Mary of Nazareth
Let’s now turn to Jesus’ mother, Mary, a woman who was conceived without sin but was also a human being with normal worries, doubts and struggles.
The story of the Annunciation in the Gospel of Luke (Lk 1:26-38), the tale of the angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary, is among the most popular of Bible stories for many believers, myself included. In this familiar passage, Mary exemplifies the role of the believer in Jesus, the long-awaited Messiah (see Lk 1:32).
In effect, the Annunciation offers us a microcosm of the spiritual life.
To begin with, the initiative lies entirely with God. It is God who speaks to Mary, and to us, in often unexpected ways. Does that sound familiar? The question for Christians is, Where is God starting a conversation with you?
When Mary first experiences the presence of God, she is fearful. How often this happens to us! When we begin to wonder if God might be communicating with us—through our emotions, experiences, relationships, desires, prayer—we are often confused, overwhelmed, even fearful. This very human experience is common in the spiritual life. But God understands. “Fear not,” says the angel Gabriel to Mary.
Then the angel explains to Mary what God is asking of her. Again, how similar to our lives! After the initial encounter, after we confront our fear of God and have the chance to reflect on our experience with God, it becomes clearer what God is asking us to do.
But Mary questions. How wonderful! A young, probably illiterate woman from a backwater town presses the angel of the Lord for an explanation. “How can this be?” asks a practical Mary to God’s messenger, “since I am a virgin?”
Gabriel responds in the same way God often responds to us. The angel reminds Mary to look around her, to look at what God can do—and has done. “And behold, Elizabeth, your relative, has also conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren; for nothing will be impossible for God” (Lk 1:36-37).
More often than not, God is found by looking back over your life, or your week, or your day, and saying, “Yes, there was God.” Gabriel, in essence, says the same to Mary.
God invites us to join him, to follow his will, to create with him. But the decision is always up to us.
Then Mary says, “May it be done to me according to your word” (v. 38). But she could have said no. With her “yes,” Mary partners herself with the Almighty and is empowered to bring Christ into the world as the one to fulfill the messianic promise. With our own “yes” to God’s voice in our lives we are also asked to nurture the word of God within us and bring Christ into the world. God asks each of us to say, “yes.” Sometimes, if we look back on the nos of our lives, we can appreciate the yeses all the more.
Then, after Mary said yes, the angel left. And isn’t that the way it often works? After these encounters with God we are left alone to carry out what we are asked to do. Frequently it seems very lonely. Who knows if Mary ever encountered God as deeply as she did at the Annunciation, before Jesus’ birth?
That’s the part of trusting that God has told us is to be trusted—the part of faith.
Finally, let’s focus on Mary’s husband, Joseph. Poor Joseph! On many Christmas cards these days you’ll notice that he is usually stuck in the back—old, balding, sometimes even entirely absent from the scene. Not only did he help raise the Son of God, but his story has a lot to teach us.
Sadly, little is known about St. Joseph. He was of the line of King David and was to be engaged to a young woman from Nazareth. Mary was found, quite unexpectedly, to be pregnant. But Joseph, “since he was a righteous man, yet unwilling to expose her to shame,” as the Gospel of Matthew (1:19) says, planned to dissolve his betrothal quietly.
Even before Jesus is born, Joseph’s tender compassion and forgiving heart were on full display. His actions must have earned him the contempt of many in Nazareth, just as the work of compassion and justice is often rejected today.
Then God uses a dream to reveal his saving plans for the carpenter from Nazareth. In the dream, an angel lets Joseph in on Mary’s secret (see Mt 1:20-25). That same angel, after the birth of Mary’s son, advises Joseph to take the child and his mother to Egypt, to flee the murderous Herod. Joseph listens (Mt 2:13-15). Dreams, to this day, can still bring forth God’s word into our lives. Some of us, it seems, need to be asleep before we can shut out the world’s noise enough to listen!
There are only a few more stories about the boy Jesus—he is lost on a journey and found teaching in the Temple. So most of Jesus’ first decades are his “hidden life.” This is Joseph’s time. He spends it caring for his foster son—and teaching him the trade of carpentry or woodworking. In Joseph’s workshop in Nazareth, Jesus would have learned about the raw materials for his craft as well as the values required to become a good carpenter.
Alongside his teacher, a young Jesus labored and built, contributing all the while to the common good of Nazareth and the surrounding towns. As I mentioned, it’s not hard to imagine that the skills Jesus learned from his teacher would serve him well in his later ministry.
The things that seem so insignificant, so hidden, so small—teaching an adolescent about carpentry—turn out to be quite important, indeed, like much of what we do.
As a father, Joseph would as well have been one of his son’s primary teachers in his religious faith. It is probable that Joseph was the first one Jesus went to with his questions. So Jesus’ understanding of God the Father, his heavenly Father, may have been shaped not only by Joseph’s own life, but also by Joseph’s answers to his questions. Joseph’s faith was one of the foundations of Jesus’ faith.
But as soon as Jesus starts his ministry, Joseph disappears, at least in the Gospel narratives. What happened to the guardian of Jesus? Tradition holds that by the time Jesus began his preaching, Joseph had already died.
How Jesus and Mary must have wished Joseph could have seen and heard about his son’s work among the people of Israel! How they must have wished for the counsel of their father and husband during Jesus’ public ministry! How Mary must have longed for Joseph’s shoulder to support her during the Crucifixion!
Joseph is not mentioned beyond those few early passages in Scripture. Appearing only briefly in the Gospels, given no words to speak at all, Joseph leads a life of quiet service to God, a life that remains almost totally unknown to us. His was, necessarily, a life of humility. Today many Christians lead lives of hidden charity—a kind deed here, a few hours of service there. All of these quiet acts mark the Christian lifestyle. Even if no one else sees those deeds, God does.
Public or hidden, the earthly lives of Jesus, Mary and Joseph may sometimes seem far removed from our own today. But if we look at them carefully, we can see how their individual lives offer an invitation to grow in our own humanity and holiness. It’s in our hands to accept this invitation, to listen for God’s call and to faithfully respond.
Source: The Holy Family (James Martin) americancatholic.org