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 assu