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"...The church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."
I Timothy 3:15
From The Baptist Challenge, September 2015
Matthew and Luke, the first and third Evangelists, tell us all that we are told of Mary. They tell us that she was the espoused wife of Joseph, a carpenter of Nazareth, and that the divine call came to her after her espousal to Joseph and before her marriage.
What a call it was and what a prospect opened up! No sooner was Mary left alone of the angel than she began to realize something of what had been appointed her, and what she must now herself pass through. The sharp sword that the aged Simeon afterwards spoke of with such passion was already whetted, and was fast approaching her devoted and expressed heart.
On a thousand sacred canvasses throughout Christendom we are shown the angel of the annunciation presenting Mary with a branch of lily as an emblem of her beauty and as a seal of her purity.
But why has no spiritual artist stained the whiteness of the lily with the red blood of a broken heart? For no sooner had the transfiguring light of the angel’s presence faded from her sight than a deep and awful darkness began to fall upon Joseph’s espoused wife. Surely if ever a suffering soul had to seek all its righteousness and all its strength in God alone, it was the soul of the Virgin Mary in those terrible days that followed the annunciation. Blessed among women as all the time she was unblemished in soul and in body like the paschal lamb as she was; like the paschal lamb also she was set apart to be a divine sacrifice, and to have a sword thrust through her heart.
Mary must have passed through many dark and dreadful days when all she had given her to lean upon would seem like a broken reed. “Hail, thou are highly favored of the Lord,” the angel had said to her. But all that would seem but so many mocking words to her as she saw nothing before her but an open shame, and it might well be an outcast’s death. And, so fearfully and wonderfully are we made, and so fearful and wonderful was the way in which the Word was made flesh, that who can tell how all this may have borne on Him who was bone of her bone, and flesh of her flesh; to whom Mary was in all things a mother, as He was in all things to her a son.
For, hers was the face that unto Christ had most resemblance. Great is the mystery of godliness, God manifest in the flesh. A man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief. These are the beginnings of sorrows.
Joseph’s part in all this is told by Matthew alone. And as we read that Evangelist’s particular account of that time, we see how sharp that sword which pierced Joseph’s soul also. His heart was broken with this terrible trial, but there was only one course left open to him. Conclude the marriage he would not, but neither could he consent to make Mary a public example, and there was only left to him the sad step of revoking the contract and putting her away privately.
Joseph’s heart must have been torn in two. For Mary had been the woman of all women to him. She had been in his eyes the lily among thorns. And now to have to treat her like a poisonous weed — the thought of it drove him mad. Oh, why is it that whosoever comes at all near Jesus Christ has always to drink such a cup of sorrow? Truly they who are brother or sister or mother to Him must take up their cross daily. These are they who go up through great tribulation.
What a journey that must have been of Mary from Nazareth to Hebron, and occupied with what thoughts. Mary’s way would lead her through Jerusalem. She may have crossed Olivet as the sun was setting. She may have knelt at even in Gethsemane. She may have turned aside to look on the city from Calvary.
What a heavy heart she must have carried through all these scenes as she went into the hill country with haste. Only two out of God, knew the truth about Mary; an angel in heaven, and her own heart on earth.
And thus it was that she fled to the mountains of Judah, hoping to find there an aged kinswoman of hers who would receive her word and would somewhat understand her case.
As she stumbled on drunk with sorrow Mary must have recalled and repeated many blessed scriptures, well-known to her indeed, but till then little understood.
“Commit thy way unto the Lord, trust also in him, and he will bring it to pass; and he shall bring forth thy righteousness as the light, and thy judgment as the noonday.” (Ps. 37:5, 6) “Thou shalt keep them in the secret of thy presence from the pride of men; thou shalt keep them in a pavilion from the strife of tongues.” (Ps. 31:20) Such a pavilion Mary sought and for a season found it in the remote and retired household of Zacharias and Elisabeth.
It is in the meeting of Mary and Elisabeth that we owe the Magnificat, the last Old Testament psalm and the first New Testament hymn. “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.” (Luke 1:46, 47)
We cannot enter into all of Mary’s thoughts as she sang that spiritual song, any more than she could in her day enter into all our thoughts as we sing it. For, noble melody as her Magnificat is, it draws its deepest tones from a time that was still to come. The spirit of Christian prophecy moved her to utter it, but the noblest and fullest prophecy concerning Christ fell far short of the evangelistic fulfillment.
She is a happy maiden who has a mother or a motherly friend much experienced in the ways of the human heart to whom she can tell all her anxieties; a wise, tender, much-experienced counselor, such as Naomi was to Ruth and Elisabeth to Mary. Was the Virgin an orphan, or was Mary’s mother such a woman that Mary could have opened her heart to any stranger rather than to her? Be that as it may, Mary found a true mother in Elisabeth of Hebron.
Many a holy hour the two women spent together sitting under the terebinths that overhung the dumb Zacharias’ secluded house. And, if at any time their faith wavered and the thing seemed impossible, was not Zacharias beside them with his sealed lips and his writing table, a living witness to the goodness and severity of God? Now Mary and Elisabeth would stagger and reason and rebuke and comfort one another, now laughing like Sarah, now singing like Hannah, yet loving and confiding and pious women tell.
Sweet as it is to linger in Hebron beside Mary and Elisabeth, our hearts are always drawn back to Joseph in his unspeakable agony. The absent are dear, just as the dead are perfect. And Mary’s dear image became to Joseph dearer still when he could no longer see her face or hear her voice. Nazareth was empty to Joseph; it was worse than empty, it was a city of sepulchres in which he sought for death and could not find it.
Day after day, week after week, Joseph’s misery increased, and when, as his wont was, he went up to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, that only made him feel his loneliness and his misery all the more. Mary’s sweet presence had often made the holy place still more holy to him, and her voice in the Psalms had been to him as when an angel sings.
On one of those Sabbaths which the exiled Virgin was spending at Hebron Joseph went up again to the sanctuary in Nazareth seeking to hide his great grief with God. And this, I feel sure, was the scripture appointed to be read in the synagogue that day.
“Ask thee a sign of the Lord thy God; ask it either in the depth, or in the height above. Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign: Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son and they shall call his name Immanuel.” (Isa. 7:11, 14)
Joseph’s heart was absolutely overwhelmed within him as he listened to that astounding scripture. Never had ear or heart of man heard these amazing words as Joseph heard them that day. And then, when he laid himself down to sleep that night, his pillow became like a stone under his head. Not that he was cast out; but he had cast out another, and she the best of God’s creatures. Ay, and she perhaps — how shall he whisper it even to himself at midnight — the virgin-mother of Immanuel! A better mother he could not have.
So speaking to himself till he was terrified at his own thoughts, weary with another week’s lonely labor, and aged with many weeks’ agony and despair, Joseph fell asleep.
Then a thing was secretly brought to him, and his ear received a little thereof. There was silence, and he heard a voice say to him, “Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost.” (Matt. 1:20) Gabriel was sent to reassure Joseph’s despairing heart, to demand the consummation of the broken-off marriage, and to announce the Incarnation of the Son of God.
Did Joseph arise before daybreak and set out for Hebron to bring his outcast home? There is room to believe that he did. If he did, the two angel-chastened men must have had their own thoughts and counsels together even as the two chosen women had. And as Joseph talked with Zacharias through his writing table, he must have felt that dumbness, and even death itself, would be but a light punishment for such unbelief and such cruelty as his.
But all this, and all they had passed through since the angel came to Zacharias at the altar, only made the re-betrothal of Joseph and Mary the sweeter and the holier, with the aged priest acting more than the part of a father, and Elisabeth acting more than the part of a mother.
For my own part, I do not know the gift or the grace or the virtue any woman ever had that I could safely deny to Mary. The divine congruity compels me to believe that all that could be received or attained or exercised by any woman would be granted beforehand, and all but without measure, to her who was so miraculously to bear, and so intimately and influentially to nurture and instruct the Holy Child.
We must give Mary her promised due. We must not allow ourselves to entertain a grudge against the mother of our Lord because some enthusiasts for her have given her more than her due. There is no fear of our thinking too much either of Mary’s maidenly virtues, or of her motherly duties and experiences. The Holy Ghost in guiding the researches of Luke, and in superintending the composition of the third Gospel, especially signalizes the depth and the piety and the peace of Mary’s mind.
At the angel’s salutation she did not swoon nor cry out. She did not rush into terror on the one hand or into transport on the other. But like the heavenly-minded maiden she was, she cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be. And later on, when all who heard it were wondering at the testimony of the shepherds, it is instructively added that Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart. And yet again, when another twelve years have passed by, we find the same Evangelist still pointing out the same distinguishing features of Mary’s saintly character. “They understood not the saying which Jesus spake unto them…but his mother kept all these sayings in her heart.” (Luke 2: 50, 51)
And again, if we are to apply this sure principle to Mary’s case, “according to your faith be it unto you,” (Matt. 9:29) then Mary must surely wear the crown as the mother of all them who believe on her Son. If Abraham’s faith has made him the father of all those who believe, surely Mary’s faith entitles her to be called their mother. If the converse of our Lord’s words holds true, that no mighty work is done where there is unbelief; if we may safely reason that where there has been a mighty work done there must have been a corresponding and a cooperating faith; then I do not think we can easily overestimate the measure of Mary’s faith.
If this was the greatest work ever wrought by the power and the grace of Almighty God among the children of men, and if Mary’s faith entered into it at all, then how great her faith must have been! Elisabeth saw with wonder and with worship how great it was. She saw the unparalleled grace that had come to Mary, and she had humility and magnanimity enough to acknowledge it. “Blessed art thou among women.” Blessed is she that believeth, for there shall be a performance of those things which were told her from the Lord.” (Luke 1:42, 45) “Blessed is she that believeth,” said Elisabeth, no doubt with some sad thoughts about herself and about her dumb husband sitting beside her.
Nonetheless as truly blessed as Mary was in her unique calling, the Lord made it clear that there are those who can be even more greatly blessed than she was. There was an occasion when a nameless but true woman spoke out, “Blessed is the womb that bare thee, and blessed be the paps which thou hast sucked.” (Luke 11:27)
But our Lord answered her, and said, “Yea, rather, blessed are they that hear the word of God and keep it.” (Luke 11:28)
And again, “For whosoever shall do the will of my Father which is in heaven, the same is my brother, and sister, and mother.” (Matt. 12:50)