Mary the mother of Jesus plays a vital part in the Gospel. Without her acceptance of God’s call, the story would have had different characters in it, though no doubt God would still have brought about his plan for our salvation. We can learn a lot from Mary’s life from what we are told about her in the New Testament.
We remembered Mary on 15 August. The readings were Psalm 45:10-end, Galatians 4:4-7, Luke 1:46-55. My reflection is given below:
Several times in the Church year we celebrate some aspect of Mary’s life: her conception; the time for purification when the family visited the temple; the Annunciation; the visit Mary paid to Elizabeth; Mary’s birth. Today we simply remember Mary as a person, someone we can learn from in our lives of faith.
Naturally, as Mary is so important in the Christian story, extra traditions have been added to what we can glean from the New Testament. Not everyone agrees on how important or true in any sense, those are. Today I will simply look at the Mary we meet in the pages of the Bible, the young woman who sang the song of praise we know as the Magnificat and which formed our Gospel reading for today.
Mary came from Nazareth which was a town in Lower Galilee. It was something of a frontier town overlooking the Esdraelon plain. It gained security when Roman rule was in place but the people maintained their independent outlook on life. The town was near enough to major trade routes to ensure contact with a wide range of people. It wasn’t particularly well thought of; remember Nathaniel and his question: ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’
While Mary was engaged to Joseph, a local builder (‘carpenter’ covered more than just working with wood), she was visited by an angel and told that the power of the Holy Spirit would make her pregnant with a son. Mary was obviously puzzled as she asked ‘How can this be?’ Nevertheless, she didn’t allow her lack of full understanding to prevent her accepting God’s call to be the bearer of his Son, the Theotokos, as she is called in the Orthodox Church. In our lives, as in Mary’s, God often only gives us enough information for the moment, enough light to illuminate the next step, and invites us to act on it in faith. If we say ‘yes’ to God, as Mary did, we will need to trust God for our future as we are unlikely to know what the full implications of our answer will be. One thing Mary would have been very much aware of is that she would be in disgrace in society for becoming pregnant before marriage. She ran the risk of being stoned for adultery as betrothal was such an important relationship, near enough a marriage.
Little did Mary know that she would end up travelling to Bethlehem and giving birth there, far from the support of her family. Nevertheless, she and Joseph did what was asked of good Jews. They had Jesus circumcised on the eighth day and then forty days after Jesus’ birth they went to the temple to complete Mary’s ritual purification after childbirth and to make the prescribed sacrifice to redeem the firstborn child. There the family met Simeon and Anna who both recognised Jesus as the redeemer of Israel.
Like so many in the past and now, Mary, Joseph and Jesus became refugees, fleeing to Egypt to escape from King Herod and his murderous intent. They had to wait for some time until he died and Galilee seemed safe again before they could return and pick up their lives. We hear that Mary went on to have more children – James, Joses, Judas, Simon, and some daughters – becoming the typical mother of the time with a number of children to care for.
The only insight we get into Jesus’ childhood is the incident when the family went to Jerusalem for the Passover. This would have been quite a journey, not to be undertaken lightly, but shows again that Joseph and Mary took their faith seriously. It’s not difficult to imagine how distraught Mary must have been when Jesus was not found with the party of friends and family at the end of the first day’s journey home. For three days Joseph and Mary searched. It must have been very difficult to know where to look in the overcrowded city. We have no way of knowing what took them to the temple, but when they got there Jesus was there debating with the learned men. Is there any wonder that Mary berated Jesus for the distress he had caused by staying behind? What parent hasn’t felt the conflicting urges to hug and shake a child when they are found to be safe after some heart stopping incident.
So Jesus returned with his parents and was obedient to them. We’re told he grew in wisdom as he grew older and found favour with God and with people. It seems that Jesus was brought up well, no doubt with a healthy respect for his mother who it seems could have a sharp tongue! So the years passed. I suppose Jesus may have seemed like any other Jewish young man and yet Mary had plenty to think about. She had the message of the angel that started the whole story off. The shepherds told of angels announcing a saviour’s birth and singing in the sky of God’s glory. Learned men travelled from afar and brought costly gifts each with their own meaning. Simeon and Anna recognised Jesus as Israel’s redeemer, and Simeon warned that Mary’s soul would be pierced by a sword. Jesus had spoken of being in his Father’s house when he was found in the temple. So much didn’t fit with Jesus being an ordinary person.
It can be difficult to make sense of what God is doing in our lives. We may think that everything is random without a plan. It’s worth doing as Mary did and keeping hold of anything that impresses itself on us at the time. Gradually as we consider such incidents we may see a pattern, some indication of where we are going based on where we have been. This can also help us when things get tough in life. I imagine Mary had to hold on to God’s promise about Jesus and all she knew of God from her upbringing as a Jew, when she was fleeing for her life as a refugee. It probably didn’t make any sense that she should be in that predicament but she found a way to continue to trust God. I suspect that Mary’s first ‘yes’ to God had to be followed by many more yesses as she discovered what that first ‘yes’ had begun.
When Jesus finally began his public ministry we catch glimpses of Mary. At the wedding in Cana she was convinced that Jesus could help the family and her faith was justified as gallons/litres of the best wine were provided by her son. Perhaps here Mary’s ‘yes’ was ‘YES!!!’ or Yay! as we would say in SL. When Jesus was rejected in the synagogue in Nazareth, the anger and disapproval of Mary’s neighbours must have been hard to bear but still she must have said ‘yes’ as she didn’t disown her son. And when she was concerned that Jesus was wearing himself out, maybe had lost his mind, when no doubt her other children were expressing their lack of belief in his ministry, when the answer she received from Jesus was that those who did the will of God were his family, it must have been a very lonely Mary who still said ‘yes’ to God and remained a loyal mother to Jesus.
That loyalty took Mary with her sister to the foot of the cross as Jesus died at the hands of those who couldn’t or wouldn’t believe who he was. She said ‘yes’ to being present to the very end, though she surely couldn’t have understood what was going on, how this could possibly be God’s will or fulfil his promise. She accepted the pain of watching her beloved son die as a common criminal, not knowing of any future beyond that for him.
Nowhere are we told that Mary met Jesus after his resurrection. However, she is likely to have been with the disciples and others of his followers as John was entrusted with caring for her. She may have witnessed the ascension but we are not told. Certainly we know that Mary was with the group of believers who met together to pray between the ascension and Pentecost. She must have been one of those who was filled with the Holy Spirit and given the ability to speak in other languages about all God had done. Surely at that point, if not sooner, all that had happened would have made sense to Mary. She would have known that that first ‘yes’ said as a young woman allowed God’s plan to redeem the world to be fulfilled.
Mary had to wait around 34 years to see God fulfil the promise made when the Angel Gabriel spoke to her. We can learn from her that we need patience; we need to hang on to our faith despite what life throws at us, despite times when we simply don’t understand. God knows what he is doing. As Peter says in his second letter: But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.
Like Mary, those of us who have said ‘yes’ to God and have embarked on the journey of faith will have occasion to say ‘yes’ many more times. Sometimes it will be the ‘YES!!’ of joy and jubilation; sometimes it will be a ‘yes’ that barely gets past our lips as a whisper in the midst of sadness or disappointment. Ultimately God will not fail us. With Mary, let our spirits rejoice in God our Saviour.