Have you ever tried to put yourself in Mary’s shoes when you read the Christmas story?
In ancient times, it wasn’t uncommon for marriage bed coverings to be displayed after a marriage was consummated so that the blood of a “deflowered” virgin could prove her eligibility as a wife … *ugh.* And even still, her virginity could be questioned if she gave birth to a child before the right amount of time passed after the wedding. If that happened, she wouldn’t be the only one sent packing — she and her child would be totally friendless and abandoned. In fact, if her pregnancy was thought to be the result of adultery, she may have even been stoned.
But when the angel Gabriel tells Mary she’ll become pregnant before she gets married, her response isn’t what you might expect from your average teenage girl. That’s the first clue we have as to why God chose her to bring Christ into the world: God already knew that she had great faith.
In the Christmas story, we see that our proper and faithful response to God’s calling has three crucial parts, even when He leads us into uncertainty and challenges. First we have to submit to Him. Then we trust Him to provide and abide. And finally, we praise Him, even if the circumstances don’t seem praiseworthy.
After Gabriel’s initial revelation to her, Mary understandably wonders how this miracle will happen, and despite how unbelievable Gabriel’s answer is, she says:
“And Mary said, ‘Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word." And the angel departed from her’ ” (Luke 1:38 ESV).
Can you imagine how Mary’s mind must have been racing in this moment? From the terrifying apparition of an angel to learning that her ordinary life was about to take some dangerous turns, she probably mapped out all of the worldly consequences that lay ahead of her in less than a second. And keep in mind that Gabriel didn’t tell Mary that he was also going to visit Joseph to iron things out with him (Matthew 1:18-25). For all Mary knew, she was about to become an unwed mother in a society where that was a form of social suicide.
And yet, she tells God to use her as He sees fit.
When we face circumstances where the stakes are extremely high and difficult, our tendency is to begin planning our own way out. But we rarely sit back, survey what’s before us, and tell God to use us as He pleases. We see in Mary that submitting to and accepting challenges God places in our lives, no matter how horrible they seem, is the first step in becoming a vessel for His glory.
After this incredible experience, Mary races to Elizabeth, whom Gabriel said was also with child. John leaps in his mother’s womb when Mary (and Jesus’) presence is near, which causes the Holy Spirit to come over Elizabeth and she says:
“ ‘…And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord’ ” (Luke 1:45 ESV).
Here we see that Mary’s response to Gabriel wasn’t just one of shock and awe. Mary had asked how all of this would happen, but if we’re being fair, Gabriel’s response didn’t address any of the problems Mary might face as a result of this blessing. Again, she didn’t know what Joseph would do when he found out, and without his protection and loyalty she wouldn’t have had many options. But the Holy Spirit itself explains why Mary didn’t drill Gabriel with a hundred more questions. She trusted God to work it out.
The answers for our circumstances aren’t always clear. And even when we accept that God has led us into them and submit to His will, we may still struggle with the “how?” But instead, we’re called to remember God’s promises to us and trust that someway, somehow, He is faithful to fulfill them. And He is.
In Mary’s case, God was working through some of the most unbelievable elements of her story to fulfill the prophesies of the Old Testament, as He fulfilled His promises not only to her, but to all of humanity. Of course, Mary likely couldn’t see the scope of this eternal picture or her role in it in the midst of her circumstances, which is why her example of trust is so crucial.
The hardest thing to do when the world feels like it is crashing down all around you is to praise and thank God for difficult circumstances. But when we submit to God, trust Him, and view our situation in light of His glory, rather than through our worldly eyes, praise is a natural overflow. And Mary doesn’t fail to praise God for her circumstances:
“And Mary said, ‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever’ ” (Luke 1:46-55 ESV).
One of the essential things we learn from Mary’s overflow of praise is that she saw her pregnancy and difficult circumstances through God’s eyes rather than her own. She valued what God valued, rather than what the world valued. She praised Him because she could trust His bigger and better plan to be at work. That perspective shift is essential if we ever hope to glorify God. We have to let the world grow smaller and God grow bigger.
What challenges are you facing now? Can you relate to Mary’s seemingly impossible circumstances? How can you use her example to rewrite your story for God’s glory?
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Mary properly called to mind who she was before the Lord — simply His servant. Have you given God the freedom in your life to use you as His servant as well?
Submission - How has submitting to God’s plan “cost” you? On the other hand, what are the stakes if you don’t submit (i.e. what are you missing out on?)? Are you in a place where you are allowing God to write your story, hard and unexpected as that may be?
Trust - Think back to a time in your life when God was asking you to do something that was seemingly absurd but in the days, months, years to follow you had clarity on why that step of faith was required. How can thinking of Mary’s example and examples in your own life or in others’ lives encourage you to trust God with your current challenges, large or small?
Praise - What is one way you can implement more praise into your daily life? Perhaps this is not reaching for your phone first thing in the morning, but instead is reaching for your Bible and reading a Psalm before your feet hit the ground, or setting your alarm at a certain time every day to specifically offer God a prayer of thanksgiving or to pray that he opens your eyes to see more of Him and less of yourself.
Re-read Luke 1:5-56 every day this week (or at least several times this week). This may sound monotonous, but Luke’s telling of this story is full of details that you may only notice after reading it multiple times with purposeful intent. Try to read imaginatively, putting yourself in Mary’s shoes at each stage of this story. What would it have been like to see the angel Gabriel? Or to hear how your life would be turned upside down? Also try to imagine what it might have been like to be other characters in the story. By putting yourself in their shoes, what new lessons do you learn here?