I have approximately ZERO chill when it comes to certain religious beliefs. One such notion is that God shows favour, blessing, and love in particular ways…as in health, finances, physical comfort, and all things well. This gives me cringey, ranty feelings.
Does God sometimes do this? Yes. Does this mean God loves us and is “blessing” us? Maybe. Does a loss of health, lack of finances, and an absence of physical comfort mean that God is NOT blessing us? Absolutely not.
If these measurements are indicative of the love and blessing of God, then we would have to accept that the divine cares only for a small percentage of the world’s population; in particular, the western population. And this is ludicrous. *insert more cringey, ranty feelings here*
This time of year typically calls to mind the story of Mary, Joseph, and sweet, darlin’ baby Jesus. And, oh, how we love to romanticize Mary. She was blessed among women. Favoured by God. Chosen.
Yes, I believe she was favoured, blessed, chosen, loved. But for Mary, this did not correspond to health and wealth. And it doesn’t for us either.
We can learn from Mary, but in order to do so, the crude realities of her story must be considered. When we over-spiritualize and romanticize Madonna, we forget that she was a real human. Though her son was said to be divine—fully God, fully human—she was not divine (at least not any more so than the rest of us). She felt fear and pain; she was not immune to gossip and slander. And yet, she–a young, fearful-but-willing human–was “blessed” by God.
Most images or renderings of Mary present her as serene and peaceful; full of grace. While this may have been true on some levels, it certainly wasn’t by nature of immunity to the human experience. It’s not because her path was easy.
When we set aside the treasuring, pondering images 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. And also, a scary angel appeared. And also, “hey, you’re pregnant!”
There continues to be some stigma associated with teen pregnancy today, but 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. He must have felt like a “cuckold.”
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? Stories continued to circulate, 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. The truth is that Jesus was called a bastard until the time he began his ministry, so clearly, not everyone embraced the story as ‘blessing.’
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 freaking 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 is tainted with intense fear that you won’t be able to protect this heart that is now beating 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—existed for a woman who was chosen, blessed, loved.
In the English language, the word “peace” has often been watered down and oversimplified to mean an absence of conflict or war. But the original word “shalom” is so much more than that.
“Shalom is the Hebrew word for the kind of peace Jesus offered. It meant wholeness, completeness, harmony, and total well-being. Because it was God’s gift, it could not be taken away or disrupted by human uncertainty or chance.” (“The Gift of Shalom,” National Catholic Reporter)
Like Mary, this peace is something we can have regardless of our circumstances. In the midst of the messy blessing.
Society and culture offer us superficial bandaids to cover up the wound: mantras that we scream aloud to drown out the inner angst, temporary measures to give us a minute’s reprieve, the unreachable utopian idea that when ALL is settled, fulfilled, achieved, and quieted, we will finally know true solace.
What a load of crap. So long as we are human beings on this earth, we will experience hard things. God’s favour doesn’t exempt us from this. His promise is not to bless us with money and a big house. The promise is emmanuel…God with us IN it.
The peace we are offered is not as the world gives. The peace offered by Love is one that doesn’t even make sense in light of the circumstances; a place of rest that goes beyond our understanding or physical situation. It’s one that promises our hearts need not be troubled or afraid. No matter what is going on around us.
Let us not sanitize Mary’s experience to the point that we disregard or omit the trials she endured. She did not have more supernatural God-powers than we have been given. When we elevate her to heroic, inhuman status, we can no 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. When we assume the posture of Mary and pray “may it be to me as you have said,” 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.
A theology of prosperity that draws clear lines between love and blessing and material situations is not only unbiblical, it’s heart-breaking. It’s a measuring stick that leaves us less-than and unloved. Mary–so blessed, so loved–endured fear, uncertainty, physical discomfort, relational difficulty, humble circumstances, and scandal. And so will we.
God loved her. God loves us.