Here we are in the fourth week of Advent. Assuming I finish and publish this post today, the Love candle is being lit in Christian Churches around the world (Orthodox Christians celebrate a little bit later).
Love. Today I write about a young woman who loved God and loved her child.
What do we know about Mary? She was a young woman and was betrothed to Joseph. She and Joseph had not yet lived together, which would mean they had not had marital relations; Mary herself said she was a virgin. She was a cousin of Elizabeth, who was also experiencing a miraculous pregnancy and whose child would grow up to be John the Baptist (Luke 1:8-25). Mary had found favor with God and gave birth to a baby and named him Jesus. Mary remained close to her son; it was Mary who encouraged him to turn water into wine at the wedding in Cana although Jesus said it wasn't yet his time (John 2:1-11), and Mary was present at Jesus' crucifixion (John 19:25).
That is pretty much it. There is a lot of mythology around Mary; I've heard it said that she was 13 years old, grew up in a convent, and remained celibate for her entire life, but the Bible doesn't say any of that.
Here is what I believe to be true: she wasn't well educated, because she was a young woman. I've always believed that she was poor, but that might not be true as I read again that she was descended from King David (although Mary describes herself as God's "lowly servant"). Logic says that she and Joseph had engaged in some premarital experimentation, but I choose to believe that Mary was, indeed, a virgin when she conceived.
This is the story of Jesus' conception:
28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”35 The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her. (Luke 1:28-38).
From these words we can discern that Mary was, indeed, devout. The angel greets her as "favored one!" She may or may not have known a lot about the scriptures, but Mary was someone who embodied the spirit of God.
Now, I don't know about you, but if I was visited by an angel who told me that the Holy Spirit would come upon me and I would bear a holy child, I (or at least family members) would be taking me off to the nearest psych ward. Mary must have been terrified - but it occurs to me that perhaps knowing what was going on with her cousin Elizabeth might have made this heavenly visit a little less unbelievable to her. She doesn't scream or become hysterical. She asks how this can be since she is a virgin, and ultimately says, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word."
Oh, how I would love to say that I have ever said that. I try, I really do, but there are so many excuses: I'm too busy, I don't know what to say, I don't know how, maybe when the weather changes, maybe after Julia's baby comes....
Joseph was dealing with his own issues. He believed that Mary had been unfaithful to him, and according to the law at the time he could have her stoned. Joseph, however, was a "righteous man, and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, resolved to divorce her quietly." (Matthew 1:19). An angel appeared to him in a dream and reassured him that Mary was carrying a child conceived through the Holy Spirit (God). What must Joseph have been thinking over his morning coffee (or whatever people drank to wake up at the time)?
So, Joseph, being a righteous man, didn't divorce Mary (since they were betrothed, they were legally married although they had not yet lived together as husband and wife). When Caesar Augustus demanded a census and required that every man go to his hometown to be registered, he loaded his very pregnant Mary onto a donkey - or else they walked - to Bethlehem. And the story is that when they got there, they found no room in the inns, but a kindly innkeeper allowed them to bed down in his stable. That night the baby was born. Angels sang, the shepherds were terrified and then decided to visit (can you imagine being a new mother and some filthy smelly shepherds show up to visit?). After a while Joseph had another dream that Herod was searching for the baby (Herod had heard Jesus referred to as a king and didn't like the perceived threat to his throne) and that Joseph should take his family to Egypt for safety. Somewhere in there the magi showed up bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh - they also had dreams and were told not to tell Herod where to find the child.
As the song asks, "Mary, did you know?" What mother does? When Mary and Joseph went to the temple to be purified, they encountered an old man named Simeon. Simeon was devout and righteous, and God had promised that he would see the Messiah before he died. Simeon recognized Jesus as that Messiah, and blessed Mary and Joseph, and said to Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul, too.” (Luke 2:34-35).
Mary couldn't have known what being the mother of the Son of God would mean. How many of us know what parenthood is really like - even if we have a child already and are expecting child 2, 3 or 4? We don't know the child we carry, and we don't imagine the millions of tiny swords that will pierce our souls. When we can't console the baby. When a favorite toy breaks. When we put our beloved baby on the school bus for the first time with those great big sixth graders. Some of us have big swords that pierce our souls as we sit at the bedside of a dying child or witness our child's murder. Mary couldn't have known how the life of her son would end.
But Mary said, "Let it be with me according to your word." She accepted all of it - the walk or donkey ride to Bethlehem when she was heavily pregnant, the smelly shepherds, the threats of Herod, and ultimately the death of her firstborn. Of course, there was the gold, frankincense, and myrrh, the pride in a child who taught the rabbis in the temple (Luke 2:41-52), really good wine at a wedding, and ultimately the joy of the resurrection.
"Let it be with me according to your word." Mary, to me, is the picture of devotion, obedience, and, yes, submission to God. I think we should emulate her.
Let me just pause here and say that when I say devotion, obedience, and submission I am specifically saying to God. Mary was not submissive to Joseph - she submitted to God. She never asked the angel what Joseph would think. Joseph was also submissive to God. So many of the "powerful" ones who tell us what to believe and how to behave and who or what we must obey are NOT representing God. They tell us they are, and expect us to believe them, but they have subverted the message and believe, and would have us believe, that they speak for God when, in fact, they are speaking for the Herods of the world:
10 Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, 11 “Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.” 12 But Ahaz said, “I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test.” 13 Then Isaiah said, “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals that you weary my God also? 14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son and shall name him Immanuel. (Isaiah 7:10-14).
Is it too little for you to weary mortals (read: tell them the wrong things) that you weary God too? (Read: you won't even ask, you won't listen, and you exhaust God getting it wrong)
In his book, Preparing for Christmas, Fr. Richard Rohr wrote about the "blind faith" of Mary and Joseph. I had never really thought about it this way - this was a small Christmas miracle for me this morning because last night I prayed that God would help me figure out what I wanted to say about Mary and this morning, there it was in the words of Fr. Richard! Mary and Joseph were devoutly unsubmissive to the religious advisers of the day. Imagine what the rabbis and spiritual leaders would have said to them had they gone and asked for guidance - a baby out of wedlock was not acceptable, saying the baby was conceived by the Holy Spirit (God) was probably heretical, and their behavior went against everything they had been taught and raised to believe. But Mary said, "Let it be to me as You have said," and Joseph listened to the voices in his dreams and raised the child of God.
Crazy! Unacceptable! Not the behavior of devout Jews! Or devout anyone!
But they did it anyway, because they accepted the plans that God had for them: For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. (Jeremiah 19:11). They submitted and obeyed God even though what God was asking went against everything they had been taught and believed.
How many of us can say the same thing? How many times have we refused to step out in faith? How many times has our faith contradicted what God is asking of us? How can we begin to trust our own inner faith journeys, and listen to the still, small voice of God?
Look to Mary this week, as she travels to Bethlehem (scholars estimate the journey would have taken 4 to 10 days on foot) while heavily pregnant. Look to Mary as she delivers her child in less-than-ideal circumstances (I don't think there was anything silent about that night - there would have been drunken revelers, pain, a squalling newborn, restless animals, itchy straw, choirs of angels, and those shepherds). Look to Mary as she ponders all the things that happened in her heart, nurses her baby, and establishes her life with her husband and son. Read the words of praise that Luke says Mary spoke:
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked with favor on the lowly state of his servant.
Surely from now on all generations will call me blessed,
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name;
50 indeed, his mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones
and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has come to the aid of his child Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” (Luke 1:46-55).
Look to Mary as she loves her God and her child. Presumably she loves Joseph, too.
How can your soul magnify the Lord? Let your spirit rejoice in God your savior. Let the Mighty One do great things for you, for Holy is His name. Wait upon the promises of God, for just like the baby Jesus, God's kingdom is NOW and NOT YET.
Look to Mary and help bring God's kingdom.
Merry Christmas, everyone.
P.S. I don't have anything against shepherds. Their work was (is?) long, tiring, and dirty, and I'm pretty sure they didn't have access to showers or toilets in ancient Israel. I am thankful to them for the work they do!
Image. "Mary and Baby Jesus". mary-and-baby-jesus-nona-lohr.jpg (710×900) (fineartamerica.com). Accessed Dec 18, 2022.
Lowry, Mark and Greene, Buddy. "Mary Did You Know?" Lyrics 1984; music 1991. Michael English. 1991.
Rohr, Richard. Preparing for Christmas: Daily Meditations for Advent. Cincinnati, OH: Franciscan Media, 2008.
Staff writer. "What is the Distance from Nazareth to Bethlehem?" April 2, 2020. What Is the Distance Between Nazareth and Bethlehem? (reference.com). Accessed Dec 18, 2022.