Advent is a time when we prepare ourselves spiritually to celebrate the birth of the Savior. The word advent comes from a Latin word that means “coming.” During that four-week period we not only prepare to commemorate Christ’s first advent, his birth in Bethlehem; we also prepare for the day when Christ will return, in glory, to usher in a new heaven and earth.
It is customary during Advent for churches to focus on the prophets, or John the Baptist, or the stories surrounding Jesus’ birth. In Not a Silent Night, we take a different approach. We explore Advent and the meaning of Christmas by focusing on Mary’s perspective of her son. No one was closer to Jesus than Mary. No one shaped his life more than she did. No one knew him better, nor loved him more. And no other human being paid a greater price than she did for his birth, life, and death. Mary’s own life was not blissful, peaceful, and blessed. It was challenging, painful, and at times filled with sorrow. Yet despite this, Mary “magnifies the Lord” and “rejoices in God,” as she tells us in her joyful song, the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55).
We’ll actually begin with the end —years after Jesus’ death and resurrection — with Mary’s death.
It’s a challenge to discuss Mary’s last years, because there’s not much known about them. Here the Bible is virtually silent. There’s only one verse that mentions Mary by name after the resurrection of Christ. We’re told in Acts 1:14 that, following Jesus’ ascension and before the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost, the disciples and “certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers” constantly devoted themselves to prayer.
With little information about the rest of Mary’s life found in Scripture, our only sources of information are the traditions that developed in the church during the centuries following her death. Some details are undoubtedly legendary; others may point us toward facts. In Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, these stories are an important part of the church’s liturgical year, while Protestants are not likely to be as familiar with them.
Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians commemorate Mary’s death on August 15 each year. Roman Catholics celebrate this as the Feast of the Assumption and Orthodox Christians as the Feast of the Dormition. The two different names point to similar ideas held by Catholic and Orthodox Christians concerning what happened at Mary’s death.
Roman Catholics believe that Mary was taken up bodily to heaven shortly after her burial (though some suggest she did not actually die, the consensus is that she died) as a special way in which Mary was honored by God as God had done with Enoch and Elijah in the Old Testament.
Orthodox Christians believe that Mary died—the euphemism they use is that she “fell asleep”—and on the third day after dying, her body was taken up to heaven. The Latin word for “sleep” is dormitio, thus the Feast of the Dormition recalls Mary’s death and subsequent bodily assumption to heaven.
While we have no scriptural evidence for Mary’s assumption, throughout most of church history starting at least in the fifth century, if not before, Christians believed Mary was taken up to heaven shortly after her death.
One version of the story tells that three days before her death, Mary was visited by the angel Gabriel, the same angel who came to her when she was a girl of thirteen or fourteen to announce that she would give birth to the Christ. At this second appearance Gabriel looked no older than before, but Mary would have been, by some accounts in the early church, around sixty (some accounts in the early church suggest fifty- nine years of age, and other accounts suggest she was sixty-four years old). Gabriel announced to Mary that in three days she would die, and, hearing this, Mary asked to see the apostles one last time. The apostles were scattered around the world preaching the gospel, but the story has it that the Holy Spirit supernaturally gathered all of them, including Paul, around Mary’s bedside. Only Thomas was unable to be present.
Mary was then laid to rest in a tomb. Thomas arrived three days later, according to the story, and when he arrived he asked to see Mary’s body. When the crypt was opened, the disciples found, much to their surprise, that Mary’s body was gone and only her burial shroud remained!
Protestants are more cautious than Catholics and Orthodox Christians about traditions such as these, which are not rooted in Scripture. But whether you believe the stories or not, they focus our attention on one thing that Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox agree upon: the resurrection of the dead. How Mary’s death happened is not as important to me as the fact that as she approached death she undoubtedly believed that when she died, she would see her son once again.
Mary’s Mission and Ours
I invite you to consider this: What do you think Mary was doing from the time Jesus ascended to heaven until her own death?
Mary seems to have been present at Jesus’ ascension. It was there that he said to his disciples, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” And then he promised, “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20).
In the Book of Acts, Luke tells the story slightly differently, saying that Jesus instructed the disciples to wait in Jerusalem for the Holy Spirit: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). With different words, both Matthew and Luke record the mission Jesus gave his disciples, a mission we call the Great Commission. They were to devote the rest of their lives to being his witnesses and continuing the work he had begun.
It’s clear as we read the rest of Acts 1 that Jesus’ followers did not simply pray; they also prepared for their work in taking Jesus’ message to the world. Within a week, while they were praying together, the Holy Spirit fell upon them and they launched the church, preaching the gospel, inviting people to faith, baptizing, teaching, meeting together in homes, worshiping in the Temple courts, and sharing with any who had need. Where would Mary have been? I believe she saw Christ’s commission as her continuing mission and that she devoted the rest of her life to this mission that God had given her.
Jesus had told his disciples to be light to the world. He had told his followers to teach others what he had taught them. He had told them to be his witnesses. Don’t you imagine this is what Mary did during the last days of her life? I believe she would have continued to do the things Jesus had done—to look for people who were lost sheep and bring them back to God; to find those who were hungry and thirsty and sick and naked and in prison and care for them; to let her light so shine before others that they might see her good works and give glory to her Father in heaven; to love her neighbor and love her enemy and do the things Jesus had called all the disciples to do. Wouldn’t Mary have devoted the next fifteen years of her life to doing those things?
Our mission at Christmas is not to get stuff for people to open on Christmas morning. It is to be people of hope who let Jesus’ light shine through them, who act as his witnesses so that others see him in us, who offer hope and help, who pray and work so that our world looks more like the kingdom Jesus proclaimed. This is what Mary would have been doing. And this is what we are called to do.