Mary is probably the second most familiar and instantly recognizable person from the Christian story. Mary has been depicted in frescoes, mosaics, paintings and sculpture for nearly 2,000 years. Christian churches often have an image of Mary somewhere or even a side chapel dedicated to her. Many Christmas cards feature Mary and the newborn Jesus, sometimes surrounded by the animals imagined to be in the stable or Mary and Joseph making their way to Bethlehem, Mary – heavily pregnant, riding on the back of a donkey. Michelangelo sculpted in marble his famous Pieta – Mary cradling her son in death. Endless hymns, carols and other sacred pieces of music sing about Mary, the exemplary mother, the archetype of all that good Christian women should aspire to.
In the stained-glass window at the east end of St Peter’s, there is a typical image of Mary at the foot of the cross. Mary is usually portrayed either as a pure, holy, placid young mother, with Jesus as a baby or toddler or as a woman, wracked with sorrow, and grieving over the death of her son. We don’t see images of Mary with Jesus as a mischievous boy or as a stroppy teenager! We never see Mary sitting around a lively dinner table with Joseph, Jesus and the children she is believed to have gone on to have, laughing, teasing, scolding, chatting, cuddling.
Yet Mary was a real person, growing up as a young girl in 1st century Palestine, born perhaps 14 or 15 years before her life-changing encounter with the Archangel Gabriel. That encounter certainly changed her life – but it also changed the history of the world. Mary’s ‘Yes’ to Gabriel opened the door to the very beginnings of Christian history. Mary’s response to Gabriel, known as the Magnificat, echoes Hannah’s prayer many hundreds of years earlier, when the Lord blessed her with a son, Samuel, who grew up to be a prophet and judge. Many verses in Isaiah foretold a savior who was to come. Luke was the only Gospel writer who never met Jesus and scholars believe that Mary was the source of his vivid, human stories.
What would have happened if Mary had said No? Did God have a Plan B? We will never know. What we do know is that a devout, young Jewish girl named Mary (Miriam, in Hebrew, as she would have been known), trusted God enough to accept the role she was asked to play. Mary’s ‘Yes’ encourages us to say ‘Yes’ to God, to open ourselves to the birth of the Christ-child in our hearts and lives. Mary knew she was going to have a baby, but we may not know clearly what God is asking of us. We don’t have to know: we just have to say ‘Yes’, and keep on saying ‘Yes’, day after day after day, until all our thoughts and desires and actions become one with all of those across the world who do the will of God, opening ourselves again and again to the only One who can lead us faithfully, heal our wounds, fill us with love and compassion, and give us an inner peace and joy that can sustain us throughout our lives.
There is so much that Mary’s life can teach us, and we would do well to remember her obedience, her willingness to accept what God was doing in her life, her love for her beloved Son, even though it took her to the foot of the cross. We know it didn’t end there: she remained a disciple, spreading the message that God came to live among us, as one of us, and who, by the power of the Spirit, is with us still.