Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Imagining Mary


Life is not always what you expect. Sometimes the most extraordinary of things happens in the midst of life’s ordinary moments. One minute you know exactly what’s supposed to happen and the next, well, the next you find the entire world seems to have turned upside down. At least that’s how it has been for me these past few months.

I was engaged to be married a year ago on my thirteenth birthday. It came as no surprise. I knew what was expected. Don’t we all know what is expected of us, after all?

I had watched one by one as my sisters were married off, sent to live with the new families. I watched as they each grew round with new life and gave birth, time and again. I visited them in their homes, brought news of mother and father and offered them a moment of rest by tending to their children or preparing the meal. I always loved visiting them, but things were different between us. The games of childhood were replaced for the daily tasks of life. Maintaining a household was not easy. Often as I sat in the homes of my sisters, I wondered which was harder, raising the children or taking care of the husband! Both seemed impossible! Mother laughed when I told her this, shaking her head she said, “Oh Mary, just wait till you get married.”

I knew the day would come, but I wished it hadn’t come so quickly. I wasn’t ready to leave my family…not yet and I surely wasn’t ready to care for a husband or a brood of children. I didn’t even know Joseph and yet in a year or two after the betrothal time was complete I was supposed to simply leave with him?

It didn’t seem fair. Not fair at all. How come he got to choose who he wanted to marry but I didn’t? How come he got to come and go as he pleased but I had to stay in the house? How come I was the one who had to be responsible for everything…for the house, for the children he expected me to bear, even for him? I knew this was what was expected. I had watched as my sisters married, leaving their childhood for the life of an adult, but I tell you, I was not ready for such a life. Not yet. I felt overwhelmed and utterly powerless. No one needed my consent. They just married me off whether I liked it or. But then again, what more could I expect? This was my place in the world.

I always secretly hoped there was more in life for me than just getting married. I wanted to travel, to see different places, visit new people. I wanted to learn more, do more, see more. When I was young I followed our rabbis around the village, following their shadows, listening to their every word. Before I knew better I told my mother I wanted to be a rabbi too. I wanted to learn to read the scrolls and tell the stories. I wanted to go inside the temple and pray for the people. My mother laughed and said that work was not for me. I was a girl.

But then again, what more could I expect? I am a girl after all…soon to be a woman, I suppose. This is the way life is. What more is there for me in life than to marry, bear children and be a faithful, obedient wife? I just needed to resign myself to my place in the world.

Shortly after my betrothal I was sewing in the courtyard. The day was nearly ended and I was hurrying to finish before evening fell and light left the landscape. Suddenly, there appeared before me a vision of light, dazzling and shimmering, like nothing I had ever seen before. The sun was setting but this light was brilliant. From the center of the light a form appeared. I pinched myself several times to make sure I was awake, truly awake. I looked around for others to confirm what I was seeing, but my family was no where to be found.

Fear swept over me. What was this? Who was this? Before I could move or cry out, a voice sounded from the figure of light. “Greetings, favored one! God is with you!”

I stared still unable to move. Favored one? Who were they speaking to? My father and brothers were still out working. Surely, this figure could not be speaking to me? A child? A girl? What did this figure have to do with me?

Before I could respond, the pillar of light spoke again. The voice was calm and soothing. Like my grandmother’s voice, it comforted me.

“Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.”

What had I done? I could not recall. I tried desperately to remember anything I might have done to please God…but all I could think of were my recent complaints and doubts and fears about getting married. What had I possibly done to find favor with God?

Again, the voice spoke, “And now you will conceive in your womb and bear a child and you will call him Jesus. Your child will be great and will be called the Child of the Most High and God will raise the infant to the throne of David to reign over the house of Israel for ever and ever.”

Without thinking I spoke back. Impudent perhaps, but I could not control myself. This didn’t make sense. Messenger of light or not, this seemed completely impossible.

“How can this be? I am still a child, betrothed but not yet married. I can’t yet have a child.”

I don’t know what possessed me but here I was talking back to what appeared to be a divine messenger from God. Looking back I can’t believe I was that bold. But it just didn’t make sense. This was not what I expected.

“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 and will be the Child of God. Look, now your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a child and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. Mary, nothing, nothing is impossible with God.”

I sat there stunned. I didn’t understand. None of this was to be expected.

Old Elizabeth? Pregnant? How could that be? Me? Bear the Child of God?

I sat there staring at the light. None of this made sense. Not at all. I didn’t understand. I couldn’t understand. But what could I say? My mind was racing trying to figure it all out, trying to make sense of the impossible.

And then, suddenly, my mind quieted. Peace passed into me beyond my wildest imagination and something from within told me to say yes. I don’t know why I imagined God needed my permission, after all God was God. But something told me, the decision was up to me. Before now nothing had been up to me. I had no power as a child, a girl, and now even as a betrothed woman. I had no power in the world, but here in this courtyard, in this moment, something told me to expect the unexpected. Something from within prompted me to say yes, for without my permission, without my consent, this holy divine plan could go no further.

And then, I heard myself calmly proclaim, “Here am I, the servant of God; let it be with me according to your word.”

It was as if the voices of the prophets and ancestors of old that I had heard proclaimed so many times before rose up from within and answered.

And then, as suddenly as the figure of light appeared, it disappeared and I found myself alone once again in the courtyard of my family home.

What was I supposed to do now? The angel had told me what was going to happen, but not how? I knew it was true. I felt it was true. But how was I going to break the news to my family? Or to Joseph for that matter? It was up to me to figure out what I had to do. A story of a divine visitation was not an easy one to believe…especially from a young, poor girl as myself. What would people think of me growing fat with child before the end of my betrothal? No one would believe me.

Suddenly the assurance I felt in the presence of the angel disappeared and fear rose up inside of me again. This was not the way things were supposed to happen. I knew what happened to women who had children out of wedlock. This was serious. Joseph would surely leave me. He could never bear the scandal. And my family? My God, what would my father say? I would probably be kicked out of my house too? What would become of me? A single mother is never welcomed…not anywhere. Suddenly horrible images sprang up in my mind. I would have to beg or worse…Panic began to set in.

This was not the way things were supposed to go. Not at all. No one would believe. No one…except perhaps, Elizabeth. The angel said she too was miraculously pregnant. Perhaps she could help me.

Without explanation I ran and found my father in the fields. I begged him to let me go and visit our relative Elizabeth. “There is no need for me at home. Joseph will not come for me for some time. And news is, father, news is that Elizabeth is pregnant. Let me go to her.”

And miraculously he gave me permission.

I set out at dawn the next day, anxious to reach her, sure she would have an explanation. Part of me hoped that I would arrive and find that she was not pregnant, that this was all a figment of my imagination. If she was not pregnant, then perhaps I too was not pregnant.

I walked all day through the Judean countryside. My mind still raced, trying to make sense of what was happening. This was not how things were expected to go. There was no way I could be the bearer of God’s child. Me? A poor, peasant girl? Divine things were left for powerful men…for Moses, adopted son of the Pharaoh, for David and Saul and Solomon, Kings of Israel and for the One to come, the savior, the messiah. People have been talking now of One who is to come and bring liberation for us. This One will break the oppressive rule of the Romans and free our people once again. With fire and might, with violent rage and terrible recompense he will save. This is the bearer of the divine, not me, a small, weak, powerless young girl.

As I walked the words and stories I had heard for so many years began to come back to me. This time it was not just the stories of the men of God, but of the women I had forgotten. I remembered the song of Miriam…and the song of Hannah…I remembered Sarah’s miraculous pregnancy and Hagar’s courage in the desert. God called to these women and they sang God’s praises. God lifted up ordinary people, women even, and led them to do extraordinary things.

As I pondered all these things in my heart I suddenly saw the world in a new way. Come to think of it, God never has done what the world expected. In fact, throughout the ages God has surprised the people by turning the world upside down. When the world wars violently nation against nation, God proclaims peace. When the world oppresses the outcasts, God proclaims liberation. When the world shuns those at the margins, God proclaims welcome for all. When the world starves the poor, God fills them with abundance.

The world’s expectations are not God’s expectations. The vision God has given us throughout the ages has always been counter-cultural. God’s vision of the way the world ought to be defies our human expectations. Peace. Justice. Acceptance. Inclusion. Abundance. These are not what the world expects.

The more I pondered these things, the more certain I was that God had called me to this task because I could do it. Like Miriam, and Hannah, like Sarah and Hagar before me, I had been called from my ordinary life to do something extraordinary. God chose me to defy the world’s expectations and do a new thing.

When I arrived at Elizabeth’s house, I could feel myself almost bursting with assurance, filled with great joy that God would choose me to do something so extraordinary. As Elizabeth welcomed me, she suddenly grabbed at her swollen belly. As the child lept in her womb she hailed me with an extraordinary greeting…

“Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”

Suddenly all that I had been thinking on my way here was confirmed and the joy that had been building could no longer be contained. Like Miriam and Hannah before me, I broke into a song of praise for my God.

“My soul magnifies God and my Spirit rejoices in my Savior, for God has looked with favor on the lowliness of me, God’s servant…” I found myself singing all the wondrous acts of our God that defy the world’s expectations… “Our God has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; Our God has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty. Our God has helped Israel according to the promise made to our ancestors to Abraham and to Sarah and their descendents forever and ever.”

The world’s expectations do not have to define or control us, for God has shown us more. What more can we expect? So much more.

God takes the poor, the powerless the oppressed and raises them up. Hasn’t this always been the message of our faith? Sometimes we forget under the weight of life’s expectations, but the message is still there waiting to be discovered and re-discovered over the ages. God has done wonderful things and continues to in every age. What more can we expect? So much more. For God promises a time when peace will usher forth, justice roll down like waters, and love will reign supreme.

The way things are, the way things are expected to be, doesn’t have to be. God has given us an alternative vision for the world, one that we can make happen if we just believe, if we just say yes, if we just give ourselves to the divine way of peace and justice. God can’t do it without us. We must say yes. We must concede. We must be the bearers of the Divine in the world. Not just me, but all of us. For each of us has a part to play in the unexpected good news of a God who turns the world’s expectations upside down. After all, all things are possible with our God.

And so, now these many months later, I am returning home. Joseph sent word that we are to travel to Bethlehem this week for the state census. This is not what I expected, to travel these last months of my pregnancy. But then again, what has been expected in my life lately? What more can I expect? So much more.

* The images in this post come from: " The Annunciation" by John Collier; "The Annunciation" by Henry Ossawa Tanner; "The Annunciation" by Dante Gabriel Rossetti; Sculpture by Karen Schmidt, "Mary and Elizabeth."

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