So Few Words — So Much Influence
Despite Mary's significance for many Christians around the world, the Gospel accounts only provide the barebones of Mary's life. Many details from the Gospels about Mary's life have leaked into Christmas hymns and Nativity scenes and have been repeated year after year. Sometimes, the story seems so familiar that it can be hard to grasp the full impact of the event. Mary lived with her parents in Nazareth. During her engagement to a man named Joseph, an angel came to her and told her that she would conceive a child through the Holy Spirit. The angel told Mary that the child's name would be Jesus, because he would save people from their sins (Luke 1:31–32).
What is the significance of the name Jesus?
The Hebrew name for Jesus, Y'shua, is a shortened form of the name Joshua (Y'hoshua). The name Joshua literally means “the Lord saves.”
When Mary shared her frightening, awe-inspiring news with her fianc,é he did not rejoice. In fact, according to the Gospel of Matthew, he did not actually believe her, and secretly resolved to quietly end the relationship to prevent a scandal (Matthew 1:19). But Joseph's sense of betrayal and disbelief changed as a result of a dream in which an angel came to him, assuring him about the more-difficultto-explain parts of the pregnancy (specifically, how Mary came to be pregnant when she and Joseph had not yet been married). The angel also told Joseph not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife.
Joseph's initial apprehension about Mary's news is reflected in early Christian icons of Jesus' birth. In these icons, Joseph is often portrayed with his back to Mary and the newborn Jesus, looking away from the infant Jesus toward a small demon. Because icons often include images of events that may have occurred at different times, the image of Joseph here jumps back in time to show his earlier temptation to disbelieve Mary. He seems lost in his own private world of doubts and fears. This image expresses the ancient belief that temptations tend to be most fierce when we are alone, and that sin increases isolation.
In one of the great giddy moments of the Gospels, Mary hears the news that her relative Elizabeth (who had been barren) is also pregnant. She journeys to Elizabeth's home, and as she steps through the front door, Elizabeth makes the first public proclamation about the miracle inside of Mary. Elizabeth calls Mary “the mother of my Lord” and the babe in Elizabeth's womb leaps with joy (Luke 1:39–45).
During her pregnancy, Mary traveled with Joseph to Bethlehem for the census (Luke 2:1–7). When they realized that the birth of the baby was near, Mary and Joseph attempted to find a room at an inn, but there were no openings, so Mary gave birth in a stable where animals were kept, and Jesus was laid in a manger (which is something like a cattle trough).
The accounts from Matthew and Luke differ in many elements, including the structure in which Jesus was born. Many Christmas hymns make it seem as if Jesus was born in a wooden barn, but according to ancient church tradition Jesus was actually born in a cave. This tradition is based on Luke's account (Luke 2:7), because shepherds would have likely kept animals in a cave. Matthew, however, refers to a house (Matthew 2:11).
The oldest continually operating church in the Holy Land, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, is located on the spot where many believe Jesus was born. Each year, thousands of pilgrims journey to Bethlehem to light a candle and pray beside the gold star that marks this holy spot.
After Mary gave birth, Jesus was circumcised and the family visited the temple in Jerusalem. Shortly after this, the family fled to Egypt to avoid Herod's wrath, and then returned after Herod's death (Matthew 2:13–23). They lived in Nazareth for thirty years until the beginning of Jesus' public ministry (Luke 2:39–40). Scholars believe that Mary was eventually widowed, because Joseph was never mentioned again.
From the cross, Jesus asked his beloved disciple John to care for Mary until her dying day (John 19:26–27). In Ephesus, there is a small stone house that Christian and Muslim pilgrims visit to this day, where many believe John and Mary lived for several years. You'll learn more about the house of Mary in Chapter 18. According to Scripture, Mary was also present with the apostles at Pentecost (Acts 1:14, 2:1).
These bare-bones accounts demonstrate how very little we know about Mary from the Gospels. They don't seem to explain the widespread influence of Mary. Because the Biblical accounts are so sparse, many Protestants are reluctant to say too much about Mary. Unlike the Reformers (discussed in more detail in Chapter 10) who generally expressed devotion toward Mary, modern Protestants often avoid saying anything about her that doesn't directly come from Scripture. Within the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches, however, devotion to Mary is so strong that hyperbole is often used in speaking about her — not unlike the way that some people rave about their own mothers.
The next sections will explore some of the ways in which the ancient church used to speak about this woman of so few words and so much influence.