Read and pray through the Gospel of Luke, chapter 1:56 – 2:52.
Introduction | The Christmas story begins with Jesus’ family tree. And over these next few weeks of Advent, we are looking more closely at the four women highlighted in Jesus’ lineage as recorded by Matthew in his gospel: “This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham…” (Matthew 1:1). If you’re new to this devotional, we encourage you to read the Introduction to this series that explains both the structure and purpose of Matthew’s genealogy. The overall focus of this devotional is addressed as well. You can find the Introduction to this devotional series by clicking here.
Reflection | Today we’re looking at the fifth woman named in Jesus’ family tree, his mother, Mary. Mary’s presence in the story of salvation tends to remain hidden. When and if we do talk about Mary, we use words like “virgin,” “mother” and “vessel.” Sadly, as often can be the case for women, the focus remains only on her body, her gender, and her child.
Mary, however, is much more than this. She is not some incidental figure in the Gospel. After all, she is the mother of the Son of God. Long before our spirits were filled and enlivened by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the Spirit of the Lord came upon the person of Mary and through her DNA, her particular and imperfection personhood, and enfleshed the Word of God. With this in mind, let’s briefly consider who Mary was.
Prior to her encounter with an angel named Gabriel, the Bible tells us nothing about her. From what little the scriptures do tell us however; we can tease out some biographical information. Her actual Hebrew name was Miriam, after the sister of Moses. It is likely she was born in the town where we first come upon her in Luke’s Gospel, Nazareth.
Nazareth was a small hamlet in the region of Galilee bearing a total population of less than 2,000 people. It was a village of little notice or consequence (see John 1:46) amid the vastness of the Roman Empire or even the whole of Israel’s story. Nazareth is not mentioned in the Old Testament or the Talmud, the written version of what is known as the Oral Law or the history of rabbinic interpretation of the Torah. In a sense then, Mary, when she emerges in the Bible, comes out of nowhere.
Like her son, Jesus, Mary spoke Aramaic, notably with a Galilean accent (see Matthew 26:73). Given the times in which she lived, Mary also likely could converse in Hebrew, the language of her faith, and Greek, the language of commerce. Despite this, Mary probably did not know how to read or write as she grew up in a predominantly oral culture where literacy was reserved for the rare few – and generally not women.
We know Mary belonged to the peasant class of her culture. The peasantry were roughly 90 percent of the population of the Roman Empire. Making their living through farming and other self-contained professions like carpentry, the poor, working class carried a three-fold tax burden. Paying taxes to Rome, to Herod the Great, and to the Temple, the peasantry supported not only the empire but its’ much smaller, wealthy and privileged class as well.
Mary’s life, therefore, was hard and grinding. We ought to imagine her spending, on average, 10 hours a day working – performing household chores such as the preparation of meals, fabricating clothes, and drawing both water and firewood. The picture of the real, first-century Mary was less akin to the delicate and demur portrayals of later European artists and more in line with the snapshots we glimpse of women in thousands of similar villages today in Latin American, Asia, or Africa. Related to this, Mary – despite how seared her picture is into our Western collective consciousness – was not white, blue-eyed, or light haired. She would, like Jewish and Palestinian women of the time, have had olive-colored skin along with darker colored eyes and hair.
Against this backdrop, let us now recall our introduction to Mary in the Gospels. It’s a story more formally known as the Annunciation, a word which simply means “announcement.” This announcement comes to Mary while she is a virgin, recently engaged to a man named Joseph. Contrary to our modern practices and understanding, women in the ancient world ordinarily married as teens – around the age of 13 – 15 years. This was done to maximize their success in childbearing as well as to ensure their chastity. Mary, therefore, was quite young – with her whole life ahead of her – when she receives this announcement.
And this is no ordinary message. It is a divine word delivered by a heavenly messenger. God takes the first step by announcing Himself to Mary through the angel Gabriel: “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” Mary is called “highly favored” or blessed not because of anything about Mary – anything in her background, anything in her character, or anything she’s done. She is blessed because of God’s initiative and presence in her life. Mary is favored because the Lord extends grace to her – the opportunity to be a part of His work of salvation.
Understandably, Mary is, at first, greatly disturbed by all of this. She is unclear as to why the Creator of the Universe acknowledges her of all people. She is uncertain as to what making such contact forebodes for her. In response, Mary receives the encouragement that is often given in the scriptures whenever God shows up in our lives: “Do not be afraid.” Having reframed this announcement from one of dread to anticipation, the angel Gabriel proceeds to share the Lord’s plan with Mary – what exactly He purposes to do both in and through her.
What is outlined is nothing less than the coming of the promised and long-awaited Messiah. There is a talk of a son who will ascend to and hold the throne of David forever. There are inferences given to this son being like no other – “the Son of the Most High” and “the Son of God.” In short, Mary is told that she is going to be the mother of the savior of the world.
Mary, not surprisingly, both surprised and confused asks: “How can this be?” There is a lot behind this simple question. On the one hand, Mary doesn’t functionally understand how this is supposed to work. Of course, Mary knew the stories of sons like Jacob, Reuben or Benjamin – or even Isaac – being conceived by the Lord’s promise. But all those miracles happened in the context of marriage. Therefore, Mary, in hearing the news she is going to bear any child let alone the long-awaited Messiah – the Davidic king of Israel – responds, “I’m a virgin.” In other words, “I’m not married yet.”
Mary was betrothed to Joseph. Unlike our custom of an engagement, a betrothal was
a legally binding commitment to marriage, confirmed by an oath. A betrothed couple was committed to each other as they and their families made the preparations for their marriage – not their wedding ceremony – but their ability to share a life together – meaning building and securing a place to live, demonstrating the ability to sustain a living wage, negotiating a dowry from the family, etc. To break off a betrothal required a certificate of divorce. As a betrothed couple, while Mary and Joseph were essentially married, they hadn’t had sex yet.
Mary’s question, in hearing she will conceive a child, is then, on the one hand, a practical one.
And in answer, the angel Gabriel then explains the mechanics of it all – “the Holy Spirit will come on and the power of the Most High will overshadow you” – a miracle often referred to as the Immaculate Conception. However, Mary’s question of “How can this be?” also goes far beyond mere biology.
Mary just has been informed that she was going to conceive miraculously – before being married – without knowing her husband. Her “May it be” to the Lord would have to come before her “I do” to Joseph. But getting pregnant out of wedlock wasn’t the cultural norm. In fact, it was culturally very much frowned upon. Children were to be conceived and born in the context of marriage. Children conceived outside of wedlock and the women who bore them were viewed with scorn and shame.
In the eyes of her family, her community, her intended husband, Mary would be perceived as an adulteress – a lawbreaker. Her betrothed, Joseph, being a faithful observer of the Torah – a follower of God’s ways, would be legally required to divorce her. Even if Joseph was a decent man, who didn’t wish to humiliate Mary and who would not push for the full extent of his rights under the Law – public shaming, stoning and death, she still would be left without a husband. Mary would be left abandoned and stranded without a man in a man’s world. And her son, the would-be Messiah, would be raised without a father. Already poor, she would be cut off from her family and her community. She would be left with nothing.
Noticeably, none of this is addressed in the angel Gabriel’s answer to Mary. None of this is answered because a divine promise already has been given to Mary – “the Lord is with you.” All Mary is provided is all that, apparently, she needs – the Word of the Lord – the grace of God. Still, let’s acknowledge that on the face of it, part of this word from God seemed to contradict itself. According to the angel Gabriel, conceiving out of wedlock was a part of God’s plan. But this wasn’t how God’s law worked. The Law of Moses was clear. And yet now the Lord appeared to be breaking His own rules!
We’ve grown so familiar with this encounter, we’ve come to perceive Mary’s “Yes” as
obvious and logical like a fairytale ending. Instead, maybe we should envision more of a longer pause between verses 37 and 38. For while Mary may have begun to understand the logistics of God’s plan for her, how could she fathom or reconcile what the Lord was asking of her? How could Mary be ready – physically, mentally, emotionally, or even spiritually – for what was going to come next? How could anyone be?
Despite this, likely with the full awareness she was not prepared for what came next, Mary consents: “I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled.” Her “Yes” is not a response of quiet resignation, nor is it a leap of blind faith. Mary’s assent is her recognition and her trust in the God who shows up to make her ready – in the Lord comes to prepare her for how He purposes to work in and through her.
Even before the Spirit comes upon her to make her with child, the Spirit of the Lord fills her – prepares her and makes her ready. Through Gabriel, God gives Mary the faith she needs as the Lord shares with Mary how He is already present and working in her life and her community. Mary learns of how God was doing marvelous and miraculous things in the life of her aged cousin, Elizabeth – a woman who was told, who had resigned herself to not being able to conceive children. Along with this example, the Lord’s messenger adds this promise, this guarantee – “No word from God will ever fail” or as some translations read: “For nothing is impossible with God.”
There is a sacred space between Mary’s calling and her consent. We don’t know how long that pause was, but we know it was long enough for Mary to be able to get to “Yes” with God. Confronted by the Lord’s initiative – His faith in her and made ready and prepared by the faith God gave to her, Mary lets go of what she knows and takes hold of the God who knows her.
In spite of the challenges of the journey ahead – even though she cannot not see the big picture of her life or the life of her son, Jesus, Mary acknowledges whatever God has purposed for her as being the best outcome. Mary surrenders the limits of her control and welcomes the limitless possibilities of what the Lord can and will do through her.
Mary’s response to the word of God from the angel is to GO: “At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea…” Mary leaves her home in Nazareth and heads to the house of her cousin, Elizabeth. This was no small or easy journey. While the specific town in Judea is not named; the distance from Nazareth to Judea is about 70 miles. Most people believe the town itself was Ein Karem – roughly 5 miles west of Jerusalem. Mary’s journey, presumably alone, took her about 3 – 4 days.
Theories abound as to why Mary left so abruptly. Some speculate she was getting out of town to avoid the scandal that would arise from her sudden pregnancy out of wedlock. But such speculation is highly unlikely. Why would Mary need to leave town immediately? She wouldn’t be showing signs of her newly announced pregnancy yet. Even so, Mary wasn’t going to remain in Elizabeth’s house indefinitely. She couldn’t stay away from home forever. Eventually, Mary would come back and there would be no hiding her being with child.
It is pretty much guaranteed Mary didn’t just leave without telling anyone. As a teenage girl betrothed to be married, the rules of her engagement were clear. During her betrothal, a bride-to-be remained at home under her family’s supervision until the completion of the marriage ceremony. This was to ensure her protection – protection from temptation,
the protection of her reputation and to ensure her husband did his part to provide for her before they were married.
For Mary to leave, she had to tell her family. She had to speak to her betrothed, her future husband, Joseph. In addition, if, for some reason, Mary could have avoided telling them before she left, being out of their sight for a couple of months only would have complicated matters. To come back visibly pregnant, saying “Oh, the Lord did this before I left” would have made it even harder for them to understand and accept her story of an angel’s visit and being with a child while apart from her husband.
No, the scandal began before Mary stepped out the door to visit Elizabeth. Mary’s “Yes” to God leads this teenage girl to stand up to her parents and to Joseph and boldly proclaim the truth of the Gospel. How did they all react to this? We don’t know about her parent’s reaction but from Matthew we learn that after Mary shared her news, Joseph, reeling from the conversation, weighs his options. Initially, Joseph doesn’t believe his bride-to-be – and this goes on for some time. It isn’t until Joseph has a divine encounter of his own via a dream that he changes his position and takes Mary as his wife. It is likely this pivot happened after Mary got back from being with her cousin.
Prior to this, Mary likely walks alone on her journey to Elizabeth’s. She is without any company save the faith she has been given and the One who gave it to her. Thankfully when Mary reaches the home of her cousin Elizabeth and her husband, Zechariah, the reception she gets is quite different from the one she likely received at home. As Mary shares her news, the baby nestling in Elizabeth’s womb – not just kicks or tugs, but as the Greek word used here indicates, leaps for joy! Elizabeth, herself, realizes this sudden movement by her baby is no mere coincidence. Through the prompting of her unborn son, the one day to be Baptist named John, and filled with the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth too rejoices: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?…Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!”
In response to this Spirit-inspired greeting, Mary responds with the first ever recorded Christmas song. Famously known as “The Magnificat,” this title comes from the Latin translation of the first word of the opening lyric as in “My soul magnifies the Lord.” But as she lifts up her voice, Mary offers up more than just a song praising the Lord for graciously showing favor and putting His faith in a teenage girl from obscurity.
Through her singing, Mary magnifies – she narrows the lens of the listener’s attention on what the Lord will do through the child she is bearing – specifically to save the world. In particular, Mary proclaims God’s commitment to justice – putting right side up the balances of all humanity after they’ve been upside down for so long. The Lord’s aim is to lift up the poor and the lowly, the disregarded and the powerless even as He takes down the high and mighty, the domineering and self-satisfied.
Mary gets so carried away, she has the nerve and the imagination to sing – to claim such a future for herself and her people – not as what’s coming but as what is already happening. Notice the grammar in her song. Mary mixes her verb tenses. She sings not in the future tense but in the past tense – more precisely, the present perfect tense. And for those who don’t remember their grammar lessons, one of the uses of the present perfect tense is to refer to an action or state that began in the past and continues to the present time. In other words, Mary vocalizes God’s covenant promises of redemption’s arrival, of love come down, of justice rolling, of hope rising, as already coming true!
And as we witness through the growth and eventual emergence of her son, Jesus as the Christ, Mary doesn’t just name these promises; she enters into them. We glimpse her presence and participation in various key moments in the life, death, and resurrection of her son. Putting all these snapshots together, the biblical picture of Mary is far more than the virgin, meek, and mild handmaiden of the Lord dressed in Carolina blue and white, head bowed in reverence and silence, that has been etched onto so many paintings, stained glass windows, nativity sets and Christmas cards.
Far from the archetypal model of passive compliance and meek obedience, the real Mary of the Bible was a dynamic, engaged, and courageous woman of faith. Mary was the first person to say “Yes” to Jesus and therefore, Mary was the first disciple of Christ. Her relationship with the Lord – with Jesus – involved ceaseless discovery and ongoing consent. Her “Yes” is the first word of faith spoken and lived in following and learning from Jesus – a necessary, unavoidable step we all must take if we too would embrace Christ and grow in our relationship with Him.
Mary also became the first evangelist of Jesus. Without a pulpit, without a Bible in her hand but with scripture on her mind and the Holy Spirit in her heart, Mary preaches the Gospel through song. Abiding in both the Word and the Spirit, Mary’s voice becomes prophetic within her own community. She articulates an alternative vision of how God is working in the world even as she dares to exist and live in the realization of what the Lord promises to do in the future.
Mary’s journey of faith is our journey as well. At Christmas, God shows up. The Lord makes the first move and initiates a relationship with us. Like Mary, God gives us just enough to get started – to get to “Yes” with Him. And we, like Mary, ought to receive this invitation to be filled with the Spirit – to be in relationship with Jesus. For as the Lord reaches out to us, in that sacred space between His calling and our consent, as with Mary, God gives us the faith we need. Through the Word and the Spirit, God speaks to us, showing us of how He is working in our lives even now – preparing us to be laborers like Mary – to become vessels of grace – of forgiveness, salvation and eternal life into the chaos of our families, our communities, and our world. In light of the witness of Mary, we cannot help but ask, what could God do with our “Yes” to Him?
Consider & Discuss | Do you say “Yes” to God in the small, everyday situations of your life? What do you need to say “Yes” to more in your life as it relates to the Lord? Why is it so hard to say “Yes” to what is right and to what God asks of us? Where are the places you have difficulty saying “Yes” to God? When the “Yes” is hard, do you ask God for the grace to respond to His call?
We are all invited and challenged to bear witness to Christ – to make flesh the Word of God through our lives. How do you respond to that invitation? In what ways do you help birth Jesus into the world? It has been said, “You can be too big for God to use, but you can never be too small.” Are you too big to be used by the Lord or do you believe yourself too small for God to call upon? How does Mary’s witness – both her life and her prophetic song – challenge or encourage you?
Prayer Focus | Dear Heavenly Father, thank You for reaching out to us through the words of Your prophets, Your angels, and supremely through Jesus, Your one and only Son. Thank You that You are the God who visits the small, forgotten towns that the rest of the world overlooks. Thank You that You are the God who favors those who are not privileged, those who aren’t ready or prepared for Your glory. Thank You that You believe in us – that You give us faith – long before we believe in You. Thank You through by faith You enlarge our vision, our courage, and our voice for Christ and Your Kingdom. As we ponder the witness of Mary’s life, may we so live our lives as to follow Jesus as she did. As we listen to You reveal Your intentions for all creation through her song, may our lives sing and give birth to Christ in the midst of the injustices and poverty of others. Teach us to believe and to abide in Your promise that nothing is impossible with You. Work Your mighty power in our lives as You did with Mary, so that like her, we can accomplish all Your purposes through us. For we join our voice with hers in saying, “I am the Lord’s servant. May all Your word through us be fulfilled.” Amen.