The Women of Christmas (2): Mary (Luke 1:38, 45-49)
Christmas is a shocking time of year, not so much because of the ever-present juxtaposition of spiritual glory and materialistic greed that has come to characterize its celebration in our society, but rather because of the unexpected, indeed jarring, way that God chose to enter our world in the person of Jesus Christ.
People today think nothing of a nativity scene, unless, of course, its legality on the lawn of the county courthouse is being debated. They think little, if at all, of what has happened: that infinite and majestic Deity has become one with finite and broken flesh. They think little, if at all, of what did not occur with the coming of Christ, that he didn’t make his entrance into our cosmos on a golden chariot engulfed in a blaze of heavenly fire or carried aloft by cheering and adoring crowds. And it wasn’t in the prestigious city of Rome or Caesarea or even Jerusalem that he was born, but in lowly Bethlehem.
Equally shocking is that he was conceived in the womb, not of a princess or wealthy heiress, but a poor, peasant teen-aged girl from Nazareth who was pledged to marry the village carpenter. Perhaps the most amazing thing about Mary is that there was nothing amazing about her. She was, as best we can tell, quite ordinary and average among the young women of that day. The extraordinary thing about her was the way she responded to God’s gracious initiative in her life, and from that response we stand to learn much.
Contrary to what many have thought (mainly within the Roman Catholic tradition), Mary’s alleged merit or goodness played no role in her selection to be the object of this remarkable blessing. Several things deserve brief comment.
First, Gabriel came to her with the word, “Greetings” (Luke 1:28; Gk., chaire), the commonly used term for addressing someone in the first century (not unlike our contemporary “Hello!”). The Latin equivalent is “Ave!”, the imperative form of a word which means “to be well”. Sadly, some have taken Gabriel’s rather mundane greeting and treated it as an act of worship or praise or even petition (“Hail! Mary!”).
Second, he refers to her as the “favored one” (Luke 1:28) and uses a Greek word that means “to freely bestow favor upon” or “to bless” or “to manifest grace towards”. The emphasis is on the merciful and sovereign nature of this action without consideration for any merit or even demerit in the recipient (see Eph. 1:6). Gabriel himself further defines the word in Luke 1:30 when he tells Mary that she has “found favor with God.” The phrase means nothing more nor less than that Mary has been chosen by God’s sovereign grace to be the woman through whom the Messiah should enter the world. Simply put, God elected Mary to conceive Jesus.
Unfortunately, the Roman Catholic Church has complicated matters by rendering this Greek phrase with the Latin, gratia plena, which means “full of grace”. From this notion of the plenitude or surplus of grace “in” Mary developed the idea that she was endowed with the divine authority to dispense it to others in response to their prayers, thereby becoming what the Catholic Catechism refers to as “Benefactress, and Mediatrix” (CC, 969). One should not be surprised, therefore, at these papal declarations:
"God has committed to Mary the treasury of all good things, in order that everyone may know that through her are obtained every hope, every grace, and all salvation. For this is his will, that we obtain everything through Mary" (Pope Pius IX, 1846-78).
"As no man goes to the father but by the son, so no one goes to Christ except through his mother" (Pope Leo XIII, 1953).
"It is the will of God that we should have nothing which is not passed through the hands of Mary" (Pope Pius XII, 1953).
But clearly Mary is the recipient of grace in that she is the object of God’s electing love and favor. She is not the “mother” of grace who bestows it on others but the “daughter” of grace in that she is herself the product or fruit of its redemptive power. Make no mistake: Mary was uniquely blessed in being chosen for this incomparable honor. But she was not selected because of her merit nor does she possess the power or authority to dispense grace or other spiritual or physical blessings on those who may appeal to her intervention or pray in her name.
There are three things in particular concerning Mary that are worthy of our attention.
First, we should take note of her humble submission to the will of God. Her declaration in Luke 1:38 (“Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word”) has developed in response to successive angelic statements, from the troubled reaction of v. 29, to the questioning of v. 34, to this final unreserved and unqualified readiness for God’s purpose in her life, no matter the cost.
This was no easy decision! This was no painless act of submissive obedience. Yes, this was a great honor bestowed on her, but it also placed Mary in an extremely difficult and even mortally dangerous position (see Matt. 1:18-19). Pregnancy prior to marriage could expose her to ridicule, rejection, scorn, perhaps even death (Deut. 22:23f.). Yet, knowing this, she yielded herself, body, soul, and spirit, in utter surrender to God.
Hers was not a cringing, forced, coerced act, as if she were cruelly compelled against her better judgment. This was a joyful and willing receptivity to all God wanted for her. “Lord,” said Mary, “I’m utterly at your disposal. Your word, Lord, not my wishes, is what now controls my life.”
Can we say, in any and every circumstance, “Lord, I am yours; be it done unto me according to your word”? Whether it is a job you dislike but can’t change, or a marriage that brings sorrow but no escape, or a disease that inflicts pain without healing, or a responsibility that is burdensome but inevitable, can you and I say: “Lord, I am yours to do with as you please; may your glory be manifest in my life”?
Second, notice Mary’s undaunted faith in the word of God. Elizabeth described Mary this way: “And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord” (Luke 1:45). Could it be that Mary’s faith evoked this response in Elizabeth because the latter saw in her a stark contrast with the unbelief of her husband Zachariah (Luke 1:18-20)?
In any case, Mary’s faith is remarkable precisely because of what she was asked to believe. Whereas Elizabeth’s pregnancy was marvelous, even miraculous (Luke 1:7), at least John the Baptist had two parents! His birth was like that of Isaac to Abraham and Sarah. But Mary is asked to believe that she will conceive without the involvement of a man. Faith to believe that is faith indeed!
What accounts for Mary’s faith? What psychological trick did she pull to dispel the doubt that otherwise might have dominated in her heart? There was no trick or magical process that birthed such confident trust. Mary had a great faith because she knew a great God! Gabriel’s words in Luke 1:37 were sufficient for her: “For nothing will be impossible with God.” Whether it be a sinful addiction from which you’re convinced you’ll never break free, or simply the patience needed to co-exist with an annoying colleague, your faith in God’s ability to bring victory will only be as effective as your God is big!
Third, we must also learn from Mary’s joyful commitment to the worship of God. Mary’s so-called Magnificat (from the Latin, Magnificat anima mea Dominum, or “My soul magnifies the Lord” in Luke 1:46), deserves far more attention than I can give it here. But let’s note a few things of importance.
Observe her acquaintance with Scripture! Virtually every word she utters is taken from the Old Testament. She praises God by singing back to him his own words to her! She “magnifies” or “exalts” (1:46) God not by increasing or expanding his glory but by acknowledging him to be what he eternally is and yielding her life as a vehicle through which that glory and power can be seen by others.
Worship is not an afterthought with Mary. Although she is responding to Elizabeth, her soul instinctively turns toward God. It wasn’t that Mary was ungrateful to Elizabeth. She simply knew the One to whom ultimately all congratulation must be given.
“My spirit,” sang Mary, “rejoices in God my Savior” (Luke 1:47). As blessed and highly favored as she was, Mary was still a sinner in need of a Savior. She knew all too well that no one, not even the mother of the Messiah, was exempt from that universal truth that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23).
Finally, “from now on,” she declares, “all generations will call me blessed” (Luke 1:48). Indeed, we do. However, Mary doesn’t say that all generations will invoke or ask or pray for her blessing but that they will “call” her blessed for the great favor that divine and sovereign grace has showered upon her. She does not repudiate or diminish the indescribable honor of being the mother of Jesus, but she knows so very intimately the one whose might “has done great things” for her (Luke 1:49a). “Holy is his name” (Luke 1:49b).
Countless are the lessons we can learn from Mary, but these three stand out: a humble and happy submission to God’s will for our lives, irrespective of the cost in terms of human status, wealth, or power; an undaunted and unwavering faith that the word God has spoken will come to pass, circumstances and nay-sayers notwithstanding; and above all else, a joyful and jubilant celebration of God for the “great things” he hath done!