In so many paintings and sculptures we see Mary kneeling, with her hands folded and head bowed, prayerful and peaceful. Many of these artistic works convey the sense of serenity that we often associate with the Mother of God, a peace that came from quietly pondering God's actions in her heart.
Yet as quiet as Mary must have been, she was also active. From the moment of the angel's visit, Mary began a journey of faith that brought her deeper and deeper into God's love. Every challenge and obstacle that she faced gave her the opportunity to trust in God more deeply and to rely on his Spirit more fully. And Mary never drew back from these challenges. She embraced them in faith, allowing them to form her into the vessel of grace that she was destined to become.
In this article, we want to take a look at the way Mary responded to the challenges placed before her. We want to see how she let the Spirit teach and form her in these challenges so that we can come to a better understanding of how the Spirit wants to work in our lives as well.
The Encounter with the Angel. Growing up in Palestine in the first century b.c., Mary would have joined her people in praying for the coming Messiah and the fulfillment of God's promises. She doubtless heard some of her fellow Jews crying out for deliverance, not only from Roman domination but from the divisions among their own people as well. She would have prayed for the restoration of Jerusalem as the gathering place of the chosen people. Listening to the Hebrew Scripture must have filled her with the conviction that God would not abandon his people. In so many ways, Mary's heart seemed ripe to receive the good news.
Yet Scripture tells us that when the angel appeared to her, Mary was troubled by his greeting (Luke 1:29). Despite all the preparation in Mary's heart—even despite her sinless purity—the angel's appearance presented her with an unexpected challenge. She was being invited by almighty God to participate in his plan of salvation, and in a very intimate way!
Mary was amazed that God would choose a lowly, uneducated girl like herself to fulfill such a mission. And even though she was probably familiar with Isaiah's words that a virgin would conceive and bear a child called Immanuel—"God with us"—the notion that she was called to be that woman was difficult to grasp.
While Mary's mind could not fully grasp this revelation, her faith and love for God enabled her to say yes. Despite the fear, the uncertainty about the future, and the host of questions that must have entered her mind, Mary knew in her heart that God was trustworthy. This humble "handmaid of the Lord" (Luke 1:38) chose to stay faithful to God. And so, as the angel left her, Mary began a faith journey that far surpassed anything she could have envisioned.
Pondering and Treasuring. Once the angel left her, Mary "went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country" (Luke 1:39), to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who had conceived the forerunner of the Messiah. It was at least a three-day journey, and so Mary must have had plenty of time to think and pray. We can picture her recalling her encounter with the angel over and over again, asking God to open her heart more deeply to the role he had just invited her to play. When she arrived at Elizabeth's home, words of praise and gratitude welled up from her heart, reflecting everything she had prayed about during her journey (Luke 1:47-55).
Luke often portrays Mary quietly pondering the things that she witnessed, treasuring them in her heart (Luke 2:19,51). For Mary, these were not anxiety-laden attempts to make sense out of confusing circumstances. Rather, they were times of quiet, trust-filled turning to God for understanding. At every opportunity, Mary combined serious thought and questioning with quiet listening to the Spirit.
The Time of Preparation and Testing. As the time for Jesus' birth drew near, God began to show Mary what kind of reception her son would encounter. While there could be many reasons why "there was no place for them in the inn" at Bethlehem (Luke 2:7), Luke paints this scene to foreshadow the rejection that Jesus would face throughout his life. From the very start of his life, Jesus was welcomed by the humble and lowly, and ignored by the rich and the proud. Even the angels who heralded his birth made the announcement to lowly shepherds and not to kings and queens!
At Jesus' presentation in the Temple, Mary received a foretaste of her own participation in Jesus' rejection. The aged Simeon prophesied that Jesus would be a "sign that will be opposed"—and in the next breath, he told Mary that a sword would pierce through her own soul (Luke 2:34-35). And so, very early in her role as the Mother of God, Mary faced the mystery of the cross. The redemption she had prayed for would not come easily. It would cost both her and her son dearly.
The signs of Jesus' rejection only increased as time went on. In order to escape Herod's murderous rage, Mary and Joseph had to flee to Egypt (Matthew 2:13-23). In her flight, Mary faced another stage in her journey. He who had visited her so graciously through the angel was now testing her faith and calling her to a deeper level of trust. And as she responded, Mary grew in strength and grace.
During the hidden years prior to Jesus' public ministry, Mary's love for God deepened as she taught her son about Simeon's prophecy, about the circumstances surrounding his birth, and the angel's words to her. Through all these years, the Spirit was at work, deepening Mary's understanding of Jesus and of what her special role in God's plan.
The Time Is Fulfilled. The Gospel of John surrounds Jesus' public ministry with two events involving Mary. At the wedding feast of Cana (John 2:1-11), Jesus seemed reluctant at first to perform any miracles. But his mother's disposition of faith and trust moved him to begin his ministry. This story in John shows how Mary's faith had matured beyond the faith of the apostles, who had not yet been tested as she had. She had learned the secret of humble persistence, and that made her confident that God would grant her desire—a miraculous sign of the coming kingdom.
At the wedding, Mary showed more than just her sympathy for a bride and groom whose wedding celebration was threatened. She was eager for her son to begin his work. Years earlier, the angel had told her that Jesus would inherit the kingdom of David (Luke 1:32-33), and she longed to see this kingdom come. While Jesus knew it was not yet the "hour" when he would be glorified on the cross (John 2:4), he yielded to her request, performing a miracle that pointed to the longing in both their hearts—the eternal wedding banquet. What hope Mary must have drawn from this sign!
Mary was also present at the end of Jesus' ministry—on Calvary, where she experienced the fulfillment of Simeon's prophecy (John 19:25-27). As she watched her son's agony, did the angel's hopeful promises seem meaningless and empty to her? Jesus was supposed to be "great . . . the Son of the Most High. . . . Of his kingdom there [would] be no end" (Luke 1:32-33). How was she to understand this? The late Pope John Paul II once explained it this way: "Standing at the foot of the cross, Mary is the witness, humanly speaking, of the complete negation" of the angels' words. Yet, "How completely she abandons herself to God without reserve" (Mother of the Redeemer, 18).
Mary's journey took her down roads she never thought she would travel, and with each passing year, her faith deepened. Through both trials and joys, she watched God's plan unfold, and she willingly played the part he had marked out for her. While her mother's heart was pierced with anguish at her son's death, she never once cursed God or abandoned her calling. Even as she held her son's dead body, Mary knew that it must be this way, and that his death brought about the greatest of all miracles: humanity's reconciliation with God. Finally, the kingdom she longed for had come. She had only to wait for Easter Sunday to see all her hopes fulfilled and her sorrows reversed.
The Mirror of Faith. Even though she played a special role in God's plan, Mary remained a humble, lowly believer. From her conception she was graced with the merits of Jesus' cross: freedom from the bondage of sin. However, she still faced real, human choices and felt real, human emotions. Her triumph is a triumph of faith—the same faith available to each of us.
God invites all of us on a pilgrimage of faith. He wants all of us to treasure his voice in our hearts and to ponder his word in Scripture. Mary gives us a beautiful example of what it means to yield to God. She teaches us to listen to God's voice and to allow the Holy Spirit to guide us. May her prayer burn in our hearts as well: "Behold the servant of the Lord; let it be done to me according to your word."