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.
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.