When I was a boy I thought I heard angels sing. I was in my bedroom at the time and the sound seemed to come from a distance. I was perplexed by what I heard. When I opened the bedroom window the music grew louder. I thought I could see a heavenly glow beyond the rooftop of the house next door. The fact that Christmas was approaching was the clincher for me. It had to be a heavenly choir of angels jubilating over the birth of the Christ child. There could be no other explanation.
Actually, it turns out that there was a more mundane explanation for the phenomenon. Someone was selling Christmas trees over on the next block. They had strung the lot with colored lights. The music I heard was only a phonograph connected to a loudspeaker. So much for my heavenly visitation. But I have often thought back on that brief moment of transcendence when I was certain I heard the angels sing on high.
When Gabriel appeared to Mary, there was no burst of song but a herald’s announcement. “Greetings, you who are highly favored!” the angel said. “The Lord is with you” (Luke 1:28). Artists have pictured this as a transcendent moment for Mary but Luke paints it differently. Mary is not moved to bliss by the angel’s words but to perplexity. She was troubled by what she heard. Perhaps she heard in them an echo of the angel’s greeting to Gideon as he threshed grain in a cistern and brooded about Israel’s defeat. In the Bible, this sort of promise always seems to be the precursor to an especially difficult assignment.
Or perhaps it was the ascription of God’s special favor that surprised Mary. It is true that Mary was from a royal line. But beyond that, there does not seem to have been much else about her life that made it singularly blessed. She was just a young girl betrothed to the local carpenter. Neither of them was rich. They do not seem to have had any grandiose plans for themselves. Until now there was no reason to believe that their life together would be any different from any other couple in their village.
The details the angel provides reveal the singular favor that will be bestowed upon Mary. “You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus,” the angel commanded. “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.” (Luke 1:30-33).
Yet instead of reassurance, the angel’s promise only served to trouble Mary further. “How will this be,” Mary replied, “since I am a virgin?” She was of childbearing age. She was already engaged. How did she think it would happen? Mary’s question makes sense only if we understand the angel to be saying that this conception will be unusual. No man will father this child. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you,and the power of the Most High will overshadow you” the angel promised. “So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.”
Still, among all the remarkable words exchanged in this encounter, the most astonishing were those of Mary herself.“I am the Lord’s servant,” she replied after she had heard all these things. “May it be to me as you have said.” Did Mary know what she was agreeing to do? She knew at least this much: she would become pregnant before she was married and the only explanation she could give for this was that God was the baby’s father. She could not have concocted a more unlikely explanation if she had tried. If Mary was anxious about Joseph’s reaction, she gave no indication of it. After all, why should she be anxious? She knew what kind of man Joseph was. Scripture reveals that he was a man of faith, quick to do what he knew to be God’s will.
One dimension of the favor spoken of by the angel when he appeared to Mary was her distinctive role in the drama of redemption. Long before she was born, the judgment declared to Satan in the Garden of Eden foreshadowed Mary’s entrance into the story: “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel” (Gen. 3:15). Mary is the virgin spoken of in Isaiah 7:14 (cf. Matt. 1:23). Her place in the Nativity story is so crucial that it has led some to claim that there would be no Jesus without Mary. Although well-meaning, such rhetoric is, at best, unfortunate. Mary was not necessary to Jesus’ existence. Long before Mary was born or the world created, Jesus already was. According to John 1:1, He was “with God” and He “was God.”
Mary’s distinctive role lay in the fact that she was the vessel through whom our Lord took to Himself a human nature.
Mary’s distinctive role lay in the fact that she was the vessel through whom our Lord took to Himself a human nature. As the second-century church leader Ignatius of Antioch put it in his letter to the church of Smyrna, Jesus is “truly of the family of David with respect to his human descent” and also “Son of God with respect to the divine will and power” (Smyr. 1:1).7 Or, as he wrote in his letter to the Ephesians, there is a sense in which it can be said that Jesus is both “from Mary” and “from God” (Eph. 7:2).8
Yet as important as Mary is to the Christmas story, her presence on the biblical stage is strangely brief. After the nativity account, she reappears only a few times. On one occasion, when Jesus was twelve years old, she chastened Jesus for disappearing during a family visit to Jerusalem. After a three-day search, Mary and Joseph found Him in the temple courts listening to the teachers and asking them questions. Luke 2:48 describes the reaction: “When his parents saw him, they were astonished. His mother said to him, ‘Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.’” Eighteen years later, we find Mary at the wedding in Cana, urging Jesus to do something when the host runs out of wine ( John 2:3). Then again, after Jesus begins his public ministry, she shows up outside the house, where a crowd has gathered to hear Him teach. Mary is seemingly rebuffed both times (John 2:4; Mark 3:34–35; cf. Matt. 12:46–50).
The next time we see her, Mary is standing at the foot of the cross near the beloved disciple John. According to John 19:26–27: “When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, ‘Woman, here is your son,’ and to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ From that time on, this disciple took her into his home.”
After this, Mary more or less disappears from view. She has a brief cameo at the beginning of the book of Acts, which merely says that she was present on the day of Pentecost (Acts 1:4). She does not seem to be mentioned in the New Testament epistles at all unless she was “the chosen lady” to whom John addressed his second epistle (2 John 1:1).
What, then, are we to think of Mary? As far as Nativity is concerned, she has a starring role. But when it comes to the overall drama that plays out in the four Gospels, she seems more like a bit player and foil. Yet, despite the brevity of her appearances in these accounts, we are left with a definite impression. First, we see that Mary was, first and foremost, a mother. When Mary shows up, she behaves toward Jesus like any mother would toward her son. Mary was a woman of deep faith. Her song of praise in Luke 1:46–55, known as the Magnificat, is biblically literate, theologically sophisticated, and poetically rich. What is more, this faith was combined with great courage. She had to understand the social implications of conceiving a child without a human father. Despite this, she raises no objections about the cost to her reputation, how it will affect her impending marriage to Joseph, or about the implications it will have on their life together. Mary asks only how it will happen (Luke 1:34).
These days Christmas music seems to like to portray Mary as fragile and uncertain. In one song she asks God to “hold her together” and wants to know if He wonders whether “a wiser one” should have taken her place. Another song runs through a list of theological affirmations about the incarnation and asks, “Mary, did you know?” The answer to the first question is no, and the answer to the second is yes. Mary was probably young, but I do not think she was fragile. Her actions reveal that she was brave, persistent, and obedient. Certainly, there is much that Mary could not have known about what it would mean to give birth to God’s son. The one thing Mary did know was that she was the Lord’s servant.