This is what happens when you let women read the Bible. Because of COVID, I spent this year’s Advent in isolation with my family, which offered me time to read the Infancy Narratives, the Old Testament foretelling of the Messiah, and the Compline and Matin texts for each day. And this time I thought a lot about Mary. This icon from St Catherine’s monastery was a focal point for my prayers and meditations. There she is centered in each panel, her head tilted, looking into the middle distance, with the traditional iconic expression of calmness, a stoic timelessness. She must have been overwhelmed, I thought.
In the first panel, the Archangel Gabriel appears to her. She’s alone. Gabriel tells her that she will carry the Savior, that God has chosen her, and the child will be growing inside her, now. “How will this be," Mary asks the angel, "since I am a virgin?” She faces scorn and banishment, her child the badge of illegitimacy. She faces the prospect of raising a child, on her own, in poverty. And she says yes. I wonder what went through her mind.
Or did this assent come from a deeper place, an opening of her heart, a prayerful response from her spirit. It must have felt right even though it broke every societal and moral rule of the time. It makes no sense.
God does help her. He sends his messenger Gabriel to Joseph to convince him to stay with Mary and protect her. Mary visits Elizabeth who is experiencing her own miraculous pregnancy, whose husband has also been visited by an angel. Elizabeth hails her, “Mary, full of grace,” and her unborn child leaps in the presence of the Savior to come.
Mary is inspired to speak the words of the Magnificat, a canticle sung daily in Christian liturgy around the world: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” “My soul, my spirit” - the deepest recesses of her heart that magnifies and rejoices, beyond words, beyond logical calculation or worldly offices. Mary is dedicated, her faith in God surpasses all earthly considerations. And she describes how powerful God has been throughout history in raising the lowly and bringing down the rich and powerful. Mary needs to live in this faith, to say it and pray it, because her mission on one level is very human - to have a baby. On another level it is of cosmic importance. I imagine it’s this assurance she needs every day of her pregnancy: every time she considers the dangers ahead, the whispers of the community, her humble and precarious situation.
The birth itself happens in a stable, after a long journey. In the second panel we see that the humble refuge is filled with shepherds and their flocks following the angels’ voices. Then Magi: royalty, wise men from distant lands, bearing gifts and paying homage to this small child and the Holy Family. When people heard the Good News everyone was “amazed.” Mary “treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.” (Luke 2:19)
I bet she did. The feelings that new mothers experience range from great joy and relief to doubt and distress. The baby is so tiny, will I know what to do? Will I have enough milk? When will my body stop hurting? I miss my mother. Is the baby strong enough? Am I strong enough?
And they were poor. Will the baby be warm? Will we have enough to eat? I am so tired and frightened; am I doing what God wants and what this baby needs? Joseph has been steadfast and kind but can we do it all? And most of all: What do we do now? Does God continue with us. Will we hear his voice or talk to his angels again?
Joseph appears in a corner of the icons, sometimes with a messenger from Heaven, sometimes alone. He too looks stunned at the enormity of it all.
The third panel shows the Holy Family a week later at the Temple where Mary and Joseph have brought baby Jesus for his circumcision and name giving. They are greeted by two Temple regulars who marvel at the sight of the child. The prophet Anna runs out to announce the Savior’s birth to people in the Temple precincts. Simeon says the words that are now a canticle sung daily in the Christian world, Nunc Dimittis, roughly paraphrased as, “Now I can die in peace for my eyes have seen the Savior.” Once again there is a recognition of future of glory and honor for the child.
But Simeon also says, “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” (Luke 2: 35) A sword will pierce her soul.
It’s a message every mother knows to be true. Your child can grow to be a good and just person who brings joy into your life and also someone who suffers pain and sorrow. Life is not fair and it’s not without peril. Your child at some point will walk out into the world taking a part of your heart with them. Along with the image of Mary and motherhood as holy, sacred, and glorified is the reality of heartbreak, danger and failure. We need to remember this because this is what it is to be fully human as a mother: to feel great love and to glory in the life of your child and to be open to tremendous hurt, disappointment, and tragedy; to sometimes feel that you’ve not done enough, that you are not enough. You may bring new life into the world, a life that you harbored and grew in your body, whose stirrings you felt before they were visible, who pushed through your body, laboring with so much effort, such groaning, coming into the world, but you are not God. You may love your child with all your heart, but you cannot protect them from the troubles this world brings. Mary is a model for motherhood in all its love, glory and grief.
Motherhood is not the path for all women. Many - by choice or chance - fulfill their call to service, to love God and God’s people, in other ways. From Mary Magdalene who followed Jesus up to his crucifixion and was witness to the Resurrection, to the women companions who were his disciples and spread the word after his Ascension, to all the women saints and martyrs and women religious, to every woman who hears the call and lives a righteous life… these are all women of valor, women who face obstacles and work on in faith with dedication. They are women who, like Mary, feel the presence of God, understand what is right deep inside themselves despite the challenges society sets for them, the whispers and doubts of others. We are all women who treasure God and God’s gifts and still ponder their fate, suffer the piercing of their hearts and still say yes to God.
Judith Scott blogs regularly for Axia. She holds a masters degree from Union Theological Seminary.