Knowing Mary Through the Bible: An Extraordinary Mother

"Madonna and Child" by Sassoferrato

“And he came to her and said, ‘Hail, full of grace. The Lord is with you!’” – Lk. 1:28

The angel Gabriel greeted Mary with a powerful opening line – but one that may escape the attention of many modern readers. For Catholics today, “The Lord is with you” may merely bring to mind the similar greeting we commonly hear at Mass. However, consider what this simple statement would have meant for Mary.

For a young Jewish woman in the first century, these words would have signaled that something extraordinary was about to happen in her life. The angel’s greeting, “The Lord is with you,” indicates that she is called to play a critical role in God’s plan of salvation and that the future of Israel depends on her response.

“The Lord is with You!” (Lk. 1:28)

Let’s look at how these words were used in the Old Testament. Throughout the Bible, the theme “the Lord is with you” was not applied to people in ordinary situations in life, but was used to address people who were given unique vocations that would impact all of Israel. Their missions required much generosity, many sacrifices, and great trust. Yet, they were given the assurance that they would not have to face these trials alone: God would be with them, guiding, protecting, and strengthening them.

Some of the greatest leaders in Israel’s history were greeted with this message. For example, when God appeared to Jacob and confirmed him as the covenant leader, He said, “Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go” (Gen. 28:15). When God called Moses at the burning bush to lead His people out of Egypt, He said, “I will be with you” (Ex. 3:12). Before Joshua led the people into battle in the Promised Land, God said, “I will be with you; I will not fail you or forsake you” (Josh. 1:5). When an angel called Gideon to defend the people from a foreign invasion, he greeted Gideon saying, “The Lord is with you” (Judg. 6:12). When God put David at the head of an everlasting kingdom, God reminded David of His faithfulness to him, saying, “I have been with you wherever you went” (2 Sam. 7:9). And when God called Jeremiah to be a prophet to the nations, He said, “Be not afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you” (Jer. 1:8).

From Jacob to Jeremiah, the pattern is clear: “The Lord is with you” signals that someone is being called to a great mission that will be difficult and demanding. And the future of Israel is largely dependant on how well that person plays his part. As one commentator explained, “In all these texts, the destiny of Israel is at stake. The person to whom the words are addressed is summoned by God to a high vocation, and entrusted with a momentous mission, and . . . the religious history of Israel (and therefore of the world) depended, at that moment, on his response to the call.”[1]

Therefore, when the angel says to Mary, “The Lord is with you,” he is saying an awful lot. Mary is being called to stand in the tradition of Israelite heroes like Moses, Joshua, David, and Jeremiah – men who suffered, sacrificed, and gave themselves radically for the Lord. She herself is now being called to some daunting mission that will involve many challenges and hardships, and the future of the Jewish people will depend on her response.

No wonder the Bible tells us that Mary felt “greatly troubled” when she heard these words! And notice: Luke’s Gospel says that Mary was not as much troubled by the angel appearing to her, as by the angel’s words: “But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and considered in her mind what sort of greeting this might be” (Lk. 1:29, emphasis added).

This is quite different from Zechariah’s fearful response in the previous scene in Luke’s Gospel. Zechariah responded with fear at the mere appearance of the angel in the Temple (Lk. 1:12). In contrast, Mary is troubled by the angel’s words and ponders their implications for her life. She recognizes that something weighty is about to be asked of her. Like Moses, Gideon, and others who have been called by the Lord in this way, Mary humbly wonders if she is worthy and capable of such a mission.

“Do Not be Afraid” (Lk. 1:30)

In response to Mary’s concern, Gabriel says to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.”

A couple things stand out in these words. First, when Gabriel initially appeared to Mary, he addressed her with the more formal, exalted title “full of grace” (1:28). However, here in verse 30, as Gabriel reassures her, he speaks to her in a more personal way, calling her by the name given her at birth, “Mary.” Second, Gabriel encourages her not to be afraid of what is about to be asked of her: The same God who has endowed her with a unique fullness of grace (a key theme in his initial greeting in 1:28) will continue to strengthen her in her mission, for as Gabriel now explains, she has “found favor with God.”

“Favor with God” (Lk. 1:30)

But what does it mean for Mary to “find favor with God”? In the Scriptures, “to find favor” can describe a higher ranking person bestowing kindness and favor upon an inferior and putting him in an important role of leadership. For example, when the patriarch Joseph was a slave under Potiphar in Egypt, Genesis tells us that Joseph “found favor” in Potiphar’s sight, and was put in charge of all of Potiphar’s household (Gen. 39:4–6).

This sheds light on what it means to “find favor with God.” In fact, the phrase brings to mind the many people in the Old Testament who were specifically chosen by God for an important office or mission that would bring blessing to others, similar to the way Joseph was placed into a role of leadership by Potiphar. Noah, for example, was the first person in the Bible to be described this way. In the midst of a corrupt world, Noah was the one man who “found favor” with God and, as a result, was protected from the flood and established as the head of the renewed human family (Gen. 6:8). Abraham “found favor” with God and became the instrument God would use to bring blessing to the whole world (Gen. 18:2–3). Moses also “found favor” with God as the covenant mediator who helped to reconcile the sinful people with the Lord at Mount Sinai (Ex. 33 :12–17).

In each of these cases, the one who finds favor with God is specifically chosen by the Lord for a particular office or mission in His saving plan. Therefore, when the angel tells Mary that she has “found favor with God,” he is reassuring her that she really is being chosen by the Lord. As Mary is greatly troubled, pondering in her mind what is about to be asked of her, Gabriel tells her that she is being commissioned to carry out a great saving work for God’s people – like Noah, Abraham, Moses, Gideon, and others.

Mary’s Royal Mission (Lk. 1:31–33)

In the next three verses, Mary finally learns from the angel the specific mission God has in store for her. She will become the most important mother in the history of the world, for she will conceive a child who will bring the story of Israel – and of the entire human family – to its climax. Her offspring will be the great Davidic king whom the prophets said would restore the Kingdom to Israel and gather all nations back into covenant with God. Let’s look more closely at what Gabriel actually said to Mary about her child:

He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there will be no end. (Lk. 1:32–33)

These words would have been very familiar to many Jews in the first century, for they echo one of the most important Old Testament passages related to the Davidic Kingdom. In 2 Samuel 7, God promised David an everlasting dynasty, saying:

I will make for you a great name . . . When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be his father, and he shall be my son. . . . And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure for ever before me; your throne shall be established for ever. (2 Sam. 7:9, 12–14, 16)

Notice the many striking parallels between what was promised to David in this verse and what Gabriel says about Mary’s child in Luke 1. Just as David was told his name would be great (2 Sam. 7:9), so is Mary told her child will be great (Lk. 1:32). Just as the descendants in David’s dynasty were described as having a unique fatherson relationship with God (2 Sam. 7:14), so Jesus “will be called Son of the Most High” (Lk. 1:32). Just as God promised he would establish the throne of David’s kingdom forever (2 Sam. 7:13), so will the Lord give Jesus “the throne of his father David” (Lk. 1:32). And just as God told David “your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever” (2 Sam. 7:16), so Gabriel announces that Mary’s child will “reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Lk. 1:33 ).

Thus, Gabriel’s description of Mary’s child is shouting out with the promises God made to David’s dynasty. By harkening back to the Davidic themes of greatness, sonship, throne, house, and an everlasting kingdom, Gabriel is highlighting that Mary will bear not any ordinary child, but the ultimate royal son of David who would fulfill the promises to David about the everlasting kingdom. The Jews called this long-awaited child the “anointed one” – or in Hebrew, the Messiah.

Mother of the Messiah

In sum, consider just how much Mary has learned so far in her brief conversation with Gabriel. By simply saying to Mary that “The Lord is with you!” and that she has “found favor with God,” Gabriel is basically telling Mary that God has called her to a difficult mission in which she will play a pivotal role in Israel’s history. That alone would be quite amazing! For these themes already put this young woman from Nazareth in league with some of Israel’s greatest heroes – men like Moses, David, and Jeremiah.

However, Gabriel goes on to point out how her mission will be even greater than those of her revered forefathers. Mary will carry in her womb the one whom Moses, David, and Jeremiah themselves foreshadowed and yearned to see. By describing Mary’s child as the one who will sit on “the throne of his father David” and have a never-ending kingdom, Gabriel highlights how Mary will be the mother of the child for whose arrival Israel has been waiting for centuries – the new Son of David, the great Messiah-King.

And yet, as profound as even this messianic message would have been for Our Lady, it pales in comparison to what she will be told next. In the next two verses, Mary will discover that she won’t just be the mother of the new Davidic king. She will become the mother of the Son of God Himself! And that mystery of Mary’s divine maternity is what we will explore in our next reflection.


Acknowledgement

Reprinted with permission from the May/June 2007 issue of Lay Witness magazine. © 2007 Catholics United for the Faith / www.cuf.org/Laywitness/index.asp

Dr. Sri’s latest book is A Biblical Walk through the Mass.


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About the Author

Dr. Edward Sri is a nationally-known Catholic speaker who appears regularly on EWTN and is the author of several Catholic best selling books, including The New Rosary in Scripture: Biblical Insights for Praying the 20 Mysteries (Servant) and Men, Women and the Mystery of Love: Practical Insights on John Paul II’s Love and Responsibility (Servant).

Among his recent books are Walking with Mary: A Biblical Journey from Nazareth to the Cross (Image), A Biblical Walk through the Mass (Ascension Press), The Bible Compass: A Catholic’s Guide to Navigating the Scriptures (Ascension Press) and The Gospel of Matthew (Baker Academic).

Edward is a founding leader with Curtis Martin of FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students), and he currently serves as the provost and professor of theology and Scripture at the Augustine Institute Master’s program in Denver, Colorado. He also teaches as a visiting professor at Benedictine College, where he taught full-time for nine years. Edward holds a doctorate from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. He resides with his wife Elizabeth and their five children in Littleton, Colorado.

Other books by Edward Sri include: Mystery of the Kingdom: On the Gospel of Matthew (Emmaus Road), Queen Mother: A Biblical Theology of Mary’s Queenship (Emmaus Road); Dawn of the Messiah: The Coming of Christ in Scripture (Servant) and The Da Vinci Deception: 100 Questions About the Facts and Fiction of The Da Vinci Code (Ascension Press; coauthored with Mark Shea). He also is a contributor to the popular apologetics series, Catholic for a Reason and a recent volume on Catholic Marian theology called Mariology (Queenship Publishing).

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