Another Christmas has arrived. When I browsed the TV programme schedules for the season, I noticed a significant absence of the real people that were involved in the true Christmas story. Of course, nothing that TV can produce can match that first Christmas and the remarkable cast of characters. Let us take a look at the woman who is called “blessed among women” who played the second key role in the original Christmas story.
We do not even know much about her or what she looked like. We know that she spoke Aramaic, Christ’s mother-tongue, and dressed in the long, loosely fitting robes still worn today by Bedouins. The belief persists to this day and kept alive by such great artists as Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci that Mary, mother of Jesus, possessed a pure and simple beauty.
She was just a young teenager in an unimportant town called Nazareth, in the hills of Galilee. She came from a poor but honourable family. Her family were descendants of Israel’s greatest king, David. She’d been carefully trained in the Scriptures and knew great portions of them by heart. She knew that God had promised to send the Messiah, one who would rescue her people and be their king. For four hundred years, God had been silent. No new Scripture was written; no prophets had spoken.
Presumably, Mary was in her teens when her betrothal was arranged by the two families concerned. Joseph, we learn, was also a descendant of King David, and by trade a carpenter.
We all know the rest of the story: how the angel Gabriel came to her and told her that she was highly favoured by God and she would have a son, and her son would be the Messiah: And, how Mary replied, “I am the Lord’s servant ... may it be to me as you have said.”
Although she could not comprehend how she would conceive the Saviour, she responded to God with humble belief and obedience. She remembered the old prophesies.
Although she would have felt highly honoured as the mother of the Saviour, she would have understood the disgrace she had to face as an unwed mother. She nearly lost her fiancé. She gave birth to Jesus as her baby and watched him growing up steady, intelligent and blessed child.
Mary kept herself in the background thereafter, looking after the family home in Nazareth. But Jesus was ever in her mind
Herod, Rome’s wily puppet ruler over Palestine at that time, was troubled by reports of a new “King of the Jews.” We read how Joseph, warned by an angel of Herod’s murderous intent, took mother and child down the rough highway through Sinai to Egypt; and how, after Herod’s death., they returned, settling in Nazareth.
Events in her household went along so normally that Mary may have come close to forgetting those early miracles - angel Gabriel, the shepherds, the wise men. A sharp reminder sprung upon her when Jesus, 12 years old, became separated from his parents in Jerusalem during the Passover service.
They found him, after an exasperating three-day search, seated among theologians in the Temple, debating with them on religious matters and astonishing them with his wisdom.
Mary did what any mother might have done -she lost her temper: “Son, why hast thou thus dealt with us?”
“Behold, thy father and I have sought thee sorrowing!” Jesus told her that she ought not to have looked for him, for he must be “about his Father’s business.”
This was the first of three rebukes that nerved Mary for the recognition that Jesus, though her son, does not “belong” to her.
It wasn’t until Jesus is about 30 that the next warning was delivered. At Cana, a town not far from Nazareth, he and his mother were invited to a wedding. During the feast, Mary turned to her son. “They have no wine,” she said, implying that she was aware of his Messianic powers.
The reply - “Woman, what have I to do with thee? Mine hour is not yet come.” Mary would have been shocked. Yet the blunt address served notice that, henceforth, his earthly bonds had to be loosened. Then, after reflection, Jesus did her bidding by turning water into wine.
The next time we encounter Mary and Jesus was when she and few followers (Joseph evidently having died by then) have come from Nazareth to the Sea of Galilee to see the increasingly popular preacher. Jesus was in the midst of a sermon when he was told that his mother and brethren were waiting on the edge of the crowd, asking to have a word with him.
By now, the lines were sharply drawn. Pointing to his disciples, he called them his new family. Anyone doing God’s will -indeed, all mankind - is now my brother, and sister, and mother.
Presumably, Mary was in her teens when her betrothal was arranged by the two families concerned. Joseph, we learn, was also a descendant of King David, and by trade a carpenter
The well-meaning little group of relatives, headed by Mary, trudged back to Nazareth in sorrow and confusion.
Mary kept herself in the background thereafter, looking after the family home in Nazareth. But Jesus was ever in her mind. As he went about Galilee, preaching and healing, as his fame began to spread “throughout all Syria,” Mary followed his progress with the imagination of a worried mother.
Her son, she knew, had “not where to lay his head.” She knew he sometimes went without food. Perhaps she risked the hazards of the highway, whenever possible, to catch a glimpse of him as he addressed way-side crowds. Perhaps she was among the women who, so Luke tells us, occasionally came to comfort the little band of 13 footsore men. Gradually, as Jesus became a controversal figure, her pride at his success was tempered by premonitions. It dawned on her that her son’s kingdom was of another world.
Though Mary had grown up in a society where women were expected to be inconspicuous themselves, there was never anything automatic about her submission. She was troubled; she hesitated - but, eventually, she complied, aware in her own heart that she was truly blessed among women.
Finally, as she stood by the Cross, a figure of commanding dignity, mother and son are reunited. Jesus’ glance fell upon Mary, who was near John - the only one among the Twelve to brave the hostile crowd - and he said, “Woman, behold thy son!” And to John, “Behold thy mother!”
In the last flicker of his earthly life, the son conceived in Mary’s womb voiced his love and did the son’s duty. Mary’s old age was made secure, for the “disciple whom Jesus loved” will take her into his own home.
From the early centuries of our era, the lone Christ’s mother has fired the imagination of the believers. Statues of her began to grace the crossroads of the world. Pious pilgrimages brought thousands to her shrines. Hymns were sung to her. Cities were named for her. And some of the world’s great cathedrals - among them Notre Dame of Paris - were dedicated in her name.
Thus today, as the lofty symbol of eternal motherhood, Mary belongs to all civilizations.