Did she have any idea just what she was letting herself in for?
Mary is one of the most fascinating figures in the nativity story, at least in part because we know so little about her. As with so many women in the Bible who must have had a profound influence on events, her part is mentioned almost in passing. Matthew barely even mentions her, Mark and John don’t bother with a nativity story at all, and even Luke, the most radical of the gospel writers in his inclusion of women just gives us this: the Magnificat, and a conversation exchange with Gabriel.
Yet even those two little snippets give us insight into a remarkable woman.
But I wonder again, did she know what she was letting herself in for? Surely not. The angel greeted her as one who has found favour with God – surely Mary did not realise that that favour would mean a long journey while pregnant, a baby born far from home, a flight to Egypt. Nor, surely, that it would mean her first born child would leave home and village to become a wandering preacher, or that he would be taken from her and killed.
No, all of that was an unknown and unrevealed future.
But what Mary did know was quite enough for anyone. For even the little that the angel told her was enough to turn her world upside down. As a young woman, promised in marriage but not yet wed, she would become pregnant. It’s hard for us in this modern world to grasp the extent of the stigma that this pregnancy would bear with it: in a society governed by the currency of honour and shame, it would be a very visible disgrace, not just to Mary, but to the whole of her family. Visible enough that Mary went, Luke’s gospel continues, with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, to the home of her (much older) cousin Elizabeth. Not for the first time in history, nor the last, a young girl would be sent to visit a relative in the countryside for a few months “for medical reasons”.
That much, at least, Mary could surely foresee. Joseph’s reaction, no doubt, she could also guess at. Not only did he have the fact that his promised bride was pregnant – and to all appearances, therefore, by another man – but he would have to face the assumption from the gossips and finger wagers of the village that it was his child. He too had been brought to shame, and his reaction was all too predictable. Not knowing that Gabriel would step in to speak on her behalf, Mary must have assumed that she had not just her lost honour, and that of her family, but that she had also lost her future husband – and any real hope of marriage, of having a family and a future.
Mary might not have known all that lay in the future, foretold by the words of the angel, but just the things that she could see were bad enough. Though she had done nothing wrong, and the angel told her she had found favour with God, her life had been turned upside down, her future snatched away and replaced with a predictable future of shame, poverty, and isolation.
And yet she replies “I am the Lord’s servant. Let it be.”
What inspired such a response? Was she the obedient woman, accepting what a man (or in this case, angel) in authority told her to do? Was she the woman of great faith, confident that God would work things out for the best? Was she sacrificial one, accepting hardship and dishonour for the good of the cause? Or did she simply decide there was no point arguing with God, and resign herself to the future? The truth is, we have absolutely no idea what motivated Mary, no idea what she imagined the future would hold for her, no idea why she responded by placing herself at God’s disposal.
We just know that she did.
I find that reassuring.
For of course, this is the situation we are in most of the time in most relationships. We have little or no idea whether another believer is acting out of faith, or naivety, out of desire to help or ambition to be recognised, out of optimism or desperation. In fact, if you are anything like me, you would have to admit that much of the time you don’t even know what motivates yourself in acts of service. Much as we’d love to believe that we serve God and others out of love and gratitude and commitment to the cause of the Kingdom, don’t we also know that other motives creep in: the desire to be seen to be doing good, to be thought of as committed and faithful to the cause, to be recognised as an upstanding and outstanding contributor to the community?
Don’t we all have times when we keep on doing what we do even though we aren’t sure of the point? Times when we keep coming to worship even though our faith is wavering? Times when we continue to pray our prayers though we wonder if anyone is listening?
Aren’t there times when we fear our service is being swallowed in a black hole of need, that the future is bleak, that we are a fading light in a dark world, and we only keep going out of habit or stubbornness?
And times when we worry about whether our motivation is so mixed that perhaps our work loses value in the sight of God?
Maybe you don’t have those issues. Maybe it’s just me.
But if you do, then perhaps you too might look again at the story of Mary. Did she have her doubts, her mixed motives, her dark times? My guess, since she was human, is yes – but the point is, we don’t know, and, that as far as the Biblical narrative is concerned, it simply doesn’t matter.
Mary is not a hero of our story because she had unwavering faith, she’s not a hero because she had purity of motive, she’s not a hero because she never lost sight of God’s promise.
Mary is a hero of our story because with all her doubts, with all the future unknowns, and with all the very real costs, when she heard the call of God on her life she just said “OK, God, lets do this thing.”
I can’t manage unmixed motives, I can’t summon up a faith to move mountains.
But I can step up when I think I see what God wants done, and, with all my doubt or confusion or fear or uncertainty, say “count me in”.
So can you.
It’s all Mary really did. And look how it turned out.