"28 The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” 29 Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30 But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. 31 You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. 32 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, 33 and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.” - Luke 1:28-33
I've always had a thing for songs about Mary. There's this one I wrote about once, and then there's this one that my sweet friend Andrea has sung in church, sounding like an angel herself, as she always does when she sings. And then of course, I grew up hearing "Breath of Heaven" and "Mary Did You Know" every year at Christmas. For some reason, those songs about Mary were always my favorite, and I would turn up the radio and sing and let tears gather like murky glass across my eyes.
But it didn't matter because Mary was my way into the story. The miracle of Christmas, for me, has always been seen through Mary's eyes. Reputation smashed by the words of an angel. Not sure if Joseph would see her through to the end. Thinking she was half crazy and all the while repeating like a mantra I have found favor with God.
In my mind, she was reluctant, not sure she wanted this role.
And then the long journey, swollen and lumbering, no room at the inn, the floor of a stable, those lightning bolts of pain. All for what? A child born to die a hideous death, broken and used up for someone else's crimes.
In my mind, Mary held her son to her heaving chest and looked hard at his face. What did this Son of the Most High look like, after all? In my mind, she saw herself and maybe even Joseph, too, saw herself imprinted on something that did not belong to her. A gift from God; no, a loan. Only a loan.
In my mind, she is to be pitied because the infant she held was only born to die. To eat and drink and sleep and talk and see the world and then die a young man. And she held him, perhaps knowing this son did not belong to her entirely, but not knowing he was a sacrifice, the sacrifice.
I imagine that as she wrapped him tight in his makeshift newborn gown, she marveled at how tiny he was. He would have seemed, like any newborn, too fragile for this hard world. So small both feet could fit inside her fist. A disc of soft skin on his head where the bones of his skull had not yet grown together, a necessary evil for entrance into the world and a liability the moment you emerge.
These bodies are so soft, so fragile. Just clay over sticks, bags of blood too easily spilled. Last week in Connecticut we saw that all too clear, all too painfully clear. I cannot catch my breath from it, to tell you the truth, and I am only a witness to the mourning of mothers and fathers with empty arms. When I look at my boys, I want to throw myself over them, wrap them in armor, hide them in my big bed, kissing their heads and praying no one finds us.
I know the truth is that we all give birth to someone who is going to die. We pray and hope and work and bleed to give them as much time as we can, to keep our children fed and clothed and healthy so they will outlive us. But every mother gives birth to someone who is destined to die.
It's just that we pray, we all pray, that their days will be many between first breath and last. That they will live to become gnarled old prunes who die under a quilt as the sun is coming up, dreaming of the wind in the hair they once had and a warm kiss on their cheek. That they will know every joy and pain we knew, and then some, before they go. And above all, that they will not go before us because anything other than that is unthinkable.
I don't know the grief those parents in Connecticut are feeling tonight, but the mother of God does. What cruel kind of joke was that, to ask a girl to birth a savior, never telling her what it would cost her? We talk of the sacrifice God made, sending his son to die, but we forget that his mother inherited that grief, too.
To bear the son who would break your heart only to save your soul. Poor, wonderful Mary, the highly favored one, the mother of sorrows. She will always be my way into the story, you see, that girl who was promised glory but offered grief. We groan with her now, in the season of advent, crying out together for release, for comfort, for salvation from the terrible pain of these fragile bodies and wounded spirits. I am her now, it almost seems, huddled in a cloak on the back of a donkey, just waiting on a prophecy to be fulfilled.