A Baby Born in Bethlehem: Mary


This is part-seven in a series, read about Simeon’s response to the baby born in Bethlehem, the response of King Herod & the Sanhedrin, the response of the wise men, the shepherds who heard the angels’ message and the message of the angels themselves, and the response of the man who would be Jesus’ father, Joseph.

From what little I know, discovering you are pregnant after you have been trying to have a baby is an equally exciting and nerve-wracking experience. An unplanned pregnancy can be even more terrifying discovery.

Finding out you are pregnant without ever having sex … Well, one can only imagine the turmoil of thoughts Mary would have experienced that day two-thousand years ago. Some 50 or 60 years later, Mary would tell the enterprising doctor, Luke, of how she came to hear that she would give birth to the Saviour of the world. The full passage is too long to quote here (Luke 1:26-38), for the angel Gabriel and Mary had something of a lengthy chat about her future parenting activities. What is important, however, is the final part of their conversation:

“Mary asked the angel, “How can this be, since I have not been intimate with a man?”

The angel replied to her:

“The Holy Spirit will come upon you,
and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.
Therefore, the holy One to be born
will be called the Son of God.

“I am the Lord’s slave,” said Mary. “May it be done to me according to your word.” Then the angel left her.”Luke 1:34-35, 38

I want you to take a moment to consider Mary’s reaction to Gabriel’s pronouncement. An angel has appeared out of nowhere, and within moments has called her “favoured woman” and proclaimed that she would give birth to a son without ever having sex – and that this son would “be called the Son of God.”

Mary & Jesus by Liz Lemon Swindle

And her immediate response is to submit herself to be “the Lord’s slave”, or “the Lord’s Servant (NLT), adding – just in case anyone listening in was uncertain – “May it be done to me according to your word.”

Put aside the theological for a moment and give this young girl a round of applause for a seriously preternaturally calm reaction.

But of course there is much more to Mary’s response than just calm under pressure. Mary alternately displays three vital characteristics of any Christian – thoughtfulness, insight, and wholehearted surrender.

Firstly, let’s look at how Mary responded with thoughtfulness to Gabriel’s arrival. Compare the angel’s arrival to Mary with that of his arrival to Zechariah and the shepherds. Zechariah, when he saw Gabriel, “was startled and overcome with fear” (Luke 1:12) while the shepherds, when they confronted with an angel in their fields were similarly “terrified” (Luke 2:9). However, Mary is less concerned with the fact that an angel has appeared to her than with the way she is greeted: “Rejoice, favoured woman! The Lord is with you.” (Luke 1:28) In response, Luke explains that Mary “was deeply troubled by this statement, wondering what kind of greeting this could be.” (Luke 1:29) According to Timothy Keller, the Greek word translated ‘wondering’ “is not a terribly good translation”, for the Greek word actually means “to make an audit”[1]. Mary does not knuckle under out of fear, but “shows us that responding in faith is a whole-person experience that includes the intellect.”[2]

Secondly, Mary responded insightfully, in a way that might not be immediately apparent to modern readers. The phrase “the virgin birth” is synonymous now with Mary, and so we automatically read that into what Mary hears from the angel. Except if you read it, the angel appears to give no initial indication that there would be anything miraculous about this birth. Gabriel simply says that “You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will call His name Jesus.” (Luke 1:31) As a woman betrothed to another man, there is no reason for Mary to be overly confused by how this would happen – no doubt someone had told her where babies come from. “Because she was betrothed, we may assume that Mary fully expected to have normal marital relations later.”[3] However, something about what the angel is saying makes Mary’s ears prick up, for she replies: “How can this be, since I have not been intimate with a man?” (Luke 1:34)

“The solution of the difficulty rather is that Mary understood Gabriel to mean that she would bear a child without the intervention of a man, perhaps even conception  would be immediate.”[4]

Whether by the angel’s words (now lost to us through translation or interview error) or an inherent insightfulness on her part, Mary understands immediately what Gabriel is telling her, and what it will mean for her – Gabriel’s explanation only serves to specify what Mary had already intuited.

Finally, and most importantly – beyond our own intellect, insights, and opinions – Mary submits to God’s will for her:

“I am the Lord’s slave,” said Mary. “May it be done to me according to your word.” Then the angel left her.Luke 1:38

“Mary’s response is one of quiet submission”[5] and displays an “exemplary attitude of servanthood”[6]. This might appear to be a natural response to an angel appearing in your bedroom and informing you of an unexpected pregnancy, but there is much more happening in these verses what some might call ‘blind obedience’. Consider that Mary knows full well what this newly-announced pregnancy will do to her social standing, and to her betrothal to Joseph: “His reaction to her pregnancy might have been expected to be a strong one and Matthew tells us that he did in fact think of divorcing her (Mt. 1:19).”[7] Mary could not have expected the same angel who had visited her would also visit her betrothed to soothe his concerns – as far as she knew, she was on her own from here on out.

Further, Mary’s words typify God’s desired response from us: “she is grounding her obedience in the reality that he is God, our Creator and Keeper, and so he deserves our service.”[8] Mary acknowledged her position as “the Lord’s slave” (servant) and God’s position to instruct her and lead her as He would.

“Mary could not be sure that she would not have to suffer, perhaps even die. But she recognised the will of God and accepted it.”[9]

“Who knows what kind of life now awaits her? It doesn’t matter. When she says, ‘I am your servant,’ she goes out not knowing whither she went.”[10]

Neither God’s decision to choose Mary nor Mary’s actions should deify her, but they should definitely make us think. When we encounter Jesus for the first time, how will we respond? We have seen many responses through this series – from anger to apathy to worship and obedience – but above all, Mary’s response to the baby born in Bethlehem is vitally important to remember and emulate. We do not encounter Jesus unthinkingly or with blind acceptance, but with our God-given intellect and insight. God gave us minds to use, so He does not begrudge us using them when it comes to His Son. But in the end, He wants – and deserves – our complete surrender.

So when you encounter the baby born in Bethlehem this Christmas, will you be able to say along with Mary, “I am the Lord’s slave”?

[1] Hidden Christmas, Timothy Keller, p. 81
[2] ibid
[3] The Bible Expositor’s CommentaryLuke, Walter L. Liefeld, p. 60 (ed. Tremper Longman III & David E. Garland)
[4] Luke, Leon Morris, p. 73 (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries)
[5] Morris, p. 74
[6] Liefeld, p. 61
[7] Morris, p. 74
[8] Keller, p. 90-1
[9] Morris, p. 74
[10] Keller, p. 92