Picture a young girl, fresh with innocence and purity. That is the image that comes to our minds every time we read the account of Mary’s interaction with the angel Gabriel (Luke 1:26–38). How did she come to be such a person?

Years of preparation

Yes, we believe that divine guidance must have come into it, because the earthly mother of the Son of God could not be anything but “the best” in all the ways that truly matter. She must have been given spiritual guidance from a very early age, to produce the qualities God required for such a special mission – the most exalted mission of any woman who has ever lived. So we would no doubt like to have known more about her parents. Instead, we only know that the name of her father was Heli, in the line of David, and that her mother was related to Elisabeth, wife of Zacharias the priest. How significant! Surely there are overtones of the greater Melchizedek, ‘having neither father nor mother.’

Be that as it may, we can only assume that Mary’s parents instructed her well in the Scriptures, not after the stereotyped ‘dead’ style of the rulers of their day, just as Jesus’ teaching was refreshingly different (Mark 1:21–22). They had taught her the beauty of the Word, full of its Jewish hope, and also the principles of how to live it. This of course is the most important thing for all of us. Head knowledge alone will not get us through this life satisfactorily and certainly will be scant preparation for serving our Maker for eternity; instead, as Paul so clearly shows in Corinthians, head knowledge alone can never save, but rather ‘puffs up’. And that is exactly what Mary was not; rather, she was humble and compliant to the will of God. So she had been well taught, but this alone does not always lead to a good character. We have many examples in Scripture, and indeed unfortunately in our own ranks, of parents with very spiritual minds, living the Truth as best they can, whose children have floundered on the shoals of indifference or been drawn away by the pull of the world.

 Gabriel’s visit

Mary’s name comes from the Hebrew word for Miriam and means ‘rebellious’, but although Mary inherited this propensity through Adam, it was definitely not part of her nature, as we see from her willingness and obedience to immediately accept Gabriel’s words. That is when we are first introduced to her, when she was visited by this holy messenger.

Can we begin to imagine how we would feel? We are not told what she was doing, but whatever, it was immediately interrupted by the angel addressing her. We know that we have to go about our daily lives, giving the attention due to our various daily occupations, and that we also need times of recreation and refreshing. But when deciding on a particular activity, do we consider how we will feel if we are in the midst of it when an angel comes to call us away? We can learn much from people like Mary who would have been trying always to live a godly life because that was her accustomed way, not out of any fear, except in the sense of knowing her God to be worthy of all reverence, and not wishing to displease Him who gives us life and hope.

“Hail, thou that art highly favoured” (rsv, “favoured one”) he stated. “Hail” often just means “greeting” but comes from the Greek chairo, ‘to be happy’ and can be translated, “Rejoice!” The angel certainly brought joyful news: “Blessed art thou among women”, he continued. Our heavenly Father would have chosen the most suitable woman alive to be the mother of His Son – a young virgin from despised Nazareth. As Edersheim states succinctly, “The greatest honour bestowed on man was to come amidst circumstances of deepest human lowliness, as if the more clearly to mark the exclusively divine character of what was to happen.” Not so would man have done it! But Yahweh’s ways are not ours.

Mary’s willing response

Mary was greatly startled at such a salutation, but she immediately began to consider (Gk “reckon thoroughly”, “deliberate”) what it meant. The angel was reassuring – she was not to be afraid, but to listen to the plan her God had mapped out for her. Then follow amazing and beautiful words (Luke 1:31–33), words which should never lose their power to us who have also had our lives so completely altered by the coming of Messiah. But in the face of such incredible statements this young girl simply asked, “How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?” Gabriel outlined the way in which God’s power would work in her to produce “that holy thing”. And Mary was given also the faithconfirming fact that her elderly cousin Elisabeth was also with child, “For with God nothing shall be impossible.”

Do we believe that – really believe that? The power who worked this, the greatest miracle in the history of the world, can do ‘more than we ask or think’ in our lives. For that is the amazing thing about Mary. There was immediate and total belief in, and surrender to, the purpose of God. “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.” There were no more questions, although of course Gabriel may have said much more to her than the narrative records. She accepted God’s Word and all its consequences. And so the great plan of salvation began with this young girl, to be completed when her son, God’s son, said in similar vein, “not my will, but thine, be done.” Many believe that this statement of Mary’s faith was in fact the very moment of her conception! In her the words to that wicked king Ahaz would literally happen: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son …”.

Sharing the news with Elisabeth

It was only natural that Mary would want to share her news, but with whom? She was espoused to Joseph. This “engagement” was considered quite binding, and could only be dissolved by divorce. It was a relationship which would be sorely tried by the events about to take place, earth-shattering events for all mankind and for this godly young couple. In those early days Mary may have shied away from telling her parents and Joseph, but her feet naturally took the path to her relation Elisabeth, in whose womb was growing the forerunner of the Messiah. So great was the joy and anticipation that this babe leaped for joy! Through the Holy Spirit Elisabeth knew Mary’s news, and the fact that Mary had believed immediately (Luke 1:45) in contrast to her husband, Zacharias. At Elisabeth’s words Mary burst into praise strongly reminiscent of Hannah’s song; Hannah who had also miraculously conceived a child special to God.

Mary knew her Bible! It is not our purpose here to study Mary’s words in detail, except to say that they show that Mary saw through faith all the things she spoke of already performed and fulfilled by the child she was bearing. We can surely bring to mind a picture of these two women, related by birth and now by being singled out to be mothers of the Son of God and his forerunner. No doubt they would have been busily engaged in preparing little garments for their babies, and all the while talking of the days to come, and the changes about to occur in their lives.

Women through the ages have delighted to talk together and share experiences of this momentous event; and then of their children and their upbringing and all the other things which affect women in particular, but we can only think that the talk between these two would have been on a high plane, as they contemplated the work of their heavenly Father. We too should see our children as His heritage and involve Him in all our decisions and planning for our children’s lives. They are entrusted to our care to be trained for His service now and into eternity; and we do not want these precious little lives to end their days in vanity. Even if some do unfortunately go astray, our prayers for their recovery would surely never cease!

A difficult return to Nazareth

It seems that Mary returned home to Nazareth before John was born, strengthened by her time with another godly woman in similar circumstances. But now she had to face the innuendo, the whispering, and, worst of all, Joseph’s embarrassment and doubt. His love for her would not have wanted to expose her to continuous criticism, but he was an honourable and just young man (“righteous”, niv, Matt 1:19) and he did not feel he could continue into marriage as things were.

But Joseph’s mind was set at rest by the angel of the Lord in a dream, explaining to him the facts. Suddenly everything changed. Not only was Joseph happy to take Mary home and look after her as his wife, ignoring the gossip of the villagers, but his love would have grown, and with it a deep respect. He had no doubt loved Mary for her godly character, but now this would have increased greatly on understanding that she above all women had been chosen to be the mother of God’s own son. He would have wanted only to protect her and help her through the difficult days ahead.

A challenging journey to Bethlehem

And difficult it was – not the way humans would have arranged Messiah’s birth! It just so happened that Joseph and Mary were both of the line of David. It just so happened that the prevailing ruler chose that time for everyone to return to their own city for census records. It just so happened that Micah foretold that Messiah would be born in humble Bethlehem. So to Bethlehem they went, Mary “great with child”.

Mothers understand only too well what this means – but we have comfortable homes and hospitals and lots of care! Not that this diminishes the pain and discomfort of childbirth – “in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children.” But Mary must have been so extremely uncomfortable, travelling from Nazareth to Bethlehem. However, we feel that she would have accepted her lot with uncomplaining sweetness and submission to her heavenly Father, trusting in Him. For was she not bearing His Son? There would certainly be none of the anxiety we can experience at such times – for nothing could go wrong with this birth!

How we would have liked to be there, to hear Joseph and Mary talk about all the prophecies hinging on the birth of the child, and to wonder at their part in the grand purpose of the ages. Their minds would have been greatly exercised as to the training of the babe about to be committed into their loving care.

How do we as parents view our role in the development of our children? It is a work not to be carelessly or lightly entered into, this training of saints for the Kingdom of God. And our emphasis should not be on perfect clothes, food, schooling, extra-curricular pursuits, but on a thorough grounding in God’s ways, and of taking care what goes into their minds.

The Son of God is born!

The story continues. Mary’s son, the Son of God, was born not in some luxurious palace with servants in attendance, but in a manger in the stable of an inn. God has certainly chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty! But no other child was ever announced by a throng of angels singing! How thrilled Mary would have been when those humble shepherds arrived to pay homage to their Saviour, and told her what the angels had said. Her heart would have rejoiced to know that God’s word was being fulfilled – she “kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart”.