A long time ago I wrote this as part of a series on the women of the Bible, in which different Christian women across denominations and backgrounds shared personal stories of why the woman was their favourite. I’m reposting it now to honour May as the month of the year the Catholic Church dedicate to the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of Jesus.
It’s hard for me to imagine, as a modern single woman in her 20s in 21stcentury London, what it must have been like for a teenager in 1stcentury Nazareth. I ponder this very question as I kneel on the cold marble in the shrine in Walsingham, just as Mary is always depicted in the iconography, as if the angel of the Lord was there with us, in the tiny house in Nazareth. “You will conceive and give birth to a son”, the angel said (Luke 1:31).
Her reply never fails to astonish me: “May your word to me be fulfilled.” (Luke 1:38)
What she was saying yes to was total surrender. She must have been raised with the idea of the woman in Proverbs 31 to aspire to. She was a faithful Jewish girl, she knew that being pregnant outside of marriage would have ruined her, even killed her. And it was this very faith that made her say that: “I am the Lord’s servant.” She held steadfast to God’s promise to Israel: the salvation of Israel would come. And with that act of complete faith and submission, she allowed God’s work to happen, unlike Eve who thought she knew best (Genesis 3:6).
And rather than feel a little resentful, like I sometimes can be when faced with hard decisions in which I do choose God but not wholeheartedly, because my desire is for what I had to give up, she rejoices. “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for He has been mindful of the humble state of His servant.” (Luke 1:46-48) Almost 10 full verses in the first chapter of Luke’s Gospel are a song of praise in the midst of what seems to me really hard circumstances. However, what I most admire about her is that she’s never lost the child-like faith of her youth, not even when her son was put to a gruesome and unjust death.
There is a 17thcentury stunning painting titled the Madonna of Sorrow by Giovanni Battista Salvi da Sassoferrato. Unlike traditional depictions of Mary as the mother of sorrows, she is beautiful and poised. To me, she reflects the peace that transcends all understanding of which Paul talks about in Philippians 4:7. In the Catholic tradition in which Salvi da Sassoferrato was painting, there are seven main moments of sorrow that mark the life of Mary the mother of Jesus: the prophecy of Simeon in Luke 2:34-35, the flight into Egypt (Matthew 2:13), the loss of the child Jesus in the Temple of Jerusalem (Luke 2:43-45), the via dolorosa, the crucifixion of Jesus on Mount Calvary (Johh 19:25), the piercing of the side of Jesus and his deposition from the Cross (Matthew 27:57-59) and, at last, the burial (John 19:40-42). Mary knew the prophecies of the coming of the Messiah when she said yes to God. She would have known what Isaiah said about the suffering servant in the Nevi’im. And yet she rejoiced. She called it God’s favour. She was with Jesus at all the major events of His life, from His conception and birth to the start of His ministry at the wedding in Caana (John 2:3) after the events of His childhood, to His death and resurrection. We know she was with the disciples on Pentecost from Acts 1:14. The good and the bad, she called it all God’s favour, when I often fail to see God’s favour in the good in my life, let alone the bad.
Mary is often looked up to a lot as the example of motherhood for all women who came after her, and yet to me she is more than the mother of Jesus. She is an example of discipleship, of what total surrender to the will of God looks like. She was the one who told the servants at Caana “Do whatever He tells you” (John 2:5). That’s not just circumstantial advice to me, that’s knowing the nature of who Jesus was, and how we should behave towards God: no matter how odd something sounds, if we are to follow Him we do whatever He tells us. No ifs, no buts, no I-know-bests or this-is-not-what-I wants.
Mary always put Jesus first. It’s not just a sign of sacrificial maternal love. She may not have always understood, but she has always followed. She asked the angel how it would be possible (Luke 1:34) in a manner that shows she did not understand but was willing. The angel had rebukes Zechariah for his unbelief just a few verses earlier (Luke 1:13-20).
I know my mother loves me with a sacrificial love, but she is definitely not someone who can do away with her need to know things and control her life, so I believe there is more to Mary than motherhood. Her being a mother is interconnected with her discipleship, it’s how her discipleship played out in the grand scheme of things. Maybe it’s just that I can’t relate that much to the example of motherhood because that’s not how my discipleship took form, or at least not yet.
Mine is a story of learning humility the hard way, learning to trust in God’s timing and hold on to God’s promise. In small things and in big things. Like my mother, I am someone who needs the feeling of being in control. I was raised with an image of womanhood that was not the same as Mary’s. I’m not the woman of Proverbs 31. I’m strong-willed and stubborn, at times bossy, and have a really hard time doing as I’m told. The first word I have ever said was probably why. And had the angel of the Lord appeared to me, in that small house of Nazareth, like in the scene playing in my mind on the cold marble of Walsingham, my first question would have been why, not how. “Why me?”