A Mary Christmas
When Gabriel visited Mary, he called her “highly favored” by heaven. Elizabeth described Mary as “blessed among women.”
Mary, to put it mildly, is a special character in God’s story. We can learn a lot from her. Christmas — the celebration of the Word taking on flesh, of “God with us” — is the ideal time to ponder Mary’s life and see Mary the way scripture sees her. If we do that, we’ll have a much clearer picture of what it means to accept Jesus, to share Jesus and to live for Jesus.
“The Lord Himself will give you a sign,” Isaiah wrote. “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.”
Devout and observant, Mary likely had heard those words many times. What’s unlikely is that she ever entertained the thought that Isaiah was writing about her, but he was. And so, some 700 years after the promise was made through Isaiah, the promise would be fulfilled through Mary.
Gabriel would deliver the message to the one who would deliver Immanuel. He begins it with, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” The NIV translation says Mary was “greatly troubled at his words.” Other translations use “startled,” “disturbed” and “thoroughly shaken” to describe Mary’s reaction. Given that God’s messenger had flung open the doorway separating the celestial from the terrestrial, that his appearance, like lightning, can cause soldiers to collapse and armies to crumble, that he has the power to execute kings and destroy nations and trigger earthquakes, Mary’s reaction is understandable. After all, Mary was just a simple girl from a forgotten place. And so, Gabriel reassures her: “Do not be afraid … you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son … you are to call Him Jesus.”
Mary asks, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” As best he can, Gabriel explains the unexplainable, punctuating his words with an exclamation from heaven: “Nothing is impossible for God.”
The exchange serves as a reminder that it’s okay to ask questions of heaven. But perhaps it’s not okay to ask them in the wrong manner. Recall that Zechariah — husband of Elizabeth and father of John the Baptist — asked a similar question in response to the angel’s announcement that the aging Elizabeth would bear a son. But the angel’s response was very different — perhaps a function of Mary’s posture and pure motives.
Mary accepts Gabriel’s explanation. Mary accepts her life-changing calling. Mary accepts Jesus.
Like every mom, Mary knew about her baby before anyone else knew — before her husband, before her family, before the local midwife. Mary knew Jesus first. Mary accepted Jesus first.
After the angel explained all God would give her — and one day take from her — Mary said yes. She didn’t have to, but she did. In doing so, Mary opened her heart to the Holy Spirit, her life to the Son, her future to the Father.
“I am the Lord’s servant,” she tells Gabriel. “May it be to me as you have said.”
From that moment, Mary understood she was never alone. Christ was with her, and she was with Christ. Indeed, New Testament writers often mention Mary as being with Jesus — at celebrations, during religious ceremonies and festivals, at the cross, after the resurrection.
The Lord also gave Mary a partner for the journey. Like all good dads, Joseph put his family first. I love how the film The Nativity Story depicts this. In one scene, as Joseph, Mary and a donkey are limping their way to Bethlehem, Joseph pretends he’s already eaten so Mary and the donkey have enough food. Good dads do this in literal and figurative ways — I know because mine did — skipping lunches so their kids can get new shoes, going without seconds so a growing family can get its fill, taking an extra job to make sure there’s something under the Christmas tree, putting away the golf clubs and putting the savings toward the college fund.
Scripture tells us that under Mary and Joseph’s care, Jesus “grew and became strong.” Mary and Joseph lived out one of the most beautiful passages in the Gospels: “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me,” Jesus declared. “And whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the One who sent me.” I suspect that happy memories of Mary and Joseph came to Jesus’ mind as He shared those words.
Just hours after giving birth to Jesus — in a barn, since the rest of the world couldn’t make room for Him — Mary shares Jesus with the shepherds. Filthy and unclean, marginalized by society, the shepherds see what the world overlooks: “the glory of the Lord” and “a great company of the heavenly host.”
The shepherds “hurried off” to Bethlehem. And they “found” Jesus. They found Jesus — the fullness of the Creator wrapped in the fragile flesh of a baby — surrounded by the love of Mary and Joseph. Mary shares the Good Shepherd with the shepherds. And the shepherds “spread the word” to the world. “All who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said.”
Later, Mary shares Jesus with dignitaries from faraway lands. Some traditions call them magi, others wise men, still others kings. “They saw the child with his mother Mary.” Again, Mary connects Jesus to the world. And as these kings meet Jesus, they bow down to the King of kings.
Mary then shares Jesus at the temple, where priests and prophets see the promise fulfilled. One of them glimpses in Jesus “the redemption of Jerusalem.” Another cries out, “My eyes have seen your salvation … a light for revelation to the Gentiles and the glory of your people Israel.” And then he turns to Mary and braces her for what’s to come: “A sword will pierce your own soul too.”
Yet that doesn’t stop Mary from sharing Jesus with the world. Years later, during the wedding celebration at Cana, Mary points people toward Jesus — connecting them with the source of joy and abundance.
That brings us to how Mary lived for Christ. Her five-word instruction to the wedding host at Cana captures how we should live, encapsulates the Gospel, and is the answer to every problem we face: “Do whatever He tells you.”
That’s what Mary strived for throughout her life. So should we.
It begins with a recognition that, as Jesus grows within us, we must become less. For Mary, this was a literal transformation. And so, she intuitively grasped this process of becoming less. That’s what a good mom does — I know because mine did — constantly helping her baby, her toddler, her child, her teen grow, all while becoming less, working herself out of a job, dying to self.
This is humility and sacrifice personified. This is Mary’s example for us.
After she accepted Jesus, Mary declared, “My soul glorifies the Lord … my spirit rejoices in God my Savior … He has scattered those who are proud … but has lifted up the humble … the Mighty One has done great things for me!”
That should be our attitude: glorifying God, rejoicing in Him, counting our blessings, choosing humility, trusting God’s mighty hand.
If you think Mary sets an unfair standard, remember that she was only human. The only thing that set her apart was a daily desire to do what’s right.
In a very real sense, to live for Christ is to follow Mary’s example — accepting Him, delivering Him to a dark and disinterested world, doing what He asks, and sharing Him.
May we all have a Mary Christmas.
Alan Dowd writes at the crossroads of faith and public policy.