Lenten Devotional Series: The Women Who First Followed Jesus
MARY: THE MOTHER WHO LEARNED TO FOLLOW HER SON
Read and pray through Luke 2:41-52;John 2:1-11;Mark 3:20-35.
Introduction | Tomorrow, with the observance of Ash Wednesday, we begin the season of Lent. Lent, which means “springtime or renewal,” began to be observed by the Church sometime during the 4th century. The period of Lent spans forty days (not counting Sundays) modeled after Jesus’ time fasting in the wilderness before beginning his earthly ministry.
In order to have a more intentional, deeper, and introspective experience, many Christians choose to fast, or to give something up, for Lent. One may fast from a meal, a particular habit, a material possession, or daily activity – anything that one perceives to be a distraction, an addiction or an idol in their lives. Others will choose to take something on – a spiritual practice or a continued act of service – again, in order to press more fully into the presence of Jesus and the life of the Kingdom of God. Doing either of these things should not be viewed as an obligation or as a sign of spiritual superiority. Such practices, like the season of Lent itself, are but a tool for being more mindful and more open in one’s journey of faith with Christ.
Over these next few weeks of Lent, we invite you to take up the practice of reading and reflecting on the women who first followed Jesus. We all know that the four gospels specifically emphasize the twelve disciples whom Jesus called to “Come and see.” But there are several women who also follow Jesus as he teaches, heals, offers miraculous signs, and purposefully makes his way towards first, offering himself on a Cross, but ultimately rising to a life beyond death.
Each week we are going to look more closely at one of these women so we can better appreciate what they each saw in Jesus and how they learned to follow his lead with their lives. Each Tuesday, I’ll provide an overview and some brief reflection on the life of each of these women. Each Thursday, one of the female members of our staff will offer their own personal reflections as to the life and witness of each of these faithful women. Each Saturday a Lectio Divina prayer exercise will be provided to reflect more deeply in the Spirit in terms of each week’s devotional theme and focus.
Reflection | We begin this devotional series by looking at Mary, the mother of Jesus. During the Advent season, we considered how Mary responded to the news of her surprise pregnancy by way of the Holy Spirit as well as the birth of her son named Jesus. Now, let us reflect on Mary’s initial interactions with Jesus, as he grew up and began to live into his specific call as the long-awaited Messiah, first of Israel, but ultimately for all the world.
While Mary may be one of the most famous women who ever lived, there is yet surprisingly little in the New Testament about her. She is featured only in a few encounters in the Gospels and makes a brief appearance in the Book of Acts. Nonetheless, as we’ll see over the course of two devotions – one now and one during Holy Week –though the word “disciple” is never used directly in association with Mary, she demonstrates the spirit of what a disciple is. What stands out initially about Mary is that she, like the rest of us, and perhaps even more so as Jesus’ mother, had to learn how to follow Jesus.
Her first lesson comes by way of the only story we have in the four gospels about Jesus’ boyhood. As recounted by Luke, a teenage Jesus accompanied his parents, Mary and Joseph, to the city of Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover feast, as was their annual custom. After eight days of holiday (see Leviticus 23:5-6), Jesus’ family, likely traveling in caravan, begin the journey back home. However, Jesus is not with them. He has remained in Jerusalem unbeknownst to his parents. In the Bible’s version of the movie “Home Alone,” it is not difficult to imagine such a large family traveling by caravan could have assumed Jesus was present with them.
The family is about a day’s journey in – probably some twenty miles’ distance from Jerusalem – when Mary and Joseph realize Jesus is missing. They begin to retrace their steps – which amounts to another full day of travel. But they can’t find Jesus. So, Mary and Joseph go back to Jerusalem. Luke tells us “after three days,” Mary and Joseph found Jesus in the courts of the Temple.
It is unclear whether it took a total of three days from when Mary and Joseph noticed Jesus was missing to when they finally found him or if, after arriving in Jerusalem, it took three days for them to locate Jesus. Either way, if we are a parent or have ever had temporary custody of a child or a teen, we can empathize with the mixture of anxiety and frustration they were experiencing. Mary’s first words upon reuniting with Jesus give voice to these emotions: “Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.”
Jesus’ response to his mother, “Why were you searching for me?” ought not to be read as a rebuke but rather as genuine surprise. That Jesus is not being rebellious is evidenced by the fact that Luke tells us when Mary and Joseph didn’t understand his reply, Jesus didn’t argue but “was obedient to them.” Prior to this, Jesus attempts to explain his actions saying, “Didn’t you know that I had to be in my Father’s house?”
When Mary and Joseph come upon Jesus in the temple courts, he is sitting among the teachers of the faith listening to them provide instruction. He is also asking questions. Rightly appreciated, Judaism is a faith based on asking questions. For example, at the heart of the Passover celebration, the young are taught to ask questions. The Haggadah or the narration of the Passover story is told in response to questions asked by a child. In Jewish instruction, the highest accolade is to ask a good question.
And Jesus is asking good questions – questions that apparently reveal his amazing depth of understanding. Jesus’ noteworthy insight is equally reflected through the answers he gives to the questions asked of him by the teachers of the faith. This is a glimpse of the divine wisdom and authority that will later become a touchstone of Jesus’ ministry – that will draw people into the Kingdom of God. Viewed in this way, Jesus’ response to Mary is his articulation of both his call and his mission. Or as he will say it later repeatedly to others, “I have to come not to do my will but the will of my Father in heaven.”
While Mary’s parental anxiety in this situation is understandable, so too is her confusion. We do well to remember in this moment Mary does not have our advantage of hindsight. She cannot read the Gospels to see how Jesus’ life will unfold, what it will mean, and how it will end. Even in the midst of whatever expectations Mary has for the long-promised Messiah, Jesus’ actual ministry and most certainly its zenith will be quite different than anyone anticipated – including her.
Mary’s response in the midst of this experience is noteworthy and a witness for us all. She remains open rather than closed in the midst of her lack of understanding. Rather than label this whole episode and file it away as a memory of Jesus being insensitive toward his mother, Mary acts like an emerging disciple of her son. She does as she has done before, “treasuring or pondering all these things in her heart.”
Mary recognizes she needs time to absorb the full implications of who her Son is and what he is destined to do. She postures herself to keep learning from Jesus. The challenge to accept God’s unfathomable will in faith is ongoing in the life of the disciple. Like Mary, we need to let go of our expectations when it comes to Jesus – to what he is doing in our lives. Instead, as Mary chooses, we must let Jesus direct both what we anticipate and what we see in terms of how he is present and working in and through us.
It is many years later when we have our next encounter with Mary and Jesus. Mary is much older, the mother of a fully-grown son. Jesus is no longer a teenager but a man in his own right. Together, along with the rest of the family and the twelve disciples Jesus has called to follow him, they are attending a wedding in Cana. This moment in time is recorded in John’s gospel.
Given that Jesus, Mary, and the family were invited to this wedding, it is highly likely that it was the marriage of a relative or close family friend. Jewish wedding celebrations back then could last as long as a week. Each day new guests would show up. Good hospitality as well as the dictates of a proper feast made it crucial that the food and the wine continue to flow uninterrupted. Which leads to the tension in this story.
Implicit in the telling of this story by John is that Mary had some specific responsibility for the wedding reception. After all, in what transpires the servants follow her and her instructions. Understood in this way it makes sense why Mary is both the one to notice the emerging social faux pas and the one who is very concerned about it. The wine has run out. All the reserves have been tapped. Some serious marital, familial, and communal fallout is on the verge of erupting. And so, Mary turns to her son. She intercedes for those in need – a couple, a family about to be humiliated, shamed.
Once again, Jesus’ response can be misunderstood here: “Woman, why do you involve me?” Jesus replied. “My hour has not yet come.” In speaking of “my hour,” Jesus is referencing the timing of his mission – of what he has come to do for humanity and all creation – what will later be revealed through Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascent into glory. Addressing Mary not by name but as “Woman” is not a designation of disrespect or insubordination by Jesus. He is not rejecting his mother as much as he is redirecting her relationship to him – away from her role as a parent who dictates to her son to that of a disciple who follows him as the Messiah.
As the Messiah, Jesus does NOT act upon the instigation of others, even his mom. He acts, at His own initiative – or more properly, the prompting of the Father’s will. Jesus’ freedom from all human control is a repeated emphasis throughout the John’s gospel (See 4:47-48, 7:3-8, 11:5-6). Jesus’ mission will not be dictated by anyone else’s timetable or will.
Mary’s response indicates she recognizes that she needs to learn to follow Jesus rather than to possess and direct him as his mother. She does not answer Jesus. Unlike the earlier scene in the temple courts during Jesus’ youth, Mary does not rebuke Jesus for his insensitivity. Instead, Mary directs the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”
This is not a statement of resignation. This is a word of expectant, persevering faith. It is a response that harkens back to Mary’s reply as then a teenager to the words of the angel Gabriel about becoming the mother of the Messiah, “I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled” (Luke 1:38).
Mary is no longer pressuring her son to use his power, she is putting the ball in the court of her Lord and Savior. She turns to the servants and instructs them to follow her son’s lead. She does this, however, with utter confidence that Jesus will do something. But how Christ will intervene will be on his terms – “whatever he tells you” – and not her own.
Believing without seeing. Not looking or turning elsewhere. Trusting before the sign is given, before the miracle is manifest. This is the kind of faith Jesus cannot resist. Not Mary’s request, but her faith is honored as Jesus offers a preview of his mission – of turning nothing into something, of bringing life out of death – as he turns water into wine.
Mary was sure Jesus would intervene; but she let go of trying to dictate or control how. This is the faith of a child of God. This is the faith of one who follows Jesus. Total trust in God is not easy for us largely because we struggle with living in the present moment. We always are fixated or even worried about the future. What comes next? What about tomorrow? We are taught to operate out of posture of scarcity rather than to imagine and believe in the abundance we have thanks to Christ. And so rather than receiving what we need from the Lord we start by telling – sometimes even demanding – what we want instead.
Mary as a disciple of Jesus learned to live in the present moment rather than to fear an unknown future. She exercised a faith based not on conditions for Jesus but expressed with an openness to any future in Christ. She unconditionally trusted that whatever that future would be, it would be good – more than enough. This is the faith and trust of costly discipleship – letting go, as we like to say, and letting God.
But as we soon see, it is faith that can waver at times. It is a trust that continually is tested and deepened. When Jesus offers a glimpse of his “glory” at the wedding in Cana, John tells us — “his disciples began to believe in him” (2:11). Presumably, this includes Mary but, as we soon discover in the third chapter of the gospel of Mark, not the rest of Jesus’ family.
Jesus’ ministry is well underway. He has moved out of the Nazareth family circle into an active career of teaching and healing that is centered at Peter’s mother-in-law’s house in Capernaum. Jesus’ popularity has grown so much that the size of the crowds does not even allow him the space to eat something. When his worried family hears about this, they set out to bring Jesus back home. Being unable to assess the situation for themselves, Jesus’ family can only go on what they’ve heard. And the word on the street is “He is out of his mind.” As soon becomes clear, this is the assessment of the religious leadership who even go so far as to argue Jesus must be demon-possessed.
When his family finally arrives, they cannot get in to see Jesus because the house is filled and surrounded by a crowd. So, they send in word that they’d like to speak to him. As his birth family stands outside, Jesus addresses those on the inside and proclaims, “Here are my mother and my brothers. Whoever does the will of God is brother and sister and mother to me.” To be clear, Jesus is not disowning his family with this statement. Quite the opposite. Jesus is expanding the concept of family to include all those who do the will of God.
Mary is not set apart in this encounter but is lumped together with the rest of the family. While it is not specifically stated that Mary initiated this attempt to take control of Jesus, there also is no indication that she countered the opinion of her family. Whether or not Mary led the charge or not, it seems clear her faith still wavered before the determination of her children and/or her own paternal instinct. Of course, we can understand the concern of Jesus’ family. Nonetheless, their actions still testify to a lack of faith – possibly to being more concerned about the family’s reputation and an eagerness to stifle embarrassing gossip. Truth be told, most of Jesus’ family will not believe in him until after his resurrection!
Still, there is some encouragement for us to be gleaned from this encounter. Mary here demonstrates that our faith in Jesus can and will waver. She is not a perfect follower of Jesus and therefore, neither must we be. Mary is, like all of us, fully human and a disciple in progress. Her struggles in letting other things distract and even supersede her submission to Christ are akin to the same challenges we face.
From Mary’s example, we see that following Jesus is a daily commitment that involves a lifetime of learning – even when you’re Jesus own mother. Just like Mary, we need to be redirected and refocused at times to perceive something beyond our human requests, something deeper about who Jesus is and what Jesus is doing. The good news is this kind of faith is not for Mary or for any of us something we must generate ourselves; it is rather a gift of grace from God, a mustard seed that we have put to tend and cultivate. The fruitfulness of such faith comes from regularly abiding in Christ, in doing whatever Jesus tells us to do.
Consider & Discuss | What expectations do you have of Jesus that you need to let go of in order to better see and receive what Christ is doing in and through your life? What is your posture towards Jesus – telling him what you want, what he needs to do or listening and following whatever Jesus tells you to do? Where do you struggle to nurture the faith Christ has given you – to trust that Jesus knows what he is doing rather than to try and control the outcomes of your life?
Prayer Focus | Heavenly Father, thank You for the faith You have in me – the faith You have given me. Help me to nurture that faith by trusting You and You alone for all that I need – in every situation and every season of my life. I confess how I struggle with telling You what to do, what I want rather than listening to Your direction and seeing what You are doing – always providing what I need. Continue to teach me, to direct me, not to do what I want to do but to do whatever You tell me. In those places where my worries and my fears get the best of me, please touch me with Your assurance of Your promises in Christ – with Your peace – the peace of Jesus – that passes all understanding. May nothing in this world, in my life, supplant You as the center of my focus, my devotion, and my service. Amen.
Come, Lord Jesus, come!