One hundred twenty years before Christ was born, an angel appeared unto King Benjamin and, speaking of Mary by name, said that she would be the mother of Jesus Christ. About 475 years earlier Nephi saw Mary in a vision and described her as “a virgin most beautiful and fair above all other virgins.” [1 Ne. 11:15] More than a hundred years before that, Isaiah prophesied concerning Mary, saying, “A virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” [Isa. 7:14]
Only as it pertains to her Son has prophecy more fully identified an individual. Yet so little is known of Mary’s earth life. We do not know for sure where she was born, nor when, nor who her mother and father were. All we know of her early life is that as a young woman she was living in Nazareth and was known as Joseph’s espoused wife. Since it was the custom at the time for a girl to be betrothed at a very early age, sometimes even at infancy, and to wait until the age of puberty for the marriage vows, we assume that Mary was a young woman when the angel Gabriel appeared to her. After addressing her as blessed among women, he said:
“… thou hast found favour with God. And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest.”
The full impact of this announcement was difficult for Mary to comprehend. “How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?” she replied.
The angel explained, “The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.”
The bewilderment that Mary felt must have been reflected in her face, for the angel went on to say, “Behold, thy cousin Elisabeth, she hath also conceived a son in her old age: and this is the sixth month with her, who was called barren. For with God nothing shall be impossible.”
Mary was content. “Be it unto me according to thy word,” she said. [Luke 1:30–38]
Since Mary was to become a mother without her ever having known a man, it was necessary that Joseph understand and believe if their marriage vows were to be consummated. It is hard to believe that Mary, under these circumstances, would not go directly to him and tell him all that the angel had told her. From the scriptures we learn that Joseph had serious doubts, and it is very likely that these doubts prompted Mary to travel “in haste” to that faraway hill country in Judea where she knew her cousin Elisabeth would lend a sympathetic ear, for had she not also experienced a miraculous conception?
Mary stayed with Elisabeth three months. The very length of her stay, at this very crucial time, might indicate that she was waiting for some word of acceptance from Joseph. At that time adultery was punishable by stoning; and while Mary knew that she had committed no sin and that the child she was carrying was the Son of God, possibly the thought of returning to Nazareth without knowing that Joseph would accept her as his lawful wife conjured up fears that only her faith could sustain. Truly the words “Not my will, but thine be done” were formed on Mary’s lips long before they were formed on the lips of her Son. How relieved and thankful she must have been when Joseph told her that he had been visited by an angel and that the angel had said:
“Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost. And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins.” [Matt. 1:20–21]
In the months that followed, Mary gloried in the great blessing that was hers. “He that is mighty hath done to me great things,” [Luke 1:49] she said as she looked forward to the birth of her child. But as her time drew near, a cloud of anxiety hovered over her horizon, for a decree had gone forth from Caesar Augustus that “all the world should be taxed … every one into his own city.” [Luke 2:1–3] And since Joseph and Mary were of the house and lineage of David, it was necessary that they journey at once to Bethlehem, a distance of ninety-five miles over a rough and rocky road. If it were possible to make thirteen miles a day, it would take seven days—a hard journey for one who was great with child.
It is not known how long Mary was in Bethlehem before Jesus was born—it may have been hours or even days. It is known, however, that Mary was housed in a stable, and it was to this stable that the shepherds came with the testimony of angels that he who was “wrapped in swaddling clothes” was Christ the Lord. After forty days Mary and Joseph took Jesus to the temple and there heard Simeon and Anna declare, by the power of the Holy Ghost, that the child was the long-looked-for Messiah. The wise men added their testimony that he whose star they had followed was destined to be the King of the Jews. Unwittingly, King Herod also bore witness to this fact. His decree, that all children in Bethlehem under the age of two years must die, stands as an undying testimony that he believed.
All of these witnesses enlarged and sustained Mary’s testimony that no earthly man was the father of Jesus Christ and that he was indeed the literal Son of God.
Mary’s role as the mother of Christ was a unique one. Though she was his mother and was charged with the responsibility of bearing him, caring for him, and teaching him, still he was her God. “No other name under heaven” could bring salvation to her soul. In this unique relationship, Jesus honored his mother. When she found him in the temple, he returned to Nazareth with her. At the wedding feast at Cana, he honored her wishes. At the cross, he charged his beloved disciple to watch over her.
And Mary honored her Son. She had the joy of knowing that he was the only source of salvation known to man. Any mother who has had a missionary take a person into the waters of baptism has barely tasted of this joy that Mary knew. No other mortal mother has known the joy of having a son who had the power to raise himself from the dead. Three days after Jesus was taken from the cross and sepulchered in the tomb, he was alive again! Because of him, all would live again! Such joy no other mortal mother has ever known.
Mary also knew the depths of despair. Knowing as she did that Jesus was the Son of the Eternal Father, it must have been very difficult for her to understand why he was despised and rejected. Why did Herod want to kill him? Why did her neighbors reject him—those who had known him from childhood? Why did they take him to the brow of the hill with the intent to kill him because he claimed to be what she knew him to be—the Messiah? He escaped because he had the power within himself to stay death until he himself consented to it. Perhaps when Mary stood at the foot of the cross she wondered if this would happen again. But as she saw life ebbing out of the tortured body of her Son and knew that he would die, she must have thought of the prophecy of Simeon in the temple when he turned to her and said, “A sword shall pierce through thy own soul also,” [Luke 2:35] for her suffering was great. In mercy her Son, seeing the disciple standing by one whom he loved, said unto his mother, “Woman, behold thy son!” Then he spoke to his disciple and said, “Behold thy mother!” [John 19:26–27] And John took her away.