There was nothing safe about the path God had for Mary
By Del Gray
“Mary, Did You Know?” is a beautiful Christmas song with a melody that stays in my head for days. But it is Mark Lowery’s words that impact me most. The lyrics consist almost entirely of a string of rhetorical questions directed at Jesus’ mother, Mary, after she has given birth on the first Christmas. The first verse is representative of the approach of the whole song.
“Mary, did you know that your baby boy would one day walk on water?
Mary, did you know that your baby boy would save our sons and daughters?
Did you know that your baby boy has come to make you new?
This child that you delivered will soon deliver you?”
Asking these and other questions about Mary leads to some compelling insights about the familiar Christmas story. We evangelicals and Anabaptists are not accustomed to reflecting at length on Mary, outside of the issues that come up in the doctrines of Roman Catholicism. But if we lay aside these questions, the Gospels reward us with a portrait of a young woman that serves as a model of piety, deep theological reflection and sacrificial submission to God’s will.
What did Mary really know?
Before Jesus even began to walk, Mary had been through a lot. Her typical rural peasant life had been radically changed. The angel Gabriel had visited Mary and announced what God was about to do (Luke 1:26-38). Mary learned that she would miraculously conceive a son, despite being a virgin. Gabriel also told Mary that this son would be great and that he would be put on the throne of Israel and reign over a kingdom that never ends (Luke 1:32-33).
In addition, Mary heard from Joseph that he too had talked with Gabriel about the miraculous birth of a son. Shortly afterward Mary visited her relative Elizabeth and found that her husband, Zechariah, also had an encounter with this same angel.
In the next couple of years a host of angels appeared to shepherds the night Jesus was born, and Gabriel himself spoke to Mary and Joseph at least two more times, first to warn them when their lives were in danger and then to announce when it was safe to go back home.
By this point it was obvious from the proliferation of angels in her life that something very special was going on. Mary understood that God was at work and her son, Jesus, was the focus of his plans. But the message of Gabriel was almost too dramatic to believe. Despite the fact that Israel was currently ruled by both an emperor and a king, God would somehow raise Mary’s peasant son to be the new king over Israel in place of these powerful world leaders.
In addition to the multiple appearances of angels, there was yet another event that confirmed Gabriel’s prediction. Magi came to visit telling of a heavenly sign they had seen indicating the birth of a new king of the Jews (Matt. 2:2). These distinguished foreign guests then bowed and presented gifts to Jesus as a king.
Although at this point Mary did not yet have a clear picture of what all this meant, she would have understood its significance as a pious Israelite. Mary almost certainly shared the Jewish expectation that God would send a new anointed king, the Messiah, who would reestablish the kingdom of Israel by restoring the promised line of David. Everything that was happening and all that the angels said pointed clearly to the fact that Mary’s baby, Jesus, was God’s choice to be that king.
She did not yet know, however, that this new version of the kingdom of God would take a different shape than it did under David, and that the Messiah would therefore be a different kind of king from the previous ones. Her first glimpse of this came when she met Simeon at the temple and learned that suffering would be a part of their story (Luke 2:35). Mary also later struggled to understand what it meant that Jesus was the “Son of the Most High” when at the age of 12 he stayed behind at his “Father’s house” (Luke 2:49-50).
Despite these limitations, what Mary did know was enough to warrant fear. Getting pregnant before her wedding was a major scandal in a culture that supremely valued an honorable reputation. Mary knew that her good name, her future wedding and even potentially her life were all at risk. God was at work doing something big, but it was coming at a great personal cost to Mary.
The scandal of pregnancy, however, was not the most disturbing part of God’s plan. The announcement of the birth of a new king of Israel thrust Mary and her family into dangerous international politics. Caesar Augustus had taken the throne of the Roman Empire about 22 years earlier after a string of assassinations, betrayals and civil wars. The idea that Jesus would depose Augustus and take over as king of Israel was a serious threat to the stability of the Roman peace.
King Herod had a similar history of violence in his rule as king. Josephus paints a picture of a man so paranoid that he executed most of his sons for plotting to take his place. Both rulers would be threatened by this birth and neither would think twice about using violence to get rid of the competition. Becoming the mother of Israel’s new king meant that turmoil, threats, violence and risk would most likely be part of Mary’s future. She was joining God’s movement to stand up to the current kings and declare that God had a different plan. There was nothing safe about this path for Mary.
Mary’s response is remarkable
In light of the personal cost involving potential scandal and tragic violence, Mary’s response to God’s plan was remarkable. By the end of her first conversation with Gabriel, Mary understood that she would be pregnant outside of marriage with a child that would threaten the ruling kings. When we look at similar passages where God invites the great Old Testament prophets like Moses, Jeremiah and Isaiah to difficult callings, we consistently see reactions involving fear and hesitance.
Mary’s reaction to Gabriel’s prediction, however, was full of grace and submission. In Luke 1:38 she responded by saying, “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be that everything you have said about me comes true.” Instead of making excuses or resisting God’s plan, Mary willing submitted to God and allowed him to work through her.
The very next account in Luke’s Gospel describes Mary’s visit to Elizabeth where both mother and unborn baby gave her an extraordinary greeting. Again Mary responded with remarkable wisdom and spiritual maturity. Luke 1:46-55 is the song of Mary that takes us deeply into her understanding of what God is doing. In the opening line of her song we get an immediate sense of Mary’s tone when she cries out, “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”
She continued to praise God for the things he was accomplishing through the upcoming birth of the Messiah. Mary drew heavily from the Old Testament in this song to express her joy that God was finally shaking up the present order of the world and establishing his kingdom by bringing down the proud, the rich and the rulers on their thrones while lifting up the humble and the hungry. To Mary this was the exciting climactic fulfillment of God’s promises to the patriarchs of Israel, and it was about to happen through her son.
I do not see Mary as the meek and mild figure portrayed in many Christmas plays and Western art. I believe that she was an intelligent, insightful and feisty young woman who did not shy away from the personal controversy or real danger involved in allowing God to use her in a surprising way. She eagerly embraced being placed in the center of a social and political upheaval, even though she did not understand exactly what that meant. Her faith in God was rooted in the Old Testament stories and promises that shaped how she looked at the world.
For many of us, the biblical character of Mary has been lost or minimized because of leftover baggage from past theological controversies. But when we get beyond these issues we find in Scripture a woman with a mature faith who was willing to face a life of difficulty and danger in order for God to use her however he wanted. It is no wonder that Gabriel greeted her as someone “highly favored” by God himself who entrusted Mary with the task of nurturing and raising his son. As we reflect on Christmas this year and ponder our own reactions to how God is working in our lives, let us not forget the model of this young woman whose response to God was an unqualified “May it be.”
Del Gray is associate professor of biblical and religious studies at Tabor College. He is a member of Parkview MB Church, Hillsboro, Kan.