Jesus’ Birth Foretells His Death: Mary
A great author tells the beginning of the story to prepare the hearer for the end of the story. Charles Dickens famously starts A Tale of Two Cities with the line, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” The reader knows that the saga that follows will entwine the strands of joy and sorrow, of righteousness and evil.
We shouldn’t be surprised, then, that God foreshadows the end of the gospel accounts at the beginning. As we examine the beginning of Jesus’ life closely, we beginning to see the end of his life as well.
In the coming weeks of Advent, let’s look together for crucified Emmanuel in the créche.
Today, we start with Mary.
Gabriel and Mary
“Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!”[i] Gabriel says to the young betrothed woman. Mary responds appropriately to the heavenly creature: with fear. Gabriel explains, “You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”[ii]
Mary asks the reasonable question, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”[iii]
Gabriel answers, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God.”[iv]
Elizabeth and Mary
Mary heads to the safety of her Aunt Elizabeth, who has a miraculous child of her own in her womb. Elizabeth rejoices, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!”
Mary responds with a powerful and prophetic hymn,
My soul magnifies the Lord,
And my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
For he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
For he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
He has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate;
He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
As he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.[v]
Fast forward to the final hours of Jesus’ life, and we find several echoes of these scenes.
A Blessed Womb
First, we hear Jesus’ words as he is led to Golgotha ironically echo Elizabeth’s greeting of Mary. There followed him “a great multitude of the people and women who were mourning and lamenting for him.”[vi] Jesus turns to them and says, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. For behold, the days are coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren and the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!’”[vii]
The man who was once the blessed “fruit” of Mary’s womb now speaks a sobering word of the coming judgment. Blessed now, Jesus says, are the barren. Where Jesus’ birth bestows the highest blessing upon his mother, Jesus’ death portends the sobering reality that it is now the women whose wombs are empty who are called blessed.
A New Family
Next, notice how Jesus’ birth disrupted family connections and commitments and how they are re-ordered at the cross. As soon as Mary learns of her pregnancy, her reputation is marred. She leaves her parents to find shelter with her aunt. Her engagement with Joseph is disrupted and almost terminated. The rumors of Jesus’ illegitimacy hang around Jesus into his adulthood.[viii]
This man, whose heritage was questioned, will reshape heritage altogether. Whereas the family of God was biological—the heirs of Abraham—the family of God is now spiritual: the brothers of Jesus Christ.[ix] Mary stands at the foot of the cross along with other female disciples of Jesus and the apostle John. Jesus speaks to his mother and John, “Woman, behold your son!” “Behold, your mother!” With his final breath, the man who turned Mary into a mother places her into the care of a new son. This was not a son Mary birthed, but who God re-birthed spiritually. John takes Mary into his home, the spiritual ties of their relationship trumping Mary’s biological relationships.
A God Who Looks on Our Humble Estate
Next, we turn to Mary’s hymn, where she rejoices that God has looked on her “humble estate” and “exalted those of humble estate.” Mary speaks a profound truth, the depths of which she will fully realize at the cross. At his birth, Jesus didn’t just attend to the humble, but he identified with them, “by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.”[x] His birth foreshadowed his death, where, “he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”[xi] The humility of an infant in an obscure cattle trough would be outdone by the shameful humiliation of being stripped naked on a Roman cross.
And yet, the hour of Christ’s deepest humiliation was the hour of his (and our!) greatest exaltation. Jesus tells us that “the Son of man [must] be lifted up.”[xii] As Jesus prepares for the cross the night before he dies, he speaks not of the horror of its humiliation, but rather of its glory, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you.”[xiii]
The Endless Kingdom
This exaltation concludes in dramatic fashion at Jesus’ ascension, when he, in the middle of teaching the disciples, is raised up into heaven.[xiv] Later, as Stephen is being stoned, he sees the heavens pulled back and Jesus standing on the right hand of God the Father.[xv] Gabriel promised Mary that Jesus would “be called the Son of the Most High,” and that “of his kingdom there will be no end. The Son of Mary sits at the right hand of God the Father reigning in glory today.
What glory to see the end in the beginning. Next week we will see how we see the end of Jesus’ life foreshadowed through the man who tried to kill him as an infant.
[ii] Luke 1:31-33