Obeying the Law

Eight days after the birth of Jesus, at the time of circumcision, Joseph and Mary implicitly obeyed the angel and called the baby ‘Jesus’. Then followed the days of purification – despite the fact that the holy thing which was born of her was the Son of God, Mary still had to obey the requirements of the Law. In fact it almost seems that the Law was made for her – 33 days of purification, which equates to the years of Christ’s life. This time also ensured enforced rest for the new mother and child, something which the medical profession in our day appears to have lost sight and understanding of.

Joseph and Mary then travelled to Jerusalem “to present him to the Lord”. The Law states, “If she be not able to bring a lamb, then she shall bring two turtles or two young pigeons” (Lev 12:8) but Luke only quotes the latter requirements (2:24). Why? Mary was bringing the Lamb of God! Her offering also underlines the poverty of this couple. As Paul points out, God has chosen the foolish, weak and despised things of this world (1 Cor 1:18–31). Let us always endeavour to use whatever we have in His service, however humble. As Jesus said of another Mary, “She hath done what she could.”

Simeon arrived at this point, and gave his beautiful prophecy of the future work of the baby in his arms. He then blessed them, but told Mary that her child, the son of the Highest, would cause great upheaval in Israel, and be “a sign spoken against”, to test the thoughts of many hearts; “yea, a sword shall pierce through thine own soul also.” The “sword” would be a broad cutlass – a cruel, barbaric instrument used on a delicate and loving nature. At that time Mary had already experienced the barbs of cruel tongues, but more would come to test her. The aged prophetess Anna also spoke to them of the work of this child to bring about the redemption of Jerusalem, words which would have encouraged the young couple in their mission to carefully train the Son of God.

From Bethlehem to Egypt

Most commentators agree that Joseph and Mary now returned to Bethlehem where they lived in a house. Here when Jesus was “a young child” they were visited by the wise men from the east, bearing sumptuous gifts, fit for a king, and no doubt of use to Joseph and Mary as they obeyed the angel and fled to Egypt to escape Herod’s maniacal and egotistical wrath. Mary’s gentle nature would have recoiled at the slaughter of so many little ones, but she knew that God was in control to save His Son, even as Jeremiah’s words were being fulfilled. This journey to Egypt would have been long and dangerous, especially with a young child. Again Mary was being called on to leave her ‘comfort zone’ for the sake of this special child.

There was a Jewish colony in Egypt, and perhaps Mary could find some solace among them in a strange land while Joseph perhaps found work in his trade. Knowing Mary’s ready command of Scripture she would have found herself thinking of the words of Hosea quoted by Matthew: “Out of Egypt have I called my son” (Hos 11:1; Matt 2:15).

No doubt Mary was thankful that the angel precluded Joseph’s intention to return to Bethlehem, and would have joyfully returned to her home town, with its familiar sights and faces, especially after the strangeness of Egypt, the land of darkness. Here in Nazareth Joseph returned to his carpenter’s bench, and together they trained Jesus and other children born to them in the ways of normal life but as lived to God, with an emphasis on spiritual education.

With special reference to Mary’s work as a mother to Jesus, Melva Purkis summarises this time far better than I could: “The Divine reticence in the Gospels leads our minds to the simple yet beautiful picture of a growing boy helping his mother in her homely tasks, often walking with her down the crowded and lively street to make her daily purchases and fetch the water from the well, learning from her quiet example the beauty of godliness and the strength of faith.”

Return to Jerusalem

The next recorded incident is the visit of Jesus with his parents and family and many other villagers to the Temple. We know the story. Jesus was missing on the journey home, and Joseph and Mary, retracing their steps, spent three tiring and stressful days frenziedly searching for him, yet still believing that the Son of God must be safe somewhere. Many parents would be able to empathise with their worry over a lost child, for however long.

Mary’s worry turned to annoyance and amazement to see him, a child of twelve, talking with the revered “doctors of the law”. Perhaps there was an element of fear and apprehension. Was he being a young upstart in so freely talking with these revered men?

As is so often the case in such situations, the mother spoke first! Worn out with worry, she remonstrated with Jesus, and received in answer the first touch of the tip of the piercing sword. Not that Jesus spoke without respect, but already he expected Mary to understand that although she was his earthly mother, and Joseph his guardian, his first priority was his Heavenly Father and in learning all he could about the intricacies of His Word and purpose. Mary didn’t really understand, but nevertheless she “kept all these sayings in her heart”.

For the next eighteen years we know only that despite this divine predilection, Jesus was subject to them, all the while growing in wisdom and stature, particularly in divine ways. Mary would have noticed the signs of this, despite the seeming normality of life.

A wedding at Cana

At some point Joseph died, and Jesus, now head of the family and the village carpenter, would have become even closer to his mother. Imagine then her dismay at the wedding at Cana as he rebuked her presumption that he would continue to do whatever she wanted. There could also have been in Mary a natural pride in her son, a natural desire to see him applauded for using his divine ability, evident to her, to solve the problem at the wedding, which apparently involved her relatives.

As Robert Roberts states, “Mary appears, with a woman’s intuition, to have formed the conclusion that Jesus was now possessed of power to do all things.” Despite this she needed to understand that his divine power was not to be used just to help people out, nor to show his greatness for all to see.

Despite the rebuke, however, Mary gathered that Jesus intended to supply wine. She could not know that he was going to use the occasion to “manifest forth his glory”, that his new disciples might believe. But she surely now comprehended that the old life was finished. She had to surrender to the divine will as he began his ministry.

An attempt to interfere

We hear little more of Mary until the incident when she and some of her family tried to see Jesus. It appears that his brothers were losing faith in him, and wanted to discourage him from a course which seemed to be bringing nothing but opposition and weariness, without even adequate time to eat. Sadly, Mary too at this time appears to have been swayed by the reasoning of her sons (or “kinsmen”, margin). “He is out of his mind” (Mk 3:21, niv).

So Mary and the brothers “stood without”, wanting to have an audience with Jesus but apparently not wanting to go in to listen to his words. This elicited the strong words “whosoever shall do the will of God, the same is my brother, and sister, and mother” – another sword thrust! Mary and her children had to accept that “the flesh profits nothing”. They had no special claim on Jesus except to become his disciples and follow him.

From then on it would appear that poor Mary, “the handmaid of the Lord”, had a dysfunctional household, truly a trying time for this godly woman. Despite Jesus’ previous words and appeal for them to accept his high calling, his brothers did not believe his claims (Jn 7:5). We believe Mary did—she is not mentioned in this verse—but she was no doubt confused and distressed by the reaction of her sons, and in trying to reconcile their words with those of Gabriel and Simeon, those things which she had always kept in her heart.

The last journey

She did believe, and on that last fateful journey to Jerusalem she was with him. And at this point she finally understood the full meaning of Simeon’s prophecy. The sword thrust was complete, as she watched her son mercilessly and cruelly crucified. What could prepare her mind for the horror of that sight, even if she had contemplated such passages as Psalms 22 and 69 and Isaiah 53? This was the beloved baby she had miraculously conceived, then carried for nine months, watched grow into a beautiful, caring, thoughtful child and then to a man who could perform wonderful miracles and speak glorious words. That same son, the Son of God, was now placarded on a stake of shame, cursed and reviled and spat upon as he endured the agony. It would be hard enough to be the mother of one of the thieves, but to watch this happen to a totally innocent and sinless man was very hard to bear.

But she did not shirk her duty as a mother to a son, nor leave him as did most of the disciples, until amidst all his suffering, Jesus gently encouraged John to take to his home this woman, his beloved mother, and care for her.

Resurrected to live for ever

And three days later the sorrow of Mary and so many other faithful followers turned to transcendent joy, as they finally comprehended that the Son of God was alive for evermore! No doubt during those forty glorious days of fellowship Jesus spent some time with his mother, making sure she now fully understood what had happened and what his tragic death would do for her and for so many like us many centuries later. Following his ascension the apostles came back to “an upper room” and continued in prayer “with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brethren”. The family were finally “one in Christ”, joyfully praising their God and spreading the gospel message.

Coming in glory

That is our closing picture of Mary, but in the glad day soon to dawn when the Lord of life returns, she, with the humble Joseph and their children, will be there to receive immortality, and work with and serve the Christ, once a babe in her arms, now Lord of all the earth. At that time “the former things will not be remembered nor come into mind” – no more piercings of the sword, but joy for ever.

May it be so for each of us, if we can learn from the life and example of the faithful of old such as Mary. We do not worship her as the churches do, but can only be impressed by the godliness of the one chosen to be the mother of our Lord. Truly, in her words, the One who is mighty did for her great things, and her spirit will eternally rejoice in God her Saviour.

May that glad day soon come; we pray that by the grace of God we may be there to meet in the flesh Mary, the handmaid of the Lord and mother of our Redeemer, a faithful woman whom we have come to love and from whom we can learn so much now in our day of trial and probation.