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