By JOHN YOUNG
All parents wonder about their child’s future, but that future is for them a closed book. The Blessed Virgin is an exception, for she had a book in which to read her Child’s future: the Old Testament. She and St. Joseph must have closely studied the prophecies about the longed-for Messiah: those enigmatic words sprinkled through the pages of God’s Revelation to the Jewish people.
When the Angel Gabriel appeared to her he would have told her who he was — as he had told Zechariah when announcing the coming birth of John the Baptist. Our Lady, on hearing the angel’s name, must have recalled the passages in the Book of Daniel where that same Angel Gabriel had appeared to Daniel; and she knew that Daniel had predicted the Messiah. Gabriel’s message to Mary that her Son would be “the Son of the Most High” doubtless reminded her of the vision of Daniel about “one like a son of man” coming into God’s presence and being given an everlasting dominion over all peoples (Daniel 7:13, 14).
Pondering the statement of Gabriel that she would remain a virgin, Mary would recall the prediction of Isaiah 7:14 that a virgin would bear a son who would be called Immanuel — which means “God with us.” (The Hebrew has almah, which means a young woman of marriageable age, while the Greek translation of Isaiah, in the Septuagint, has parthenos, meaning a virgin.)
Later, when she visited her cousin Elizabeth and was addressed with the words “Blessed are you among women,” this greeting surely startled her. Elizabeth, as St. Luke tells us, was filled with the Holy Spirit when giving that greeting. We say those words in every Hail Mary, and for the most part we say them without any thought of their relation to two passages in the Old Testament. But the Blessed Virgin knew God’s inspired word with a depth and detail missing from the rather casual and superficial knowledge common to most of us.
Two women in Israel’s history had been praised with those words: Judith and Jael. What had they done to earn that praise? Judith had saved her people from their enemy Holofernes by cutting off his head with a sword (Judith 13:8)! Jael had saved her people from another enemy, Sisera, by hammering a tent peg through his temple “till it went down into the ground” (Judges 4:21).
When Mary was greeted with those same words, “Blessed are you among women,” she surely wondered what task God had in mind for her! Then she would have recalled the words God had addressed to Satan, “I will put enmities between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed, he shall bruise your head” (Gen. 3:15). Our Lady was to cooperate with her Son in bruising, or crushing, Satan; and one reading has “she” instead of “he.”
By divine Providence Mary and Joseph came to Bethlehem for the census, and Jesus was born there, in accordance with prophecy (see Micah 5:1). The Messiah, the Son of David, was born, as foretold, in David’s city. Mary pondered the contrasting images of the Messiah found in the Old Testament. He would be “Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:5). Yet here they were, at the First Christmas, sheltering in a cave because the inn had no room for the world’s Redeemer.
But Mary and Joseph knew the passages about the Suffering Servant. “He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief, and as one from whom men hide their faces, he was despised, and we esteemed him not” (Isaiah 53:3).
The visitors to the newborn King also presented a contrast. The first to come were the shepherds, especially invited by angels, who told them Jesus was Savior, Christ the Lord. Those hill shepherds were looked down upon by the elite of Israel; they were seen as on the fringe of society, and as none too particular about keeping the rules of the Scribes.
Then came the Wise Men, with their gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Perhaps Mary and Joseph were surprised that God had invited these Gentiles, while He issued no invitation to the leaders of Israel. But they knew the prophecy of Daniel I alluded to above: “. . . There came one like a son of man, and He came to the Ancient of Days . . . and to Him was given dominion and glory and kingdom, that all people, nations, and languages should serve Him” (Daniel 7:13, 14).
Salvation was for all peoples.
There was light for our Lady and St. Joseph in the inspired prophecies; but also obscurity: only the fulfillment of the prophecies would bring clarity: to Mary in this world and to the faithful Joseph only after his death. But they gained insights from the shepherds and from the Magi; and from Simeon they heard, in the midst of their joy, that the work of salvation included a sword of sorrow.
How clearly did they understand as Jesus grew older? How much did He reveal to them? We don’t know, but we can surmise that it was a great deal. Frank Sheed puts it well: The Holy Family, he points out, consisted of two great saints and a Son who was God; so we can hardly imagine them sitting around the breakfast table pretending they were just an ordinary family.
+ + +
(John Young is a graduate of the Aquinas Academy in Sydney, Australia, and has taught philosophy in four seminaries. His book The Scope of Philosophy was published by Gracewing Publishers in England in 2010. He has been a frequent contributor to The Wanderer on theological issues since 1977.)