Thought for the week - 14 August
"Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And behold you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus."
What are we to make of Mary, the mother of Jesus. In the history of the Church people have reacted to her in various ways. To some she is "our Lady" and is accorded reverence bordering on idolatry. To others is she "Theotokos", the God-bearer. To some she is ignored completely and is not given the rightful place of reverence that she deserves, the Blessed Virgin Mother of Jesus, who is blessed among all women. Quite rightly in the Church of England she is held in the highest of esteem. I am told that more churches in this country are dedicated to her than to any other saint.
Mary of course figures prominently in the Christmas story, and many a small girl has been honoured to be chosen as Mary in the Nativity play. But of course Mary is not confined to the Christmas story: her story runs parallel with the gospel story and is intertwined with it through her son. Let's look at some scenes in which we see Mary, the mother of our Lord.
The first is the story we have just heard. Here we see the excited, but frightened young girl. Her reaction to Gabriel's message is understandable. But once the message has sunk in she is, like any expectant mother full of joy. She does what other young women in her position do - she goes to share the news with her cousin Elizabeth, who is also expecting a child. And there in Elizabeth's home she pours forth that wonderful hymn of praise, the Magnificat which has become very much part of Christian worship. "My soul doth magnify the Lord and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour. For he hath regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden. For behold from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed."
Skipping over the birth stories with which we are all familiar, we come to another scene. This time we see the worried young mother anxious for her missing child. Twelve years on the young boy is separated from his parents in Jerusalem. They search anxiously for him and when they find him Mary scolds him: "Why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you." "Why were you searching for me," replies Jesus, "Didn't you know that I must be in my Father's house." Mary didn't understand at the time what the boy meant, "but she treasured all these things in her heart."
Sadly, apart from this one story in Luke's gospel we know nothing of the childhood and young manhood of Jesus, except that Jesus was obedient to his parents in the home at Nazareth.
That it was a good home we cannot doubt and we know that the teaching he received in that home at the knee of the Blessed Virgin was to equip for the ministry that lay ahead. Did she tell him of the angelic visitation? Did she tell him who he really was? Did she speak of his future and destiny? Or did she keep all these things in her heart? We do not know.
The next scene we come to his the most distressing part of Mary's story: this is Mary the tormented soul. The situation in Jerusalem was dangerous. Jesus had fallen foul of the authorities and there was talk that he might be arrested any day. Then someone, perhaps one of the disciples, comes and tells her that he has been arrested and taken away, and sentenced to death. All his friends have forsaken him, but Mary, the mother of our Lord stands with John, and her close women friends and relatives helpless as he hangs in agony on the cross. All sorts of things go through her mind, and perhaps the full-force of the aged Simeon's prophecy, all those years ago, come back to her. "And a sword will pierce your heart also."
But of course the story of this remarkable woman does not end there. In the first chapter of the Acts of the Apostles we come across the barest mention of her name. And in this scene we see the woman at peace. "They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus." Mary has experienced the joy of her Son's resurrection and is a member of that infant Church in Jerusalem where she must have been treated with great gentleness, reverence and respect, she who was the mother of the Lord. It had been a long and painful journey since that day when the angel Gabriel called to her, "Hail, O favoured one, the Lord is with you," and she had replied, in her innocence, "Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; be it to me according to your word." little knowing what the price of that obedience would be. But now she knew in a way that she had perhaps not fully understood before who her child indeed was.
It would be wrong to say that Mary's story is the story of everywoman, or of everyman, because her position in the purposes of God is unique: she is blessed among all women and deserves the place of highest reverence after her Son. She is, after all the woman called to be the mother of God, Theotokos. But hers is a story we can all relate to. It is, if you like, the human side to the divine plan which was to unfold through her obedience. Now, as Advent draws to a close, and Christmas approaches, we turn from the mother to the Son who was born to be the Saviour of Mankind. But as we do so we remember that divine plan could only begin to unfold through the obedience of the Blessed Virgin who said, "Behold I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word."