Wednesday, 3 April 2019

The extraordinary life of an ordinary woman (2)

They [the apostles] all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers. Acts 1:14

Last time we thought about Mary, and what I called “the extraordinary life of an ordinary woman”. I suggested that though Mary’s experience was in most respects a million miles from anything you and I can know, there are several points of connection - points where we can in fact identify with her.

I had five such points in mind, but I got no further than the first two.

First, she had a life-changing experience when she was chosen to be the mother of God’s Son. And we too have our lives changed, by the experience of conversion. Second, she grew through reflecting on, and puzzling over, things that were hard to understand, as happened after Jesus as a boy went missing in Jerusalem. And we too grow and mature through grappling with things that are hard to understand.

So, to carry on where we left off...

Third: Mary endured a crisis of faith.

Is that an exaggeration? Just possibly; but there’s no doubt that an incident took place which reveals her as overwhelmed with doubt and anxiety. Go to Mark 3:21-31, where we read that Jesus’ family seriously wondered if he was “out of his mind” (verse 21).

From early in his ministry Jesus attracted large crowds - and they weren’t always supportive. Here, he gets into a debate with “teachers of the law... from Jerusalem” who suggest that he is, in effect, demon-possessed. Mary and his brothers are so alarmed that they set out to bring him home (they may have needed to travel several miles to do this). A point has been reached where they feel the need to step in and take control.

Well, you can read the rest of the story yourself. But - how far this anxiety-ridden, middle-aged woman is from the girl who received the message of the angel thirty years earlier!

The point for us is clear: however clear-cut our conversion was, however strong our faith is, and however real our experience of God over the years has been, we too can suffer dark times - days when it all seems to dissolve and turn to ashes.

We need then to cling to God, even if just by our finger-nails, to be completely honest with both him and with our friends, and to wait for the clouds to move and the sun to break through again. Pray to “trace the rainbow through the rain”, as hymn-writer George Matheson put it.

Fourth, and continuing this rather sombre theme, Mary experienced agony of heart.

I’m thinking here, of course, of the crucifixion: “Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene” (John 19:25).

Who can begin to imagine the anguish that filled Mary’s heart as she stood looking up at her dying son, and as she shared the agony he endured? There are some who can, of course: parents of a desperately ill child undergoing drastic medical treatment, perhaps; or a mother who is unable to feed her starving child. But mercifully most of us are spared this kind of torment.

But we are not spared every kind of pain, any more than anyone else is; being a Christian is no insurance policy against the buffetings of life. God promises to bring us through such times - but he makes no promise to lift us out of them. (Steer clear of that poisonous “prosperity gospel” nonsense!)

It’s a solemn thing to picture Mary at the foot of the cross. But, thank God, this isn’t where the gospel story leaves her.

No. A fifth point of contact is this: Mary ends up in the loving security of the new family of Jesus.

Little details are worth noticing here. First, even at the cross she was surrounded by friends, those other Marys. Thank God for friends who are with us in our darkest times!

Second, Jesus committed her to the care of “the disciple whom he loved” (John 19:26-27). Even in his death throes he has time to think of the mother to whom, as we have seen, he caused much pain.

And third, our last glimpse of Mary is within the fellowship of the infant church. According to Acts 1:14 she was there with the apostles in the upper room after the ascension; presumably she was there at Pentecost when the Holy Spirit fell. What a massive comfort that must have been.

Mary’s story, then, brings her from the early days of that tiny earthly family in Nazareth - Mary, Joseph, Jesus and his brothers and sisters - to that new, heavenly family in Jerusalem. And even there, there is an application for us, for we too, however precious our earthly family may be, are offered a place in God’s eternal family. Jesus said: “Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:35).

Are you yet numbered in that family?

Mary certainly knew heights of joy and depths of pain. But God brought her through them all.

As he will you. And as he will me.

Loving Father, I remember that when Jesus called me to follow him he told me to take up my cross to do. Help me, please, in those times when it seems too heavy to carry. Help me too to be there for my brothers and sisters in Christ who presently are unable to “trace the rainbow through the rain”. Amen.

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