Most images or renderings of Mary present her as serene and full of grace. While I acknowledge this was likely true on some levels, it’s not by nature of immunity to the human experience. It’s not because her path was easy.
Being chosen by God is hard.
Have you ever prayed “I want your will for my life” and then been surprised? Or what about singing lyrics like “Spirit lead me where your path is without borders; let me walk upon the waters, wherever you would call me” at the top of your lungs? We utter these prayers and sing these lyrics with hearts undone in moments of total trust and surrender. We are entirely sincere in our proclamations of “your will be done” perhaps without realizing or comprehending the full impact of our statements. We don’t foresee that, on occasion, being chosen or being blessed involves hardship.
Mary, the mother of Jesus, can serve as our guide on this journey. The Catholic church has honoured Mary significantly in her role as the mother of Jesus Christ. Though I don’t subscribe to Mary-worship, I also don’t perceive that the Protestant part of God’s church has paid her enough attention. She was truly blessed among women, important in her role as the one chosen to bring God-in-flesh into the world. And we, both men and women, can learn from her example.
But in order to truly learn from her example, the reality of her story must be considered. When we over-spiritualize and romanticize Mary, we forget that she was a real human. She felt fear and pain; she was not immune to gossip and slander.
The birth of Jesus is foretold in Luke 1:
In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favoured! The Lord is with you.”
Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favour with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”
“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?” The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth, your relative, is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. For no word from God will ever fail.”
“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her.”
When we set aside the treasuring, pondering images of Mary for a moment, we can see the physical, psychological and emotional pain that coexisted with the blessing as a result of her yes to God.
Here are some truths about her situation:
No one knows exactly how old she was, but it’s believed she was between 13 and 15 years old; which would have been typical of marriage at the time. The Bible says she was greatly troubled by the news from the angel, so we can assume she didn’t feel worthy or capable of being the mother of God.
She was pregnant before marriage. Though there continues to be a stigma associated with teen pregnancy today, the implications would have been far worse in those times. Joseph, the man pledged to be her husband, almost left her (it’s difficult to fault him in this). In the custom of the times, he could have had her stoned to death, but he was a kind man, and decided to preserve her dignity by leaving quietly. An angel arrested him in a dream, explaining the divine situation, thus altering his plans; but in periods of doubt, he must have felt like he was crazy.
How about rumours and gossip? Why in the world would anyone believe that Mary had immaculately conceived? Come. on. Would you believe her? We read that she went to stay with her cousin Elizabeth for three months; maybe to hide out? To escape the disdain of her community? The stories that circulated continued long after her pregnancy and long after Jesus’ birth. Those who believe declare that she was blessed among women. Esteemed. But there were many who did not believe the story. Reality check: Jesus was called a bastard until the time he began his ministry, so clearly, not everyone embraced the story of immaculate conception.
Not all of us have experienced pregnancy, so here’s an insider view. While it is an immense joy and honour to carry a baby—one that I will always treasure—pregnancy is brutal on the body. Personally, I felt like I might actually die for a whole entire year. Twice. I threw up every single day for nine months. Twice. I had heartburn to the extent that I wondered if I might require an oesophagus transplant. Twice. This short-waisted body of mine could barely contain the babies growing inside, so I spent months with muscle spasms in my rib-cage, unable to breathe unless my arms were over my head. Twice. Yes, growing a baby is an incredible gift. It can also be uncomfortable; even in a warm house. Even with a soft bed. Even with a vehicle to drive around in.
Because of a governmental decree, Mary, near her due date, had to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem. On a frigging donkey. Whether or not you have experienced pregnancy, I’m certain you can empathize that riding on a donkey would not feel “right.” And then, because the town was teeming with extra people, there was no secure place for her baby to be born. No hospital. No birthing suite. Not even a guest room. There was a stable. Again, we romanticize this image—how lovely and humble—but have you been in a barn? Animals, flies, dust, manure. The conditions were hardly sterile or comfortable.
Add to this the vulnerability of feeling alone. The days and weeks after having a baby are tumultuous. Deep joy inter-mingled with crazy hormones. Overwhelming love for this new baby tainted by intense fear that you won’t be able to protect this heart that is now outside of your body. Mary was away from her support network during one of the most vulnerable times of her life. Bethlehem was not her hometown. Her people were not there. We read that Joseph was with her for support, but delivering a baby feels like solo work.
All of this drama and pain—physical, emotional, mental—led to the greatest joy the world has ever known: the birth of Jesus.
While we focus on a Mary who is serene and full of peace—which, by God’s grace, we believe that she was—let us not sanitize the story to the point that we disregard or omit the trials she endured. Mary did not have more supernatural God-powers than we have been given. When we elevate her to heroic, inhuman status, we can longer locate ourselves in the story. Weakness, fear and overwhelm were in her story, just as they are in our stories.
But she believed. She trusted. She said yes.
God also chooses us to bring his kingdom. Though the incarnation of Jesus is complete, God continues to watch for his ones who will say yes to bringing him into the world. He has significant plans for each of us that require us to assume the posture of Mary.
When we pray “may it be to me as you have said” as Mary did, we must remember that the joyous end doesn’t come without trial. We believe, we trust, we say yes. And we are not hindered or dismayed by the seemingly oppressive and difficult things that come in the wake of our yeses. We are not surprised or confounded when life gets weird, when betrayal occurs, when the path veers sharply, or when we have to wait longer than we could have possibly imagined.
One of my favourite scriptures says: “Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished.”(NIV Luke 1.45).
God knows what he is doing. He isn’t put off by the mess. He can and will accomplish his purposes for our lives. If he can bring the son of God into the world through a scandalous situation, he can certainly fulfill his purposes for our lives.
What a hope!
Mary’s Song, by Amy Grant. (originally by Chris Eaton, but modified)
I am waiting in a silent prayer
I am frightened by the load I bear
In a world that’s cold as stone
Must I walk this path alone?
Be with me now, be with me now
Breath of heaven, hold me together
Be forever near me, breath of heaven
Breath of heaven, lighten my darkness,
Pour over me your Holiness, for you are holy
Breath of heaven
Do you wander as you watch my face
If a wiser one should have had my place
But I offer all I am
For the mercy of your plan
Help me be strong, help me be, help me