Mary’s Incredible Role in God’s Plan
Laurie was confused when she spent the night at Eden’s house. Before Eden went to bed, she prayed a Hail Mary for her sick grandmother and for her brother who is in the army. Laurie said to Eden: “God is all-powerful. Why are you praying to Mary?” Eden replied: “I do pray to God. But sometimes I pray to Mary to ask her to intercede for me. Mary is the mother of Jesus; if anyone understands my fears and need for comfort, it would be her! It’s kind of like asking you to pray for me. Catholics don’t think Mary is God. We just recognize her special role as the mother of Jesus.”
Catholic beliefs about Mary are often misunderstood, but they are firmly rooted in the Bible. The Gospel of Luke tells us a great deal about Mary and her role in God’s saving plan.
The Handmaid of the Lord
The Gospel of Luke begins with a situation that is a frequent theme in Scripture. A faithful husband and wife, Zechariah and Elizabeth, are entering old age without having had any children. Sound like anyone you know from the Old Testament? Just as God promised Abraham and Sarah a son in their old age, he promises Zechariah and Elizabeth a son (who will grow up to be John the Baptist). Zechariah has a hard time believing this could happen and is given an unusual punishment—you’ll have to read it for yourself (see Luke 1:5–25). However, this is all a warm-up for the main event.
What comes next lays the foundation for the Incarnation and explains why Mary of Nazareth plays such an important role in God’s plan and in the Catholic faith. As Luke tells it, the angel Gabriel comes to Mary, explaining that although she is and will remain a virgin, she will miraculously conceive and have a son through the power of the Holy Spirit (see 1:26–38). Keep in mind that Mary is a young woman when this occurs, probably just fourteen or fifteen years old. This pregnancy is a hardship and even dangerous. Joseph, her fiancé, might very well leave her (he doesn’t). In her culture, as an unwed, pregnant woman, she would be shamed and very likely even stoned to death by her community. It is hard to imagine what she is thinking and feeling, but her response is a beautiful and powerful act of faith: “May it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).
Mary could say no, but she doesn’t. Her openness to God’s will leads to the Incarnation. At the moment she conceives, she becomes the Mother of God. The baby in her womb is the son of Mary and the Son of God, fully human and fully divine. As such an important moment in salvation history, it is no wonder we celebrate Mary’s courageous yes to the angel Gabriel during the Feast of the Annunciation, on March 25 every year.
Can you imagine the all-powerful God allowing a key part of his plan for our salvation to depend on the actions of an uneducated teenager from a small, remote village? Yet this is what he does, and because of Mary’s complete trust in God, she plays a crucial role in God’s plan for our salvation. In Luke, she describes herself as the “handmaid of the Lord” (1:38). Mary is expressing her willingness to be God’s servant, putting God’s plan ahead of her own wants.
“Full of Grace”
Our beliefs about Mary also show that even though God may ask a lot of us, he always provides for us and cares for us. When Mary says yes to the angel Gabriel, she does not know where this decision will take her. The author of Luke gives us a hint in chapter 2. Forty days after Jesus is born, Mary and Joseph go to the Temple in Jerusalem for Mary’s purification (as required by the Mosaic Law) and to consecrate Jesus to God’s service (see Luke 2:22–38). While they are there, a devout older Jew named Simeon recognizes that Mary’s baby is the promised Messiah. Simeon blesses God for allowing him to see this and then makes a prediction. He tells Mary, “This child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted (and you yourself a sword will pierce)” (verses 34–35).
Simeon’s prophecy must have been another shock to Mary. He is telling her that Jesus is going to change the world and that she herself will experience sorrow and pain. Her yes to the angel Gabriel will take her on a challenging journey. She will see her baby grow into a loving son. She will see him leave his family to complete his divine mission, following God the Father’s will. The Jewish religious leaders’ opposition to his mission will confuse her. And her heart will break when Jesus’ mission seemingly ends as she witnesses his Crucifixion.
Despite all these things, Mary’s faith in God never wavers. She teaches us an important spiritual truth: God never asks us to do something without giving us the grace we need to handle it. God gave Mary unparalleled graces to prepare her to be the Mother of God. One of those graces was the gift of her Immaculate Conception. It’s a popular misunderstanding that the Immaculate Conception is about Jesus’ conception. It actually refers to Mary’s conception. As the future mother of the Son of God, Mary is conceived without Original Sin. Moreover, she remains free from sin throughout her whole life. Imagine that . . . living your entire life without once giving in to the temptation to commit a single sin!
God’s grace guides Mary throughout her life. She remains a virgin her entire life, which is a sign of her total dedication to serving God as “the handmaid of the Lord” (Luke 1:38). This might seem confusing because some Scripture passages mention Jesus’ “brothers” (see Luke 8:19–21). However, these are not Jesus’ biological siblings. There are two possible explanations for this. The first is that Joseph may have been a widower when he married Mary, and these brothers are Joseph’s children by his previous wife. The second explanation is that in the culture of that time, extended families were very close. You thought of your uncles and aunts as your second parents and your cousins as your brothers and sisters. So, people often referred to their cousins as their brothers and sisters.
God’s grace also helps Mary in her role as the first disciple. A disciple is someone who follows an influential teacher. Mary is the most faithful follower of Jesus. She, along with Joseph, seeks the twelve-year-old Jesus when he is lost and finds him in the Temple (see Luke 2:41–52). She is the first to believe in his power at the wedding in Cana (see John 2:5). She follows Jesus throughout his ministry, is at the foot of the cross (see Luke 23:49), and is in the upper room with the disciples awaiting the coming of the Holy Spirit (see Acts 1:14).
When Mary and the Beloved Disciple are at the foot of the cross, Jesus tells her, “Woman, behold, your son.” He tells the Beloved Disciple, “Behold, your mother” (John 19:26–27). Jesus now shares his mother with the entire Church, represented by the Beloved Disciple. This is why we call Mary the Mother of the Church. As our mother, she wants the best for us, which is why we bring our needs and concerns to her in prayer, knowing that she will intercede for us with her Son, Jesus Christ.
Alan J. Talley has worked as director of religious education, youth minister, teacher, and author. Alan holds a bachelor’s degree with majors in government and religion from the College of William and Mary and a master’s degree in religious education/catechetics from the Catholic University of America. Alan and his wife, Emily, live in Carrollton, Georgia. In addition to ministry and writing, Alan is a busy stay-at-home dad raising their two children, Rachel and Alex.
This reflection is an excerpt from Jesus Christ and the New Testament by Alan J. Talley and is part of the framework curriculum series Live Jesus in Our Hearts (Winona, MN; Saint Mary’s Press, 2019), pages 186–189. Copyright © 2019 by Saint Mary’s Press. All rights reserved.
The scriptural quotations in this article are taken from the New American Bible, revised edition © 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc, Washington, DC. All Rights Reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the copyright owner.