We see her first, that little Mary (may I say little? I think she was a teenager), as a simple village girl in a poor home in an out-of-the-way place. She is bending over her work when suddenly the light changes. She raises her eyes. A dazzling stranger stands before her with a puzzling greeting. He calls her “most favored one” and tells her the Lord is with her. She is stunned. I don’t believe her first thoughts are of herself. (“Am I ever lucky!”) No, Mary is troubled. She discerns at once that this has to do with things infinitely larger than herself, far beyond her understanding. What can this mean?
The angel does not weigh in immediately with the stupendous message he has been sent to deliver. He first comforts her. “Don’t be afraid, Mary.” Mary. She is not a stranger to him. He is assuring her that he has the right person. He explains what she has been chosen for—to be the mother of the Son of the Most High, a king whose reign will be forever. She has one question now—not about the Most High, not about an eternal king—those are things too high for her—but motherhood is another matter. She understands motherhood, has been looking forward to it with great happiness. Her question is about that: “How can this be? I am still a virgin.”
He does not really explain. He simply states a mystery: “The power of the Most High will overshadow you.” He goes on to tell her of another miraculous pregnancy, that of her old cousin Elisabeth, well past childbearing age. “God’s promises can never fail,” he says. They won’t fail for you, Mary. Rest assured.
How will the girl respond? She is at once totally at the disposal of her Lord; she sees that her visitor is from Him. Whatever the mystery, whatever the divine reasons for being chosen, whatever the inconveniences, even disasters (broken engagement? stoning to death—the punishment for a fornicator?) which she may be required to face, her answer is unequivocal and instant: “Here I am. I am the Lord’s servant; let it be as you have told me.” In other words, Anything, Lord.
Next, we see her with Elisabeth, who, by the manner of Mary’s greeting and by her own baby’s sudden movement in her womb, knows immediately that God has chosen Mary to be the mother of the Lord. They don’t sit down over coffee and natter about the gynecology or the practical logistics or what people are going to say. Mary sings her song of gladness, of thoroughgoing acceptance of the gift, of trust in the Mighty One.
Then we see her sweating in the cold of the stable, putting her own life on the line, as every mother must do, in order to give life to somebody else. We see her with the tough shepherds, breathlessly telling their story of the glory of the Lord and the singing of the angel choir. Everyone else is astonished (a word that comes from “thunderstruck”), but Mary does not join the excited babble. She is quiet, treasuring all these things, pondering them deep in her heart. We see her with the mysterious travelers from the East bringing their lavish gifts. She says nothing as they kneel before the baby she holds in her arms.
We see her in the temple handing over her baby to old Simeon, to whom the Holy Spirit has revealed the child’s amazing destiny: a revelation to the heathen, glory to Israel. But to Mary he gives the far deeper message of suffering, for there is no glory that is not bought by suffering. Her Son will suffer—He will be a sign that men reject. She, His mother, will suffer, will be pierced to the heart. No question or answer from her is recorded. Again we know only her silence.
We see her on the donkey again, on the round-about journey to Egypt because her husband has been given a secret message in a dream. She does not balk, she does not argue. We see nothing of her for twelve years—days and nights, weeks and months, years and years of caring for the infant, the toddler, the little boy, the adolescent. There is no mention of any of that. Mary has no witness, no limelight, no special recognition of any kind. She is not Mother of the Year. Hers is a life lived in the ordinary necessity of their poverty and their humanity, no one paying attention to her attention to Him. Whatever the level of her comprehension as to the nature of this boy, she knows He was given to her. She remembers how. She treasures all this. She ponders things in the silence of her heart. Did she share any of them with Joseph? Could she? Could he receive them? We know next to nothing of the dynamics between them. She was content to be silent before God.
The apostle Paul tells us we are “hidden with Christ in God.” There is mystery there, but when I think of the life of Mary, I see some facets of that mystery that I missed when I read the apostle. Hers was a hidden life, a faithful one, a holy one— holy in the context of a humble home in a small village where there was not very much diversion. She knew that the ordinary duties were ordained for her as much as the extraordinary way in which they became her assignment. She struck no poses. She was the mother of a baby, willing to be known simply as His mother for the rest of her life. He was an extraordinary baby, the Eternal Word, but his needs were very ordinary, very daily, to His mother. Did she see herself as fully qualified? Surely not. Surely not more than any other woman who finds herself endowed with the awesome gift of a child. It is the most humbling experience of a woman’s life, the most revealing of her own helplessness. Yet we know this mother, Mary, the humble virgin from Nazareth, as “Most Highly Exalted.”
This Christmas, thank God that unto us a Child was born. Thank Him also that there was a purehearted young woman prepared to receive that Child with daily dependence, daily obedience, daily trust.
I thank Him for her silence. That spirit is not in me at all, not naturally.
I want to learn what she had learned so early: the deep guarding in her heart of each event, mulling over its meaning from God, waiting in silence for His word to her. I want to learn, too, that extraordinary spirituality does not make one refuse to do ordinary work, that a wish to prove that one is not ordinary is a dead giveaway of spiritual conceit.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”
**Excerpt originally published in Nov/Dec 2002 Elisabeth Elliot Newsletter.