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Nazareth Revisited


Mary at Nazareth.

We return to Gabriel. After his visit to Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist, in the temple of Jerusalem, he appears in a private house at Nazareth, about eighty miles to the north of the city. -- The visit to Nazareth was not immediately after the visit to Jerusalem. There was an interval of six months. Why should there have been such an interval? Why did not Gabriel go to Nazareth immediately after he had been to the temple? We are not told; but it was obviously appropriate there should be an interval. John was to "go before" Jesus. It was fitting, therefore, that John should be born before Jesus, rather than after him, or at the same time. The interval of six months allowed of this; and farther, it illustrated the deliberativeness that characterises all divine ways.

As to where Gabriel was, between the time he showed himself in the temple "at the right side of the altar of incense," to the time he entered the humble home at Nazareth where Mary dwelt, it is of no moment for us to speculate. He was probably in the neighbourhood of the land of Israel, watching, with a calm angel's interest, the various complicated and busy movements of human life at a time when the cup of Israel's sins was slowly filling to the brim. But whether or no, it concerns us not.

What does concern us much, is his appearance at Nazareth. He went there on business affecting us in a way by no means manifest at that time. It was a very small event to have such a mighty significance as it proved to have. It was but a visit and a message to a fair and godly damsel; fair we may assume her to have been by all the laws of human probability: youth, leisure, culture, and godliness are almost a guarantee of comeliness in the gentle sex. Godly, she self-evidently was, from her rejoinders to the angel and her communications to her cousin immediately after; while we could conceive of none but a godly virgin being visi#ed of God to be the mother of the Promised Deliverer. But we will not think of her as Roman Catholicism has stereotyped her. Mary has been metamorphosed by tradition into a goddess, with whose figure, sculpture and paintings have made the benighted populations of Europe as familiar as with those of Venus and Apollo. It requires not to be said that there is no more reality about the Madonna of ecclesiastical art than about the mythical gods of Greek polytheism. The portraits of Mary are as unhistorical as those of Christ. They are the gloomy fancies begotten of the doleful theology of the cloister. When we see Christ and Mary (as we shall, at the resurrection, if we are honoured with an accepted place there), we shall behold personages of a very different type from the insipid lugubrious presentments of the brush and chisel, at the hands of men who only knew the ignoble religion of the priests. It will be an endless marvel to Mary that she had been idolised for ages in such a caricature of her own clear and fervent intelligence. The "piety" of Romish superstition is a very different thing from the godliness of an ardent Israelite -- man or woman. Heavy and gloomy and mawkish is the one: bright and joyful and noble is the other.

Why this visit to Mary? What she said immediately afterwards, and what Zacharias said three months afterwards, inform us. Mary said it was "in remembrance of His mercy, as He spake to our fathers, to Abraham, and to his seed for ever" (Luke i. 55); Zacharias, that the Lord God of Israel might do "as he spake by lite mouth of His holy prophets who have been since the world began" (Luke i. 70). This throws us back upon "the promises made unto our fathers." What those were, as bearing upon this matter, we have seen in a former chapter. They condense into the single sentence of Zacharias, that God would "raise up an horn of salvation in the house of His servant David." This promise pre-supposes the need for it, which we discover in the Bible history of man. Sin separated man from God at the beginning. Sin brought Israel into evil in all their generations. God's purpose was to effect reconciliation redemption, and deliverance on a plan that required that the deliverer be a Son of David, a Son of Abraham, a Son of Adam -- as well as the Son of God. The moment had arrived to bring this deliverer on the scene. The angel Gabriel arrived with that moment to announce the event, in the right quarter -- not in China -- not to a Scythian or Roman woman, but in the Land of Israel to a virgin of "the house of David."

The proof that Mary was of the house of David need not trouble us long. The promise requires it, for if Mary were not a descendant of David, then was Jesus not "of the seed of David according to the flesh," for He had no actual human father. Then the co-existence in the apostolic narrative of the two lines of descent from David involves the certainty that one of them (Luke's) was Mary's; for it is not conceivable that two mutually incompatible genealogies could have found currency among believers in the first century with apostolic sanction, as these two accounts undoubtedly did. They are mutually incompatible if they are both Joseph's: but they are not so if one of them is Mary's: they are in that case two co-ordinate pedigrees -- both correct, and both germane to the case. That Mary does not appear by name in either of them is not a difficulty when we remember that it had ceased to be a custom at the time these genealogies were drawn from the public registers, to recognise the female element in the genealogy. If the woman were an important link, she appeared either by her husband or other male relation. In this case, she appears by her father.

Heli was Mary's father, and Heli is the first link in the chain of descent given by Luke. This is somewhat obscured by the ambiguous parenthesis with which the chain starts. The parenthesis relates to the popular impression that Joseph was the father of Jesus; but in the common version, the parenthesis is made smaller than it really is. It consists of the words, "being, as was supposed, the son of Joseph." The common version limits the parenthesis to the words, "as was supposed," and creates the obscurity. The obscurity is at an end if we read Luke as having said, "And Jesus himself began to be about thirty years of age, being (as was supposed the son of Joseph, but in reality) of Heli, who was of Matthat, &c." There would remain then but the simple question why Joseph's genealogy should be given since Joseph was not the father of Jesus. This seems sufficiently answered by the reflection that there would have been legal confusion in Christ's relation to David, if Joseph, the husband of his mother, had not also been of Davidic extraction. In the eye of the law, husband and wife are one, and if Joseph had not been of David, he would have eclipsed and marred the Davidic relation of Mary. Joseph, in his own right, as a descendant of Solomon, could have imparted "a title clear" to David's throne: but Joseph was not to be the father of Jesus, though he was to be the husband of his mother, and the legal father only of her son. The case was totally exceptional and peculiar in all its bearings; and the difficulties and necessities of it were beautifully harmonised in Joseph and Mary being independently related to David through separate lines of descent -- one (Joseph) through Solomon, and the other (Mary) through Nathan, thus uniting in themselves the royal rights of David's house, which passed by law and blood to their wonderful Son.

The angel entered the house where Mary was. It is highly improbable that the site of this house is now known to anyone upon the earth. That it was in Nazareth we know; that the priests point out the very spot to interested visitors is no proof that it was there, for among the many distressing things in the present state of the Holy Land, there is none more marked than the prevalence of baseless legends, with regard to the localities of scriptural events. It is something to be sure about Nazareth; and quite enough for purposes of historical association. The position of the place is remarkable, whether we consider its topography or the estimate in which it was regarded. the latter point is sufficiently illustrated in Nathaniel's question on hearing that the Messiah had been found in one belonging to Nazareth. "Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?" (John i. 46). It is evident from this that it was a place of no repute -- we might almost say a place of bad repute -- a place at all events that could lend no human lustre to Christ. Why should such a place be chosen? Why not Jerusalem, Hebron, or Cesarea? The answer is doubtless to be found in the principle defined by Paul, that receives such frequent illustration throughout the course of Scripture: "God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things that are mighty ... that no flesh should glory in his presence" (I Cor. i. 27, 29). Nazareth was among the "weak things" of the age. It could give no prestige to the work that God was about to do. Therefore that work would come before men without human claims or recommendations. The glory of God alone would be seen. It pleases Him that this should be so. It is reasonable that it should be so. But whatever we may think on this head, it is worth noting how completely such a line of action proves that God is in it, for when and where do men ever act on this principle? It is in the universal disposition of men to lean towards influence and respectability in their enterprises, and to avoid everything of a damaging or even questionable association. The very word Nazareth thus becomes a symbol of the divine nature and origin of the work of Christ; and of the principle upon which divine ends are achieved. Wherein God may have a work on earth at this time, it will be found that the same principle has been adopted. America has given us the gospel which venerable and learned England was alone supposed to be possessed of learning enough to discover. And it is in the hands of the poor and the unlearned that its work is being done.

Nazareth was off the highway of human traffic. It stands in a secluded part of the Holy Land in its northern section. The seclusion is obtained by the formation of a circle of hills in the heart of the mountain range that bounds the plain of Esdraelon on its northern side. Access to this circle of hills (forming a natural amphitheatre) is obtained from the plain by a narrow pathway, which strikes through a cleft in the side of the mountain. The pathway gradually opens out into a valley, which increases in width as the traveller advances, until at last it opens out into an amphitheatre of hills, on the northern side of which lies Nazareth, well to the top of one of the hills -- a straggling village now -- probably greatly reduced from what it was in the days of Christ, having shared in the shrinkage that has befallen everything in the Lord's land in this the day of its desolation. In this secluded nook there was greater quiet and simplicity of life than in the busier centres and channels of human activity, in more southerly parts of the land. It was fitting that such a quiet place should be chosen as the sphere of the Lord's human life in probation. It was more adapted to the culture of a divine state of mind than the activity of a great city. It is one of the many defects of present civilisation that men are too much crowded together, too much occupied, too hurried in their occupation. They are blighted by their mode of life in their very attempt to live. Their minds are enfevered and distorted in the conditions which their struggle for existence imposes upon them. They cannot have that calm and deliberation which are essential to well-balanced development of the powers of body and mind. The result is seen in an endless variety of mental deformity. God will yet remedy these evils. He makes a beginning in Christ; and Christ begins in quiet Nazareth.

Gabriel, stepping into the house in this quiet village where Mary was, salutes her in a form of words that surprises and perplexes her: "Hail, highly favoured. The Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women." Women are accustomed to complimentary salutations. Whether it was as much so in the first century as now may be doubted, though, as human nature is the same, it is probable that the deference shown to the gentle sex in those days would be different only in form and not in sentiment. But there was something in this salutation that made Mary feel it was no ordinary salutation. The impressive appearance of Gabriel, and the grave and loving ardour of his manner, would impress her with this feeling. She is "troubled at his saying." While she is wondering, Gabriel tells her she is to be the mother of a son, whom she is to call Jesus. "He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest. And the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David, and he shall reign over the house of David for ever, and of his kingdom there shall be no end." Mary is a sensible, self-composed Israelitish damsel. Though full of faith and the love of God, she does not swoon and go into hysterics. She does not pose or ejaculate in the tragic styles of modern effeminacy. She asks the angel how such a thing is possible with an unmarried woman. The angel's answer is a consummate blending of literal accuracy with faultless delicacy: "The Holy Spirit shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: and therefore that holy thing that shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God."

The Holy Spirit -- the Power of the Highest -- when we have grasped the significance of these phrases, the angel's words tell us all we need to know of the origin and nature of Jesus, the Son of God. In the scientific sense, they cannot be grasped, except in the sense of noting them as expressing what is scientifically "unknowable" -- for this also has come to be a term of the modern system of correct knowledge. The higher types of intellect perceive that there is at the root of all physical phenomena, a power or energy that is unknowable as to its nature, mode of subsistence, origin, or source of initiative. They know that there is a power unknowable -- an apparent contradiction in terms, yet a mathematically demonstrable proposition. Sufficient that we know the Spirit of God as this unknowable power -- a power pervading the universe, in which all things subsist, and by which all things have been made; and that this Spirit is a unity with the Father in heaven whose wisdom imparts to it that differentiating organising power manifest in the diversities and marvels of heaven and earth. The fact of such a power we can know, for we see it in its effects. Its essence and mode of operation are inscrutable, but this is no bar to our recognition of its existence and work. This "power of the Highest" "overshadowing" Mary, fertilised the human ovum, and started the process of generation which gave to Israel that marvel of human history -- the man Christ Jesus -- the Son of Mary, the Son of God.

The theology of Rome has attached the name "the Son of God" to the invisible power that gave inception to the babe of Bethlehem. The Son of God became incarnate, according to this theology. The angel's words affix the description, the Son of God, to the "holy thing," "born" of Mary. The holy thing born of Mary was a babe of flesh and blood, generated from Mary's blood during the ordinary gestatory period of nine months. It was this babe that was declared by the angel's words to be the Son of God. This was in harmony with the whole operation. The invisible power at work was "the Holy Spirit," -- the "Power of the Highest" -- the result was, the Son of God. This is what the angel said, and it is an intelligible declaration, and it must have been made to be intelligible. The idea of a pre-existing Son, incarnate or embodied in a flesh Son of Mary, has been erroneously deduced from certain enigmatical sayings of Christ, which may come under consideration in the course of future chapters -- sayings that truly affirm a pre-existing divinity, but that do not stultify the angel's words on the subject. The pre-existing divinity that became incorporate in the man Christ Jesus, was the divinity visible in the angel's words -- the divinity of the Holy Spirit, which is one with the Father, and made the Son one with the Father also, as His manifestation, and the reflex of His mind.

The process of which Mary became the subject, in accordance with the angel's words, accomplished this splendid result; that, while on the mother's side it gave Israel a Saviour, who was a brother in nature (sharing the same weaknesses and susceptibilities, and inheriting equally with them the woe-stricken results of Adam's transgression; in whom, therefore, death could be destroyed in a resurrectionally-accepted sacrifice, and so open a way for our return to God through him), on the Father's side, it gave them a man in whom God's name was incorporate -- a head and captain of divine wisdom and character -- "the brightness of the Father's glory and the express image of His person." This completeness of qualification would have been unattainable in a mere son of Mary's husband. It required both the elements exhibited in the angel's words. The recognition of both explains all that came after. The neglect of either works confusion.

It is not probable that Mary understood anything of this at the time. She appears at various stages of the matter as "pondering these things" (Luke ii. 19) in the sense, apparently, of ineffectually trying to make them out. It was characteristic of all the early incidents of the wonderful work that "these things understood not His disciples at the first" (Jno. xii. 16). It was natural it should be so: for how could unilluminated fisherman enter into the depths and mysteries of the nature and work of Christ in which at first they took but a superficial part? That they are exhibited in a state of non-understanding in the early stage is one of many proofs of the artless truthfulness of the narrative. When Jesus was glorified and the Holy Spirit came upon the apostles to equip and comfort and enlighten them in the things of Christ, then they understood and wrote of these things, whereby we also may come to understanding.

The angel finished his communication to Mary by apprising her of the condition of her aged and barren cousin Elizabeth, afterwards mother of John the Baptist, adding, "With God nothing shall be impossible." Mary, full of faith, had nothing but words of thankful compliance. "Behold the handmaid of the Lord: be it unto me according to thy word," upon which Gabriel departed. Then here is a touch of nature: "Mary arose in those days and went into the hill country with haste" to the city where Elizabeth lived. What woman does not feel that that is just what she would have done under similar circumstances? What livelier theme of interest among them at any time than that of motherhood, and how much deeper would this interest be between two enlightened women of Israel who had just been recipients of information connected with the realization of the hope of the promise that God made unto the fathers from the beginning? The Spirit of God was on them both: both were embraced in the brooding power that was about to manifest the glory of God in Israel. No wonder then that on Mary's arrival at the house, and eager salutation of her kinswoman, Elizabeth by the Spirit should respond with elated voice: "Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb. And whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For lo, as soon as the voice of thy salutation sounded in mine ears, the babe lept in my womb for joy. And blessed is she that believed (a hint at her husband's dumbness inflicted for unbelief) for there shall be a performance of those things that were told her from the Lord" (Luke i. 42-45). Mary's rejoinder is beautiful: "My soul doth magnify the Lord: and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour. For he hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden: for behold from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed." Such a mode of communication between the two women has seemed unnatural to some; it can only seem so to such as leave out of sight the presence of the Holy Spirit, and the deep and holy excitement peculiar to the incidents that brought about their meeting. With these in view, their utterances not only seem unartificial, but inevitable and most fitting. If people under alcoholic stimulus can speak with a stateliness and an emphasis unusual with them, how much more must the presence of the Holy Spirit impart a glow and elevation of mind that can only find fit expression in the measured and holy cadences of inspiration? We are too liable to judge by the heavinesses of mortal mentality. We are liable to forget that the present position of man (cut off from intercourse and connection with God because of sin) is an abnormal position, and can afford a very insufficient conception of the mental state and personal bearing that would come with the abiding presence of the Spirit and the fulness of God's blessing.

It is worthy of note how remarkably the foreshadowing of Mary has been fulfilled with regard to the estimate in which she should be held in succeeding generations. It is true it has been Mariolatry; still, there is the fact, that ever since the events of the first century, Mary has been recognised and blessed by the civilised millions of the earth, as a favoured woman in having been the mother of the Lord Jesus. Doubtless, her words relate more particularly to the blessedness that will attach to her in the age to come when the gathered generations of the righteous will call her blessed. Yet, here is a preliminary fulfilment of them in all generations since her day having united to recognise her privilege. Nothing was less likely as a matter of human probability at the time she uttered the words than that a private damsel of the common people, living in an obscure mountain village of Galilee, should become famous throughout the civilised world. The fact that she has become so, though in a corrupt and superstitious way, must be regarded as a proof of the spirit of prophecy -- one, and not the least, of the many evidences there are that God was in the whole situation to which she stood related.

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