As my Christmas post this year, I’d like to share some thoughts about Mary.
The first thing I notice about her, which may surprise some people, is how ordinary she is. Like you and me, she has difficulty understanding and even accepting God’s plan. Like any other woman, she’s puzzled by Gabriel’s announcement that she is to have a son (Lk 1.34). I’m not criticizing her; my point is that her response is completely understandable—completely ordinary. At the visit to the Temple for the baby’s circumcision, she’s surprised by Simeon’s exalted blessing over the child (Lk 2.33). When Jesus is 12, she questions his respect for her and Joseph, drawing a mild rebuke (Lk 2.48-49). At the wedding where Jesus will perform his first recorded miracle, she appears to have priorities that her son needs to correct (Jn 2.3-4). And in the most surprising episode of all, Mark, writing under Peter’s direction, seems to suggest that Mary and her other sons thought Jesus was mentally unbalanced (Mk 3.21, 31)—something consistent with John’s direct statement that during his earthly ministry, Jesus’ brothers did not believe on him (Jn 7.5).
Mary appears to respond to her unique situation pretty much as we would. It’s all pretty confusing; there’s a lot she doesn’t appear to understand.
There’s no evidence in the Scripture that Mary herself is immaculately conceived, or that she was perpetually a virgin—as though sex isn’t something really holy people do (Heb 13.4)—or that she is sinless. Yes, she is said to be “full of grace” (Lk 1.28), a statement that has given rise to the idea of a “treasury of merit” into which she and other “saints” have deposited (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1477); but the same Greek expression (charitoo) is used of all believers over in Eph 1.6. We’re all “full of grace,” by God’s grace.
So she’s ordinary, like us.
In her confusion and wonder, she trusts God and consequently pleases him.
When told she’s going to have a child out of wedlock without having done anything wrong, she agrees to the arrangement (Lk 1.38). She knew there would be significant negative social consequences for this; virgin births were no more common in her day than they are in ours. Nobody would believe her. Indeed, 30 or more years later Jesus’ enemies threw his “illegitimacy” back in his face (Jn 8.41).
She treasured Jesus’ words even in confrontational situations (Lk 2.51). After her son’s mild rebuke at the wedding in Cana, she instructed the servants to hear and obey him (Jn 2.5).
She was a woman of grace and dignified accession to the will of God.
And where did that come from?
We don’t know anything about Mary’s childhood or upbringing, but we can see evidences of it in her speech. When we carefully study her most famous statement, the “Magnificat” (Lk 1.46-55), we find an apparently extemporaneous speech astonishingly filled with Scripture: she quotes or alludes to about 19 different verses in 5 different Old Testament books from all 3 of the sections of the Hebrew canon—Genesis and Deuteronomy from the Law, Isaiah from the Prophets, and Samuel and Psalms from the Writings. This in spite of the fact that it was common for Jewish girls in that day to be illiterate, and even if she could read, she certainly did not own copies of the Scrolls, which were prohibitively expensive. Most likely she listened at synagogue—from the women’s section—and committed those passages to memory, deeply meditating on them to the point where she could weave them—artfully—into an extemporaneous expression of gratitude to God in the midst of deep social embarrassment.
With all of our education and all of our copies of the Scripture, few of us today could do something even remotely similar.
Mary kept things in her heart (Lk 2.19, 51). She treasured the words and works of God.
What a rebuke she is to our shallow and reactionary thinking.
What a model for all of us to follow.