Each year we hear the story again as part of the Christmas service. But I wonder if we’ve ever paused to consider how much saying ‘yes’ to the angel Gabriel cost Mary, not just for nine months but for the rest of her life?
We know that Mary was a godly young woman because the Archangel Gabriel told her that God was pleased with her (Luke 1:30). When Gabriel appeared before her, he tells her not to be afraid and that she will conceive and give birth to a son, and will name him Jesus. ‘He will be very great and will be called the Son of the most High. The Lord God will give Him the throne of his ancestor David. And He will reign over Israel forever; His kingdom will never end!’
Mary’s question to Gabriel wasn’t because of unbelief, but a need to know how it could happen when she, Mary, was a virgin? She was engaged to Joseph, but in those days an engagement was regarded as legally binding as a marriage even though the actual ceremony and consummation would not occur for as long as a year afterwards. The time between was a sort of testing of fidelity with the couple having little, if any, contact with each other.
When Mary said, ‘I am the Lord’s servant; may your word to me be fulfilled,’ she must have known she was putting herself at great risk. She knew that under Jewish law Joseph could have taken her before the elders for judgement because of her unfaithfulness and she could be stoned to death. Instead, Joseph, ‘a righteous man’, thought of having her put away quietly, until the angel visited him in a dream (Matthew 1:20-25) and explained to him that all this was bringing about the fulfilment of prophecy that a virgin would bear a child who was to be the Saviour (Isaiah 7:14). Joseph did as the angel instructed and took Mary home as his wife. But he had no union with her until she gave birth to Jesus. (Matthew 1:20-25).
Communities in Israel were small and close-knit and there would be opprobrium towards Mary and Joseph. Perhaps an echo of this comes in the Pharisees’ challenge to Jesus in John 8:19 when they ask Him, ‘where is your father?’ Later they said, ‘we are not illegitimate children – the only Father we have is God Himself.’
There was also the gruelling journey of 90 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem, riding a donkey. Estimates are that it took four days – four days of riding a donkey in her condition! No one has commented on it, but I think God did a miracle for Mary because any mother will tell you that even an hour riding a donkey at that late stage would bring on a fairly swift delivery. The sort you read about in a hospital car park. And when they eventually arrive in Bethlehem there is no place to stay, only the stable.
Once back home, they present the infant Jesus, as required, at the temple. Simeon blessed them, and he gave Mary this astonishing message – ‘this child is destined to cause many in Israel to fall, and many others to rise. He has been sent as a sign from God, but many will oppose Him. As a result, the deepest thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your very soul.’ Not the kind of blessing we would like at a Christening.
We know that the sword pierced her soul deeply at Calvary, as she watched Jesus crucified at Calvary, and when the dying Jesus gave her into the care of His loving and loyal disciple John. There would be no more Jesus at home to support her, and at the time Jesus’ brothers didn’t believe in Him. (John 7:5).
Mary would have felt a sword in her side to a lesser extent every time she heard of Him being opposed and rejected by many during his preaching ministry. Although extraordinarily little is written about His upbringing, there are glimpses of a close relationship between them.
When they are at a wedding in Canaan and the wine runs out (John 2:1-11), Mary tells Jesus that they have no wine. He says, ‘what’s that got to do with me?’ But she tells the servants to do whatever He tells them to. And He turns the water into wine – into the best wine. The Scripture says that it was the first of the signs through which He revealed His glory; and His disciples believed in Him. He did it out of the kindness of His heart, blessing both the wedding host and His mother.
Mary is not our intercessor: that is Jesus. We don’t worship Mary, but we are grateful to her for the risk she took, the sacrifices she made in giving birth to Jesus, the loving way she cared for Him and the way she bore the sword in her soul. She was indeed, full of grace.