Grace turns the ordinary into the extraordinary. As human beings we have a long history of constructing our society on the basis of merit—the ugly result being a life of trying to “measure up” or comparing ourselves to others. Grace shatters this society of merit because in God’s kingdom, human value isn’t rooted in human character, but God’s.
The story of the first Christmas should remind us that God’s grace elevates the lowly while it flattens the proud. Joseph and Mary remind us that God indeed chooses humble people for noble purpose:
26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, 27 to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!”29 But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. 30 And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. 32 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, 33 and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
34 And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”
35 And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God. 36 And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her. (Luke 1:26-38)
If you’ve got any background in church, the story should sound familiar. The curious arrival of Jesus through Mary emphasizes that yes, God is doing something wholly unique.
Did Mary really know what her Son’s life would grow to be? At Christmas it’s not at all uncommon to hear the song “Mary, Did You Know?” The lyrics list the many things that Jesus would do in his lifetime, the song repeatedly asking the new mom by the manger if she knew what her special Son would be capable of. “Mary did you know that your baby boy will one day walk on water?” “Mary did you know that your baby boy will save our sons and daughters?”
But when I read the text, it’s not clear to me that Mary really understood—or could ever have imagined—what being the Messiah was really all about. As a faithful Jewish woman, she would have shared her people’s hopeful expectation for God’s deliverance. But would she ever have expected Jesus to live the life that he did—to die the death that he did?
Think for a second what Mary would see through her mother’s eyes:
- The death of children by Herod’s hand, as he sought to eliminate Israel’s king (Matthew 2:16).
- Jesus’ preaching would emphasize that “here are my mother and brothers,” referring to the crowds and his spiritual family, rather than his natural family (Matthew 12:46ff).
- Family division would arise when Jesus’ brothers refused to believe his message about himself (John 7:5).
- And, most profoundly, Mary was present at the cross and watched her firstborn son breathe his last. The Jews believed in resurrection, yes—but she could never have expected it to happen in a matter of days. And this is to say nothing of the fact that in Mary’s social world, she would have born the social scorn of being this “criminal’s” mother.
It’s no wonder that shortly after Jesus is born, Simeon would caution Mary that as she witnessed Jesus’ ministry, “a sword will pierce through your own soul also” (Luke 2:35). Mary, did you know that you would share so much of your baby boy’s pain?
For now, however, Mary responds to the angel’s announcement with humble obedience:
46 And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50 And his mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
52 he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 as he spoke to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”
56 And Mary remained with her about three months and returned to her home. (Luke 1:46-56)
As a side note, we shouldn’t overlook the way that Mary’s words reflect her commitment to and knowledge of God’s word. Granted, it’s not inconceivable that Luke would have given Mary’s words an editorial polish, but Mary’s theological understanding cannot be denied—a significant feat for a woman of her era.
What does this mean for us? There was nothing really special about Mary, apart from her faithfulness, but through God’s grace she became “blessed” (v. 48) because of the “great things” God has done (v. 49).
And each of us, though we inhabit a world built on merit, can reflect on the way that our significance comes not on what we have done, but what God has done through us—and for us. It’s hard to know if Mary understood just exactly what her son would later do, but we know exactly what her son did. Trust in his work, not your own; this is the secret to true joy.