At Christmas, we think a lot about the birth of our Lord Jesus. Protestants don’t give much attention to the woman who carried him in her womb and bore disgrace as one conceiving a child out of wedlock. Yet, perhaps we should!
Mary was probably in her early teens (Jewish girls married soon after puberty) when she was visited by the angel Gabriel who told her that she would conceive a child, by the Holy Spirit, who would be called the son of the Most High. Mary told the angel that this was impossible since she was a virgin. The angel explained again that the Holy Spirit would come upon her and the child would be called the Son of God and that nothing was impossible with God. And then we have one of the bravest statements recorded in the Bible. Mary said, “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).
Afterward, she went to visit her cousin Elizabeth and Luke records her great poem known as the “Magnificat.” Though it includes one line that says, “all generations will call me blessed,” Mary did not have an easy life. Just as she expected, Joseph, to whom she was engaged, thought she had been unfaithful and intended to follow the usual route of “divorcing” her. In Jewish tradition, an engagement was almost as legally binding as marriage and a divorce would be necessary to break the engagement. God mercifully appeared to Joseph in a dream and told him that it was okay to go ahead with the marriage because Mary’s child was the son of God who was destined to save the people from their sins.
We all know the Christmas story of Mary and Joseph’s trip to Bethlehem to register for the census, their inability to find a room when Mary went into labor, and how the child Jesus was born in a manger. That was only the beginning of their troubles. Mary and Joseph and the infant Jesus had to flee to Egypt to escape the slaughter of infants by Herod. After Herod’s death, they went back home to Nazareth (Matt. 2:13–23) where Jesus and his siblings grew up. (Mark 3:31-34).
Joseph probably died early, since he is never mentioned again. Jesus may have helped support the family with his carpentry skills until the other children were grown and he could begin his own ministry—probably about age 30. His mother, Mary, is mentioned only a few times in the gospels after the birth narrative. At one point, she was attending a wedding at Cana where Jesus and the disciples were guests, and at her suggestion, Jesus turned water into wine (John 2:1-11).
She unquestionably followed Jesus’ ministry and wondered when he would be proclaimed the Messiah and take the throne of David—as all Jews expected the Messiah to do, and as the angel Gabriel had told her. Her pain and disillusionment must have been deep as she stood at the foot of the cross and watched as her son was crucified. Jesus saw her there, along with his disciple John. He told John that Mary was now his mother, and told Mary that John was now her son. Despite her sorrow, Mary is in the upper room with the disciples after the resurrection (Acts 1:14) and probably participated in the miraculous coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2).
Perhaps because the Roman Catholic Church has added to the biblical account of Mary, most Protestants have largely ignored her except at the Christmas season, but Mary showed phenomenal courage in facing shame and potential abandonment for the sake of following God. She is unquestionably one of the “heroes of the faith” and we miss something important when we ignore her remarkable courage and faithfulness to God. May we imitate her faith, and her courage in obeying God’s call.