By Victor M. Parachin
Although Mary, the mother of Jesus, became an important focus of theology and piety in the history of Christianity, she is seldom mentioned in the New Testament. Mary is never mentioned explicitly in the New Testament letters, and only once each in the books of Acts and Mark. She is involved in two stories in the Gospel of John, but the writer never identifies her by name. Yet, in Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth, Mary is a bright and shining star.
Luke writes eloquently about the character and strength of Mary, suggesting Mary’s words and actions are informative and inspiring for all Christians. Here are 10 spiritual lessons from this remarkable woman who gave birth to Jesus.
1. Mary was open to spiritual messengers.
In Luke 1:28, an angel appears to Mary and says: “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” Clearly Mary was spiritually open to receiving a message from God. Being receptive to spiritual messengers is an important component for a growing and vibrant spiritual life. God often comes to us through others in order to lead us into new growth and new directions. Such an experience came to Norman Vincent Peale and proved to be pivotal in his life and ministry.
As a young pastor, Peale was uncomfortable praying for the sick. “I was reared in a family of ministers and physicians, and always took a rather coldly scientific view of healing process,” he said. “But . . . I had a profound experience that changed my attitude.”
As a minister in Syracuse, New York, Peale was awakened by the telephone at 2 a.m. Upon answering, he recognized the voice of a close friend, a leading physician in the city. Apologizing for the late call, the physician explained: “I have a patient about whom I am greatly concerned. I need help. Will you come and join me here?”
“What in the world could I do to help you, except pray,” Peale said.
“What could be more powerful than prayer?” his friend responded. “Please come.”
He went, but before ringing the doorbell, a nervous Peale stopped and asked God to guide his faltering efforts. Inside, the physician explained: “My patient is very ill. What I want you to do is join me in filling this sickroom to overflowing with the healing power of Jesus Christ.” Both men prayed silently for the woman who was extremely pale and in a deep coma. Then the doctor began to quote healing passages of Scripture. Peale did the same.
“This went on for some time,” Peale recalled. “Finally, color began to come into the woman’s cheeks. Then the most amazing thing happened: She opened her eyes wide, looked at us both, and then started to recite Scripture passages herself.” The woman came out of her illness and lived for many more years.
That important lesson in the power of prayer for the sick was delivered to Peale because he was open to the spiritual messenger who happened to be his physician friend.
2. Mary practiced discernment.
Luke 1:29 candidly notes, “Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be.” Those words reveal Mary was not naïve. She needed to think and sort this out in her mind. All of us need to remember that questioning, even doubting, is acceptable.
“Doubting is not a sin,” writes author John Aurelio. “Nor does it denote a lack of faith. Lack of faith is pure and simple disbelieving. Doubting is an invitation to enter into the mystery more deeply, to go beyond the superficial.”
3. Mary set aside fear.
“But the angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid’” (Luke 1:30).
Being troubled by the initial message did not prevent Mary from setting fear aside and moving forward in faith. The angel’s words, “Do not be afraid,” reminded her to continue trusting God. Those are four words each of us should repeat whenever we feel fearful, hesitant, timid, or uncomfortable about some event facing us. Let them become your affirmation of faith using them this way:
Do not be afraid—I can reach beyond myself seeking help from others.
Do not be afraid—I can be hopeful in the face of this difficult situation.
Do not be afraid—I will trust God to lead me through the dark valley.
Do not be afraid—I can risk rejection and offer help where it is needed.
Do not be afraid—I can love even when the love is not returned.
4. Mary was obedient to God’s call.
Even though Mary was puzzled and troubled by what she learned, Luke makes clear she was obedient nevertheless—“I am the Lord’s servant. . . . May your word to me be fulfilled” (Luke 1:38). Her obedience is a sign of her deep faith.
British cleric Charles Spurgeon observed, “Faith and obedience are bound up in the same bundle. He that obeys God, trusts God; and he that trusts God, obeys God.”
5. Mary sought support for her vocation.
There are times when going it alone is going nowhere. When issues or questions or problems arise for us, seeking support and a second opinion is the wisest course of action. This is what Mary did. According to Luke 1:39 and 40, “Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, where she . . . greeted Elizabeth.” Mary turned to a friend whose faith she admired and whose opinions she valued. Such support is invaluable.
6. Mary rejoiced at being in God’s service.
There is a noticeable absence of joy and delight in the lives of many Christians. So many act out of duty rather than joyful service to God. This was not true for Mary. Luke 1:46 and 47 describe Mary’s joy: “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” Joy and delight in God’s service should be a key characteristic of Christian living.
That was true for Martin Luther. A daring theologian and prolific writer, Luther thoroughly enjoyed life and service to God. Most nights he was surrounded by students and friends; around his dinner table Luther chatted in an earthy style about everything from the human soul to frogs in the Elbe River.
His joyful compassion positively affected others. Luther was once introduced to a mentally ill man who compulsively crowed like a rooster. Luther joined him, crowing along with him for seven days. On the eighth, he announced: “I no longer have to crow—and neither do you.” The man was cured.
7. Mary trusted God.
Mary had to make an arduous journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem while pregnant (Luke 2). She trusted that God would protect her and Joseph on the trek, and that God would be with her if the baby was born en route. Mary was not panic-stricken, because her faith and trust in God was steady and strong. We need to cultivate Mary’s trust.
Seventeenth-century English cleric Jeremy Taylor advised,
Look at that beautiful butterfly, and learn from it to trust in God. One might wonder where it could live in tempestuous nights, in the whirlwind, or in the stormy day; but I have noticed it is safe and dry under the broad leaf while rivers have been flooded, and the mountain oaks torn up from their roots.
8. Mary knew how to be flexible.
When there was no room at any inn or hostel, Mary accepted whatever accommodation was made available, in her case, a simple stable (Luke 2). She could bend rather than be broken. Mary knew how to “go with the flow” and accept what is rather than always hold out for what ought to be. She believed God would guide and provide.
9. Mary dedicated her Son to God.
Luke 2:22 recounts, “Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord.”
Like all good parents, Mary wanted God to bless her child and to bless her parenting. It is a great responsibility and joy to raise children. God’s assistance ought to be expected throughout all the ups and downs of parenting.
Diane Schmidtke of Tonawanda, New York, powerfully experienced God’s grace when she learned her daughter had leukemia. She wrote,
My precious 21-year-old daughter, Heidi, died after a two-and-a-half year battle with leukemia. She endured much along the way. From the outset, at age 18, she said that her diagnosis was a blessing. A grace like nothing I had ever witnessed came over this amazing child as she faced her challenges. “Leukemia has made me realize what my priorities are,” she said. God gave Heidi time to make an unbelievable impact on all who loved her and time to make a difference in the world. In the end, isn’t that what we all would wish?
10. Mary made certain Jesus grew not only physically, but emotionally and spiritually.
“And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was on him” (Luke 2:40).
All parents face the challenge of ensuring their children grow in wholeness and holiness. This is greatly facilitated when parents themselves are positive role models.
Celeste F. Geise tells of a memorable teaching moment that took place when she was a teenager. “It was a blustery cold day when Mom asked my teenage brothers to hook up the trailer to the car. She asked me to drive since she didn’t like pulling trailers.”
The four piled into the car as the mother instructed Celeste to drive to the only dealer in town who still sold coal. The children remained in the car while the mother talked to the dealer. The kids wondered why their mother was buying coal when most people had switched to heating oil.
After the trailer was filled with coal, the mother directed Celeste to drive to an old house rented by a family of migrant workers. Migrants usually moved south before winter, but this family opted to stay and send their children to the local school. Celeste’s mother knew the family had only a potbellied stove to heat their home. They managed to find wood to burn, the mother learned, but she knew coal was a more efficient fuel.
After Celeste pulled the trailer into the driveway, the migrant mother came out. She spoke no English, so her children translated and informed her the coal was for them. Celeste and her brothers unloaded the coal in a pile near the house. Although that event took place many years ago, Celeste continues to be inspired by seeing her mother’s faith in action. It was an important point of spiritual awareness and growth for Celeste and her brothers.
Victor Parachin is an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), an author, and a freelance journalist living in Tulsa, Oklahoma.