I want to give Mary, mother of Jesus, some attention. Surely she deserves it.
The first thing to keep in mind is that Mary was probably only about fourteen. Women got married in those days soon after they menstruated — soon after their bodies went through those jarring changes that marked a girl had become a woman.
We’re talking about a fourteen year old girl. These days she would be an eighth grader in middle school. I don’t know about you but I don’t know any eighth grade girls who are ready to handle much of anything out on their own. Mary had a great deal to handle.
Luke tells us that one day the angel Gabriel visited her while she was alone; scared the living daylights out of her, as angels are want to do. The angel told her she was pregnant, which, of course, made no sense to Mary — she has no husband, yet. The angel tells her that the baby has been conceived by the holy spirit, and that the baby will be the savior of his people. Mary is told she is most blessed among women, and remarkably she responds, “Let it be according to thy word, I am the handmaiden of the Lord.”
But consider what this blessing meant for this fourteen year old girl. In those days, the Law indicated that a woman who has committed adultery should be stoned to death (there are places today where such laws still apply.) The notion that she had been raped wouldn’t have brought her much sympathy either. What’s to keep her from getting stoned? Soon her body will be suggesting to the world that she is an adulterer. Who’s going to understand what’s really going on here? Who would believe her bizarre story?
Mary faced extraordinary threats in her near future. How did she hold up under it all?
There were three gifts of understanding and reassurance that Mary received along the hard road that followed. Without these three gifts of grace, I don’t think Mary could have survived.
The angel had mentioned a kinswoman of Mary, Auntie Elizabeth, a 65 year old cousin, who remarkably is also pregnant; she, too is a part of this holy drama that God is writing. So Mary sets off by herself to travel to the distant village where Elizabeth lives — difficult trip for a young woman, even without morning sickness.
But for what it did for Mary, the trip was well worth it: Elizabeth understood! It seems unlikely that Mary’s own mother, of whom there is no mention, did not understand, could not understand, what she was going through. But Auntie Elizabeth could confirm to Mary that indeed she wasn’t crazy — that the angel wasn’t a hallucination. The baby, six months developed within Elizabeth˜s womb, leaps for joy when Mary arrives.
Mary spent three months there in the company of Elizabeth, sharing the experience of being pregnant. Elizabeth was the first gift. Is there an Aunt Elizabeth in your life? Perhaps you need to seek her out.
So when Mary returns to Nazareth after the three months, her spirit was strengthened from the time she has spent with Elizabeth, as well it needed to be, for how very difficult it must have been for Mary in the little town of Nazareth. So many questions buzzing around the rumor mill. So much gossip behind her back. “Why did the girl leave so abruptly, for three months? She sure keeps to herself, why? And then the subtle changes in Mary’s body, as she begins to show. “You don’t suppose Mary could be pregnant?” And as time passed, the whispers must have grown into a tidal wave of judgment and condemnation.
And so here is the second gift of grace she received. By nothing less than a miracle of God’s grace, Mary’s betrothed, Joseph, doesn’t abandon her. Somehow he is willing to live with the mystery of it all, to trust Mary, his wife, and to trust the God who has placed him smack down in this great mystery. Talk about fidelity. It must have simply astounded Mary to have this man stand by her.
“Now in those days Caeser Augustus sent down a degree…” We usually hear this opening to the Christmas story as a reminder of injustice, of the oppressive government bureaucracy that imposes itself to oppress the life of poor people. And so it did, requiring Joseph to travel fifty miles to Bethlehem, the town he was born in, to be enrolled for taxation. But in a strange way this intrusion was a blessing for Mary: in the last month of her pregnancy; when the whisperings, the rejection, the extreme isolation she is feeling is coming to a crescendo, an reason is provided to get out of town.
Physically, the trip must have been excruciating demanding — a hard trek for anyone, let alone someone in the last month of her pregnancy. And the uncertainty of it all. Where would they stay? Joseph, evidently, has no relatives left in Bethlehem — at least none they can turn to. They are all alone as they approached the city.
We know the story. There was no room in the inn. They end up in stinking stable for the birth to take place. Think about that. Not only did Mary not have all the medical support we take for granted these days, she didnâ€™t have the womenfolk that otherwise she would have counted on to see her through this terrifying ordeal. Her mother, her aunts, all the womenfolk who had surrounded her with love and wisdom as she grew up — not there. She is alone, with Joseph, who surely had never been present for a birth before.
But birth doesn’t wait; the baby was born.
Now if you’re like me, you probably have pictured the time after the birth as having been peaceful, serene. Maybe so; I don’t know. But as I thought about it, there seems to me good reason to think serenity was not what was experienced at that moment.
Postpartum depression is real. It isn’t talked about much, but is very common for a woman to experience depression following her birth. And there are situations, that lend themselves to postpartum depression for a woman who has just given birth. Mary was surely in such a situation.
Mary is exhausted. She has no idea what is in store for her family. Staring blankly at her baby, lying in a manger — an animal feedbox of all things, for Godâ€™s sake, the frightening questions rolled over her: “Where will we stay? How will we eat? Where is home, now?”
How could she not be afraid? It has been nine months since God spoke directly to her in the angel”s visitation. Nine months is plenty of time to let the doubts set in. I’m blessed?! This is blessed?!
And this is where the third gift comes in. I don’t know that we always think of it this way, but the visit by the shepherds was a gift for Mary. The dirty, smelly shepherds show up, and they have a story to tell, a story of angels dancing in the sky, and at the center of it all is a message about a babe, born a savior, wrapped in swaddling clothes, and lying in a manger. Mary’s baby.
Life in this world is often very hard. It makes a world of difference if the difficulties we experience are meaningless, or whether, somehow, our life means something; that somehow we are on track; we are headed somewhere that means something.
Thatâ€™s what the shepherds reminded Mary. You are headed in the right direction, as chaotic as it all seems.
The hardships for Mary had only just begun. Soon there would be word of threats by King Herod on her baby’s life, and another, much longer trip, to Egypt, to a place full of strangers, a place where, once upon a time, her people had been slaves.
And the child, contrary to popular opinion, wasn’t the easiest child to raise. There was that time when he was 12 and he disappeared for three days, not telling his mother where he was, worrying her half to death.
And of worst of all was his death, which, John tells us, Mary was present.
Mary needed courage for this journey. And more often courage comes from very ordinary places, very ordinary people. Otherworldly angel visitations are wonderful, but they are not the norm. More often than not we get very human messengers: Auntie Elizabeth, a faithful spouse, some stranger we happen to meet who speaks words that touch us to the core.
When Bobby was born, Sarah and I rejoiced. As you might expect, he was a big baby, a very big baby, and so a c section was required. But that’s okay, Bobby was healthy, and we were in a modern hospital with all the medical care available we could possibly want — a far, far, cry from the conditions in which Mary gave birth.
Sarah and Bobby would be in the hospital just a couple of days, that’s all, home soon enough, home where the eight-year-olds, Andrew and Kate, ready to delight over their new baby brother, back home with my mother, Granny Pat, ready to assist in any way necessary.
But then things didn’t go quite right. First, Bobby’s bilirubin count was a little low, so they told us they needed to put him in a special crib under special lights. Nothing serious, they said, but it did mean we wouldn’t be able to hold him as much as we wanted, as much as Sarah, in particular, who had just given birth to this little boy longed to do.
After a day or so under the special lights, Bobby became dehydrated, so they had to put needles in his arm for an IV, and Bobby has never liked needles, and maybe it all dates back to this experience.
Sarah, of course, wanted nothing more than to hold her baby, to go home, but she can’t.
And so Sarah, who is recovering from major surgery herself, begins to feel distraught, a little weepy. All she wants to do is go home — going home is what will make her happy — but there is a catch 22 here. The maternity ward had become sensitized regarding the dangers of postpartum depression, and so a social worker is sent around to see new mothers who are reported to be weepy, to evaluate them, and if they seem depressed, they aren’t allowed to go home. So now she has to pretend she’s happy when she’s not.
And somewhere in the midst of all this stress, her immune system worn down, Sarah picks up one of those infections that are so plentiful in the hospital. I’m back at the house with the eight year olds and Granny Pat, and in the middle of the night I get a call waking me up, a nurse telling me that my wife has spiked 104 fever, and could I please come down, and she puts Sarah on the phone, and Sarah is a mess.
She’s getting the chills, where no amount of blankets will warm her up. And the one thing that has warmed and comforted her is this beautiful African-American nurse’s aid, who lies down on top of Sarah, becoming for Sarah a blanket of flesh and blood, and as she does so, this wonderful woman recites with Sarah the 23rd psalm, and sings Amazing Grace with her. So that by the time I get there, Sarah believes that its going to be okay.
And I think of that nurse’s aid as being like the shepherds, sent to console Mary in her deep darkness.
Auntie Elizabeth, faithful spouses and friends, strangers showing up at just the right moment. It is in such of these, very ordinary messengers indeed, that we find strength and reassurance for the journey of faith.