No matter how many times I have experienced the first Sunday in Advent before, I still feel a thrill of excitement as the first carol is sung, the first candle is lit in the darkened sanctuary, and the pastor opens the Bible once more to the beloved Christmas story as told by Matthew and Luke in their Gospels. It was the same this December.
As I listened to the familiar story of Mary’s encounter with the angel Gabriel that day, I found myself reflecting on Mary’s state-of-mind. What emotion did Mary feel when the angelic visitor made his startling announcement to her? After the shock had worn off, did she feel excitement, too? For many young women in Israel at that time, to be the mother of the Messiah was their highest aspiration. But she was already betrothed!! So, why her? Luke reports that Mary was deeply troubled. She must have exhibited signs of fear, too, because Gabriel told her not to be afraid. How could she not help but be afraid? In her culture, betrothal was viewed as the beginning of a marriage, was as legally binding as marriage itself, and could not be broken off except through a divorce. Why would God choose her to bear the Messiah, when she was already engaged to Joseph? If she conceived a child before her marriage to Joseph was consummated, how could she explain it to him, to her community? She knew what awaited her: social ostracism, public humiliation, and a bill of divorce. Her young life would be over before it had barely started. I don’t think I had ever quite grasped before the shock, the confusion, and the fear that Mary must have felt that day, or the courage–and trust in God–it took to respond to the angel in the affirmative. Yet, Luke tells us, that’s what she did, her “yes” thus setting in motion God’s grand redemptive plan.
As I thought about Mary’s response, an earlier biblical narrative came to mind, the story of the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. That pivotal event in Old Testament redemption history, the Exodus, begins, like the Christmas Story, with women. The Egyptian Pharaoh believed that if he killed off all the Hebrew male infants, but let the Hebrew girl babies live, that would solve the Hebrew “problem.” As a woman, I have always found it a delicious irony that Pharaoh’s schemes were thwarted by women! Consider Shiphrah and Puah, the Hebrew midwives who, when commanded by Pharaoh to kill any male Hebrew infant that they delivered, defied the order. Two humble midwives who “feared God” outsmarted the genocidal-minded ruler of all of Egypt! Then there’s Moses’ mother Jochabed. When the Pharaoh ordered all male babies, both Egyptian and Israelite, to be killed, Jochabed cleverly crafted a papyrus basket and set her infant boy Moses afloat on the Nile, where he was rescued by one of Pharaoh’s own daughters in defiance of her father’s order! There’s Moses’ quick-witted sister as well, who recommended Moses’ own mother to Pharaoh’s daughter as the baby’s wet nurse, thus returning the child to his natural mother. Moses, Israel’s greatest leader, survived infancy to lead the Israelite slaves out of Egypt because of the actions and ingenuity of courageous, risk-taking women.
Like God-fearing women before her, Mary accepted a life of risk and an uncertain future when she humbly submitted to God’s plan. Because of her depiction in medieval art, we have come to see Jesus’ mother Mary–erroneously, I believe–as some meek and mild, demur, even otherworldly, maiden (especially when she has a halo around her head). The real Mary is not to be found in an art gallery but, rather, among the strong and courageous women in the story of the Exodus.