The writers of Mathew’s and Luke’s Gospel, when portraying the birth stories of Jesus, have understandably focused on the Holy nature of his birth. Unfortunately, this has had the effect of stylizing Mary’s reality in such a way it does not allow her character to emerge as the young Hebrew woman she would have been.
Whether we take the birth stories of Jesus literally, or as mythological stories communicating important Gospel truths, hopefully I am honouring her character in the following story, when I hear her say:
Listen to me you people out there, for centuries I’ve wanted to tell my story of how it really was for me, your Mary meek and mild. But who would want to listen when it is Jesus you have all come to see, and the pretty lights round the Nativity scene?
Mary’s having a baby. No father can own up to this one! She is told the Holy Spirit will overshadow her when she becomes pregnant with God’s Son. Elated by God’s gift, Mary sings her song of praise.
Later, the reality hits! She must hide her secret, confiding only in cousin-Elizabeth, and hoping Joseph will love her enough to believe God is part of this. What will the village people think, most of all her family? Hurting them is the hardest pain.
The weeks drag by. And Mary begins to doubt the angel’s words. How can she convince Joseph of her pregnancy? It seems beyond belief! Now, Mary no longer wants to sing her song The Magnificat for she’s not married. In this close-knit community where everyone knows secrets soon enough, how will she survive?
The time draws near for the birth. Mary has been called with Joseph her husband of three months, to a place far from home where the Government insists they go, a Government unfeeling of her condition of more than eight months pregnant. They are so poor they can’t buy their way out of this one.
Without any family support or her mother, Mary is afraid. “Please come and be by my side, dear mother! Don’t leave me alone!” The innkeeper’s words bring no comfort, “Rotten luck girl! Use the stable, it’s clean.”
Joseph attends to her, but how can he know what to do? Loving is not enough when you are in labour. It's hard work, so hard you are angry with those who care for you if they do the wrong thing. No ante-natal classes for Mary, so she screams her way through it all!
The animals watch, in silent affinity with birthing, but agitated by this woman in pain. Joseph bathes her forehead with perspiration dripping from her brow, making her comfortable as possible in a bed of straw. Mary screams once more into the night of stars, “My God, my God, why this? I am forsaken and abandoned! Where is Aunty? Where is my mother who knows how to help? Is this what a woman is, a woman of God?!”
Then it’s all over. Mary holds within her arms a blood-covered body of softness and life, her baby, her gift from God. Instinctively she suckles him and his cries fade into the silence of the night. Mary whispers in quiet contentment….. “He’s mine.”
Now she must clean up the mess. Birthing the placenta, Mary must do it right. How did aunty say? Joseph takes the baby, gently wrapping him in a cloth.
• • • •
A day later, when rested and clean, Mary had visitors, not mum or aunty or cousin- Elizabeth but strangers, three men on camels who were old and bearded and rough shepherds with a lamb. It was kind of them to come and want to see her baby, but who wants strange men at a time like this! Mary needed women attending her needs.
Such unusual gifts they brought her! It would have been more helpful to have nappies and clean soft clothes. Even so, Mary treasured their words, pondering them in her heart.
The days went by and Mary grew stronger, the time had come to go back home. What would they say? She now had a baby and Joseph only married her three months ago. Before they could return an angel spoke to Joseph in a dream. Concerned he woke Mary with frightening words, “We must go to Egypt! Jesus is in danger! We must leave now!”
When Mary heard, she froze! “Joseph, why do they want to kill my baby? I want to go back home!” He insisted it would be safer in Egypt, at least for now.
Mary sat on her donkey throughout the journey with Jesus cradled in her arms, her thoughts in prayer confused and angry for she was afraid. “What God are you who ask so much of me? Where is your power when things get tough? This is more than I can bear just now. I need your strength, I need your love. At times like this, Joseph is not enough!”
In Egypt they found a place to live, small but clean. The months went by struggling to make ends meet. It took courage to find a new life in Egypt for they were refugees in a strange land. Eventually adopted by other families helped ease their pain, the pain of separation from their community to which they longed to return.
Lucy Nanson is a New Zealand anchorite.