As Christians observe Mother's Day, their thoughts appropriately turn to an archetypal mother: to the mother within whose flesh Divinity became flesh. Ever since the Reformation, Protestants have tended, in their scorn for Madonna-worship, to ignore what all Christians can learn from her. Mary's experiences were unparalleled in human history; yet at significant points they can provide a pattern for all Christians.First, we note the total submission to God's will for her personal life expressed in Luke 1:38: "Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word."Our attention tends to glide too smoothly over the surface of those familiar words. What must have whirled within her consciousness on that annunciation day and in succeeding days? Surely there was uncertainty, fear of misunderstanding, fear of opprobrium, fear of unknown unknowns. Which of us, facing a decision to accept Christ initially or to accept any new yielding to him, has not experienced similar emotions? But how often is our response so wholly affirmative, so accepting?In the instant of the angelic greeting, did Mary have any prophetic awareness that her acceptance and submission would mean an arduous trip over interminable hills during the final stages of pregnancy? (To see Mary more intelligently and more humanly, one who has never been pregnant might ask any pregnant woman, any mother, what it would have been like to walk or ride a donkey across all those hills between Nazareth and Bethlehem.) Did Mary have any inkling that "be it unto me" would mean an exile in Egypt, and the sword-piercings that would come to her own heart when His was pierced by a Roman blade?Perhaps she did. One would think, however, that she did not yet know what she gave assent to; that like any of us she agreed sight unseen; that her acceptance of God's will was just that, acceptance of God's will. Acceptance of the unknown, the never before experienced, the potentially ominous; acceptance of that which may carry a bitter price to the ego of the one who says "be it unto me."Mary accepted, and saw herself as "the handmaid of the Lord." In her submission she was an exemplar for any Christian of any era, for any Christian at any level of spiritual maturity, for any stumbling seeker after an encounter with the Holy. "Be it unto me according to thy word" is an appropriate response—the only totally appropriate response—in any of the circumstances of life. In practical decisions of mundane affairs, in one's efforts toward specific Christian service, in the prunings of the believer's soul that the Holy Spirit would carry out day by day: "Be it unto me according to thy word."Secondly, Luke 2:51 suggests that Mary found and understood the roles of authority and responsibility within God's plan:
"He went down with them, and came to Nazareth, and was subject unto them. … "
Her son was divine, and she knew that fact from the Annunciation moment, from the first moments when he began to become flesh within her flesh. Yet Divinity as a human teenager "was subject unto" human parenthood. In accepting the authority of God over her life ("be it unto me"), Mary accepted also the role of a disciplining mother. Imagination supplies conjectures as to what being "subject" meant, day by day. When to get up. When to go to bed. When to bring water from the village well. When to carry lumber into the carpenter shop. When to give fraternal care to the other children. When to help with the grubbiest chores in a peasant household. Whatever the details, he was "subject unto" his parents.One wonders if Mary sometimes squirmed against and questioned the task of instructing and disciplining Deity. However difficult she may have found it to do, she carried her responsibility: her Son was subject unto her and her husband. The implications seem inescapable for any family, or larger group, that thinks carefully about Christian lifestyles. Even in (or especially in) an era that tends to see adults as being subject unto their teenagers rather than vice versa, the implications are inescapable.Next, she was a meditating mother. The record continues in Luke 2:51:
"His mother kept all these sayings in her heart." And the Christmas story reported (Luke 2:51) that Mary "kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart."
Again, her experiences were unique among those of all human beings, and yet she was an archetype, a pattern for all mortals. She is especially a pattern for hurried, flurried, materialistic Americans who do not know how to ponder on anything, who do not know even faintly how to ponder upon God's actions in their own lives.How often do we even linger through an organ postlude after a Sunday-morning service to "ponder" on God's word that has just been preached to us? How often do we watch a sunset through, and ponder? How often do we ponder His doings while we commute, or shop, or clean floors, or pull weeds in a garden? How often do we "ponder" together, in conversation with other Christians, His ways with us? Mary was, furthermore, one who gave leadership to the Christian community in its communal prayer. Among the scriptural allusions to her, one of the strangely neglected ones is Acts 1:14; in their preparation for Pentecost, the disciples in the upper room "continued with one accord in prayer and supplication, with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus." Obviously they were not praying to His Father through her; she was a supplicator with them, a part of the "one accord." But one would assume that her presence, named by name, contributed strength and energy, faith and fervor, to the apostolic prayers, and that she was a resource in "supplication" on many other unnamed occasions. Without undue extrapolation from Acts 1:14, one would assume that she knew, as intensely as did any of the others in that prayer fellowship, the yearnings that preceded Pentecost and the vitality that succeeded it.Every Christian community (tiny local church, mission, denomination, fellowship, or organization) needs those who are ready to join "with one accord," on all sorts of occasions, "in prayer and supplication." Within the community, every day brings its opportunities, its pressures, its sorrows, its yearnings; every community needs a Mary—many a Mary—to carry the weight of supplication within, and for, and beyond the community.In her prayer, and in the other ways we have noted, Mary is an inspiration and pattern for us all.
This article originally appeared in the May 12, 1972 issue of Christianity Today.
Elva McAllaster, professor of English at Greenville College (Illinois) from 1956 until her retirement in 1988, died August 12, 1997 at age 74.
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