In Luke’s Gospel, a woman from the crowd raises her voice and says to Jesus, “Blessed is the womb that carried you and the breasts at which you nursed!” But Jesus replies, “Rather, blessed are those who hear the word of God and observe it” (Luke 11:27, 28).
Yes, Mary bore Jesus in her womb and nursed him at her breasts. But even more important, she listened to God’s word and responded to it throughout her life. From her earliest years, as she joined her neighbors at the synagogue, Mary learned how to immerse herself in God’s word and let that word bear fruit in her heart. This is why each of us can take Mary as our prime model for listening to, meditating, praying, contemplating, and witnessing to God’s word.
When Mary visits her elder relative, Elizabeth proclaims that Mary is blessed by God in two ways. First, she is blessed as the mother of Jesus: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” And second, she is blessed as the model disciple: “Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled” (Luke 1:42, 45). As both mother and disciple, Mary is “Woman of the Word.”
Woman of the Word. Many icons and ancient images of the Annunciation show Mary holding or reading Scripture when the angel is revealed to her. Of course, “the word” for Mary of Nazareth was the Hebrew Scriptures, what we Christians call the Old Testament.
Mary listened to the Scriptures in many ways throughout her life. Surely her parents taught her the stories of her ancestors. She heard the word proclaimed and chanted in the synagogue. When she and her family would travel to Jerusalem for the Jewish feasts, she would hear the Scriptures being proclaimed and chanted in the Temple. Every day, she reflected on and prayed with Scripture. Her life was permeated by the Torah, the prophets, and the psalms.
Mary’s attentive listening prepared her to receive the new revelation that the angel Gabriel would bring to her. Because she was a woman of the word, she knew the angel from his appearances in the prophecies of Daniel. She also remembered that others before her had been addressed by the words “The Lord is with you” when they received a special role in God’s plan. When told that she would bear a child who would be called “Son of the Most High” and sit on “the throne of David,” she recalled these words from the psalms and the prophets and grew to understand that the Messiah would be born from her. She recognized that “the Holy Spirit” had come upon those chosen to deliver God’s word to his people, and she knew that “the Most High” had “overshadowed” the newly completed Temple, bringing to that earthly dwelling the glorious presence of God (Luke 1:28-35).
Yes, Mary, the woman of the word, knew that God was calling her to participate in some wonderful way in the unfolding of salvation history. Because this faithful daughter of Israel had listened to the word of God throughout her life, she was open to God’s will and responded with all her heart: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). As in the tradition of lectio divina, Mary listened to God’s word, she pondered that word, and she prayerfully responded to God.
Exemplar of Lectio Divina. As woman of the word, Mary shows us how to listen to Scripture as the word of God in a way that is personal, prayerful, and transforming. Her life exemplifies each of the movements of lectio divina: listening, reflecting, praying, contemplating, and witnessing.
First, Mary shows us how to listen with expectation. In her home, in the synagogue, and in the Temple, Mary listened to God’s word and sought to live according to its guidance. Because she was open to the new meaning that these inspired texts always offer, her attentive listening to the Hebrew Scriptures prepared her to receive the new revelation that Gabriel would bring. Gradually, she came to understand that the sacred texts that she had heard all her life were being fulfilled in her and in her son. In this way, Mary teaches us how to listen to God’s word with expectation so that we hear it as God’s voice addressed to us.
Second, Mary shows us how to practice meditation, reflecting on the meaning and message of the text. Luke’s Gospel says, “Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart” (Luke 2:19). Treasuring and pondering the word of God is the essence of meditation. Mary was a model Israelite because she pondered Scripture and let it shape and expand her heart. So Mary shows us how the word of God can form our hearts when we allow it to rest within us and mold our own desires, insights, and judgments.
Third, Mary shows us how to pray from the heart. Because Mary had listened to God’s word and learned to meditate on it, she was able to respond in prayer with her whole heart, “May it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). In the Magnificat, Mary took the words of Israel’s prophets and psalms and wove her own thoughts, feelings, and desires into them (1:46-55). In this way, Mary teaches us how to enrich our personal prayer with the inspired prayers of God’s people throughout the ages.
Fourth, Mary shows us how to practice contemplation, quietly resting in God. Cultivating her prayer life by immersing herself in the word of God (and through her very close relationship with Jesus), Mary prepared herself for the silent and receptive waiting of contemplative prayer. So after Jesus had ascended into heaven, Mary was able to wait with the other disciples for the Holy Spirit: “All these devoted themselves with one accord to prayer, together with some women, and Mary the mother of Jesus” (Acts 1:14). This confident and trustful waiting for the transforming work of the Holy Spirit is the model for the contemplative life.
Finally, Mary shows us how to witness faithfully in daily life. Mary’s entire life was a response to the word of God. From Nazareth to Jerusalem, she was a faithful witness to the word, to which she had given her “yes; let it be.” Even at her most difficult moment, as she stood beneath the cross, Mary never retracted her commitment to live in total openness to God.
Bearers of the Word. As a model for our faithful witness, Mary offers us words of trust for our task of witnessing to the word. At the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry in John’s Gospel, Mary was with Jesus at a wedding feast in Cana. When the wine ran out, Mary told the servants, “Do whatever he tells you” (John 2:5). She knew that Jesus would transform their ordinary water into the vibrant wine of God’s kingdom. As mother of the disciples after the resurrection, Mary again tells us to do whatever Jesus asks of us. She knows that being “doers of the word” and responding to that word with trusting obedience is the way to our well-being and happiness. Through our witness, Jesus can use us as his instruments for building his kingdom. He can make us his disciples and his witnesses in the world.
Because Mary welcomed the word in her heart and nourished the word in her very being, she was able to give birth to the word in the world. In the birth of Christ, as John’s Gospel tells us, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14). Like the good soil that accepts the seed, nurturing it until it sprouts and begins to flourish, Mary listens to the word, receives the word, and ponders the word, allowing it to take root in her heart. Then she is able to go out and bear that word to the world around her.
Like Mary and with Mary, we are called to be people of the word. We are called to make Christ incarnate in the world. By our lectio divina, we listen, reflect, pray, rest, and witness the good news of salvation with our lives. Then, by the ways that we show our obedience, joy, and gratitude for what God has done, we too can invite other people to share in the same new life that has transformed us.
Stephen J. Binz is an author, biblical scholar, and popular speaker. His work may be found at www.Bridge-B.com. For more on the practice of lectio divina, see his series of books, Conversing with God in Scripture, from The Word Among Us Press.