But standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene (John 19:25).
One of the figures in early Christianity that has captivated many is Mary the mother of Jesus. Her legend has steadily grown throughout the past two thousand years to incredible heights. When we think about Mary, it is likely that much of what comes to mind is based on these later legends. We get a picture something akin to one of the ancient icons: a younger woman, holding Jesus as a baby, quiet, serene, seemingly confident.
Yet most of what is believed about Mary comes from pious legends that came far after the New Testament. What can be gained about Mary from Scripture is much more human, and much more compelling.
We meet Mary in Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2. She is a young Jewish girl living in Nazareth in Galilee, a teenager, betrothed to the local carpenter Joseph (Matthew 1:18, Luke 1:26-27). The angel Gabriel visits her with a most compelling story: with her consent, she will conceive a child through the power of the Holy Spirit, and the Child will be Jesus, the Son of the Most High, the promised Branch of the house of David who will reign over Israel forever (Luke 1:28-35). Mary consents, exhibiting great faith in the God of Israel, and in so doing she proves to be the first person to suffer shame and indignity for the cause of the Lord’s Christ (Matthew 1:19-24, Luke 1:38). She was now the virgin who would bear the Immanuel child (Isaiah 7:14, Matthew 1:22-23)– a peasant girl from Nazareth! The irony is not lost on her, as is made plain by her song of praise often called the Magnificat– a declaration of how the humble are exalted and the exalted are humbled through the power of God (Luke 1:46-55).
Her wonder only grows as the Child is born. He is born during a visit to Bethlehem, and shepherds come to see the Child after Gabriel declares to them that the Savior, Christ the Lord, was born (Luke 2:6-19). While presenting Him in the Temple, she marveled as Simeon the prophet spoke of the Child as salvation, a Light for the Gentiles, and glory for Israel– and how He would be the cause of fall and rising for many, and will pierce through Mary’s own soul, so the thoughts of many would be revealed (Luke 2:22-35). Magi came from the east, bearing presents of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, fit for a king, and bowed down before the Child (Matthew 2:11-12). It was a very auspicious start. But what did it all mean?
Contrary to what many believe, Mary would go on to have some children with Joseph– James, Joseph (or Joses), Simon, Judas, and some girls (Matthew 1:25, 13:55-56, Mark 6:1-3). We see Mary again when Jesus is 12 at the Passover festival in Luke 2:41-51. The family left town but Jesus stayed behind, and they spent three days looking for Him, and finally found Him in the Temple, sitting with the teachers, asking them questions, and amazing all who saw Him. Mary cries out to Him in her distress: “Son, why hast thou thus dealt with us? behold, thy father and I sought thee sorrowing” (Luke 2:48). His response did not make sense to them: did you not know that I would be in my Father’s house (Luke 2:49-50)? Despite not understanding this, she treasured this– along with all the past events– in her heart (Luke 2:51).
For most of the rest of Jesus’ life and ministry, Mary His mother does not seem to be present often. She is confident of His divine power and prods Him a bit during the wedding feast at Cana (John 2:1-11). After that event He and His disciples stayed with her (John 2:12). A little later we see “those who were of Jesus,” understood to be His family, went out to seize Him because of all of His preaching activity, because they were convinced that “He [was] out of His mind” (Mark 3:21). We can be fairly certain that His brothers were involved, since they did not believe in Him at the time (John 7:2-5). Perhaps Mary was unaware of what they were doing and had no part in it; perhaps Mary was not only aware of it but went with them. There is also the episode where Mary and Jesus’ brothers were attempting to speak with Him, and He took the opportunity to teach how His true family are those who do the will of the Father (Matthew 12:46-49, Mark 3:31-35, Luke 8:19-21). The reason for the visit is entirely unexplained.
There seems to be a disconnect with all of this. Did Mary not receive all of these statements and signs about who her Son would be? How come she did not understand Jesus’ words in the Temple? Even if she had no part in the actions of her other sons, how could it be that they did not believe in Him? Didn’t she tell them about Gabriel, the promises, and everything else? How can all of this be?
Some have speculated that all of this shows that the birth story was a later “add-on” to the Gospel; we need not go to such extremes. Instead, let us again consider the expectations of His brothers, at least, and quite possibly His mother also. As good Jews, they were waiting for the Messiah. They would have imagined the Messiah, the King in the line of David, the One who would rule over Jacob, as doing so in a very physical and concrete way. They expected Jesus to be King in Jerusalem, conquering nations and restoring Israel to its glory. Everything Gabriel told Mary could be understood through this perspective. But Jesus was not doing these things. It was clear that God was with Him, and that He had divine power, but He was preaching and teaching about a very different sort of Kingdom. He made it fairly clear that He did not come to overthrow Rome as much as to overthrow the works of the Evil One and sin.
Perhaps this is why Mary did not expect to find Jesus in the Temple asking questions; she may have imagined Him to be destined for a throne in Jerusalem, and not among those teaching in the Temple. Having an overfilled house in Capernaum, preaching and teaching, seemed as madness. This was not the expected script!
The next time Mary is mentioned is at the crucifixion, when Jesus makes provision for her, commissioning John to care for her (John 19:25-27). We know that Mary is watching her Son die on the cross. It is quite likely that the full effect of Simeon’s words was crashing down upon her (Luke 2:35). As to her faith and confidence in her Son, in the purpose of God for Him, in whether or how the predictions God made were being fulfilled, we know nothing.
The next time we do know something is also the last time Mary is mentioned in Scripture. Mary and the brothers of Jesus were part of the 120 who were gathered in the upper room between Jesus’ ascension and the day of Pentecost (Acts 1:12-15). While she might have doubted before, and she most likely did not fully understand the sort of Messiah her Son would be, by now she fully believes and understands. Jesus her Son did not remove the Roman yoke to rule an empire from Jerusalem. He had done far better– He had defeated sin and death, removing the burdens that no man has ever been able to bear, and was crowned Lord of lords, and King of kings (Romans 5:6-11, 8:1-2, 10:4, Revelation 19:16).
Ultimately, Mary’s story is mostly left up to our imagination. We know that she was full of faith in God, willing to bear the reproach of the Lord’s Christ, and was there for her Son from birth to death and even beyond. She certainly understands that He has power from God, but it seems doubtful that she really understood the plan that God established for her Son. Perhaps her confidence at times wavered; perhaps she persevered in belief, even when she did not understand everything and when her children did not believe. She watches her own beloved Son die on that cross, and we can only imagine the heartache she experienced in so doing, and all the more so if she did not fully understand God’s purpose for Him. Yet, in the end, she is numbered among the disciples of her own Son, and is praying with her now repentant children, no doubt that God’s will through Jesus be fully manifest as it would be on Pentecost.
We would like to know more about Mary, but we must remember that this is the story of Jesus, not His mother. Yet Mary still encourages us in our faith, for no matter how many internal trials and difficulties she experienced, she began with faith in whom her Son would be, and either maintained or returned to that faith by His death and resurrection. Her faith became better informed as He grew, taught God’s purposes, and then fulfilled them. She was, no doubt, not ashamed to be called His disciple, and neither should we. Let us be encouraged by Mary’s example and serve her Son!
Ethan R. Longhenry