he was just another young woman—no one important from no place interesting. Scripture introduces Mary without fanfare, noting only her approaching marriage to Joseph the carpenter. Of course, she had little reason or opportunity to hope for much else. The constant struggle to survive in the rugged hill country around Nazareth kept her ever busy carrying water, tending crops, preparing food, spinning and weaving.
Yet as she sat in the synagogue each Sabbath, Mary heard words that followed her throughout the week. Readings from the Law recalled God’s redemption of His people, while readings from the Prophets stirred her with the promise of a future redemption and judgment. Some even argued that this redemption was coming soon with the arrival of a Messiah (Anointed One) sent from God. Could it be, she must have wondered, that I will see that day?
Announcement and Arrival of Hope
Nothing could have prepared Mary for the appearance, out of the blue, of an angel bearing an unimaginable message from God. Her first response was complete puzzlement as he solemnly assured her of God’s favor. His next words made no sense at all to an unmarried virgin. He promised: “You will conceive in your womb and bear a son.” He went on, uttering words that sent her mind reeling. “He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:30-33).*
A tumble of emotions must have flooded Mary’s mind: awe, fear, joy, and a current of bright hope for a suddenly reachable future she had hardly dared dream before. “How,” she managed, “can this be?” (verse 34). But the angel assured her it was so.
Mary’s moments with the angel are unique among the high points of human history. Yet most of us too, among the routine of our own ordinary lives, hold memories of when God’s loving plan became undeniably personal. Moments when God rolled back the fog of day-to-day concerns to break into our lives with unmistakable calls we dared not deny, shining promises of His presence we would have been fools to resist. And like Mary, we answered gratefully, fearfully, trustingly, “Yes,” often without any earthly idea of what we were getting ourselves into.
As her body swelled, Mary gradually came to terms with the unaccountable experience that had happened to her. On a visit to her also-blessed cousin, Elizabeth, she marveled at God’s shocking regard for her and other downtrodden ones among His people. She exulted in praise that He was coming to the aid of His people, just as He had promised. Through the agonizing days of Joseph’s doubt she survived by this hope, clinging tenaciously to the vivid memory of the angel and his earthshaking words.
The birth of the Promised One, her own little Son Jesus, carried her triumphantly through the pain and shame of birthing in a stable. The experience of holding Jesus in her arms and looking down into His perfect little face dwarfed even the wonder of the stories told by the shepherds, the Magi, and righteous ones with whom God chose to celebrate His birth. Often Mary had to pause and sift through her thoughts and experiences, seeking to comprehend both His sweet babyness and the reality of His role as Son of God and eternal King (see Luke 2:19).
Other discomforting thoughts must have entered her ponderings as well. Where was the welcome God’s Savior-King deserved? Why did God bring shepherds and nobodies instead of the leaders of His people? The questions didn’t go away as Jesus grew older. Though His growing wisdom and winsomeness brought her joy, Mary struggled with the bittersweet experience of watching His first allegiance shift from her and Joseph to His heavenly Father (Luke 2:46-50). She steeled herself for the inevitable, when He would leave home to accomplish the work God had given Him.
Though He remained with her 30 wonderful years, it was not easy when her beloved Son said goodbye and walked away from the village. She saw Him occasionally, of course, for He made His home base near the lake in Capernaum. Her heart often swelled with pride as travelers told of His amazing miracles and fine teachings.
Mary rejoiced in the work He was doing. Yet, though He was unfailingly kind when He saw her, she had to miss their old times together. Truly, she never dreamed of the ways she would be called to let go. A call and a promise from God, she was discovering, did not always guarantee a pain-free pathway constructed in accordance with one’s own desires and expectations. Still, when the hope of Jesus’ promised salvation seemed impossible or far away, Mary clung to the promise of the angel and to the faithfulness of the God who had sent Him.
Word of increasingly disturbing statements made by Jesus came to Mary, along with news of growing conflicts with the religious leaders. Jesus’ visit to Nazareth was a disaster, with the people—some of them Mary’s own friends and relatives—ready to throw Him over a cliff. How could He possibly accomplish His mission when rumors swirled that some sought to kill Him? She fought to control her panic when she learned that He was making His way toward Jerusalem.
Mary was in Jerusalem for Passover when word came that Jesus had been arrested. A powerless woman, she could only pray and rush to His side. While still at a distance, she knew her prayers would do no good. Rising up against the sky outside Jerusalem were three terrifying crosses. On the central one she recognized the precious form of her Love, her little One. Cascades of darkness overcame her as she crouched near His torn and bloodied feet. For a moment the horror fell aside when, turning His loving gaze to hers, He called, “Woman, here is your son.” And to a familiar figure nearby, “Here is your mother” (John 19:26, 27). She was flooded with gratefulness for this last kindness, but again the stifling weight of horror closed in as He spoke His last words, bowed His head, and died.
Somehow Mary allowed herself to be guided away from the cross and through the streets of Jerusalem to a humble dwelling where kind people did all they could to make her comfortable. But there was no comfort; her Son was gone. In those moments when reality forced its way in, the ache in her heart threatened to engulf her. A lifetime of love, dreams, and hopes had been destroyed. What about the everlasting throne of David? What about the salvation God promised? Had she failed? Had God failed? Following God’s way had apparently brought Mary to the nightmare death of all her dreams. At the cross, like so many others through the centuries, Mary was called upon to give up every last human expectation for God’s action in her life and wait in desolation before Him.
How can we imagine the overwhelming joy, the thrill of awe Mary must have felt when she came to the certainty that Jesus truly lived again? The death of her dreams had not been the death of God’s promise. In our mind’s eye we can see her as she catches herself skipping and dancing like a little girl. All the questions and recriminations in her heart melted away. In their place she recognized a profound peace, deeper and quieter than any she had known.
Questions for Reflection
1. Jesus’ first advent had been foretold for generations. Yet when it happened, most of God’s people were caught unaware. List five reasons why. List five prescriptions that will prevent it from happening to those who await Jesus’ second advent.
2. In what ways is Mary a role model for us? How does her experience reflect ours?
3. God’s people are often required to endure various degrees of heartbreak. What lesson(s) from Mary’s life will help us endure them?
Meeting regularly with the apostles and other believers, Mary listened to their stories, searched the Scriptures Jesus had pointed them to, and prayed for His wisdom and guidance. A dawning realization flooded her heart that her Son’s death, far from signaling the failure of God’s promises, had actually accomplished the ultimate victory, salvation from death itself. Even news of His disappearance into the clouds of heaven did not dismay her. She rejoiced that He could take His place at His true Father’s side, making available this never-ending life to every person who came to Him in faith. Mary did not know what the future held, but Jesus had promised to be with them always, and the triumph of His death and the hope of His Spirit left them confident that His will would prevail. He had promised it.
The struggle Mary went through in those dark days when her hope seemed first challenged, then completely shattered, is one that every believer must walk through, whether in ways big or small. As God spoke through the angel to Mary, God has declared that He holds us, too, in His favor. As He did for Mary, He has called us to a special place in His service. As it was for Mary, there will be moments in our lives when the places He leads make absolutely no earthly sense.
In those moments we have no solution but to surrender our vain attempts at running our lives and let go of every earthly possession we feel a right to claim. Only in this emptiness of surrender to our dead and risen Lord can we find true peace and freedom. Only in Him can we find the total forgiveness and unfathomable love for which our hearts long.
Let’s hold on to our hope in Christ’s living presence when our commitment to Him seems to get us only poverty or pain. Let’s hold on to our hope in His presence when the service we began for Him is mired in failure and despair. His love enfolds us; His arm strengthens us. And in the morning, when we see Him face-to-face, it will have been worth it.
*Bible texts in this article are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission.
Teresa Reeve is an assistant professor of New Testament at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University. Her greatest joys in life include meeting God in Scripture, spending time with the family He gave her, and exploring God’s great outdoors with them.