We don’t get a plethora of information about Mary in the Bible, but what we do get shows us a great deal. First, we’re introduced to a young woman. She’s got her life mapped out. She’s going to marry this great guy named Joseph who is a savvy, hard-working businessman. He’s going to cherish her and take care of her and be a great husband and father. Then, just when she thinks she knows where her life is going, the unexpected happens—not just the unexpected, but something so huge it becomes a turning point, a defining moment in her life. (That’s what we call conflict.) And the way she deals with this conflict shows significant information about her character.
Let’s look at how she deals with it, and what we learn about the character of Mary. The angel Gabriel greets her in a strange way (this is significant for spiritual purposes, but not for this study, so we won’t go into that.) Mary is a little confused, and then she’s even more confused when he tells her what God is asking of her. Now, we have to take into consideration the context. She’s just been told she’s going to bear a son. Besides the shock of that, considering her virgin status, she has to consider the consequence of being an unmarried, pregnant woman—i.e. being stoned. She has to consider Joseph’s reaction to this news—i.e. he’s not going to marry her; he’s going to have her stoned. To death. On one hand, she can say no and carry on with the life she’s planned; and on the other hand, she can say yes to the unknown, to certain hardship and possibly—in her mind, probably—death. What does she say? “May it be done to me according to your word.”
What do we learn about Mary’s character? She has both great faith and great courage. Do you think she was frightened? I do. But she allowed her faith to carry her into the unknown—just as our written heroines must.
Next, we get to see more of Mary’s character when she goes to visit Elizabeth. In fact, the very act of her visiting her cousin shows a generous side of Mary, as well as a human side. Mary went to help Elizabeth in her late-year pregnancy. But, perhaps also, Mary thought she could glean some support and strength from Elizabeth. After all, that woman would understand Mary’s position better than anyone alive at that moment in time. Two miraculous pregnancies.
So, off she goes, and Elizabeth—and John the Baptist who leaps within her womb—recognizes the miracle of the Incarnation the moment Mary steps into the room. “ Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Luke 1:42-43) But what does Mary do? Does she gloat? Does she say, “Yeah, look at me, I’m the chosen one.”? No. She shows us another quality every heroine needs. Humility. She takes herself out of the equation and gives all the credit to God, calling to mind His promises (Which are the things that help strengthen her.)
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my savior.
For he has looked upon his handmaid's lowliness; behold, from now on will all ages call me blessed.
The Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
His mercy is from age to age to those who fear him.
He has shown might with his arm, dispersed the arrogant of mind and heart.
He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones but lifted up the lowly.
The hungry he has filled with good things; the rich he has sent away empty.
He has helped Israel his servant, remembering his mercy, according to his promise to our fathers, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.
It’s important for us to constantly call to mind the promises of God. It helps us to keep things in perspective. I imagine it would have been very easy for Mary to become full of herself. She was chosen to carry and bear the Son of the Living God. The Word Made Flesh. Conceit would have been an easy temptation had she not had the wherewithal to stay grounded in God, deflecting the focus from her to Him. As we’re writing our heroines, this is a great way to infuse God into the story without becoming didactic. God was so a part of Mary—her faith so second-nature—that her song of praise is natural, but at the same time, evangelical. What effect would her words have had on a person who had forgotten God’s promises? What effect can our stories have on a reader’s view of God, all the while entertaining them with a great story?
Next, we see a determination in Mary that we should also see in our written heroines. Jesus is born into a situation where His very life is threatened immediately. Mary and Joseph flee to Egypt and don’t return home for several years. Now, Mary is cut off from her family, her support system. She’s in a foreign land and someone is trying to kill her child. But she does what she must. She endures.
Let’s skip ahead a few decades. Mary, having understood all along that Jesus is the Messiah, has to stand by while God is condemned to death. On a faith level, this is a huge test, but on a human level, it is excruciating. Jesus may be the Messiah, but He is Mary’s son, too. She bore Him, raised Him, protected Him His entire life. As any mother knows, it’s difficult to watch your children suffer. And the greater the suffering of the child, the greater the suffering of the mother. Yet, we learn from Mary another virtue our written heroines should embody: a quiet strength.
Strength manifests itself in many ways. Sometimes it’s the ability to take a public stand. Sometimes it’s the ability to be the crutch someone else needs. And sometimes, it’s the fortitude to stand firm in faith but passive in nature—to “let go and let God.” If you’ve ever seen Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” one of the most powerful scenes is when Jesus is carrying the cross, and from a distance, He locks gazes with His mother. She collapses, her agony seemingly as great as His, and there’s a brief flashback scene of her remembering him as a small boy. At this point in the movie, the viewer has already watched Jesus being scourged, ridiculed, forced to carry the cross. Emotions are high, but watching His agony from a mother’s perspective, to catch a glimpse of the pain, sorrow, as she transforms His beaten manhood, with His innocent childhood, is heart-wrenching—and so realistic to a mother’s heart. But, one of the reasons it is so heart-wrenching is because she did not abandon Him. As much as it pained her to watch His fate, she remained. Steadfast. A beacon of faith. A quiet strength. When faced with tribulations, this is how our heroines need to be. Not whiny, not self-centered. Mary could have looked away, she could have said, “I can’t deal with this. It’s just too much.” Who would have blamed her? Her innocent son was sentenced to death. Instead, she endured, relying on the faith in her heart that somehow, even though it looked as though all was lost and no hope remained, God would work this for the good. Three days later, her faith was rewarded with a joy so complete…and they all (we all who believe) lived happily ever after. Just as all romances should.
So, how is Mary a model for our written heroines? She said yes to the unknown, and that plunged her into a conflict so great it was nothing less than life-changing. She was courageous and humble. In the midst of trial and tribulation, she relied on God, remembered and proclaimed His promises in order to strengthen herself and others. She was loyal and selfless, and showed a determined strength as well as a quiet strength when situations warranted each. And she endured to see a happy end.
If we write our heroines to embody these characteristics, we will write virtuous women whose plights pull the heartstrings. Readers will weep over her sorrow, they will root for her happy ending, they will see the value in relying on God, and they will experience a happily-ever-after that is an imperfect, but entertaining, mirror of the ultimate happily-ever-after.