Who is Mary of Nazareth?
Featuring Kenneth J. Howell, Ph. D./
May 8, 2014
What kind of woman was Mary of Nazareth? As is true of Jesus, we know nothing of Mary’s physical appearance or demeanor. But the historical sources give us a rather detailed picture of Mary’s character. Several historical sources give us much biographical information about Mary and they may be fairly reliable documents, but in this article I want to ask what we can learn from the canonical Scriptures about Mary’s life and character.
It’s often heard that the Bible says very little about Mary, but a closer look at Scripture reveals something quite different. If we use even the most superficial of criteria (i.e., number of words and verses), the New Testament says more about Mary than it does on topics everyone considers essential. For example, the very important parallelism between Adam and Christ in Paul’s epistles occupies only two passages with a total of thirteen verses (Rom 5:12-21, ten verses & I Cor. 15:21-23, three verses). Passages about Mary in the birth narrative of Luke’s Gospel alone occupy eighty-two verses. And this isn’t counting Matthew, Mark and John.
My personal experience as a non-Catholic Christian convinced me that I couldn’t find much about Mary because I wasn’t looking for it. Also, the Scriptures sometimes teach deep and rich truths in a very short space. For example, the topic of justification by faith occupies a very small portion of the New Testament—it’s only discussed directly in Romans, Galatians and James 2:14-26—but it has played an enormously important role in the history of the Christian faith. Thus, it is unwise to conclude that the amount of verses devoted to a topic in the Bible is directly linked to its importance. In any case, there’s more in the Bible about Mary than is often supposed.
A Woman for Our Times
Mary of Nazareth seems on the surface to be an ordinary Jewish woman whose life was indistinguishable from many others. She cooked, sewed and cleaned. She prayed, conversed and served the needs of her family. Yet what we see in the biblical stories of Jesus’ birth shows that Mary’s life was extraordinary. Her extraordinariness did not lie in herself; it was a divine gift. By the free choice of God the Father, she was predestined to be the mother of the Redeemer. By His mercy, the heavenly Father filled her soul with His grace and His presence. In divine providence, Mary became the Spouse of the Holy Spirit by receiving in her womb the Son of God. In the silence of her Son’s infant life, she contemplated the astounding truths of heaven.
This contrast between the ordinary and the extraordinary is important. The significance of Mary’s life was hidden from everyday view. Rarely could others around her see the remarkable power and meaning of her life, just as many could see nothing remarkable about the life of her Son. And Mary precedes us all in that same respect. Paul says our life is also hidden with Christ in God (Col 3:3,4). Our outward life may seem very ordinary, but the inner strength of our life is the same as Mary’s. The source of that strength is the One whom Mary bore—the Savior of Bethlehem.
We share so much with Mary. Like her, we are called to be disciples of her Son. When she and Joseph found Jesus in the temple, they both learned more of what being disciples meant. It means giving over to God the Father the things in our lives which are most precious to us. But discipleship is impossible without faith, and Mary’s example of faith calls us to the same commitment. When she said YES to God (Lk 1:38), she called us to faith in Christ by her example. Faith also means walking with God in the dark times when we can’t see where the road ahead is leading. Mary knew that experience by her hidden life. She won no awards and received no acclaim from the world in her day. Yet her hidden life was brimming with importance and power.
Though her life appeared insignificant, her greatest influence came through the suffering she would endure. Simeon’s words in Luke 2:35 call us to the same life as Mary’s—a life of blessing through suffering. And not just any suffering. Her suffering and ours must be united with and flow from the sufferings of Mary’s Son, Mary’s Lord and ours.
We must recognize that while we are like Mary in many ways, she is also unique. The Mother of Jesus became a unique channel of Christ’s bodily presence in the world. Through her body the Son of God, indeed God Himself, took His shape and form. Her eyes, her face, her stature, her blood, her DNA. Whatever natural makeup His body had, it came from this blessed virgin. We can never give to Jesus what Mary gave to Him. She cooperated in God’s plan of salvation in a unique way. We can never give the substance of our bodies to Jesus the way Mary did, but we can do what others around Mary did. We can welcome Jesus into our lives, our world, our businesses, our homes, our schools and our hearts. We can welcome both the Son of God into our lives, and His mother who is blessed above all women (Lk 1:42).
Imagine yourself to be Simeon and you see the salvation of Israel (Lk 2:30,31). Would it have been possible to hail the One who would redeem the world, and not also call His mother blessed among women? Don’t we call them happy, even blessed, who receive great gifts from God? Isn’t Mary then the most blessed person to have ever lived? She received in her own body the greatest gift that anyone has ever received.
Mary is an instrument of the presence of God. She is a tabernacle where the Son of God came to dwell in the midst of His people (cf. John 1:14). We can look at the experience and promise of God’s presence in the Old Testament among the people of Israel because it is there that we learn of God’s yearning to live among His people.
When the people of Israel were in the desert and saw the pillar of cloud by day and of fire by night, they bowed down and worshiped the Lord who had come to visit them with His special, local presence (Ex 33: 9,10). The same experience happened at the birth of Jesus. Matthew tells us that the Magi “found the child with Mary his mother.” Their response was like that of the ancient Israelites who encountered the presence of God directly. “They fell down and worshiped him” (Mt 2:11). The Magi didn’t simply feel God’s general presence around them. They came to a specific place where God had given His presence in a specific way. They worshiped an infant boy who was God’s presence made specific and local. They did not worship Mary just as the Israelites did not worship the tabernacle itself. But the Magi did honor Mary with their gifts because they recognized that she was the instrument of bringing God’s presence into the world.
Our goal as Christians is to find those places where God manifests His presence in our times, and to go there with the expectation of worshiping Him and of honoring those who are the instruments of His presence. God transforms and unifies His people by giving them His presence. And God’s presence, once it fills the hearts of God’s people, brings unity in their relationships with one another. I believe that if Christians recognized Mary as God’s chosen instrument of unity for Christians, we would see a level of spiritual life and unity among Christians unprecedented in the last four hundred years of western Christianity.
Mary’s Response and Ours
Mary’s response to God’s grace in her life helps us to understand that unity among Christians comes through faith and obedience. Mary is a sign, an indicator of how we must respond to God. What were Mary’s responses? The most justly famous is her response to God’s invitation through Gabriel, “Behold the handmaiden of the Lord. Be it done to me according to your word” (Lk 1:38). With this commitment she showed herself to be Jesus’ mother in both the natural and supernatural orders. It was a response prompted by grace and fulfilled by obedience. And obedience leads to praise. Mary praised her heavenly Father in the Magnificat (Lk 1:46-55) for the salvation that had dawned on the human race. Any parent knows the delight of having a child express thanks for favors done. Mary knew instinctively that the Father in heaven would be pleased with her song of thanksgiving. She wanted to give praise to Him because she wanted to delight His heart.
What moved Mary to obedience and praise? Wasn’t it her contemplative spirit? She constantly “treasured up these words” turning them over in her mind and heart again and again (Lk 2:19, 51). Mary knew, as Paul would later write, that the life of her Son, the Christ, was a mystery (see Col 1:24-2:3 esp. 2:2). Indeed, Christ’s life contained “the mystery that was hidden for ages and generations, but now has been revealed to the saints” (Col 1:26).
Mystery in the Bible is not a five dollar novel but a priceless revelation of the Father’s glory (cf. Jn 1:14-18). Paul calls it a mystery because it is at once revealed and concealed. Concealed to the spiritually obtuse; revealed to those with open hearts.
Since Mary’s life was inseparably bound to Jesus, her life becomes a mystery just like His. In fact, their lives are not two separate mysteries but one grand mystery—the mystery of salvation. Jesus’ life is the saving mystery and Mary was drawn into it by grace. That’s why Mary’s life is a sign of salvation, because her life is drawn into the mystery of her Son’s life. Salvation is to be drawn into the love and power of the Son of God. Christ humbled himself to share in our humanity that we might share His divinity. Mary is a harbinger of our future.
Our response to Mary is indicated by how others around her responded to her extraordinary life. Those responses strike me as compelling because I looked on Mary as little more than the virgin-mother for the first forty years of my life. Mary was simply a biblical fact. Even then I never plumbed the depths of her virginity or maternity. But the responses to Mary in the Bible compel us because they provide wisdom and guidance on how we should respond to God’s extraordinary work in her life. They compel us because they are responses to God’s grace. And what does our salvation depend on? On how we respond to God’s grace and salvation!
No better clue to our response can be found than Elizabeth’s, John the Baptist’s mother. Her spirit-filled words to Mary (cf Lk 1:41) should penetrate every Christian’s heart, “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb” (Lk 1:42). We can scarcely imagine what it would be like for the mother of our Lord to come to our home as she carried God within her womb (Lk 1:43). We can and should be no less amazed than Elizabeth to have Mary in our lives.
Simeon provides a further indicator of the proper response to Mary. For Simeon, the baby in Mary’s arms was “the light of revelation for the Gentiles and the glory of Israel.” The old prophet knew that this child was destined for “the falling and rising of many in Israel and a sign to be contradicted” (Lk 2:34). But Simeon also knew that Mary’s future life was so intimately bound to her Son’s that he promised her, under the direct inspiration of the Spirit, that “a sword will also pierce your soul” (Lk 2:35). The future sufferings of Jesus would be so profuse that they would overflow into Mary’s life. Her life would become a mirror of His life. Today, we can look upon Mary as a reflection of Jesus her Son. Mary is our window into the one and only Son of God who alone can unify people torn apart by misunderstanding and prejudice.
But perhaps our most important response to Mary is guided by that of Joseph. It is almost impossible to imagine the puzzlement and pain he must have felt when he learned that his espoused was pregnant (Mt 1:20). Yet Matthew’s account shows clearly how Joseph obediently played the role that divine providence had set for him. In the quiet background, Joseph took his place in the kingdom of God to perform God’s will no less than Mary. And his love for Mary and Jesus flowed from a truly just and holy heart (Mt 1:19). His love for his wife Mary was a perfect picture of Christ’s love for the Church (cf. Eph 5:29). It is the same love we are called to have for Jesus and Mary.