The woman who was chosen by God to be the mother of the Lord Jesus was a woman who combined a remarkable ordinariness with an equally remarkable greatness. In one sense, she was no different from any other woman, and yet, in another sense, she stands absolutely alone in her greatness. She is a character well worthy of study. Of course, it is important that in considering the life of this remarkable woman we must maintain a scriptural balance, avoiding, on one hand, the error of making her a goddess and an object of worship, while, at the same time, ensuring that we give her the honour that her godliness deserves.
In chronological terms she comes to our attention first as ‘a virgin espoused to a man’, Luke 1. 27. Notice, firstly, her ordinariness in this. Socially, she was just a young girl, in a nondescript town. Spiritually, she was no different to the rest of humanity – she was afraid at the presence of the angel, and spoke of God as her Saviour, v. 47. Intellectually, she was perplexed when Gabriel revealed to her that a physiological impossibility was about to be her experience.1 The Spirit of God is thus emphasizing to us that Mary was no superhuman, no queen of heaven. And yet it is against this background of ordinariness that scripture reveals to us something of the true nobility of her spirit. First, her moral purity is emphasized. Her own testimony in verse 34 is, ‘I know not a man’, and this is confirmed by the statement of Matthew that these things happened ‘before they came together’, Matt. 1. 18. We must not forget that God forbids sexual relations outside of the marriage bond. Then, also, her spiritual greatness is demonstrated by her submissiveness to the will of God for her. When Gabriel tells her that she has been chosen to tread a path that will lead to the (undeserved!) ruin of her reputation, there is no hesitation on her part, no reluctance, no giving way to self-interest – her simple statement is, ‘Be it unto me according to thy word’, v. 38. Let us challenge ourselves in the light of this – what is our response to the will of God? Are we resistant, and faithless, or do we bow before the wisdom of Him whose heart ‘is most wonderfully kind’.2 May God give us all a confidence in Himself that will lead us to submit to His will in every situation of life! Remember, incidentally, that in circumstances such as Mary’s, there is nothing wrong with asking questions of God – Mary herself asks, ‘How shall this be?’ v. 34. The attitude of her heart, however, is different from Zacharias in chapter 1 – his unbelief led him to doubt the word of God, whereas Mary merely has a godly curiosity as to the means by which God will accomplish that which He has said He will do.
The next scene in which Mary is shown to us is the house of Zacharias, Luke 1. 39-56. Again, notice the ordinariness. In a situation where God has brought her into strange circumstances, a young godly woman turns to an older godly woman who has been through a similar experience. There is great wisdom in this – God has given believers to each other, and we ought to draw comfort and strength from each other. There can be a great danger in following the advice of unbelievers in times of spiritual crisis, since they cannot be expected to give us godly counsel.3 But we see also that Mary, despite her youth, is not a spiritual novice – she has a deep understanding of God, as shown by her song in verses 46 to 55. Look at the sort of things that she sings about: the joy of knowing God as Saviour, v. 47; the holiness of God’s name, v. 49; the fact that God is a God of mercy, v. 50, power, v. 51, and grace, vv. 52, 53; the fact that God keeps His promises, vv. 54, 55. There is a very simple yet profound lesson here – those who know their God will find it possible to sing even when the future seems very dark. Many of the things that are found in Mary’s song are quotations from the Old Testament. The challenge comes to us all. Do we know our Bibles well enough to be able to sing like this in times of crisis? We would do well to follow Mary’s example here.
After the birth of the Lord Jesus, the next time we see Mary is in the temple. As a devout Israelite, she has come to present her son to God, and to offer to the Lord that which the Law required. Once more she is seen as an ordinary woman – having given birth to a child, she must offer a sacrifice for her purification, like any other Jewish mother. Not only that, but all that she can bring is the smallest offering that the Law permitted – ‘a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons’, 2. 24. The reference is to Leviticus chapter 12 verse 8, where God takes account of the fact that not every woman would be able to afford a lamb. Far from being a woman in a rich and prosperous family, Mary’s resources were so few that she had to take advantage of the graciousness of God in not demanding more from His people than they are able to bring. Let us never forget that the home in which our Lord grew up was not a wealthy one as far as the world estimates these things.4
And yet, even in the midst of her ordinariness, we see more gleams of Mary’s greatness. By her very presence in the temple she is demonstrating her submission to the word of God – the attitude of heart that she showed in chapter 1 verse 38 has not been impaired by her entry into motherhood. It is always encouraging to see a believer whose enthusiasm for the things of God is not diminished when family responsibilities come along. Furthermore, let us note the other purpose for Mary’s attendance at the Temple – she came ‘to present him to the Lord’, v. 22. In other words, she acknowledges that God has first claim on her family. In Exodus chapter 22 verse 29, Jehovah declares that ‘the firstborn of thy sons shalt thou give unto me’. This is a great challenge to every believer – what do we want for our children? Are our ambitions for them restricted merely to earthly things (a career, a home, marriage, a family), or do we have spiritual desires for them? In other words, are we prepared to give them to God, and let Him use their lives for His glory?
The Temple is also the setting for the final scene involving Mary in the early life of the Lord Jesus, in the well-known incident in Luke chapter 2 verses 41 to 52, which occurred when He was twelve years of age. Once again, her ordinariness is evident in the series of mistakes that she makes. First, she makes a wrong assumption – presuming that He is in the family group as they journey home. This leads to a needless emotion – she spends three days of sorrow, searching for Him. The outcome is an unfair action. She gives expression to her [understandable!] anxiety and criticizes Him for what she perceives to be His thoughtlessness. Notice the significance of this – a wrong assumption about what the Son of God was doing ended up in an unwarranted criticism of Him, and drew forth a rebuke from Him. Sadly, we too can be guilty of the same thing, and call into question the way that God deals with us. Let us ever bear in mind that in His dealings with us the Son of God is always ‘about His Father’s business’.
But even here, amidst all this all-too-human weakness, the greatness of Mary’s character shines through once more. Firstly, notice that she had made it her custom to attend the occasions when the people of God were gathered together, and that she did so along with her husband. Is this true of each of us as well? Remember that the command of scripture is that we are not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together, Heb. 10. 25; remember, also, that there are incalculable benefits of regular attendance at the assembly gatherings – not the least of which is that if I am habitually among the Lord’s people, it is there that I (and my family!) will form the relationships that so often prove to be a support in Christian experience. I cannot expect to have Christian friends if I do not spend time with the Christians! Secondly, let us notice the way that Mary learns from her interaction with the Saviour. Having been gently rebuked by Him she does not (as others might have done) succumb to resentment or despair, but thoughtfully treasures up His words, and makes them the daily food of her heart. There is great spiritual maturity in this – it is often the case that the greatness of a saint is seen not in their strong points, but in how they respond when their weak points are revealed. Mary goes through the uncomfortable experience of having to realize that her anger at what the Lord had put her through was unjustified, but she uses that experience to grow in the things of God. And the wonderful result of those years of thoughtful meditation is evident the next time we see her. A problem arises at the wedding in Cana of Galilee, and having told the Lord all about the problem she is able, with the moral authority borne out of the previous eighteen years’ experience, to turn to the servants and say to them, ‘No matter what He asks you to do, no matter how unusual His instruction may be, I have learned from experience that it will be to your advantage to do as He tells you’.<
Let us leave her there – this greatest of all women, whose character can be summed up in the two wonderful expressions that ‘bookend’ the early years of the Lord’s life: ‘Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word’; ‘Whatsoever he saith unto you, do it’. May something of her character be seen in us!
Remember that this also shows us that Mary was no credulous young girl, ready to believe any miraculous-sounding story – she knew that children are conceived by one means and one means only.
Faber’s hymn (‘There’s a wideness in God’s mercy’) goes on to say: ‘If our love were but more faithful, we should take him at his word; and our life would be thanksgiving for the goodness of the Lord’. Such words could well have been spoken of Mary!
This, of course, does not mean that we are to avoid, for example, seeking medical advice in times when that is needed. The point is that we ought to value the scriptural counsel of those who are mature in the things of God, more than the suggestions of those who are not acquainted with our heavenly Father.
It is remarkable that God gave His Son to two poor people (Joseph and Mary) to raise and to two rich people (Joseph and Nicodemus) to bury. God does not need material wealth to create conditions where godliness can flourish.