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Reviews | Mary: Handmaid of the Lord

Mary: Handmaid of the Lord

Geoff Henstock

Paperback or e-book (ePub)

136 pages

Mary: Handmaid of the Lord

The Testimony review (from April 2011)

“Blessed art thou among women”

IN THE PREFACE to his book on Mary, Brother Geoff Henstock points out that, due to the idolatrous worship of Mary in Christendom, Christadelphians have tended to shy away from speaking and writing much about her. In doing this, he says, it is possible we do not always recognise her very special position in God’s redemptive plan. The lovely book he has written about her helps to correct this imbalance of perception. Nicely produced, the book is 125 pages long and contains a useful appendix on Mariolatry and a select bibliography.

A youthful mother

It seems very likely that Mary was but a teenager when the angel Gabriel first appeared to her, and she may have been an orphan. The Hebrew form of her name is Miriam, and the author explores the similarities, as well as the differences, between the Old Testament Miriam and the mother of our Lord. Living in Nazareth, a small and despised village of Galilee, Mary as an unmarried teenager must have had a worrying time as she struggled to come to terms with the message from Gabriel. Other scriptures tell us of her spiritual awareness, and the author surveys some of the psalms that could have helped her at this difficult time.

After discussing the genealogies of Jesus in Luke and Matthew, the author turns to Joseph, Mary’s betrothed husband. He writes: “If Mary was the subject of lewd gossip in Nazareth, we must assume that Joseph … was also the victim of malicious comments. As in Mary’s case, Joseph’s personal integrity would only add to the anguish he felt.” Joseph was a fine character and was not slow to obey God when given instructions—an example for us all. He was a carpenter, probably making and repairing wooden agricultural implements, and it would be this trade that Jesus learnt from his foster father.

The message of Gabriel, and Mary’s visit to Elizabeth

Mary’s spirituality is seen in the early chapters of Luke. When she was visited by Gabriel her response to his message was, “How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?” (Lk. 1:34). The angel’s reply, “with God nothing shall be impossible” (v. 37), was an echo of what was spoken to Sarah 2,000 years earlier (Gen. 18:14), but, unlike Sarah, Mary never doubted. “Be it unto me according to thy word” (v. 38) was her reaction, with, as the author comments, “quiet resignation to God’s will.”

She would have pondered on those psalms that spoke of her as the “handmaid of the Lord.” Her visit to Elizabeth, who possibly lived in Hebron, a Levitical city twenty miles from Jerusalem, was a great help to her. Brother Henstock makes many perceptive comments about Elizabeth’s greeting, “Blessed art thou among women” (v. 42), linking it to Deborah, Jael and the promise to Eve in Eden.

The Song of Mary

The Magnificat, as it is known, was primarily a work of inspiration, but it also reveals much about the spirituality of this young orphan(?) teenager who found comfort from the Psalms, Habakkuk and Isaiah, who all spoke of ‘God her Saviour.’ The author dwells on the words “low estate” that Mary uses to describe herself, and her prediction that all generations will call her “blessed,” drawing out much exhortation.

Brother Henstock lingers over every phrase of this song, and the reviewer found this chapter particularly lovely, especially his words on “He hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.” The language of the Authorised Version is so resonant and dramatic that we can appreciate why so many composers have set these words to music. The next chapter of this book is a comparison of the Song of Hannah in 1 Samuel 2 with the Song of Mary, and there is a useful table on pages 57 and 58. Comparisons between these two lovely women are also made.

A sign which shall be spoken against

The census made by Caesar Augustus which drew Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem is discussed, and the author suggests that perhaps it was faith in the prophecy of Micah 5:2 that took them there. The shepherds found the shelter where the baby Jesus was (perhaps one of their own shelters?), and Mary pondered all the things she saw and heard. Simeon’s speech at the circumcision is clearly linked with Isaiah’s prophecies, and this is all tabulated, and the meaning of the ‘sign spoken against’ explored. And to give Mary (and Joseph) even more to ponder was the entrance of the aged Anna at the moment Simeon ceased his prophecy. This faithful widow added her testimony to that of Simeon.

The visit of the wise men to the house occupied in Bethlehem and the subsequent flight of the family into Egypt then took place, with Joseph receiving dreams from God like his illustrious Old Testament namesake, who also was taken down into Egypt. Those dreams ensured the safety of the Son of God. In relating the incident when Jesus was twelve years old and, with Mary and Joseph, celebrating the Passover in Jerusalem, Brother Henstock comments on the words of Luke 2:50: “‘they did not understand the words’ (of Jesus). Here were more words to add to those on which they pondered. In verse 51 it again says that Mary ‘kept all these things in her heart.’ Part of a growing catalogue, these words joined those of the angel, Elizabeth, the shepherds, Simeon and Anna in the library of her mind” (p. 87).

From Nazareth to Golgotha

Brother Henstock paints a feasible picture of what life might have been like for Mary and Jesus in Nazareth. He draws on some of the parables of the Lord, and also suggests on pages 91 and 92 that the Lord used his experience of his mother’s life (she was probably now a widow) in some of the beatitudes. Mary had at least seven children, and it is clear that both Mary and Jesus’ siblings considered the Lord to be unhinged as his ministry developed and the antagonism between Jesus and the Jewish leaders hardened. “They were concerned that Jesus had taken leave of his senses. It would be only natural in such circumstances for those who loved him to intervene, even to the point of forcibly removing him from danger … Whatever the motive, again the Lord Jesus had to correct his mother’s misperception. He was her firstborn son, but that could not distract him from the vital work he had to do as Messiah” (pp. 96-7).

Brother Henstock writes very feelingly about Mary’s emotions at the foot of the cross, and suggests that when Jesus, from the cross, directed his cousin John to treat her as his mother, it was because John could minister to her spiritual needs as well as her physical needs. Jesus’ siblings could not, at this point in time, see to her spiritual needs. John 20:8-10 tells us that the Apostle John went home convinced that Jesus was alive and raised from the dead. “Who was at home waiting for news of the tomb? Mary! How she must have thrilled at the news, and how many of those sayings that she had treasured up over so many years must now have come to life” (p. 104).

Epilogue

The only reference to Mary after the ascension of the Lord is in Acts 1:12-14. The author says of this passage that it is “suitably understated. One single sentence is all we have about the remainder of her life. No fuss is made of Mary; no special status is assigned to her. She is … just one of the faithful, continuing with one accord in prayer and supplication … The reference to our Lord’s brothers suggests that the crucifixion had a powerful effect on them, overpowering their earlier disbelief. This must have added to Mary’s joy and contentment as she celebrated the resurrection of her son. It seems appropriate that our last glimpse of Mary this side of our Lord’s return is of a woman joined in prayer with other faithful saints” (pp. 105-6).

After making a fine quotation from Brother L. G. Sargent, the author concludes his biography. The appendix on Mariolatry follows. Most of us would readily associate the Roman Catholic church with the worship of Mary, but, perhaps not unsurprisingly, Muslims also venerate Mary, with more references to her in the Qur’an than in the New Testament.

This has been a lovely book to read and think about. It draws upon so much Scripture, but centres on a truly lovely woman who quietly devoted herself to her husband and her family, which contained such a special Son. Brother Henstock is an engaging writer and his book is commended to all who ponder God’s words and deeds, both young and old.

John Nicholls

(Originally published in the April 2011 edition of The Testimony Magazine (pages 52-54), and is reproduced by kind permission.

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