A guest post by Krisi Hillebert
Mary is a woman remembered and revered throughout every generation. There is no woman more famed than her. Yet our knowledge of her is extremely limited. She was a poor girl living in Nazareth. She was betrothed to Joseph. And she had found favor with God. Her story in many ways mirrors the story of Elizabeth, her relative. Both Mary and Elizabeth are told by an angel that they will bear a son who will play a major role in the salvation of Israel.
However, there are striking differences to their stories as well. Zechariah and Elizabeth in many ways are what we would expect for the parentage of a divine agent. They were both from a priestly line and were righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all His commandments.
In contrast, there is no background information on Mary’s life previous to God’s intrusion. We are not told why Mary is favored – only that God had chosen her for a divine task. Perhaps the gospel writers are trying to emphasize the free gracious choice of God to use Mary for His purposes. God is at work here, not mankind, to execute His salvation. Zechariah and Elizabeth are a picture of Old Testament Judaism, but Mary is a picture of something new.
She is not presented to us in relation to the law. Our picture of Mary is that God chose her, and she consented to His plan. If Abraham’s faith was the start of the Old Covenant, Mary’s faith was the start of the New Covenant.
Luke’s account of Gabriel’s message to Mary quickly shows that this Child is unlike any other. Here the story drastically veers from Gabriel’s promise to Elizabeth. For this Child of Mary will be called Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David, and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His Kingdom there will be no end (Lk 1:32-33).
Mary is troubled and pensive when she hears this message. Unlike Zechariah who was fearful and required proof of God’s promise concerning the birth of John the Baptist, Mary ponders this strange message and tries to understand its meaning. She does not question God’s fulfilling of the promise; she merely asks the means by which this miracle would occur since she was a virgin. Gabriel tells her that she will conceive by the Holy Spirit, and then offers her a sign – Elizabeth who was barren had conceived in her old age. This would be the sign to Mary that nothing is impossible with God.
Mary asked no further questions and made haste to see Elizabeth. It would have been a 50-70 mile journey for Mary to reach the hill country where Elizabeth lived. This great distance gave her time to ponder over all she had heard. But rather than doubt setting in, her faith grows stronger. When she reaches Elizabeth, her joy is overflowing, and Scripture records her song:
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for He has looked on the humble estate of His servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for He who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is His name. And his mercy is for those who fear Him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with His arm; He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; He has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich He has sent away empty. He has helped His servant Israel, in remembrance of His mercy, as He spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to His offspring forever” (Lk 1:46-55).
Mary believed that what was happening to her was the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham and Israel. Hundreds of years had passed since the prophecies were spoken, and she was going to watch God’s faithfulness unfold. He was going to overturn the dreadful norm. The rich and the proud would be brought low, and the hungry and poor would be remembered. God’s grace had come. And she believed that He would accomplish all that He said.
When we remember Mary and her belief that ushered Christ into this world, we should consider that perhaps the most difficult moment of faith was not in accepting the angel’s words initially. Perhaps even you and I would accept the message of an angel.
But Gabriel departed, and she was left there alone.
She was left with the task of telling Joseph that she was pregnant in a community that could execute her for conceiving out of wedlock.
She had to wrestle with Simeon’s prophecy that her child was appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel and that a sword would pierce her own soul.
How difficult it must have been to understand her twelve-year-old son who stayed behind in Jerusalem while they frantically searched for him for three days.
And oh the struggle to reconcile God’s promise to her while she watched her Son, the Son whom the angel had promised His kingdom would have no end, executed on a cross.
In these darkest moments, with no angels around her, she had to believe that God would still do all He had promised. She had to remember all those things she had treasured and pondered in her heart. This is the Mary that we remember, whose faith endured the deepest crisis. The woman who clung to Gabriel’s promise, “Nothing is impossible with God” (Lk 1:37).
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Beverly Roberts Gaventa, Mary: Glimpses of the Mother of Jesus
Hans Urs von Balthasar and Joseph Ratzinger, Mary: The Church at the Source
Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives