Mary is one of those bible characters that we really didn’t hear much of. Sure, growing up almost every Christian child gets introduced to Mary via the nativity story. It’s always hilarious seeing little kids dress up as Mary and Joseph and replay the scene of the nativity – the appearance of the angel, going up to Bethlehem for the census and eventually giving birth to Jesus in the inn.
But many times as we grow older, the role & character of Mary somehow just seeps away. But I often think of how technically the entire Christianity rested on her – this teenage girl who was probably excited about getting married and living a normal life – now forced to make huge life changing decisions.
In looking at her rather few appearances in the bible, there’s so many lessons to be drawn from it and I think it’ll be great to examine what we can pick up.
It’d have been surprising if once the angel appeared to Mary calling her favoured, asking her to rejoice and calling her blessed among women – Luke 1:28, she’d have immediately responded with excitement and understanding. But no. Like we’d expect Mary was afraid. As NLT version puts it, she was “confused and disturbed and wondered what the angel could mean”. Other versions say she was “greatly perplexed“; “greatly troubled at his words” and “thoroughly shaken“.
I’m often surprised at people who express no fear, no concerns or uncertainties about the future. People who are always a 100% optimistic and positive. For me this stage only comes after a while. I’m often scared of the unknown, afraid as to what could happen. And I think that’s fine. It’s only human nature to be. As long as we don’t then remain in that spot of fear and worry. So whether you’re thinking of launching a new project that you have no idea how it’ll come together or your life is taking a new turn, or you’re being called by God to do something you’d never imagined – and your initial reaction is fear or concern, don’t think you’re automatically a failure. You’re actually in good company and you’ll see that like Mary, a lot of God’s servants started out this way. Think Moses who gave excuses of being a stammerer; think Jeremiah who was afraid he was too young and think Jonah who actually did run away!
Well, thankfully Mary didn’t let her fear or concern get the better of her! If she had, God may have had to find someone else to give birth to Jesus or some way else entirely – because pretty sure he was bent on redeeming the world. So after she asked “but how can this be?” and the angel explained how exactly the birth was to happen, she obeyed and believed responding: “May it be done to me according to your word“. This was the defining moment of everything. And it’s key to note two things. First, and obviously was her obedience. God created us such that we have absolute free will and he wouldn’t force us to say yes. So when he asks us to take a step, it’s totally up to us to accept or refuse. Ofcourse he hopes that like Mary, our response would be yes. And maybe just like Mary, our yes could significantly change the world – or someone’s world.
The second point was that she had some more explanation of how exactly she was to bear this son. The angel used Elizabeth’s story to show his point. At this point she understood more. It was obviously not still a 100% clear. I mean it had still not happened before that a virgin would bear a child. And Elizabeth was way older and married. But at least there was some explanation as to the power of the Holy Spirit to do the impossible and at this point, she gave her yes. In our everyday lives, in planning projects or tasks or in making decisions, or obeying commands, I think it’s okay to have a few plans or steps to implementation or general idea what and how our plans will take effect. This need not be 100% and doesn’t mean we’re being naive. The ultimate bottom line is trusting in God’s promises and direction and like Mary, being able to say “let this happen according to your will Lord“.
After all of this, Mary went to visit her cousin Elizabeth in the hill country of Judea. It couldn’t have been an easy travel – and an estimated 80 – 100 miles from Nazareth where Mary lived. And it’s not like we had trains or buses or airplanes! At the best, caravans or perhaps horses? We also don’t know if she had to make the journey alone or had anyone accompany her. She probably did it alone – going out of her way to visit her pregnant cousin and staying with her for 3 months!
Genuinely and truly, how often do we go to extra mile for people not because there’s anything in it for us, but simply to be there for them. To help them! Or even to just spend some time with them. Even in this day of easy communication, how often do we pick up the phone to reach out and actually hear people’s voices. Has our help, support and reaching out been reduced to likes and double taps?
We also see how much concern she expresses for others literally causing Jesus to perform his first miracle at the wedding in Cana (John 2: 1-9), and ensure that the wedding hosts were not embarrassed by running out of wine – even when according to him “his time had not yet come“. Do we truly seek to act as a light to others, pointing out persons who may be in a position to help, even when we cannot help directly. Or would we have shrugged it off saying ‘not my problem; I’m just a guest at this wedding anyway‘
Finally, at the foot of the cross, as her son was being crucified, think of the pain and anguish she was going through being there. This child whom she had painstakingly carried was about to go through one of the worst forms of death – crucifixion. In a number of African traditions, parents aren’t allowed to be at the funeral of their children – how much more watch them die. Yet in the midst of all of this, she hid her sorrows, making time to be there for her son and possibly console him (John 19:25). Perhaps, realising how much pain and support she will probably need after this encounter, Jesus hands her over to John (John 19:26). How often are we able to put own own problems aside to be there for others? Food for thought.
Right after the little baby John in Elizabeth’s womb leapt up to acknowledge Mary (which I think must have been such a cute moment!) and Elizabeth praised Mary saying “Blessed are you amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb‘, Mary burst forth is what is today regarded as the Magnificat (the first word in the latin translation of this passage) – Luke 1: 47 – 49; obviously first giving praise to God for everything and showing clear humility.
But one thing that struck me was this phrase “For behold henceforth all generations will call me blessed, For He who is mighty has done great things for me“. Was she being overly proud when she made this statement and in today’s lingua ‘simply feeling herself too much?‘. I don’t think so. I think she was recognising and accepting the honour God had given her. Many times we shrink our worth. We’re super modest. We shy away and hide our gifts like the man who was given one talent in the parable of the talents (Matt 25:14-30). Not sure God wants us to act this way. It’s okay to acknowledge your talents, your blessings your skills – while not crossing over to arrogance.
In this fast paced world of today, the truth is that we hardly have time to reflect and to meditate. Luke 2 however shows two instances of Mary’s reflections. In verse 19 after the shepherds had said so much about Jesus, ‘Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart“. To ponder means to: think about (something) carefully, especially before making a decision or reaching a conclusion. To contemplate; to meditate on.
Similarly verse 51 says ‘His mother kept all these things in her heart‘. She must have been quite the ponder-er; often going to a quiet place to ruminate on things and to seek God’s wisdom. It’s without a doubt one habit we should adopt.
I don’t know anyone who is a mother or wishes to be a mother that doesn’t get the least anxious about the well being of her kids or kids to be. Mary was no different even when her son Jesus was 12. After he got away from their company, and went to sit in the midst of elders, she remarked ‘why have you done this to us. Your father have I have been worried‘ – Luke 3:48. I guess Jesus’ response should ultimately be the calming factor for every mum, that they can’t realistically be with their kids all the time. But they can bask in the assurance that they’d be with their heavenly Father all of the time – the one who truly looks over them.
For someone who didn’t make so much of an appearance in the bible, yet was chosen by God to bring forth our salvation, there’s so much to learn from her life. And these are just some of my thoughts.
Have you ever considered her life – what are your thoughts? What lesser known (or talked about) bible characters inspire you?
pS: As a child, did you ever act in the nativity? I did, as Mary of course! What role did you play?
ppS: I thought it was pretty cool how I found the stock photo above with that verse about Mary’s pondering!