Unsung Heroes: Mary and Her Sorrow

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The water from her eyes met the blood in his palms, as she waited with her first born for the end. The cross was a cruel end to an ugly beginning. These two had traveled many miles together- their bond so much stronger than blood.

Before he was born- when she was just a kid herself, God chose her to be the one to watch over him. To keep him fed in an age of poverty and teach him the Word in an age of the Pharisee. To direct him on the path he was destined to tread and, with every step, remind him he was loved.

Weaving their way to Bethlehem, she had a close call with death. Her baby was coming. The water had broken (I’m assuming) and if she held him in any longer, complications were sure to arise.

Going door to door in a town bankrupt of benevolence, they finally found a space set aside by a farmer. I have no idea if they wound up in a cave or a barn (doesn’t matter), all I know is that it was the absolute worst. I once heard a pastor compare it to the bathroom at the back of a filthy gas station. The kind with a flickering light bulb hanging down from a chain and a ground covered in feces and urine. The nativity was nauseating.

And even still.

Mary had many more miles to go.

Her days consisted of ducking arrows at every turn. When Herod wanted them dead, they had to run. Tucked at her chest was her son as they rode off into the night. Escaping everything but the moaning of mothers echoing off in the distance. Grief and guilt became familiar ghosts for Mary.

Yet she knew this was coming. In her memory stayed the prophecy from Simeon who said, “a sword will pierce your very soul.”

As Jesus grew into a young man, Mary had to manage the demands of his mission with her vocation as a parent. There was one time when Jesus, unexpectedly, strolled away to the temple, and wasn’t found until two days later. When she walked in and found him with the Rabbis, she scolded him through tears. He worried her sick, and she asked him how he could put his parents through such hell. Puzzled and looking her over, he asked why he wouldn’t be in “his father’s house”? A wistful reminder that he was never really hers.

Years later, in a classic moment of a hovering parent, she approached her adult son at a wedding reception. Smiling and with a tone of suggestion, she said, “they’re running out of wine…” To which he responded (my translation, total speculation), “Would you leave me be ma!?! I’m not ready yet.” That didn’t stop her. She knew her son too well. So she turned and marched on over to his friends and said, “do whatever he asks”. In effect, She set the scene for Christ’s first miracle.

And on Good Friday, not mentioned in scriptures, but worthy of note as it is appears in works of art, is the two meeting at Via Dolorosa. This place was a point on the road Jesus walked as he carried the cross to Skull Hill. The body she had cared for, nourished, protected, watched over, was of no resemblance to the carnage coming down the path. Their eyes must have met in the most heartbreaking of goodbyes. The sword started to chip through her chest.

A small group of women trailed Jesus as he walked up to Calvary. He heard their weeping in anguish, and in an emotional moment, he responded to them.

“Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep for yourselves and for your children. 29 For the time will come when you will say, ‘Blessed are the childless women, the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!’”

This is a reference to the approaching destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 by the Roman Empire. But what’s important to soak in here is that he is referencing the heartbreak of being a mom. Having children was a mark of honor among women, being barren was a curse. Yet Jesus turns the meaning of motherhood on its head. Mary knew this all too well.

Beneath the shower of blood, sweat and tears, the stench of unending suffering, and the hours of agony that went unanswered from on high, all she could do was lay below her boy. Her heart shredding as she heard Him whisper to John, “this is your mother now.” He was always thinking of her first like that.

Wanting nothing more than for it to be done, for mercy to melt their hatred, she stayed silent and wept below the dripping tree. Startled, again she lifted her head to hear her boy try to speak. In a great feat of strength he raised his voice and cried, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do!” His grace knew no limits. He didn’t get that from her. She knew who that was from.

Frog in her throat, hands shaking, breath shortening, tears streaming, she endured hours of her son’s slaughter amongst a crowd of scoffers. Insult after insult, signs saying “King of the Jews”, rocks thrown at his open wounds. To them, his death was vindication for their judgment. They knew he could not be who he said he was. “Save yourself King!” they taunted. He’s saving you, she must’ve thought.

The hours continued and his breathing became more and more labored. Clearing his dry throat as wet tears ran down his face, again he whispered, “I’m thirsty.” At this moment flashbacks must have come rushing back of her teenage years, how helpless she felt. But no longer could she save him. She couldn’t protect him from this. She would take the nails if she could, but she couldn’t.

Then at last, “Father, I commit my hands into your spirit.”  Exhaling, he sighed, “it is finished.” Her soul was pierced.

It is said that Mary played one of the pivotal positions of the early church. After the collapse of her world, as the public put together a kill list with her name at the top, she worked relentlessly for the dream of her son. For the kingdom building he had started. After the ascension of Christ she is the only women mentioned in the upper room with the eleven other disciples, and many have speculated that she was the “woman elect” amongst the disciples.

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Now of course Mary isn’t among the forgotten people of the Bible. Every person that knows who Jesus is, knows who Mary is. Having said that, sometimes I wonder to what extent people understand the brutal sacrifice of this woman. What she endured, what her life means today, what she represents and the injustice of how she is presented.

The Church (at least protestants) has always had a wary relationship with Mary. Loving her, of course, but keeping her a bit at bay. In Church teaching, there has always been a fear of Mary becoming some sort of Goddess. A higher being that required us to kneel before in worship. This is actually a legitimate concern to be had, as Christ is the only one deserving of our praise. But in our disassociation with Marian worship, I think we started to strip away the importance of her own story.

The Mary I grew up learning about was the beautiful glowing pregnant woman wrapped in a shawl. Cartoon images come to mind of her flight to Egypt as a ride off into the sunset with her boo. It was romantic and enchanting. She was always a virgin (not true) and she became more or less commentary after Jesus’ childhood. A blurb in the background. A mission accomplished.

My adult eyes don’t see it the same way now. I see the preteen girl asked to carry out a death sentence. I see a saint that suffered for the sake of the Kingdom. I see a woman who’s very survival meant the world’s salvation. I see there is so much more beyond her giving birth. She gave her son. She gave her heart. She gave it all up for the sake of kingdom.

And now, I start to see a pervasive sexism in interpretations of the scriptures.  Paul is ordained a suffering servant who ensured the survival of the faith (which he did). Abraham is seen as the father of Israel who had a faith that was fiercer than blood (which he did). Moses is the orphan who liberated the Jewish nation (which he did.) David was the guy after God’s own heart (which he was).

When it comes to Mary, why don’t we revere her life with the same platitudes as we do with so many of the men of the faith? We never consider the fact that while carrying God’s son was big honor, it was also a horrifying request. The gravity of her response should not get lost on us. We assume this cheerful giver mentality when she may have been scared to death.

Also, why does her story seem to come to a climax at the birth and then not given much consideration thereafter? What about her role in Jesus learning the scriptures, developing mentally and socially, what about the fact that she nudged him into his first miracle, effectively kicking off his ministry? What about the guilt she endured over Herod’s massacre? What about the sword piercing prophecy? The nauseating nativity scene? Watching her son suffer a slow and painful death?

She is much more than that quiet girl who gave birth to God beside some sheep. She is a saint, a servant and one that deserves to have the whole of her story told.

There are a couple reasons the story of Mary has been on my mind. One, obviously, Christmas is just around the corner and I’ve been seeing her face in every nativity scene and hearing it whenever “Mary did you know?” is played. Second, the mothers of Newtown. Just the terrifying notion of being a parent, and the hard truth that whether they are newborns or ninety, you can’t protect them from everything.

Maybe looking to the strength of Mary, her resolve, her conviction, her love and perseverance, can give heart to the parents who lost their babies last week.

RR

Unsung Heroes: Hagar’s Story

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For the life of me I can’t remember learning this story in Sunday School. I remember being bored by tales of the Old Testament, but never inspired, excited or moved. Maybe it was because after you hear the story of Christ everything else feels like commentary. A way to fill up the pages.

But even my college Bible class seemed to gloss over it. They focused so much on the leading man and woman that they never paid tribute to the girl that went through hell.

Everyone knows the chronicle of Abraham and Sarah. The mother and father of Israel. We know how God showed Abraham the stars and said his descendants will be greater in number. We know about Sarah laughing when she finally became pregnant in her old age, a reminder of a God that surprises. And we know about, Hagar, but that’s more or less commentary.

When I first heard about Hagar, I was told she was more or less a mistake in Abraham and Sarah’s past. That she was an example that although Abe and Sarah were chosen to lead this generation, they too were imperfect folks.

Abraham was a hero of faith to be sure, let’s not forget God’s heartbreaking command to slaughter Isaac. Sarah is less easy to eulogize, so I’m not going to.

God gave Sarah and Abraham everything under the sun, except for a son. Despite the promise of a long lineage, Sarah still couldn’t conceive. And when God reassured them he would, they didn’t trust him. No, Sarah didn’t trust Him. Instead she recruits her slave Hagar for the job.

But calling this a “job” would imply that a choice was involved. There wasn’t. It was written in the law that Hagar was Sarah’s property and tasks like this weren’t too out of the ordinary.

True to the meaning of her name, Sarah is a princess. The haughty kind, like Victoria Grayson (Revenge reference). One case-in-point. God pays a visit to Abraham and tells him again that Sarah’s going to get pregnant! Eavesdropping on the conversation, Sarah snickers at the suggestion. Obviously, God hears it (He’s God) and calls her out. Sarah lies. In a simple, yet perfect response, God says, “yes you did; you laughed.”(Genesis 18: 15) I envision a lot of head tilting and brow furrowing.

Hagar was an Egyptian. A slave to Sarah while Abraham and her stayed in Pharoah’s palace. When the two got the boot out of Egypt, Hagar was packed up like luggage and carted along with them. Away from everyone and everything she ever knew.

She was a minority in every sense of the word. Her gender, race, nationality and social status put her in the bottom of the barrel. Nothing more than a means to an end. Something to be traded, used and discarded. Born to be little so her master could be great, her existence nothing more than a sad roll of the dice.

Approaching Abraham with her proposition, Sarah actually says, “Maybe I can get a family from her.” (Genesis 16:1-2)

In the aftermath of conception, Hagar understandably feels a sea change in her role. Carrying another’s child has to have a psychological impact. For the first time since Egypt, she felt a part of a family. Her family. Little by little she was rising out of the refuse.

But her changing heart wasn’t lost on Sarah. She noticed. Seeing the foggy morality with any violent action against her husband’s concubine, she tells Abraham she’s gonna teach her a thing or two and God will judge her if she’s wrong. To which Abraham responded with, “your maid is your business.” (Genesis 16:6) A verbal declaration of cleansed hands.

And thus begins a cycle of domestic abuse. Sarah terrorized Hagar for her uppity attitude. With an iron fist, she intended to make her fall in line. Under this oppression, with no soul to count on, Hagar does the only thing anyone could.

She runs.

The pregnant slave girl found herself beside a spring in the desert, collapsing in tears. The geographical route she took has led many to speculate she was headed back home to Egypt, the only place she ever belonged. This life was a train wreck and about to get even worse. The baby within her womb was soon to be separated from her forever. She was to be stripped of any acknowledgement as the child’s mother- wiped completely from his memory. And if that wasn’t devastating enough, she had to hand him over to her predatory abuser.

Hagar’s heart was not driven by self-preservation; it was sacrificial love. Love for her boy.

And then someone finds her.

In an incredible twist of this epic tale, an “Angel of the Lord” (commonly understood to mean God in the scriptures) shows up. Joining her beside the spring, He gives dignity to her story and becomes a confidant for her to speak of her turmoil. Her story. A life as someone else’s thing.

But whatever hope she had of escaping this life vanished when God told her to return to Sarah. Maybe Hagar wasn’t really surprised. Always the means to the end. How could He see a survivor in the skin of a slave?

Yet, God wasn’t finished. He continued to tell her of a wonderful road ahead. That this was only the beginning of it. That the hand she had been dealt would one day win. A dream Hagar probably never allowed herself to hold on to was suddenly promised. “I’m going to give you a big family. Children past counting.” (Genesis 16:9-12). He tells her to name her son Ishmael, which means God has seen your humiliation. God had seen her distress. Her life as a doormat.

And in a response that could only be said through sobbing eyes and trembling lips, Hagar cries,

“You’re the God that sees me!” (Genesis 16:13).

Imagine the significance of this moment. Think about the whole of Hagar’s life. The context she arose from gave her a gross depiction of God. In her eyes- God belonged to Sarah and Abraham. He was confined to their altars and private exchanges. They were the chosen ones. Sarah was the chosen one. All of them except her. Hagar was just the tablecloth they talked over.

Imagine for a moment how Sarah symbolized God to her. He was someone who would never accept her. Never find favor in her. Never love her. Never see her. Never notice her.

And all it took was a trip to the desert. An evacuation of the oppressive system she was a slave to. A liberation from her life as a doormat to find that God did notice. That God loved her. That people like Sarah make for poor missionaries and doormats like Hagar can be card-carrying disciples.

Heading home, her heart beating with humility, Hagar became a doormat once again, but with a “soon enough” story to hold on to. After a decade of thankless service, Sarah kicks her to the curb. Rationale? Ishmael teased Isaac. Heartbroken, at his wife’s heartless response, Abraham grieves to God. God responds with promises of protection for the two. Abraham had to let them go.

Both were banished and left to wander into the wilderness. It had been several years since Hagar and Ishmael’s first venture into the shadow lands but this time, no spring was there to save them. In another devastating chapter of the story, Hagar places her dehydrated son beneath the shade of a tree and walks away, unable to watch him die. And in a parallel moment of desperation, God shows up again.

“When the water was gone, she left the child under a shrub and went off, fifty yards or so. She said, “I can’t watch my son die.” As she sat, she broke into sobs.

 

17-18 Meanwhile, God heard the boy crying. The angel of God called from Heaven to Hagar, “What’s wrong, Hagar? Don’t be afraid. God has heard the boy and knows the fix he’s in. Up now; go get the boy. Hold him tight. I’m going to make of him a great nation.”

 

19 Just then God opened her eyes. She looked. She saw a well of water. She went to it and filled her canteen and gave the boy a long, cool drink.

20-21 God was on the boy’s side as he grew up. He lived out in the desert and became a skilled archer. He lived in the Paran wilderness. And his mother got him a wife from Egypt.” (Genesis 21: 14-21)

With a word of encouragement and a well built by a miracle, Hagar and Ishmael are saved.

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What stood out in this story is not that the Bible edits out the inconvenient. Clearly, the source here is the scripture. What stands out is how this story is told. Or rather not told. It taught me that taking to task the tellers of the Word is an imperative placed upon us all. When we do, we find it is not simply for instruction, but for empathy and inspiration. I was never told this story. I was never told the Eunuch’s story. Or the story of Cornelius in Acts.

And yet at the same time, should we really be surprised? Church history has traditionally trashed Hagar as an example of the sinful. Of the fallen. And within the same breath, they say Sarah is an example of the heavenly. Augustine compares Hagar to the city of the Earth and Sarah the city of Heaven. Aquinas separates the children of Sarah and Hagar into the “redeemed” and the “unredeemed”. Even Paul, in the very same Holy text, suggests the same assertions. So what do we make of it? Racism? Sexism in a male-dominated history? I’m still sorting it out, but it baffles me.

What I do know is that there is a whole reservoir of runaways like Hagar in both the Old and the New Testament. And yet, we still remain dumfounded by the rap sheet of Christ’s Chosen twelve. When people looked past the fisherman and tax collector, Christ saw them. Outer perfection is of no interest to our God, he seeks the humble hearts. The meek and weak. Those that are cast out, he brings back in. Lepers, Samaritans, slave girls, and gentiles. Our God does not carry a guest list!

And the best part about this is that he meets them where they are. Where we are. He is a seeker, a searcher, the God that sees. That is the God we are dealing with. One who dwells amongst us. One who doesn’t define us the way people do. He values us because we are his. The imperfect rubric of the world is of no relation to him. He does the opposite of conventional wisdom, touching lepers and washing feet. He honors the unusual and the unattractive. He cracks open a corridor for the exiled to sneak in and shows us that only the humble are truly heroic.

RR