This article originally appeared in the December 12, 1986 issue of Christianity Today.* * *
At Christmas, most Protestants are tolerant enough to allow Mary limited access onto our greeting cards and into our crèches and carols. But the rest of the year she is a victim of simple neglect. In bending over backwards to avoid certain excesses of veneration, we have abandoned Mary to a kind of evangelical limbo.
Yet it could be different if we avoid both extremes, and look at Mary clearly enough to see the woman shown us in the Bible. Not only was she a simple mortal, unpretentious enough for us all to identify with, but she nudges our self-centered "me generation" toward the path of the God-centered, the faithful, the obedient. If we read Mary into each one of the Beatitudes, we will not falsify her character.
From Mary we may also learn about the courage to say yes, especially as we are faced with challenges from God that may seem to us nearly as impossible or outrageous as the angel's demand.
It seemed too much to ask
of one small virgin
that she should stake shame
against the will of God …
and it seems much
too much to ask you, or me,
to be part of the
different thing –
God's shocking, unorthodox,
unheard of Thing,
to further heaven's hopes
and summon God's glory.
Mary said yes to God. Perhaps God chose her body and her spirit as the venue for Christ's arrival on our planet because he knew it was her habit of life to say yes to her father and her Father.
… We have seen the studies, sepia strokes across yellowed parchment, the fine detail of hand and breast and the fall of cloth—Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Titian,El Greco,
Rouault—each complex Madonna positioned,
sketched, enlarged, each likeness plotted at last
on canvas, layered with pigment, like the final
draft of a poem after thirty-nine roughs.
But Mary, virgin, had no sittings, no chance
to pose her piety, no novitiate for body or for heart. The moment was on her unaware:
the Angel in the room, the impossible demand,
the response without reflection. Only one word of curiosity, echoing Zechariah's "How?"
yet innocently voiced, without request for proof.
The teen head tilted in light, the hand trembling a little at the throat, the candid eyes, wide with acquiescence to shame and glory –
"Be it unto me as you have said."
After Mary said her unmistakable yes, after her insemination by the Spirit of God, "the angel left her" isolated, in silence. His bright presence had imprinted itself in her eyes, his words still sang in her ears, the seed of God burned in her body. No wonder she needed to talk to another woman! And how serendipitous it must have seemed that God had also worked a miracle of conception in Elizabeth.* * *
Two Greek words for blessed give us significant clues to the kind of person Mary was. In Luke 1:42, Elizabeth's greeting word is eulogetos—"Blessed are you among women"—a term that told her, as had Gabriel, that she was specially favored, or well-spoken of, by the Lord.
This Jewish blessing could not be revoked or reversed; the sound and the meaning of it would live and throb in Mary's mind as a perpetual sign of God's affirmation and approval, in spite of all the trials that would track her life. Being "blessed" meant that God favored and trusted her enough to burden her with one of life's most difficult roles: being the mother of a paradox—one who was God enfleshed in a man's body, yet was considered a failure, and ultimately, a criminal.
The other word for blessed used by Elizabeth was makarios—which means "satisfied, fulfilled; full of God." The context in which Elizabeth spoke this prophetic word was significant. Mary was to be full of God (both physically and spiritually) because she "believed that what the Lord had said to her would be accomplished." The Spirit-impelled dialogue between these two women occurs in a kind of euphoria of holy wonder. "My spirit rejoices in God my Savior!" Marvel! Sing aloud to the Lord! (Is she thinking and speaking, this pregnant adolescent, in italics and exclamation marks?)
It is almost too extraordinary for her to believe that, young and inexperienced and unremarkable and female as she is, through her Jehovah will "help his servant Israel."
Mary will need the exhilaration of these days to balance the pain of the next 33 years and beyond. For God's trust of her is deep enough not only to fill her with his heavy glory but also to draw her into the agony of Incarnation, to share with her the inevitable clash of spirit with flesh, of infinite with finite. There was as much pain as there was promise in that moment when Mary became a mother-to-be.
In the biblical account Mary seems more mother than wife. And like all human mothers, certainly like me with my children, Mary knew not only pride but pain. I think I'm like my son John, who as a young boy once asked me, "Why did God make me so I feel hurt so easily?" I thought a bit before I replied, "Because he knows that your capacity for beauty will only be as deep as your sensitivity to pain."* * *
I wonder, sometimes, about young people today who choose to be childless. In their concern for career, comfort, convenience, for personal self-development, may they be depriving themselves of one of God's most effective teaching tools? Had I lived without the singing joy as well as the devastating pain of being a parent, my understanding and appreciation of God the Father would have been drastically limited.
Mary didn't close herself off from God in such a way; she said yes without knowing all that parenthood would involve, but with trust that God knew, and that he was the Parent who loved her.
Mary. Her name means bitterness. From the hour of Announcement on, dark pain lay ahead—friends' incredulity, lack of understanding, accusations of promiscuity and her son's illegitimacy, to begin with. She also faced the possible loss of her betrothed, Joseph; until the angel reversed his direction through a dream, Joseph had resolved to break the contract between them and leave Mary to carry and bear her baby alone. After she had returned from Elizabeth to her own village, to make her home with Joseph, Mary experienced the weariness of months of pregnancy—an unsensational hardship, culminating in the long, southward journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. She and Joseph were poor, and even if they had a donkey to ride, a blanket on the back of an ass is no easy seat for a woman nine months pregnant, her body cold and stiff from sitting on the plodding animal for hours at a time.
Bethlehem, in turn, seemed so harsh and unwelcoming in the winter night. Perhaps her first uneasy cramping of labor had begun, and the panic of helplessness as the busy innkeeper turned them away.
From the way Luke 2:4-7 is written, there is no indication that the baby born so infelicitously to Mary is anything unusual—just another out-of-wedlock child born to a teenager on the road. It is the shepherds who receive the birth announcement who express amazement, who see and identify this newborn as someone unique. Talk about light shining out of darkness! Talk about paradox! That red, squashed, baby face is the brightest thing a manger has ever contained.
Reading and meditating about Mary, I am reminded again and again of the juxtaposition of opposites that recur in the Bible. The pain of childbirth joined with the exhilaration of having produced the manchild who was God. The pain of place—an animal shelter humble and primitive—coupled with, the glory of the shepherds' numinous experience: an affirmation of the miraculous, with angels at their work of announcement again. The excitement of the arrival of wealthy Gentile astrologers, bringing worship and exotic gifts to the feet of a Jewish baby, resulted later in the awful weight of pain that Mary must have felt at Herod's massacre of the infants. She realized that her own little one was protected at the life cost of all the baby boys of Bethlehem who died in Jesus' place.* * *
Joy and pain must have struggled for supremacy in Mary's emotions as she tried, in her soul's privacy, to put it all together, to weigh each event and wait for its meaning to come clear. If she had lived today, she might have caught it all in a journal, as I did during the recent months of my husband's illness and death. I learned, as Mary must have, that woven into the fabric of life crises are moments of epiphany and exultation. The paradox of God's plans! Mary, illiterate, had to hoard it all in her intelligent heart.
Mary's calling was to carry the body of God, and to bear not only her own pain but her son's, feeling his anguish as intensely as all mothers before or since have felt with their children. She might have expressed the doubled predicament in words like these:
… now native to earth as I am, nailed to my poor planet, caught that I might be free,
blind in my womb to know my darkness ended,
brought to this birth
for me to be new-born,
and for him to see me mended
1 must see him torn.
As the Law dictated, Jesus' parents presented their new son to the Lord in the Jerusalem temple. Simeon's prophetic words, spoken out to God with God's own child cradled in his arms, glittered with golden words—peace, salvation, light, revelation, glory (Luke 2:29-32). But then, as the old man turned and fixed his piercing eyes on Mary, he uttered a blessing that was weighted with both promise and foreboding: "This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too" (Luke 2:34, NIV). With his soul's eyes, Simeon saw the link between Christ's rejection and Mary's own anguish, and from then on, the sword of his remembered words pierced and penetrated her.* * *
Mary said yes to God. Did she wonder, during the next 30-odd years, why he had invaded her body and her life in such a shocking, unparalleled way, only to keep her waiting as her son's years passed in the mundane dailyness of a small-town carpentry business? And further down the road, what questions about God's purposes filled her mind as her Promised One headed for certain destruction at the hands of his opponents? Unfulfilled promise in a child is always painful for a human mother, especially when prolonged. Perhaps she needed that shocking first Announcement, those unforgettable memories, to keep her going, to rekindle her belief in his destiny.
As he moved into maturity, did Jesus cause his mother another kind of pain? The Lord kept some of his hardest sayings for Mary (but "blessed is she who is not scandalized in me"). Feel, if you are a parent, the tone and the impact on her of words that disclose a higher loyalty: "Why were you searching for me? Didn't you know I had to be in my father's house?" (Why be so unreasonable? Why search for a truant 12-year-old? Why feel anxiety when the son given you by God turns up missing and you cannot find him for at least three days? Why be astonished when you hear him not only asking but answering the questions of the temple theologians?) Yet this crisis of losing and finding Mary also "treasured in her heart" (Luke 2:51).
After this Jesus returned with Mary and Joseph to Nazareth, where he "was obedient to them … and grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men" (Luke 2:52). Such growth also includes establishing emotional independence from parents, an uneasy process in any family, but one that Jesus had already begun during the Jerusalem trip. It is painful for any mother to see her child need her nurture and protection less and less, and surely Mary was not immune to this pain.
Mary's womanly concern is demonstrated again at the wedding feast at Cana (John 2:1-5). When she alerts Jesus to the problem of the wine shortage, he seems to distance himself from it and her. "Why involve me?" he asks, and it sounds like a rebuke.
In the account given in Mark 3:31-34 of the family's visit to Jesus (he was tangling with the Jewish teachers of the law), Christ seems again to be pulling away from his mother and brothers. He has been accused of demon possession, of performing miracles by Satan's power, and even his kin are worried that he is "out of his mind." Yet when he is told that his concerned mother and brothers are outside looking for him, he counters with a rhetorical question, "Who are my mother and my brothers?" and then answers it.* * *
It is those seated in the circle around him. "Whoever does God's will is my brother and sister and mother." Blood relationships are discarded in favor of the larger family of God. For Mary, her heart already bearing the wounds of love, such words must have stung.
The culmination of Mary's pain and glory is shown in the final references to her in John 19, and in Acts 1. At the cross, under its very arm, near its human victim, she waits in a trinity of Marys, and reading between the terse lines of Scripture we can guess at what she is going through. "Lord, here I am," that long-ago surrender, seems easy compared with "Lord, here is my son."
By now she has learned one of the lessons I am just beginning to understand—that pain is a fire that purges; that it works in us what no amount of pleasure can accomplish; that it is best not to dodge pain but to let it hurt, and to live through it to the other side. The games we play to distract ourselves or numb the pain only postpone its benefits.
Mary has reached the nadir of anguish. She has said yes to God and gone through all the allotted pain of his purpose for her. The next words in the Passion narrative are full of a tenderness and love that transform pain. "When Jesus saw his mother there, with the disciple whom he loved standing near by, he said to his mother, 'Dear woman, here is your son,' and to the disciple, 'Here is your mother' " (John 19:26-27).
After the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, Mary found her rightful place in the upper room (Acts 1:14) with the others of his inner circle, equally joined with them in the risk and intimacy of prayer, the responsibility for the young church. By faithfulness she had demonstrated her value to God and to his "sent ones." Her suffering had been redemptive.
It took over 30 years — a long testing time for a human. But after the endless, purging pain came the healing love and the rewards of glory: the filling with the breath of God at Pentecost, the tongues of fire, telling both heat and light. That is what happens when any of us says yes to God, as Mary did.* * *
… because eternity
was closeted in time
he is my open door
From his imprisonment
my freedoms grow,
Part of his body, I transcend this flesh.
From his sweet silence my mouth sings.
Out of his dark I glow.
Luci Shaw is the author of nine volumes of poetry including What the Light Was Like (WordFarm, 2006), Accompanied by Angels, (Eerdmans, 2006) The Genesis of It All (Paraclete, 2006) and the non-fiction prose book The Crime of Living Cautiously (IVP, 2005). She is Writer in Residence at Regent College in Vancouver, B.C.
Other Christianity Today articles on Mary include:
The Mary We Never Knew | Why the mother of Jesus was more revolutionary than we've been led to believe. (November 28, 2006)
The Blessed Evangelical Mary | Why we shouldn't ignore her any longer. (December 1, 2003)
The 'Assumed' Fate of Jesus' Mother | Roman Catholics celebrate the Feast of the Assumption on Sunday. What's "up" with that? (Aug. 13, 2004)
The Serene Contradiction of the Mother of Jesus | Why I reclaimed the virgin mother as a significant figure in my faith (December 1, 2002)
There's Something About Mary | Beliefs about Jesus' virgin mother vary between Christians of the early church, Roman Catholics, and modern-day Protestants, but this model of total trustful devotion has lessons to teach all Christians. (December 1, 2002)
His Mother | Learning from Mary, the maternal model. (May 12, 2000)
Christianity Today reviewed one of Luci Shaw's newest book of poems, What The Light Was Like. Her other recent books include Accompanied by Angels, (Eerdmans, 2006) The Genesis of It All (Paraclete, 2006) and the non-fiction prose book The Crime of Living Cautiously (IVP, 2005).