The Lessons

Often it is difficult to approach a story you know so well from a different perspective. I grew up with these stories about Mary and Jesus. In some ways it is straightforward for me to believe that Mary easily accepted that she would be the mother of the Messiah with just a few small questions for the angel (yes, angel!) that appeared to her. And these old perspectives refract light in ways that obscure the picture, like trying to look at an image using a kaleidoscope.

I grew up in churches that were highly patriarchal. The fact that I, a woman, am formally speaking to you about the bible would be viewed as deeply sinful by these churches.

And Mary was a woman.

My father grew up Roman Catholic, but had rejected Catholicism. He and my mother were Reformed Baptists, and among other things, disliked how the Catholic church revered Mary.

And Mary was a woman.

I was taught that Mary wasn’t perfect, but she tried her best, and she was humble, and she was pure. Similar to the scene at the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade – the Holy Grail was not made out of gold and rubies, but was rather a plain clay cup. Mary was like that cup – not important, except in how God used her.

And Mary was a woman.

I internalized the idea that Mary was a kind of anti-Eve. She was the catalyst for fixing the problems with the world that Eve created. As a young woman, from spiritual books given to me, I had on my own discovered the Madonna/Whore complex, where the sinful/trashy/loose woman loses out to the pure/virginal/sweet woman.

And Mary and Eve were women.

Mary is only even mentioned a dozen times in Luke’s Gospel – the most mentions of her in any of the Gospels.

And Mary was a woman.

And I am a woman.

And therefore my part in the story is small. My part in the story is to bear the story for men. To create the man that would repair any damage I had done. And my only task would be to be good and pure, but still recognize that I was sinful, and so to be humble about my purity.

I started researching Mary this week. And I learned there is a lot of Mary lore that I was completely unaware of.

For instance, the story goes that Mary’s parents, Anna and Joachim were barren, and similar to the story of Hannah and Samuel, only conceived after promising to dedicate their child to God and to the service of the temple.

In some stories, Mary lived in the temple from about age 3 to age 13 or so, when she was engaged to Joseph.

In some stories, she was more of a ward to Joseph who was fairly old, a widower, and already had six children. That is what is told in some stories.

This research only reinforced that there is a lot we don’t know about this time period, about Mary herself. And there is a lot that the Gospel writers didn’t bother to include about this woman. And yet Mary is surrounded by the divine, the mother of God, sometimes seen as divine herself. Something we lack in much of the Bible – the divine feminine.

When I read the text of the Magnificat, I’m afraid my kaleidoscope now only sees the image of Luke, an educated man, putting words in Mary’s mouth. Writing down the ideal for how a young girl would reply. How she should reply upon learning she will give birth to the Messiah. I struggle to see Mary reflected in these words, even though I want to; even though they are beautiful.

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for you, Lord, have looked with favor on your lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed:
you, the Almighty, have done great things for me
and holy is your name.
You have mercy on those who fear you,
from generation to generation.
You have shown strength with your arm
and scattered the proud in their conceit,
casting down the mighty from their thrones
and lifting up the lowly.
You have filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away empty.
You have come to the aid of your servant Israel,
to remember the promise of mercy,
the promise made to our forbears,
to Abraham and his children forever.

I recently learned that an old work acquaintance has brain cancer. She and her husband have three children. She is undergoing intensive medical intervention and surgeries, but doctors don’t have long estimates for her life. The tumors affect her cognitive functions and vision and give her terrible headaches.

She has a facebook support page where she posts fairly regularly, and to be honest I cannot bear it. She talks about how good God is, and the many blessings he has given her. She references the fact that God can stop her cancer, but that he is not obligated to stop it. That however many years left she has, she will praise God.

But still she longs to live; to see her children grow up and to grow old with her husband.

So maybe these are Mary’s words. Maybe she believes that the mighty will be cast down from their thrones. Maybe she believes that she will be called blessed for the rest of time.

Maybe I just do not understand this level of faith and hope. I can only see it as disingenuous on some level. God is praised no matter what happens. Sometimes I can only see a God that doesn’t care. That doesn’t lift up the lowly or fill the hungry. And definitely doesn’t cast down the mighty or send the rich away empty.

But maybe Mary sees this God. Or maybe she says these words because she believes that something is changing – that the future and the past are meeting.

Usually in the bible, a “barren” woman conceiving means to pay attention to the child who is born. The nativity story flips that miracle, and instead of a barren woman, a virgin conceives.

Pay attention. Something different is happening.

There are pieces to the nativity story that are especially difficult when you are experiencing infertility. My spouse and I have been trying to have a child for over six years now, and the story of Mary, a virgin, becoming pregnant is a little bit of an affront. But then you add in Elizabeth, a woman well passed her child bearing years, also becoming pregnant and more salt is rubbed in the wound.

These stories that I have internalized over the years have added to my grief. The message that I have absorbed from these bible stories is that God is in control of fertility. This book has the greatest number of infertile women of any that I can find. And going back to Eve this makes sense. Women will redeem the world by bearing a Messiah – but don’t get too cocky ladies, really God is in control of your bodies.

Because of this I can struggle to see the divine and the feminine in my own life.

And I find myself thinking more about Elizabeth than Mary when I look at this piece of the story. I wonder, in a weird parody of the “Mary Did You Know?” song, what Elizabeth felt as she watched this child she had longed for grow into the wild man he became, prophesying in the desert, eating locusts. And eventually being beheaded.

I wonder if she thought there was any point for her struggles, for birth of her son into a world that didn’t accept him? If there was any meaning in what she experienced?

To quote from a Christmas episode of one of my favorite TV shows, Community, “Maybe the real meaning of Christmas is the idea that Christmas has meaning.”

Maybe the loving of another person, for however short a time, is enough of a point.

Maybe the meaning of life is the meaning that we give it.

Maybe life is messier than we can imagine. And more sacred. And God is more feminine and vulnerable than my heart can imagine right now.


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