The story of Mary is at the heart of Advent. We prepare for the birth of Jesus by remembering a young, Jewish woman in Palestine two thousand years ago, whose unexpected pregnancy has become a sign of hope for millions.
The New Testament gospels are our main source of information about Mary. In the gospel of Matthew, however, we learn almost nothing about the mother of Jesus. Gabriel comes to Joseph in a dream to announce Mary’s pregnancy, but there is no story of traveling to Bethlehem or of a birth in a stable. After Jesus is born, we hear of the wise men, who came to see "the child with Mary his mother." (Mt. 2:11) In a dream Joseph is warned by an angel to take Jesus and Mary to Egypt to protect them from King Herod, and in another dream Joseph is told when it is safe to return with his family to Palestine after Herod’s death.
The gospels of Mark and John do not even mention the birth of Jesus, although the fourth gospel teaches that "the Word became flesh and lived among us." (Jn. 1:14) In this gospel Mary accompanies Jesus to a wedding in Cana early in his ministry, before going with him and his brothers and disciples to Capernaum. (Jn. 3:1-12) However, Mary plays no further part in the narrative until, at the foot of the cross, Jesus tells her to treat his beloved disciple as her son and tells the disciple to care for Mary as his mother. (Jn. 19:26-27)
The first three New Testament gospels identify Mary as the mother of Jesus when she comes with some of his brothers to call him away from a crowd he is teaching, and this becomes an opportunity for Jesus to say: "Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother." (Mk. 3:35, see also Mt. 12:50 and Lk.8:21)
In addition, the gospels of Mark and Matthew report that when Jesus was in Nazareth, some of his neighbors "took offense at him" (Mk. 6:1-3, see also Mt. 13:54-57) and questioned his authority, saying: "Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?" Mark 6:3 is the only time in the New Testament that Jesus is explicitly called "the son of Mary."
Near the end of the gospels of Mark, Matthew and John, Mary the mother of Jesus witnesses his crucifixion, and in the gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke she is among the women who come to the tomb to anoint his body. Finally, Acts 1:14 reports that after the resurrection of Jesus the disciples are praying in Jerusalem "together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers."
Each of the New Testament gospels includes Mary in its narrative of Jesus, but only the author of the gospel of Luke and Acts attempts to tell her story. Luke 1 begins with an account concerning the birth of John the Baptist to Elizabeth, who is said to be a relative of Mary. Despite being old and seemingly barren, Elizabeth conceives and the angel Gabriel appears to Zechariah, her husband, to explain the destiny of their unexpected son.
Six months later Gabriel comes to Mary and says that she will give birth to a child, who is to be called Jesus. Mary responds with disbelief: "How can this be, since I have not known a man?" Gabriel explains that the Holy Spirit will "come upon" Mary and that her child "will be called Son of God." And, as if to demonstrate how "nothing will be impossible with God," the angel Gabriel tells Mary that Elizabeth "in her old age has also conceived a son." So, Mary accepts her role as the mother of Jesus, by saying to Gabriel, "Here am I."
Six centuries later the Quran records a similar conversation concerning the virgin birth of Jesus. An angel says to Mary, "Oh Mary, God gives you the good news of a word from Him. His name will be the Messiah Jesus, the son of Mary, who will be eminent in this world and the next, and will be one of those brought near [to God]…." When Mary asks, "My Lord, how can I have a child when no man has touched me?" The angel answers, "Thus it is. God creates what He wills. If He decrees something, He only need say 'Be!' and it is." (Sura 3:45-47)
Christians read this as confirming the account in the gospel of Luke, but Muslims believe the angel Gabriel revealed this passage directly to Muhammad. Whatever its origin, the tradition that God is responsible for the birth of Jesus to the virgin Mary is treasured by Muslims as well as Christians. We also see in this passage from the Qur'an that Muslims, too, refer to Jesus as Messiah. Muslims understand this to mean that God has "anointed" Jesus, which is the literal meaning of "messiah," to be a prophet.
The Qur'an also tells of the birth of John to Zechariah and his wife, but in this account Mary does not make a visit to Elizabeth while both women are pregnant, as she does in the gospel of Luke. In Luke 1:39 we read that Mary traveled from Nazareth "to a Judean town in the hill country," a dangerous journey that would have taken more than a day, but we hear nothing in the gospel account of anyone accompanying her. We are told that when Elizabeth saw Mary approaching, the older woman felt her child leap in her womb. Elizabeth says to Mary, "Blessed are you among women . . ." which prompts Mary to praise God with words that are known as "the Magnificat" from the first word of the text in the Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible.
Mary’s song of praise follows the pattern of Hannah’s prayer to God in 1 Samuel, after Hannah has given birth to a son in her old age. In the hills of Judea at the altar in Shiloh, where Hannah dedicated her son, Samuel, to the LORD, she prays, "My heart exalts in the LORD; my strength is exalted in my God." In the hills of Judea at the home of Elizabeth, an old woman who like Hannah bears a son dedicated to serving God, Mary prays, "My soul magnifies the LORD, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior." Hannah proclaims, "Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry are fat with spoil." Mary proclaims, "He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty." Hannah prays, "The LORD kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up . . .. The LORD raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor . . .. The LORD will judge the ends of the earth; he will give strength to his king, and exalt the power of his anointed." Mary prays, "His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts . . .. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly." (1 Samuel 2:1-10, Luke 1:46-55)
The Magnificat is followed by the familiar story of the birth of Jesus. Joseph and Mary travel to Bethlehem and take shelter in a stable, because there is no room in the inn. During the night Jesus is born, wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger, and shepherds who hear angels singing come from the fields to adore him.
In the Qur'an Mary bears Jesus alone beneath a palm tree, and then carries the newborn babe back to her people who say, "Ah Mary, you have done something strange!" Mary responds by pointing to Jesus, who answers: "I am the servant of God. He has given me the book and has made me a prophet. He has made me blessed wherever I may be and has commanded me to observe prayer and almsgiving for as long as I live. [God has made me] obedient to my mother and has not made me proud or miserable. Peace upon me the day I was born, the day I will die, and the day I will be raised to life." (Qur'an 19:30-33)
In the gospel of Luke, eight days after Jesus is born Mary and Joseph take him to the temple to be circumcised. The Torah also requires that a mother of a newborn child purify herself by sacrificing a lamb and a pigeon or turtledove. Leviticus 12:6-8 specifies a woman may sacrifice two pigeons or turtledoves, if she is poor, and this is what Luke 2:24 says Mary does. Then in the temple an old man named Simeon and an old woman named Anna each testify to the glory of God that is to be revealed through Jesus.
Finally, Mary plays a prominent role in the only New Testament story of Jesus as a young boy. In the gospel of Luke when Jesus is twelve he accompanies his parents and others from Nazareth to the temple in Jerusalem for the Passover festival. Afterwards, as the party is returning to Galilee, Mary and Joseph discover that Jesus is missing. They return at once to Jerusalem, but Luke 2:46 says it is three days before they find Jesus "in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions."
Angrily, Mary says to Jesus, "Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety." Jesus replies by asking her a question, "Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?" (Lk. 2:48-49) Surely the word "Father" has been carefully chosen to remind us that Joseph, the husband of Mary, is not the father of Jesus. After this confrontation in the temple Jesus returns home with Mary and Joseph to Nazareth, and the gospel tells us he was obedient to both of them. Then the story of Mary ends, before the story of the ministry of Jesus begins, with a cryptic comment by the narrator that: "His mother treasured all these things in her heart." (Lk. 2:51)
In the Catholic Church Mary has come to be revered not only as the mother of Jesus, but also as the Mother of God. Catholic dogma holds that she is free of sin and did not lose her virginity in giving birth to Jesus. Protestants resist these beliefs, and are put off by Catholic piety concerning the Virgin Mary. Yet, as Christmas draws near, we, too, are drawn by the magic of the moment into the stable, to kneel in awe before Mary and her newborn child. Can we celebrate, at least, the faith and courage of this young woman, who gave birth alone on a dark and dangerous night to a son destined to die before her eyes on a Roman cross?
How enriched the church is by the gospel of Luke and by its story of this extraordinary woman. How diminished our faith would be without the story of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Amen.
December 22, 2002