s plan, but now she had to offer up her Son in obedience again so that he might be totally devoted to the Father’s will. To accomplish God’s work, Jesus had to be totally absorbed in the things of his Father. Mary too would have to follow in the footsteps of the One who had followed her steps in childhood.
A Woman for Our Times
Mary of Nazareth seems on the surface to be an ordinary Jewish woman whose life was indistinguishable from many others. She cooked, sewed and cleaned. She prayed, conversed and served the needs of her family. Yet what we have already seen in the biblical stories of Jesus’ birth shows that Mary’s life was extraordinary. Her extraordinariness did not lie in herself; it was a divine gift. By the free choice of God the Father, she was predestined to be the mother of the Redeemer. By his mercy, the heavenly Father filled her soul with his grace and his presence. In divine providence, Mary became the Spouse of the Holy Spirit by receiving in her womb the Son of God. In the silence of her Son’s infant life, she contemplated the astounding truths of heaven. This contrast between the ordinary and the extraordinary is important. The significance of Mary’s life was hidden from everyday view. Rarely could others around her see the remarkable power and meaning of her life just as many could see nothing remarkable about the life of her Son. And Mary precedes us all in that same respect. Paul says our life is also hidden with Christ in God (Col. 3:3, 4). Our outward life may seem very ordinary, but the inner strength of our life is the same as Mary’s. The source of that strength is the One whom Mary bore—the Savior of Bethlehem.
We share so much with Mary. Like her, we are called to be disciples of her Son. When she and Joseph found Jesus in the temple, they both learned more of what being disciples meant. It means giving over to God the Father the things in our lives which are most precious to us. But discipleship is impossible without faith, and Mary’s example of faith calls us to the same commitment. When she says yes to God (Lk. 1:38), she calls us to faith in Christ by her example. Faith also means walking with God in the dark times when we can’t see where the road ahead is leading. Mary knew that experience by her hidden life. She won no awards and received no acclaim from the world in her day. Yet her hidden life was brimming with importance and power.
Though her life appeared insignificant, her greatest influence came through the suffering she would endure. Simeon’s words in Luke 2:35 call us to the same life as Mary’s—a life of blessing through suffering. And not just any suffering. Her suffering and ours must be united with and flow from the sufferings of Mary’s Son. Mary’s Lord and ours.
We must recognize that while we are like Mary in many ways, she is also unique. The Mother of Jesus became a unique channel of Christ’s bodily presence in the world. Through her body the Son of God, indeed God himself, took his shape and form. Her eyes, her face, her stature, her blood, her DNA. Whatever natural makeup his body had, it came from this Blessed Virgin. We can never give to Jesus what Mary gave to him. She cooperated in God’s plan of salvation in a unique way. We can never give the substance of our bodies to Jesus the way Mary did, but we can do what others around Mary did. We can welcome Jesus into our lives, our world, our businesses, our homes, our schools and our hearts. We can welcome both the Son of God into our lives, and his mother who is blessed above all women (Lk. 1:42). Imagine yourself to be Simeon and you see the salvation of Israel (Lk. 2:30,31). Would it have been possible to hail the One who would redeem the world, and not also call his mother blessed among women? Don’t we call them happy, even blessed, who receive great gifts from God? Isn’t Mary then the most blessed person to have ever lived? She received in her own body the greatest gift that anyone has ever received.
Mary is an instrument of the presence of God. She is a tabernacle where the Son of God came to dwell in the midst of his people (cf. Jn. 1:14)…. When the people of Israel were in the desert and saw the pillars of cloud by day and of fire by night, they bowed down and worshipped the Lord who had come to visit them with his special, local presence (Ex. 33:9, 10). The same experience happened at the birth of Jesus. Matthew tells us that the Magi “found the child with Mary his mother.” Their response was like that of the ancient Israelites who encountered the presence of God directly. “They fell down and worshipped him” (Mt. 2:11). The Magi didn’t simply feel God’s general presence around them. They came to a specific place where God had given his presence in a specific way. They worshipped an infant boy who was God’s presence made specific and local. They did not worship Mary just as the Israelites did not worship the tabernacle itself. But the Magi did honor Mary with their gifts because they recognized that she was the instrument of bringing God’s presence into the world. Our goal as Christians is to find those places where God manifests his presence in our times, and to go there with the expectation of worshipping Him and of honoring those who are the instruments of his presence. God transforms and unifies his people by giving them his presence. And God’s presence, once it fills the hearts of God’s people, brings unity in their relationships with one another. I believe that if we recognize Mary as God’s chosen instrument of unity for Christians, we would see a level of spiritual life and unity among Christians unprecedented in the last four hundred years of western Christianity.
Dr. Kenneth Howell, Ph.D., a former Presbyterian minister, is a convert to the Catholic Faith and an Advisor at the Coming Home Network. The above article is taken from Chapter One of Mary of Nazareth, Queenship, 1998.