To The Finish And Back: From Mary's Perspective
"Who? Me?" was Mary's response to the announcement from the angel Gabriel. According to Luke 1:28-29, The angel said, "Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you." But Mary was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. And, well she might ponder! Charlene Smiley asked me to read The Birth of Christ by Yvette Moore to the United Methodist women as they gathered for their Christmas party. One line in particular was precious. After the shepherds had left the stable, after all the hullabaloo died down, Mary and Joseph turned to one another and said, "What do you suppose we've got ourselves in for?"
Our theme this Advent season is To the Finish and Back. Jesus is the first final human being. Jesus went to the finish and came back to lead us. Because we know where the finish line is, and what the finish looks like, we can run the race that is set before us with perseverance and confidence. Confidence in the end gives us insight, understanding and courage to live today as God's people. What this means practically is illustrated by Mary, the mother. Looking at Mary's experience takes our heads out of the clouds, clears up any naive notions we may have had about the Christian life. Was Mary's merry Christmas merry?
The angel called her, "Favored one". Mary was perplexed and confused. How would you react to an announcement from an angel that you are going to give birth to a very special baby? Perhaps as Mary did. She ran to tell someone, someone she respected, someone she confided in. She went to see Elizabeth, her friend and relative. (Luke 1:41-42) When Elizabeth saw her, the child leaped in her womb. She was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb." But, look what it meant to Mary to be favored and blessed!
She was dependent upon the good graces of her fiance, Joseph, who did not reject her, which would have been disastrous in those days. Unwed mothers did not do well. When she was almost ready to deliver, the foreign government which ruled their land decreed that she and her husband had to return to his home town to be in the census. She had to travel on a donkey on a long, hard journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. There she had to deliver her son in a barn. Actually, it was a cave. She and Joseph were homeless, rejected and forlorn. There must not have seemed much glory to Mary that night. There certainly wasn't much mercy or kindness. There was no anesthesia, no sanitation, no Mercy or MCMC hospitals, no doctor. Was there even a midwife? It doesn't say.
We know Joseph and Mary were poor, because when Jesus was presented to the Lord in the temple, they sacrificed a pair of pigeons instead of animals. We don't know when, but at some point Joseph died, leaving Mary alone to rear her children. Contrary to the doctrine of perpetual virginity, Mary had more children, whom she had to raise without Joseph.
Mary's Christmas may eventually have been merry, but it wasn't on her terms. She didn't understand her son. When he stayed in the temple at the age of 12 to quiz the learned, he said to them, (Luke 2:49-50), "Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?" But they did not understand what he said to them. During Jesus' ministry, when his fame began spreading, and throngs gathered to hear him teach, and watch him heal, Mary took her other children and went to Jesus. She tried to talk some sense into him. She begged him to come home with her, but he rebuffed her. She was baffled.
She also had to endure what mothers dread. She watched her son die. She could do nothing for him. She saw him carry his cross. She saw him ridiculed and taunted with a ridiculous crown of thorns on his head. She stood at the foot of the cross when Jesus tenderly asked his disciple, John, to take care of her.
What it meant for Mary to be favored by God, what it meant to Mary to be blessed, was not very merry. Mary's merry Christmas was not very merry. However, Mary's experience teaches us that God does not favor, God does not bless, God does not call his people necessarily for ease, comfort, material rewards, success, pleasure. Nowhere is it promised that life will be easy. Nowhere is it promised that Christmas will be merry. Life, not even the Christian life, is all tinsel, decoration, and glitter.
We learn from Mary's experience that God favors, God blesses, God calls us to do tasks. Simple, uneducated Mary was called to be the mother of the Messiah, and history calls her favored. God calls us not for comfort, but for tasks. In Kazantzakis' novel about St. Francis of Assisi, Brother Leo asks Francis, "How do you know the will of God? When you have two choices, two options, two roads, how do you know which is the will of God?" St. Francis replied, "Whichever is the more difficult." (Ouch!) The more difficult, the challenging, calls us to our best, causes us to dig deep within us, discover and develop our inner resources. When we are in over our heads (as was Mary), we learn to trust in God. When life is easy, when we choose the easy, we do not grow, we do not stretch, we do not depend upon the mercy of God, we become self-centered and self-confident. Someone said, "Jesus Christ came not to make life easy but to make us great." God does not usually use us on our terms, when it is convenient for us; but on God's terms, which are not necessarily comfortable or easy.
Martha is a modern mother who wanted to celebrate Christmas on her terms. It had been a long time since her daughter, Jill, could be home for Christmas. Martha had planned for weeks. But, on Christmas Eve afternoon, Jill phoned. The snow storms in New York had grounded all planes. It was impossible for her to come home. Martha was sick. The phone rang and it was Alice. Martha cried, "What was to be our very best Christmas is on the way to being our very worst." "I'm very sorry," said Alice," but maybe this bad news can come to some good. I've just found out that we have no one to work at the Homeless Shelter tonight. George, who does it every Christmas Eve, is sick. Is there any way you might help?"
Martha said yes. In an hour she was down at the Shelter, serving soup, greeting the homeless. About 11:00, a couple appeared at the door, a man and a woman no one had seen before. Their car had been breaking down. They had stayed at hotels, but the cost of hotels and auto repairs, had left them broke. Could they stay here? "Of course," said Martha. They were cold, tired and pitiful looking as they slurped up the soup she served them. They talked. They were sorry about Jill not being able to come and said they had a daughter living somewhere, but they weren't sure where. They each consoled one another about the difficulties of parents. Martha found a box of cookies. They opened them, passed them around the room, and there was an amazing degree of cheer. Then it occurred to Martha. Here was Christmas Eve. A shelter for the homeless. The couple could have been on their way to Bethlehem. When all were asleep, Martha looked out the window. A bright moon was shining. The city was quiet, a silent night. And Martha found herself at peace. She whispered, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those whom he favors."
A merry Christmas is to be called and to be useful to God, favored and blessed, on God's terms.
© 1994 Douglas I. Norris
© 1994 Douglas I. Norris