Historians think that Mary was between 13 and 16 years old when our old friend Gabriel knocked on her door and messed everything up, oh wait, sorry, I meant ‘gave her a divine burden‘.
Now just in case it has been awhile you were teenager or had a teenage kid, let me reintroduce you to the glories of being in the middle stages.
Imagine gawky bodies, growing so fast they lose track of where their arms are at one point in time. An arm here, leg here. I imagine acne, that you may or may not necessarily care about but, I mean… I imagine wispy hairs, dandruff. I imagine awkward friendships, growing haltingly. Imagine growing pains, still happening.
But then, I try to imagine a 13 year old girl, 2000 years ago. So I begin to research. I’m just kidding, my mom did the research. I was in exam week.
In any case, I’ve brought Robert P. Maloney along. One of his articles, “The Historical Mary”, says, “Like women in many parts of the world today, Mary most likely spent, on the average, 10 hours a day on domestic chores like carrying water from a nearby well or stream, gathering wood for the fire, cooking meals and washing utensils and clothes.” In a similar manner, a report from a recent MCC partner drew up time tables for men and women. While the comparison between genders is fascinating, that’s another story. Mary’s life would have been very similar to a young Maasai woman contributing to these schedules. Rising early to prepare breakfast and chai for her husband, cleaning the house, performing other domestic activities, taking supper late in the day.
Now, I try to put together these two descriptions, one so familiar to us, one so different. I put together awkward teenage years with the intense work of young women in the Middle East 2000 years ago, and I come to a conclusion that Mary was a total rockstar. I mean, like Maloney says in his article, “It would be a mistake to think of Mary as fragile, even at 13. As a peasant woman capable of…making a four- or five-day journey on foot to Jerusalem once a year or so, of sleeping in the open country like other pilgrims and of engaging in daily hard labor at home, she probably had a robust physique in youth and even in her later years.”
So we have this stunning image of a thirteen year old capable of more than I might ever be. It is time to bring in the next character, our friend Gabriel. He shows up, saying, “Hey, what’s up, hello, I have something for you that may or may not (hint: it will) mess up your entire life plan. Yeah, that one – the life where you are a respected wife of Joseph, and don’t get into any trouble like those other girls, where you have kids, name them what you want, live a life of however many years, pray, go to church, see your kids grow up, live a calm life in general – forget about it, because, Jesus.
So naturally, Mary says, “Okay, sounds good, I can be God’s willing maidservant.” I like to think there were a couple weeks in between Gabriel’s announcement and her excited commitment, because then I feel like I could understand it a bit more. A couple weeks of her saying to herself: I am not ready for this. I am not okay with this. I mean, kids are great. But wait. No. Yes. Jesus, what kind of name is that? What will Joseph think? What will the neighbors think? What will my mom think?
So I imagine a pregnant Mary, her baby bump getting bigger everyday. I imagine her going to fetch water, only to be accosted by disgusted, judgmental faces. Wondering what had gone so horribly wrong, what kind of sin she had committed to become pregnant before marriage. Joseph continues his job of being a loving dude, you know, that’s what the Bible says, and I sure hope it’s true. So I see Joseph, trying his hardest to maintain his wife-to-be’s image. Learning more everyday that most people don’t believe you when you say you didn’t get your fiancee pregnant, especially if you tell them it was the Holy Spirit. Also, at some point, Mary goes to visit Elizabeth, a couple babies leap in the womb, and Mary sings a beautiful song, but we’ll get back to that.
They soon travel to Bethlehem, with everyone else in the kingdom for a census. Mary on a donkey, noble Joseph walking beside her, the growing Jesus kicking and swelling everyday, forever etching a cross on the donkey’s back. I imagine it felt like, but a lot worse, riding in the back of big white Toyota truck, in the Kenyan bush.
They reach Bethlehem, and it’s crowded. King Herod had made a bad political decision – you know, sending all those people back to their tribal conflict and all – and now Mary and Joseph are paying for it, there is no room in the inn – and though I’m not sure what ‘the inn” is, I bet you they checked more than one.
So they find a “stable”, which was probably not a stable like we think about, it most likely the bottom “floor” of a house, not a separate building. And when you read the birth of Jesus in Luke, it goes like this: “While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son.” Now, I may or may not know a lot about childbirth, but I know it’s a little bit more dramatic than just “it came time” and “she gave birth.” That condenses into 6 words, what was probably a long labor on a dirt floor, surrounded by livestock. Nevertheless, she wraps her baby in a spare cloth and lays him in a feeding trough, hoping for the best like so many refugees today, carrying their fragile children, hoping for the best.
What an amazing teenager.
“My soul glorifies the Lord
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.
50 His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
51 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
53 He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
55 to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised our ancestors.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote: “The Song of Mary is the oldest Advent hymn. It is at once the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung. This is not the gentle, tender, dreamy Mary whom we sometimes see in paintings; this is that passionate, surrendered, proud, enthusiastic Mary who speaks out here. This song has none of the sweet, nostalgic, or even playful tones of some of our Christmas carols. It is instead a hard, strong, inexorable song about collapsing thrones and humbled lords of this world, about the power of God and the powerlessness of humankind.”
I think of Mary’s song as Gabriel’s message, written to music, saying, “God has looked upon you with favor so that you may carry God’s light everywhere you go.” Mary asks of all of us, “How will you respond, will you willingly accept or will you deny the strength of your own soul to refresh the soul’s of others?”
So while I may not have talked to an angel – maybe I’ve only seen an angel-in-training a few times. Maybe I won’t ever be a holy mom, stepping up to the task. Maybe I won’t ever be able to tell my son, “My dearest one, I have seen it since the day you were born, the day the Eastern kings came to see you, just out of the womb.” I do not spend my days scavenging firewood and making food for my extended family. I was not betrothed when I was thirteen, and at least to my knowledge, I am not betrothed to married now or in the coming years.
While I cannot be Mary, I can try my best to be like Mary. I can speak out for the unjust; for the Maasai women, tending their cattle, making the chai. I can sing a song for the refugees crossing the Mediterranean, cradling their babies, or their pregnant bellies. I can sing a song of hope to monarchs of the day, I can sing, “Step down from your throne, approach God with a humble heart, please.” I can sing praises to God, everyday. I can open wide my doors when God comes knocking. I can accept Gabriel’s call to a life of carrying the burden; not just my own, but the burden of carrying the living light of God, carrying it to all those in need.
**Originally delivered as a homily at St. Julians, with minimal post-editing.**