As often portrayed in the movies, was Mary this quiet, shy thirteen-year-old girl as perceived by religious tradition, or does a closer look support otherwise? Furthermore, just how much did Mary know and understand during the very time period of the Immaculate Conception, her pregnancy and the birth of Christ? A closer study of the story and an expanded horizon of thought may have you looking at this amazing woman in a totally new light!
First, we will come to see that Mary was probably not a young girl. This we know through two simple observations. First, in Luke 1:28, the angel Gabriel states “And having come in, the angel said to her, Rejoice, highly favored one, the Lord is with you, blessed are you among women!” (NKJV) The archangel Gabriel addressed her as a woman. Now while an intellectual debate could be started here arguing that that was simply because physically her body had matured to the point that she was able to have children, consider this thought. How special would she have been to be a virgin unless she had reached an age where still being a virgin would be a considered a virtue? For centuries, the fact that Mary was a woman and still a virgin had a profound impact on young women’s lives as they sought to remain pure until marriage. For over twenty-five years I worked in youth ministry challenging both young women and men to wait until marriage for sex. I often used Mary as the Biblical example of an individual that God used because she waited. At some point in recent church history it became a common practice to portray Mary as a thirteen or fourteen year old girl, suggesting that she was chosen by God for this purpose before she was old enough to even be tempted. However, Mary the mother of Jesus was by Gabriel’s definition a woman, and a woman who knew and understood a lot about what Gabriel was telling her!
Mary was a strong woman, not the shy fearful woman portrayed by tradition. Traditionally, men throughout history have preferred weak women, women that they feel they can control. Sadly, men in order to justify their portrayals spiritually often like to promote examples of timid women who are cloaked in pseudo meekness. This “ideal” perhaps has been superimposed on Mary.
However, there are several reasons why I believe Mary was a strong woman, not weak and fearful as often portrayed. First of all, notice Mary’s reaction when Gabriel, the archangel of God, appeared to her. In many places in scripture, when an angel appears, people’s reactions are portrayed as being terrified and greatly shaken. Mary, however, strong woman that she was, had a considerably calmer reaction. Luke 1:29 states “But when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and considered what manner of greeting this was.”(NKJV) Yes, we do see in verse 30 that the angel did say “Do not be afraid Mary, for you have found favor with God.”(NKJV) but this obviously strong woman of God did seem to remain calm throughout the whole encounter!
Mary also knew the Word of God. Unusual for a woman in that time period, she had to have been being raised studying the scriptures. Mary knew a lot more about what she was being told than what we traditionally perceive. Gabriel told her in verse 31-34 “And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. And He will reign over the House of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there shall be no end.” In that moment Mary because of her sound biblical knowledge, was able to grasp the connection and understand that Gabriel was describing the characteristics of the coming Messiah. I believe that Mary could confidently and boldly make the connection and say yes to this heavenly calling because she was a woman of God’s Word whose greatest desire was to do God’s will, and also because she was a woman of prayer and of strong character and courage.
At that point, without any sign of timidity, she confronted this high ranking and undoubtedly spectacular angelic messenger with all confidence. “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” 1:34b (NIV) In my opinion that is the moment when all of the courage she could muster, all of the faith that she could trust with, and all the submission she could surrender had to be pulled together at once, as Gabriel informs her of yet another miracle plan that had not happened to anyone before in all the history of all mankind. The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.” God had chosen Mary, because she was a virgin, a woman of God, a woman of prayer, and a woman He knew would show no signs of doubting that all of this was possible.
After the angelic visitation, with the Holy Spirit’s guidance, she confidently went on to visit Elizabeth, eventually was indeed married to Joseph, and accompanied him to Bethlehem where Jesus was to be born.
After having given birth in a stable, as a brand new mother Mary would go on to travel back to Jerusalem within eight days for Jesus circumcision, and then a short time later have to flee for two years to Egypt. During all of tis, Mary simply does not fit the description of a weak young teenager. So the next time curiosity raises the question in our hearts, “How much did Mary know?”, we should simply understand the Biblical Mary knew a lot more, and was a much stronger and more mature woman than we give her credit for.