The Virgin Mary

Sarah White
Monday, August 19th 2019

Although Mary, the mother of our Lord, is named in the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds (and sometimes sentimentally drawn in Nativity hymns and sermons), the sparse biblical accounts of her life invite deeper reflection. While she occupies a unique place in the history of redemption, Mary’s experience of faith is not remote from ours. An examination of her life can tell us much about treasuring Christ and walking in humble reliance on God’s promises.

The Life of Mary

In Luke’s gospel[1], the angel Gabriel is sent by God to tell the young woman of Nazareth that she has found favor (charis, grace) with God and is soon to conceive and bear God’s Son. Mary takes Gabriel at his word, although she is a virgin; she questions him (“How will this be?”) not out of unbelief, but from a desire to better understand how God will achieve his purposes. When Gabriel explains how Jesus will be conceived by the Holy Spirit, Mary calls herself “God’s servant” and tells him, “let it be to me according to your word.” Long before the Savior was conceived in her womb, what a mighty faith God must have sown in her heart to prepare her for this announcement of news so unexpected, and so potentially injurious to her reputation in the eyes of the world.

Far from shrinking from the implications of her calling, Mary “went with haste” to visit her relative Elizabeth, eager to see the confirmation (Elizabeth’s pregnancy) the angel had commended to her. After the unborn John’s prophetic leap in Elizabeth’s womb, Mary’s response was to sing, rejoicing in what God had done and would do through her for his people.[2] John Calvin notes that Mary’s song “contains a choice body of teaching for all who know how to apply it.”[3] The song known as the Magnificat is Scripture-saturated, particularly echoing Hannah’s prayer in 1 Samuel 2, and Psalm 103, a thanksgiving hymn. Mary’s prophetic song extols God’s sovereignty, beginning with the declaration of God’s paradoxical working through those of “humble estate” to bring about his purposes, and moving to God’s fulfillment of his covenant promises.

Caesar Augustus’s census required that Mary and her betrothed, Joseph, report to Bethlehem around the time that Jesus was to be born.[4] This inconvenient providence fulfilled scripture (Micah 5:2) as to the Messiah’s birthplace. Even with her humble mind and steadfast faith, what must Mary must have thought of giving birth far from her home in Galilee, in the rough obscurity of the manger? But we aren’t privy to her thoughts until after the shepherds are sent by the angel of the Lord to find the holy family, and they report to Mary what was told to them. Most who hear the report “wonder” at it, but Mary apparently went a step further: she “treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart.” “Treasuring” (syneterei) isn’t an act of mere sentimental cherishing, but of careful, intentional safekeeping.

Something similar occurs when Jesus is 12, the only detail recorded about his upbringing between his infancy and adulthood.[5] Mary and Joseph assume that Jesus is among the large group traveling home from the Passover pilgrimage, so when he’s found to be missing, they backtrack to Jerusalem, where they discover him astonishing the Temple scholars with his understanding. When Jesus tells his parents they ought to have known he’d be in his Father’s house, it’s Mary’s reaction that Luke records: although she does not fully understand what her son tells her, she again “treasured up all these things in her heart.” The verb form here, dieterei, similar to the one used earlier in the chapter, has the connotation of holding something carefully for future use. I’ll return to this idea of Mary as “treasurer” below.

We know from Matthew’s and John’s crucifixion accounts that Mary stood by her Son’s cross. She was helpless to do anything for him, yet did not abandon him, as most did, at this most terrible hour. She was almost certainly widowed by this time, and Jesus saw to her provision by entrusting her to the care of John, his beloved disciple. Although Scripture is silent regarding what she endured here, we get a hint from the devout Simeon, who, decades earlier, blessed the new mother when she presented her infant at the temple and told her, in a chilling parenthetical, “a sword will pierce through your own soul also.” Did this prophecy, and others’ words about her Son, pass through Mary’s mind as she stood with her sister, Mary Magdalene, and the other faithful women?

Likewise, we don’t get to hear Mary’s reaction to the news of her Son’s resurrection or see what a post-resurrection meeting between mother and Son might have looked like. Rather, we next see her (Acts 1:14) among those who “with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer” alongside the disciples in the upper room. Fittingly, then, Mary not only witnessed the signs surrounding her son’s birth, marveled at his ministry, and agonized at the cross, but was present to see his glory poured out on the church at Pentecost.

Mary as Disciple, Teacher, and Treasurer for the Church

Though Mary’s role as our Lord’s mother was entirely unique, the story of her life suggests that her fundamental calling was to discipleship. What can Mary’s discipleship show us about our own?

In his gospel commentaries and sermons, John Calvin loves to call Mary the “teacher” of the faithful, and indeed this is a wonderful title for her. For one thing, she teaches us what it means to hope in God. Mary’s rejoicing in her Savior was grounded on a prior faith in God’s covenant promises. In the Magnificat, Mary sings that God’s mercy “is for those who fear him from generation to generation” and that he has “helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy.” Mary points out that this hope of mercy is not one that we summon from within ourselves, a vague “if only,” but it is that same hope God “spoke to our fathers, promising mercy to Abraham and to his offspring forever.” Mary teaches us by word and deed to plant our hope upon God’s declared promises. Not only did she remember them, but Mary “treasured” the truths of redemption as she participated in their clearer revelation, carrying them for the Church much as she carried the Redeemer in her womb.

Mary teaches us that discipleship is a work of the whole person. Mary’s mind and heart were always engaged in her treasuring of Christ—this task was never solely intellectual or solely emotional, but drew on all her faculties (not to mention her very bodily engagement in the work of motherhood). Calvin writes that Mary “bore Jesus Christ […] not only in her womb but in her heart—in all her affections and in her understanding.”[6] We can see Mary’s affections and understanding highlighted throughout the gospel accounts. For example, although Mary was “greatly troubled” at Gabriel’s annunciation, at the same time she “tried to discern” its meaning—something Calvin notes would have emerged from “an attentive and composed mind.”[7]

The same comes through when Mary “treasures” others’ words in her heart. When the shepherds reported what the angel of the Lord had said, she stored these things in her memory “for the purpose of [their] being published to others at the proper time”[8]—i.e., to the Church. Likewise, the moment Mary found her son in the Temple—a preview of Christ’s teaching ministry—might have been lost to us had not “Mary […] kept it for us laid up in her heart, to bring it out afterwards, along with other treasures, for the use of all the godly.”[9] As a keeper of treasures for the faithful, might Mary have been one of those “eyewitnesses” Luke’s prologue mentions?[10] In any case, it seems safe to suppose that God chose Mary for her role, in part, because he saw that her heart was a fruitful place for the story of redemption to be sown. We don’t know what other “treasures” Mary concealed in her heart as she sought to understand and obey, but the Scriptures testify that Mary followed her Son all the way to the torment of the cross and folded herself quietly into the company of his people after his resurrection and ascension. She never stopped treasuring him, and her heart’s treasures set the pattern for her life.

In this she is a model for other Christians. Like Mary, we remember our God’s covenant-keeping character by recalling his promises in his Word and hiding those promises in our hearts. And we aren’t simply to remember these promises, but to rejoice in remembering. We know we’re remembering in this way when we’re free, like Mary, to praise Him “with a willing spirit, a loosened tongue and an untrammeled mind.”[11] Mary teaches us that praise is founded on a clear understanding of truth, draws on all our faculties, and is joyfully shared with others.

A consideration of Mary’s life reveals that, contrary to what we might guess, this instrument of our redemption relied on the Word no less than we do. Was it necessarily easier for her to believe in her Son’s divinity because she had birthed him, held him, and nurtured him? Or did her intimacy with her Son pose challenges to faith that are unimaginable to us? What we do know is that Mary clung to the means of grace throughout her life—the Word, the Temple observances, and the fellowship of her fellow saints. If the mother of our Lord needed these things, then how much more should we treasure them in our ordinary, plodding walks! As we do, we can look for encouragement to her example, which after all is not distant or alien, but founded on the very same promises that are given to us.

Sarah White (MA, St. Louis University) is a freelance writer living in St. Louis, Missouri, with her husband and basset hound, Basil.

[1] Luke 1:26-38

[2] Luke 1:46-55

[3] John Calvin, Songs of the Nativity: Selected Sermons on Luke 1 & 2, Translated by Robert White (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2008), 22.

[4] Luke 2:1-20

[5] Luke 2:41-51

[6] Calvin, Songs of the Nativity, 31.

[7] Calvin’s Commentaries Vol. XVI (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005), 34.

[8] Calvin’s Commentaries Vol. XVI (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005), 124.

[9] Calvin’s Commentaries Vol. XVI (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005), 169.

[10] Luke 1:1-4

[11] Calvin, Songs of the Nativity, 23.

Monday, August 19th 2019

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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