A few years ago I wrote this article on Mary for Table Talk magazine.
One of the glorious attributes of the gospel is revealed in the way God raises up the lowly, bestows honor on the unlikely, works good out of the worst circumstances, and uses great trials to bless His special ones. Christianity is no religion for the proud and haughty, for it contradicts mans fleshly wisdom and carnal reason. Who would have thought the Messiah of God would arrive on earth from the womb of a lowly young girl? As we look at Mary, mother of our Lord, we cannot separate her character from her remarkable circumstances and unique trials in bearing and mothering our Lord Jesus Christ. Her great blessing was accompanied by great suffering; indeed, in Scripture these are rarely separated. Her reverent demeanor toward God, her ready belief in God’s word through the angel Gabriel, and her obedience to her husband Joseph in the midst of great trial all commend her to us as a faithful, humble servant of God.
When we first meet Mary in the Gospel of Luke, she is greeted by the angel Gabriel “who stands in the presence of God” (Luke 1:19). His astounding greeting must have been overwhelming to a young woman, but her response is simple belief, with a question: “How can this be, since I do not know a man?” (Luke 1:34). Her question is legitimate. It is one thing for an aged Sarah to conceive since she had a husband, but Mary is still a virgin. But the angel answers her and encourages her with news of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. Mary’s famous response should always humble and convict us: “Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). She does not argue, she does not ask impertinent questions, she does not disbelieve in silence. Mary identifies herself as the Lord’s servant or slave, willing for whatever He has for her. Humility joyfully bows to God’s plans and purposes in our lives, no matter how inscrutable they may seem to us. Mary did not have the full picture. She must have had many questions that had to go unanswered. But she speaks to Gabriel in reverence, expressing her faith, her obedience, her willing spirit.
Her reverence is even more fully displayed in her God-exalting song of praise (Luke 1:46-55). She magnifies the Lord, contrasting His manifold mercies shown to His servant Israel to His judgment of the proud. She acknowledges her “lowly state” and calls herself His maidservant. This is the way humility delights to praise God’s power, holiness, might, and authority while remembering man’s lowly dependence upon His mercy, and grace. Humility rejoices in this doctrine of the bigness of God and the smallness of man. Mary is overcome with reverence and awe for her mighty God who has blessed her and done great things for her. He does the unexpected, by raising the lowly and putting down the proud, feeding the hungry and sending away the rich. This knowledge fills Mary with a humble reverence. Indeed, a true reverence must always spring from a humble heart before God.
Mary hurries to Elizabeth to share her news and to confirm the angel’s report. At this meeting Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit and blesses Mary: “Blessed is she who believed” (Luke 1:4). We see that Mary’s blessing is linked to her faith and simple belief in the angel’s announcement. But even in this, Mary does not take credit for believing. She continues to exalt in God’s amazing kindness to her, not her own impressive response of faith, for even this is credited to God. Humility is self-forgetful. It responds in faith because it is focused on the great Giver, not on self as the recipient. Faith is not looking in at faith, but up at the Faithful One.
This faith is not giddy, but it is full of joy: “And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior” (vs. 47). Humility joyfully believes and submits to God. Mary’s song recounts God’s mighty deeds in the past and speaks of His promise to Abraham’s seed. She knows her Bible. In this song she quotes from more than ten psalms, and she obviously believes that not only is God doing what He has promised to do, but He has chosen her to be His special vessel.
We know her faith was tested, for Simeon’s blessing in Luke 2:34-35 warns Mary of a piercing of her own soul. Though Mary will be called blessed for all generations, it will not be without great cost to her soul. Affliction is the great revealer of faith. Testing refines and purifiesÂ faith. Mary’s piercing must have begun even before Bethlehem. Matthew tells us that Joseph was a just man who considered divorcing Mary quietly when he discovered she was pregnant. Mary’s faith must have been tested as she waited for his decision. More testing must have accompanied the trip to Bethlehem: Now? Just at the time of delivery? And of course at the stable: no room for the Messiah to be born? Her piercing must have continued in the flight to Egypt: Herod trying to kill the promised child? And of course it culminated in His death: was this to be the end of the promise? Her faith was tested again and again, and yet we see a woman who perseveres in faith, receiving the shepherds and wise men, following Joseph’s leading to Egypt and back again, and not forsaking her son, even at the cross.
Humility is always characterized by such a persevering faith. Scripture does not tell us much about Mary’s struggles. But such faithful humility is quiet. In the angel’s greeting she “considered what manner of greeting this was” (Luke 1:29); when the shepherds hastened to see the Child, reporting what had been told them by the angels, “Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19); at Simeon’s blessing, she “marveled at those things which were spoken of him (Luke 2:33); when Jesus is left behind in Jerusalem at the feast and is found among the scholars, Mary “kept all these things in her heart” (Luke 2:51). Mary’s faith is thoughtful: she considers, ponders, marvels, and keeps. Humility pays attention to God’s word, meditates upon it, and stores it away. Mary does not coast on an emotional high, but rather thinks about what is happening, what is being said, and responds to it all in faith.
Mary has a high view of authority and submission. This is clearly displayed in her response to the angel. The angel has told her fantastic things: she will be pregnant with “the Son of the Highest,” and her elderly relative Elizabeth is in her sixth month of pregnancy with a son. Gabriel concludes- “For with God nothing will be impossible.” Mary presents herself as believing and obedient in both passive and active forms. In this case she is passively obedient: “Let it be done to me according to your word.” But we also see active obedience in her rushing off to see Elizabeth. She believes what the angel has said, she believes God can do what seems to be impossible, and she acts upon it.
We also see her active obedience in her relationship to her husband Joseph. She obviously views him as her head, for she follows him wherever he leads. After Joseph takes Mary to be his wife, he is the one to receive guidance for the family. The angel appears to Joseph in a dream four times, giving him directions. Joseph’s instant obedience tells us much about his character. He takes Mary to him as his wife though she is pregnant; he hustles his family off in the night to Egypt to escape Herod; he returns to Israel at the angel’s command; and he turns aside to Nazareth “after being warned by God in a dream” (Matthew 2:22). Mary is married to a godly, faithful man, and she is an obedient, submissive wife. Their life together is anything but settled and comfortable, for the child is born on the road, they run for their lives in the night, they return to Israel in fear, knowing that their Son may still be in danger. In all these afflictions, Mary is lead by her husband. This active obedience in the midst of difficulty and trial is only possible in a life characterized by faith and reverence toward God. Mary is teachable and lead-able, both impossible without humility.
Remember the angel’s greeting: “Rejoice, highly favored one, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women!” (Luke 1:28). These words must have come back to her over and over as she did not see the blessing before her eyes, but believed it by faith. We can only imagine how she pondered these things, stored these things up in her heart. But I am sure she reached deep into these stored treasures when she saw her Son crucified. God prepared her for affliction and gave her the resources to endure them, so that when her soul was pierced, she could respond in humble faith and submission.
Mary has a very special status among women of all time. God was with her in a remarkable way. She is blessed above all women, but the blessing came with piercings. I am sure she would say the piercings were the blessings themselves, for without them the world would not be saved.