Editor’s note: The Book of Mormon’s powerful witness of Jesus Christ results, in part, from the wide chorus of diverse voices in the book who testify of Him. Like the New Testament—which includes the four accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—each of these different witnesses might be described as a “gospel.”
We can find the gospel of Mary, the mother of Christ, in 1 Nephi 11. Nephi’s vision of the “condescension of God” opens a window into Mary’s own experience of God’s good news. This gospel speaks to her unique experience of God’s love as a mother who was called to give birth to the Son of God and then had to allow that child to grow up, leave her home, suffer, and die.
This is an adaption of an essay by Rosalynde F. Welch from Seven Gospels.
What is Mary’s gospel?
A mother’s relationship to her child is a delicate thing, an ever-changing dynamic of coming and going, approach and rebuff, departure and return. My own kids span the spectrum from adolescence to young adulthood, and those comings and goings are the rhythm of my life.
I see in Mary’s gospel the same coming and going, the near-and-far rhythm of mother and child. After Mary has been carried away in the spirit, Nephi sees her again, this time carrying a child in her arms (1 Nephi 11:20). The angel says to Nephi, “Behold the Lamb of God” (1 Nephi 11:21).
The image of the Christ child in his mother’s arms, unique to Mary’s gospel, emphasizes the intimacy between the mother and her holy child, and thus it also heightens the poignancy of the sacrifice they both made in submitting to his atoning mission. This is the rhythm of motherhood: after coming is going; after nearness is distance. As the heft on her hip grew each day and time took its due, I think Mary would have known in her body what all parents know, you and I included: this is a child who will leave my arms and go into the world. Soon the weight will be replaced by an emptiness. This child is not mine, but the world’s.
Mary’s parental intuition, however, would have taught her something vaster than yours or mine. Having been told by Gabriel of her child’s divine identity (Luke 1:35), Mary would have had a motherly premonition of her child’s coming departure into the world that would have revealed something about divinity itself. This is not a Lord who remains distant and removed from the world, like a holy hermit sequestered in a sacred fortress. This is a Lord who goes out among his people.
I’m making inferences about Mary’s experience, of course, likening the scriptures to my own life in the process of “informed imagination.” For me, this kind of likening is valuable for the way it can partially reconstruct women’s voices in the scriptures, but you should take it with a grain of salt.
I think Mary would have known in her body what all parents know, you and I included: this is a child who will leave my arms and go into the world.
Still, what Mary may have intuited from holding the divine child in her arms, Nephi is shown directly by the angel. Twice the angel shows him the Son of God “going forth among the children of men” (1 Nephi 11:24, 31). Jesus leaves Mary’s arms to be among his people. He goes out among the crowds who visit John to be baptized at the River Jordan; there he is baptized with them and, like them, buried in the water in a rehearsal of their future burials in the earth (1 Nephi 11:27). He goes out among the afflicted, healing and ministering (1 Nephi 11:28, 31). He goes out to disciples who fall at his feet and supplicate him, and he goes out to multitudes who cast him from among them (1 Nephi 11:24, 28). He goes out among them all.
Nephi and the angel see these scenes as manifestations of the condescension of God (1 Nephi 11:26). God’s condescension is the love of Father and Son for their children: a love so great that a Father would send his own Son down to a world lying in wait; so great that a Son would descend from his place at the Father’s side to die among his people, first in baptism and then on the cross.
Mary’s motherly perspective adds an important nuance to our understanding of God’s condescending love. We often picture Christ coming down to earth from heaven and then returning again to the heavenly throne where he will gather the faithful, as Nephi saw later in his vision (1 Nephi 13:37). We think of condescension as primarily an up-down or vertical movement.
But I wonder if condescension looked and felt slightly different to Mary. She would have sensed that her son’s direction was also a horizontal out and into: out of her arms and into the world, going forth among his people. The vertical axis of condescension emphasizes the power and glory of the pre- and postmortal Christ, at the top of his trajectory, and the humility of his descent into mortality. But to my mind, the horizontal axis of his movement from Mary’s arms into the world emphasizes his essential solidarity with humankind, his willingness to be like us, among us, and for us.
These twin dimensions of condescension, Christ’s “coming down” and “going forth,” will prove to be important elements of the Book of Mormon’s witness of Christ.
Mary’s motherly perspective adds an important nuance to our understanding of God’s condescending love.
Both Christ’s birth and his death express divine condescension in that they follow the twin patterns of coming down and going forth. More, we can begin to grasp the significance of Christ’s death from the very beginning, in the wonder of his mortal birth.
This is why Mary matters so much to me here. Early in their conversation, the angel twice asks Nephi about what he knows. First he asks if Nephi knows the condescension of God. Nephi answers truthfully: “I know that he loveth his children; nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things” (1 Nephi 11:17). Nephi understands that God loves but doesn’t yet understand how that love is expressed in Christ’s coming down and going forth. He doesn’t yet understand condescension.
The vision of Mary, bearing her divine child in her arms, has taught him that condescension is Christ’s coming down from heaven and going forth to the cross, and he answers the angel: “It is the love of God, which sheddeth itself abroad in the hearts of the children of men” (1 Nephi 11:22). He has understood the how of God’s love: God’s love is expressed through acts of self- shedding at Christ’s birth and death (and continuously before, after, and between), and transmitted through the hearts of all people.
Isn’t there something perfect and crystalline about this phrase, “sheddeth itself abroad in the hearts of men”? Shortened in this way, and if you squint, it takes the form of iambic pentameter, the favored style of Shakespeare and Milton. But it’s the word “shed” that really captures me. Although a similar verse appears in the New Testament, the idea of love being shed hasn’t quite made it into an English idiom (see Romans 5:5).
What kinds of things are shed? Skins are shed. Tears are shed. Light is shed. And blood is shed. This sounds like the scene of a birth, the messy and dangerous path by which Christ and his mother Mary agreed to bring the son of God bodily into the world so that he could live fully among us, one of us in every way except sin. And it sounds like the scene of a death: “This is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins” (Matthew 26:28). The love of God “sheds itself” through the willing birth and willing death of the child borne in Mary’s arms.
I think this is the message of Mary’s gospel. The condescension of God includes not only Christ’s coming down from heaven, but his going forth among his people. Jesus came to earth to share all of human experience, minus sin, with and among his people, not merely to instruct us from a safe place at a comfortable distance.
This truth gains special poignancy when seen from Mary’s point of view. Mary appears as a faraway, revered figure in other gospel accounts, but only here in 1 Nephi 11 do we get a glimpse of her own motherly perspective—incorporated, as we’ve surmised, as an element of Nephi’s vision.
Mary understands, as only a mother can, the personal cost at which the Savior, her babe in arms, will go into the world to spread the love of God through his ministry and his atonement. This, I think, is more than teary-eyed sentimentalism, though it certainly does move me as a mother myself. It’s a significant contribution to our understanding of the mission of Jesus Christ and the condescension of God.