Five Lessons From Mary On Christmas Eve

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‘Tis the day before Christmas, and believing Christians are thinking about Jesus.

They also should be thinking about Mary the mother of Jesus, and what they can learn from her.

Here are five things:


1.  Be Humble

We live in a beat-your-chest-or-watch-somebody-else-beat-his world. So it can be hard to hold back when the opportunity presents itself.

And what an opportunity near the beginning of the Gospel of Luke (1:28) — when the angel Gabriel appears to Mary and says in triumphal terms, “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you.”

Nobody else is spoken to this way in Scripture, let alone by a messenger from God.

Yet what is Mary’s response?

It isn’t spoken, apparently, but something interior:  “But Mary was troubled by these words, and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.”

Praise is not only not something Mary seeks, it troubles her. She apparently sees praise as something only for God.

In this passage, Mary seeks nothing for herself, and doesn’t even gloat over what is already hers.


2.  Test What You Hear

The Gospel of Luke tells us that the angel Gabriel speaks with Mary, but it doesn’t tell us that Mary immediately accepts everything the angel has to say.

When Gabriel tells Mary that she will conceive a son, Mary responds:  “How can this be, since I do not know man?”

By that, she means:  How can I get pregnant since I do not and will not engage in sexual intercourse?

Scripture gives us little in the way of back story.

But we know already from Luke that Mary is a virgin (1:27). It’s clear from her response that she expects to remain a virgin. Why else would she be surprised at the idea that she might soon be pregnant?  It would not be a shock to most soon-to-be-married women of the ancient world that they might soon be pregnant. But it is to Mary.

There’s a message in her question, too:  Are you for real?  Mary is testing the angel.

You can imagine St. Paul envisioning this scene around 50 years later while writing a letter to members of a church he had founded that included (1 Thessalonians 5:21) the words “Test everything; retain what is good.”


3.  When You Hear The Truth, Accept It

Mary’s response isn’t pointless skepticism.  What she initially hears doesn’t make sense to her, given what she knows about human biology and her own state in life. She wants to know whether it’s true.

Gabriel isn’t fazed by Mary’s challenge. He responds immediately with an explanation and evidence – the Holy Spirit will make the conception happen, and as a sign, Mary’s cousin Elizabeth is already pregnant even though she is well past ordinary child-bearing age. Gabriel also leaves no doubt who sent him (Luke 1:37), ending his answer with “For nothing will be called impossible for God.”

In other words:  Mary will remain a virgin even though she will conceive and give birth; a parallel miraculous event demonstrates the truth of the statement; and all of it comes from God.

The angel is speaking Mary’s language. Mary now understands what he is saying, and she sees that it is true.

Mary’s skepticism lasts as long as she lacks enough information to make a judgment, and no longer.

Nor is she a passive listener.

Mary’s response to the angel (Luke 1:38) echoes down the ages:  “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord.  Be it done to me as you say.”


4.  Be Courageous

Once Mary determines that what the angel asks from her is from God, she says yes – even though her immediate prospects are bleak.

As a betrothed woman, getting pregnant by someone other than her betrothed is prima facie evidence of adultery.  The penalty set forth in Deuteronomy 22: 23-24 is to be brought “out to the gate of the city” and stoned to death.

Possibly the best outcome she can reasonably hope for is the actual response of her betrothed Joseph – he (in Matthew 1:19) is “unwilling to expose her to the law” and so decides “to divorce her quietly.”

The eventual outcome – that an angel appears to Joseph in a dream and at the angel’s direction takes Mary into his home as his wife (Matthew 1:20-24) – is not predictable.

Mary doesn’t care.  Once she sees the right thing to do, she does it – consequences are irrelevant.


5.  Help Somebody Else

In the course of a short conversation, Mary goes from obscure and apparently ordinary peasant girl to unique status.

What is her response?

She apparently immediately leaves – “in haste” (Luke 1:39) – for her far-off cousin Elizabeth’s home. Elizabeth likely lived in today’s Ein Karim – about 70 miles from Mary’s home in Nazareth as the crow flies, and longer on foot.

As a six-months-pregnant woman past child-bearing years, Elizabeth probably needs help keeping up the house. Mary goes to visit her – and to help her.

Nor is this just a courtesy call.

Luke says:  “Mary remained with her about three months and then returned home” (1:56).

Elizabeth is six months pregnant when the story begins. Mary stays with Elizabeth for about three months. In other words, Mary helps Elizabeth throughout the rest of her pregnancy – when Elizabeth likely needs it most – and possibly stays a little while even after the birth of Elizabeth’s son, John the Baptist.

When Mary helps, she really helps.


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