THE VIRGIN MARY’S PATH TO BELIEVING
The dark world of human forgetfulness ensures that most of us will be forgotten. Few will visit our graves; perhaps family, but they, too, will only visit when passing through town and maybe not even then. Many of us will pass into eternity with a heart crushed by disappointment, fear or embarrassment, perhaps all three.
The parents of that precious little girl named Mary are not even mentioned in the Bible. They probably wanted it that way. I don’t know. Only ancient tradition tells us their names as Joaquim and Ann. No one really knows. They were probably a typical family of that day and age. There may have been other children in their family with all the sounds of kids playing, running in and out, food cooking, doing chores. Family. Typical. I really don’t know and neither does anyone else. That family is lost; disappeared and forgotten.
Mary may have been around 12 years of age when she was engaged to marry Joseph as was tradition in those days. She was only twelve for Pete’s sake. Twelve! Yes, apparently her parents promised her to Joseph in marriage. I would imagine that they were excited and happy. This was normal back in those days. Joseph was a good man and they trusted him with their precious daughter. To be engaged was a commitment almost like marriage, but without any kind of physical relationship. Then the crash came! I’m beginning to cry. Can’t help it. This father was caught between anger and disappointment. The mother of Mary – unbelievably heartbroken. Crying their eyes out, their bitterness most assuredly exploded and questioning God, “Why! Why, O God! We tried to do our best. Where did we fail? We gave her our all. We tried to protect her and love her; now this! Why?”
So now they separated themselves and their family from friends and relatives. They hid. They might have even moved away so that no one would know who they were. Mary tried to tell her parents that an angel blessed her and that she was still a virgin and had not been intimate with Joseph. There she was, pregnant. If she had older brothers, they may have even slapped her around. “You’re a virgin? Do you think we are a stupid? Get outta here!”
In the dark of night this family snuck away with embarrassment never to be heard from again.
But Mary knew the truth.
A few months before the surprise visit to Mary by the angel Gabriel, Mary’s uncle and aunt were visited by this same Gabriel – bizarre. Its possible Mary’s parents had heard of Elizabeth’s weird but wonderful pregnancy at an advanced age – we just don’t know. At any rate, crazy things were going on around this time.
Mary’s uncle’s name was Zacharias and her aunt’s name was Elizabeth. They were older, possibly older than her parents. Godly people. Zacharias was a priest in the tribe of Aaron and Elizabeth was also from the same priestly tribe. Mary’s mom and dad may have resented Zacharias and Elizabeth much like many in Israel today who have animas toward Haredi (Charedi) or Ultra- Orthodox Jews thinking they live off the hard work of the non-priestly class. “How can we continue to support these people? They act like they are holier than us and we are required to listen to their moaning and groaning in the Temple.”
One day Zacharias was burning incense in the Temple. By lot, this was his day to go into the inner sanctuary offering cataphatic prayer. Cataphatic prayer is praying much like we do in church when we ask God of something, share our needs or praise God. It is the type of praying done in the liturgy or with a prayer book. Cataphatic prayer is sometimes used in a profane way, praying so that others will give praise to the one offering the prayer motivating people to say, “That sure was a wonderful prayer. My-my. Didn’t he really bring the house down!” Cataphatic prayer could be speaking words of adoration, confession, thanksgiving and supplication to God. It can be written and/or verbal. Most generally in Catholic and Orthodox traditions it is a part of the liturgy. Zacharias was dutifully ministering the “liturgy” spreading incense when suddenly he slipped into apophatic prayer.
Apophatic prayer is how the Apostle Paul described the indescribable. He wrote, “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love Him. But God hath revealed them unto us by His Spirit: for the Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God.” (I Corinthians 2:9-10kjv). Paul also had that deep apophatic experience written in II Corinthians 12:2-5. “Fourteen years ago I was taken up into heaven for a visit. Don’t ask me whether my body was there or just my spirit, for I don’t know; only God can answer that. But anyway, there I was in paradise, and heard things so astounding that they are beyond a man’s power to describe or put in words (and anyway I am not allowed to tell them to others). That experience is something worth bragging about, but I am not going to do it. I am going to boast only about how weak I am and how great God is to use such weakness for His glory.”
There are those who fake apophatic prayer by telling others how wonderfully their tongue has become and others who want to describe how that secret message had meaning by interpreting what the unknown prayer described. In other words, they change apophatic prayer into cataphatic prayer so that they can stand up in church and tell others about their “secret” message. On the other hand, Paul described that deep inner prayer as being beyond description. He gives no credibility to unknown tongues or to the public display of praying in a secret “language.” O for that quiet place that only you and God know! It’s not for others – only you and God. No one else could possibly understand.
“There is a place of quiet rest
Near to the heart of God.
A place where sin cannot molest.
Near to the heart of God.”
Cleland Boyd McAfee
Growing up as a PK (preacher’s kid) gave me a knowledge of cataphatic prayer having listened to prayers from hither to yon. I have heard simple prayers of thanksgiving for food and great prayers prayed before thousands designed to elicit shouts and praises from the masses. I have crafted prayers for home, church, weddings and funerals. But only when I fell on my face on raggedy carpet as a single father with two kids, no money, no job, embarrassed by gossip and having resigned as pastor of a growing church, crying my eyes out after being rejected for unemployment insurance did I experience that soul-searching, indescribable understanding of God as Spirit. Only God and I knew this! This is first I have ever – ever – written about it!
“No one understands like Jesus;
He’s a Friend beyond compare.
Meet Him at the throne of mercy;
He is waiting for you there.”
John W. Peterson, 1921-
O, I have so much more to tell you about cataphatic and apophatic prayer, but as Jesus said in John 16:12, “There is so much more I want to tell you, but you can’t bear it now.”
Here was Zacharias in that holy place when suddenly an angel – out of nowhere – appeared right in front of him at the altar. There is so must symbolism here I can hardly write it all down. But this I know, marvelous insights occur at the altar of God!
Worship Him! O, worship Him!
Open your heart in praise.
Speak with His loving Spirit
His Spirit speaks today!
Zacharias was terrified, but the very first thing the angel of God said to Zacharias was, “Don’t be afraid!” Hallelujah! When this happens to you, don’t be afraid. When God speaks He always says, “Don’t be afraid.” He’s knocking at your door. “Don’t be afraid.”
“Coming to Jesus my Savior I found,
Wonderful peace, wonderful peace.
Storms in their fury may rage all around,
I have peace, sweet peace.”
These godly people, Zacharias and Elizabeth, were beyond childbearing age feeling that God had not blessed them. Nevertheless, they kept praying for themselves as they led others in worship. They knew that their worship of God was far more than getting things, even if it was asking for a child. There in the inner holy place as he was in deep prayer, the presence of God was so pervasive, so real; he was lifted up into that secret holy place. This experience was somewhat like that place Isaiah described: “I saw the Lord! He was sitting on a lofty throne, and the Temple was filled with His glory. Hovering about Him were mighty, six-winged seraphs. With two of their wings they covered their faces; with two others they covered their feet, and with two they flew. In a great antiphonal chorus they sang, ‘Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of Hosts; the whole earth is filled with His glory.’” (Isaiah 6:1-3lb)
The angel Gabriel gave Zacharias explicit instructions as to what was going to happen. O my! O my! Even in this holy place with an angel of God laying things out in glorious detail, Zacharias had excuses for the possible to be impossible! I’m telling you – when God speaks, we had better LISTEN! Like a bolt of lightning Zacharias was shot through with a terrible and strange seizure so devastating he could not speak – all because of disbelief.
Angels are not spirits in the same way the Holy Spirit is a spirit. Angels are created beings – created by God to do certain things. They are not omnipresent, not omniscient, and certainly not omnipotent. They go where the great God of heaven tells them to go and do what He tells them to do. “The angel said, “I am Gabriel! I stand in the very presence of God. It was He who sent me to you with this good news!” (Luke 1:19) Continuing on, the angel said, “Because you won’t believe me, you’ll be unable to say a word until the day of your son’s birth.” (Luke 1:20)
Because of his hesitancy, he was stricken silent – couldn’t speak a word – until after his son John the Baptist was born. Elizabeth was thrilled having becoming pregnant about 5 or 6 months before Mary became pregnant.
At about the 5th or 6th month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, the same angel, Gabriel, visited Mary, a virgin. She had already been offered to Joseph in marriage; engaged. No touching. No kissing, No private time together. No sex. Tradition! She was a virgin! Sorry folks, if you can’t believe that, you can’t believe the first four words of the Bible either. “In the beginning GOD!” (Genesis 1:1kjv)
There is nothing in holy writ that details the events surrounding Mary’s family and girlfriends – especially the boys. Stop, and think about it for a moment. Even in our day and age tongues start to wag and people smack their lips in hateful criticism and juicy gossip when an underage girl gets pregnant. O my, and if one of our church girls gets pregnant out of marriage, …! “Mercy me! What was she thinking?” Can’t you just hear it now?
It didn’t matter what other people thought. Of course she was crushed by what her family thought of her. She was a little girl. She was human. She was not a god, nor was she God in the flesh. She was a virgin. Period! She knew. I rather doubt that her mother had even discussed sexual relations with her. If she had, it was probably couched in vague language of their culture. I have no idea why God chose her. Why not some other young girl? I don’t know, and neither for certainty does anyone else. But I know this, that same angel Gabriel appeared to her and said, “Favored one! The Lord is with you!” This scared her. What does this mean? Mary was a little girl. If a real live angel appeared in front of you or me I can guarantee you we would have trouble figuring it out. So here’s what I can tell you with confidence, the angel said to her, “DON’T BE AFRAID!” (Luke 1:26-29)
The angel Gabriel declared her baby to be “the Son of the Highest; and … He shall reign over the house of Jacob forever.” (Luke 1:32-33kjv). “Of His kingdom there shall be no end.” (Luke 1:33b(v.33kjv) This was made clear to her that He would be the long awaited Messiah.
At this point a two-way communication takes place. Mary is not praying to the angel as one would pray to God. The angel is not being prayed to; he is simply doing what God told him to do. He firmly states: “The Holy Spirit shall come upon you;” … Let’s pause a moment and look at scriptural facts as reported in the King James Version, The Gospel of Luke chapter one.
- Mary was in Nazareth
- Mary was engaged to a man named Joseph
- Joseph was from the lineage of David
- The angel spoke to her saying she was highly favored
- He told her she would conceive a son
- She was to name Him Jesus
- He would be great, the Son of the Highest
- The Lord God would give Him the throne of David
- He would reign over the house of Jacob for ever
- His kingdom shall never end
- Mary declared her virginity
- How would she get pregnant? By the power of the Holy Spirit and the power of the Highest
- Mary’s Son shall be called the Son of God
- And verse 37 gave her a great promise: “FOR WITH GOD NOTHING SHALL BE IMPOSSIBLE!”
- Mary BELIEVED by saying, “be it unto me according to thy word.” (V. 38) She believed!
Here we have Mary believing the angel’s word. Immediately she took off for her aunt’s house to a city in Juda, approximately 100 miles, by foot or donkey or something else; doesn’t matter even if it was a Mercedes or Ford. She obeyed! In other words, in tough and uncertain days, possible abandonment or death, Mary believed and obeyed. Mary surrendered her life to the Lord: “I am willing.” Luke 1:38 and Catholic teaching says that the very surrender to the Immaculate Conception indicates that Mary believed; believed that Jesus was the Christ, The Savior! Although she was a virgin, she still had to have a Savior. There is no Scriptural basis noting that Mary was born without sin or was sinless. Even Elizabeth reminded her, you are “the mother of my Lord,” and “you believed that God would do what He said.” (Vv. 43 & 45) Mary was essentially an innocent child, but she had to make a decision to believe! It was not until 1854 – get this, approximately one thousand eight hundred and fifty four years after the birth of Christ – when Pope Pius IX declared with his authority the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, meaning Mary was free of sin in giving birth to Jesus. [Theology can be very confusing at times.]
And now the greatest praise and glorifying statement of belief ever heard – THE MAGNIFICAT!
In Greek it is Ἡ ᾨδὴ τῆς Θεοτόκου – the Song or Ode of Mary, Mother of God.
“And Mary said,
‘My soul doth magnify the Lord,
And my spirit hath rejoiced in
GOD MY SAVIOR.
For He hath regarded the low estate
Of His handmaiden:
From henceforth all generations
Shall call me blessed.
For He that is mighty hath done to me
And holy is His name.
And His mercy is on them
That fear Him from generation to generation.
He hath showed strength with His arm;
He hath scattered the proud
In the imagination of their hearts.
He hath filled the hungry with good things;
And the rich He hath sent empty away.
‘He hath holpen His servant Israel,
In remembrance of His mercy;
As He spake to our fathers, to Abraham,
And to his seed forever.’” (vv. 46-55)
Mary declared Jesus as:
- The Lord
- Has a special name
- Gives mercy
All those close to these amazing events knew the truth by this time. Zacharias, speaking of Jesus, clearly states that God “is sending us a Mighty Savior from the royal line of His servant David.” Luke 1:69) He, Jesus, will “give light to those who sit in darkness … and guide us to the path of peace.” (Luke 1: 79) He is reaffirming prophesies of the Old Testament (v. 70) and in v. 76 speaks of his son, John the Baptist saying, “you will prepare the way of the Messiah.”
For the next few months it’s hard to tell what all went on. Matthew writes that Mary remained a virgin until after Jesus was born. (Matthew 1:25) You can rest assured that things were going on with such glory and excitement that even Joseph was brought into the fold. Remember, Joseph probably had his doubts at first, too. Then, of course, they had to go to Bethlehem to pay their taxes.
The night Jesus was born was not one of sweet smelling hay and calm animals waiting in a zoo to be petted. In fact, no one else would give these castaways a place to stay indoors. No compassion for this pregnant 13 year old unwed mother! Out they went into the stench of animal excrement.
Surprise! Surprise! A heavenly host of angels filled the sky where the shepherds were. Can’t you imagine? They were scared out of their gourds. I don’t know if everyone saw it or not – doesn’t matter. Isn’t it interesting, the first thing an angel said to them was, “Don’t be afraid!” All through the Scripture, God says, “DON’T BE AFRAID!” Then they started a song never heard before (Luke 2:14),
“GLORY TO GOD IN THE HIGHEST,
AND ON EARTH
GOOD WILL TOWARD MEN.”
It took a long time for people back in those days to travel even 10 miles. Now can you image the “wise men” traveling about a thousand miles? We don’t know when they began their journey from Persia or some other place in the Middle East but they sure wouldn’t bring gold, frankincense and myrrh unless something big was going on. (Matthew 2:11) They threw themselves down and WORSHIPPED HIM! Who told those guys anyway? Furthermore, these guys put themselves at the door of death by disobeying King Herod who then killed every little boy under the age of two all-around that area.
Another angel appeared. This time to Joseph. Let’s pause a minute.
ARE YOU TELLING ME THAT BY THIS TIME MARY DIDN’T KNOW WHO JESUS WAS?
Yes sir! She knew she had given birth to the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
On the eighth day Joseph and Mary took the child to the Temple, following the Law of Moses, for circumcision. During the ceremony, they named Him JESUS! There happened to be a man in the Temple named Simeon who was a very devout man. God had promised him that he would not die until he saw the Messiah. When he saw Jesus, he took him in his arms, praying, and said, “I have seen him as you promised me I would. I have seen the Savior you have given to the world.” (Luke 2:30-31)
Another lady named Anna was also in the Temple that day. She was a regular there and prayed day and night. When she saw Jesus she began to praise God going out into the streets telling everyone that she had seen the Messiah.
As it stands now in the list of events, we have Gabriel, Elizabeth, Zacharias, more angels, a heavenly host of angels singing, the shepherds, the wise men, Herod, Simeon, Anna plus Joseph and Mary certifying their belief in the Godhood of Jesus, the Christ. And this list doesn’t even include all of those Old Testament prophets.
This entire story is about Jesus. Nowhere is there the slightest indication by Mary or about Mary that she should be worshipped. The only other place where Mary is mentioned in Scripture is found in Acts 1:14 where after apophatic prayer “they were all filled with the Holy Spirit,” Mary included! The centerpiece of this marvelous story is JESUS!
My conclusion is this:
Mary is more blessed for having believed in Jesus than for being His mother!