Mary, as the mother of Jesus Christ, holds a role unique in all the ages of our sphere of existence. There is only one Son of God in the flesh, and only one mother of that Son.
Latter-day Saints do not worship Mary; she was mortal and thus susceptible to sin. But the fact that she was chosen to perform the mission of being the earthly mother of God’s Only Begotten Son, to bear and nurture him through his growing years, indicates that she must have been an exceptional spirit. Elder Bruce R. McConkie writes, “We cannot but think that the Father would choose the greatest female spirit to be the mother of his Son” (The Mortal Messiah, Book 1: From Bethlehem to Calvary, Salt Lake City, Deseret Book Co., 1979, p. 327; see also Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, Vol. 1: The Gospels, Salt Lake City, Bookcraft, 1973, p. 85).
As a young woman, Mary is described as “exceedingly fair and white” and “most beautiful and fair above all other virgins” (1 Ne. 11:13, 15). Prophesied of anciently as a “precious and chosen vessel” (Alma 7:10), her purity extended from the premortal existence into this life. She must have carefully observed God’s commandments to be worthy of the ministering of the angel Gabriel, and to be free enough from sin that the Holy Ghost could come upon her and the power of the Highest overshadow her.
There is so little information about Mary that one has a difficult time learning about her. Only a few sentences about her are recorded in our scriptures, possibly because she did not share her experiences indiscriminately, but “kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19), which tells us much about her remarkable strength of character and her reverence for the things of God.
But despite the lack of information about Mary, there is much to be gained from studying the few recorded words about her; and in doing so, we can gain some insight into how we might approach some of the questions facing us in life.
For example, one of the pervasive decisions we face is the choice between self-denial and self-fulfillment: do we seek first to serve others, or do we try to satisfy our own needs?
For some years, popular trends have focused on the rights of individuals to “do their own thing,” seeking their own happiness. Many people see achieving personal goals as the ultimate meaning of life. Some psychologists support this emphasis by pointing out the negative effects of the “martyr complex” and by asserting that a person becomes a nonperson if he never does what he wants to do.
In sharp contrast are the ascetic practices of self-denial focusing on sacrifice for other people or causes. For those who pursue this course, the individual becomes less important than the group or the goal: there is something higher than self to live for.
Most people do not live either of these extremes. They try to pursue a course which neither totally denies themselves nor shuns service to others. At some times it seems appropriate to them to try to fill their own needs, and at other times it is important to sacrifice for something else.
Reading about Mary and the choices she made suggests an entirely different approach to the problem of choosing between self-denial and self-fulfilment. Suddenly, both choices seemed to carry with them too much emphasis on self. Mary focused on God, not on herself, putting her faith in him rather than in her own abilities. Rather than seeking to fulfill herself, she consecrated herself to fulfill the will of God. But in making that choice, she did not deny herself: God fulfilled her needs better than she could ever have fulfilled them herself.
From Mary’s experiences as recorded in the scriptures, we can identify four steps that may be useful in trying to develop her qualities in our own lives:
First, discover God’s will. To do this we must become aware of his commandments. Mary was already aware of the commandments and promises God made to Abraham, Jacob, and David centuries before (see Luke 1:54–55); and when the angel was sent to her, her sense of historic continuity was extended into the future as well, as she realized that her unique mission would influence all the children of God born on earth: “For, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed” (Luke 1:48). Likewise, we too are promised that we can know God’s will if we are willing to follow his counsel that we pray, study the scriptures, and learn how to hear the whisperings of the Holy Ghost (see D&C 19:23).
Second, we must develop faith in God. Mary was declared blessed for believing that the Lord really would fulfill the things he had told her (see Luke 1:45). We too must develop a sure knowledge of God’s perfect love for us, and faith in his ability to choose for us the path that will lead us to maximum possible joy.
Third, we must submit to God’s will. Mary’s expression of this willingness to submit is beautifully direct: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word” (Luke 1:38). This reminds us of the words of her son as he was about to do the most difficult thing ever done on this earth: “Not as I will, but as thou wilt” (Matt. 26:39).
Fourth, we should praise God. This step is much neglected, but Mary’s example is again most beautiful. It reflects not only her own outpourings of praise for God, but also her knowledge of the praises sung by the prophets and kings before her:
My soul doth magnify the Lord,
And my spirit rejoiceth in God my Savior.
For he hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden:
For, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.
For he who is mighty hath done to me great things;
And I will magnify his holy name,
For his mercy on those who fear him
From generation to generation.
He hath showed strength with his arm;
He hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their high seats;
And exalted them of low degree.
He hath filled the hungry with good things;
But the rich he hath sent empty away.
He hath helped his servant Israel
In remembrance of mercy,
As he spake to our fathers,
To Abraham, and to his seed forever.
(JST, Luke 1:46–55).
We often hear expressions of thanks and gratitude given to God for his blessings, but perhaps not often enough do we hear praise for his greatness and goodness. The best examples are the outpourings of praise and adoration that characterize the feelings of those who have been closest to the Lord, who have known him best.
To focus on God rather than self by seeking to know his will, having faith in him, submitting to his will, and praising him can result in an inner peace and joy that can sustain one through any pain or sorrow.
Although Mary devoted herself to God’s will, she was not guaranteed comfort and ease in this life. In fact, Simeon prophesied to Mary that “a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also” (Luke 2:35). It must have been one of the most difficult things imaginable for her to watch her son give his life on the cross.
But Mary’s anchor was not in herself or in any mortal, imperfect thing. Her faith was in God. Such faith brings the confidence and courage to accomplish missions that otherwise might be too difficult to bear. In a world where many people see the major choices of their lives revolving around the question of living for the moment (self-indulgence) versus living for the future (self-control), we can, as Mary did, gain a sense of heritage and of eternity which can dispel the selfishness that overshadows the age in which we live.
Mary lived a pure life, a life so pure that the Holy Ghost could come upon her. She had faith that “with God nothing shall be impossible” (Luke 1:37). She was willing to live her life according to God’s plan. For these reasons she was able to be the mother of the Son of God, the mother of our Savior and Redeemer. Surely she is blessed, and through her we have all been blessed.