If anyone faced a complex family dynamic, it was Jesus' Jewish mother, Mary, whose firstborn was the "begotten one of God." Things were complicated even before Jesus was born, when God's plan was revealed to Mary, a virgin betrothed to Joseph, by the angel Gabriel.
"Don't be frightened, Mary … for God has decided to bless you!" Gabriel had said. "You will become pregnant and have a son, and you are to name him Jesus. He will be very great and will be called the Son of the Most High."
Mary dutifully complied. "Yes," she said, "I am the Lord's servant. Yes, may everything you have said come true."
It's easy to say such things during moments of heavenly revelation or, in Mary's case, visitation. We all would be "the Lord's servants" when looking upon the face of a visiting angel. We all would, like Mary, agree to "the plan."
The test comes, however, when the plan intersects with real life. For Mary, her arena of testing came in her role as a mother. That's why Mary's tests and struggles—along with mine and yours (no matter if you're single or married, a parent or childless, young or old)—can point to something greater: that God uses real people in the hard places of real life to work out his plan, often sown in tears and struggle and human failing.
What may have been Mary's thoughts when she and Joseph brought their six-week-old infant to the temple in Jerusalem to "present him to the Lord," as Jewish law required? The temple courtyard had to have smelled, with animals wandering around in all that dirt and sewage. Strangers carrying birds in cages or dragging along goats or sheep came and went, sacrificing this or consecrating that. What first-time parents wouldn't feel overwhelmed?
If all the braying, snorting, and howling of animals on the temple grounds weren't enough, an old man named Simeon approached Joseph and Mary and "took the child in his arms." He said strange things: "I have seen the Savior you have given to all people. He is a light to reveal God to the nations, and he is the glory of your people Israel!" How could Simeon know such things?
He turned to Mary and looked at her with sad eyes. "And a sword will pierce your very soul."
That wasn't the impression Mary had gotten the day the angel Gabriel had appeared to her. What could this ridiculous old man Simeon be thinking?
One might naturally assume Simeon was referring to the anguish Mary would experience when she watched her son die. There could be no darker moment for any mother. Yet my own reading of the Gospels convinces me that the "sword" that pierced Mary's soul did so many times before that moment. Such piercings are the movements of faith and the work of God's grace, though at the time they don't feel that way, and they didn't feel that way to Mary.
Imagine the wonder and pride that welled up in the young virgin after Gabriel's visit. She was to give birth to the only Son of God! "I rejoice in God my Savior! … Now generation after generation will call me blessed."
But that might have been the last time Mary was unequivocally happy. That transcendent moment quickly became overshadowed by a steady stream of heart-wrenching moments that tested Mary's trust in God's plan. The first would be the unenviable task of telling her fiance, Joseph, that she was pregnant. The next would be the hard journey on a donkey, nine months pregnant, cross-country, only—third—to end up giving birth in a cave in the company of goats and sheep. I would wager these inconveniences evaporated once she held the little one in her arms and suckled him at her breast—her very own son, the glorious creature she had pushed through her loins! But this wondrous event began a journey of faith that exacted many more piercings of Mary's soul.
There was the time, for example, when Mary and Joseph traveled to Jerusalem with their prepubescent boy to celebrate the Jewish festival of Passover. At the end of the festival, they left for home, assuming that Jesus was with friends among their fellow travelers. But failing to find him among their relatives after the first day of travel, they realized they had left their young boy behind in Jerusalem (the big city!) and undertook a desperate search that lasted three days until they found him, surrounded by religious leaders, chatting casually in the temple.
I can relate to the desperation Mary and Joseph must have felt as they searched for Jesus. For a brief, bone-chilling interlude 16 years ago, we lost our two-year-old son on the Mall in Washington, D.C. One minute he was toddling at our feet, and the next he was nowhere to be seen. In that single moment I was overrun with terror, panic, and utter helplessness until we found him, thankfully, climbing a fence several yards away.
Jesus' parents carried such terror for three days—three days.
When they found him, Jesus responded by saying two things: First, he said, they should have known where he would be; and second, God—not Joseph—was his father. Mary and Joseph should have known that, too.
I've wondered what the day was like for Mary when, as an adult, Jesus heard the call of John the Baptist. By this time Joseph had died, and Jesus had assumed the role of carpenter in his father's shop. In keeping with the law, he also would have taken the mantle of leadership in the family. But the day came when "the call" summoned him. As preacher and seminary professor Fred Craddock describes it, "Jesus untied the apron strings, lifted the carpenter's apron over his head, put it on the bench, and left the shop."
Did he say good-bye to his mother? Did he kiss her on the cheek? Or did he depart without a word, leaving Mary to find the shop empty, the apron on the bench?
Maybe Mary, standing there alone in the empty workshop, thought of Joseph. His ghost had been overtaken by the scraping and pounding of her firstborn son. Now he was gone, too. Why do we have children? Is it worth this much pain? You give them your heart, and then they take it and run.
Perhaps, in such a moment, she might hear herself say, I knew this day would come, while in her heart of hearts she hoped maybe it would have worked out differently. After all, so much time had passed since old Simeon's prophecy. Maybe God would forget the hard part of the plan.
But God didn't forget. His plan was on track and moving forward. And a sword will pierce your soul, too.
Maybe Mary took heart when she realized that although Jesus no longer lived in the house, she could see him frequently. She could remain in his close circle of associates. Maybe that's why she went boldly to him at the wedding in Cana to tell him the wine had run out. Maybe she was tugging at his elbow when she alerted him, "They have no more wine."
He didn't say, "Sure thing, Ma. I'll get right on it." In fact, he seemed irked. Some translations record that he called his mother "woman"—not derisively, like "Hey, lady!" but not in a sense that evoked the intimate bond between a mother and son, either. His response was curt: "How does that concern you and me?" He was redefining the boundaries of this relationship.
Then he added a second rebuke to his mother: "My time has not yet come." Maybe Mary was pressuring him—Begin already! Get on with your messianic appointment. After all, he had left the carpenter's shop to do something. Or maybe she went to him out of habit. He was the oldest. Aren't they the most responsible? He'd always been the one who fixed things.
In the end, Jesus answered his mother's request, but only after setting the terms. He made clear that whatever "glory" he would exhibit in this moment was not derived by her promptings. Their relationship had changed. He might as well have said, "When are you going to stop calling me your son?"
But I'm your mother! A mother can't just stop calling a son a son. Even the Lord God himself said, "Can a mother forget her nursing child? Can she feel no love for a child she has borne?" (Isaiah 49:15).
What else could Mary have done? All the angelic revelations and prophetic confirmations in the world did not change the fact that Jesus was still her son.
Some time later, the people of Jerusalem hailed her son as he entered the city gates riding on a donkey and looking like a king. What an exciting day. "Who is this?" some may have queried.
Mary didn't shout, "That's my boy!" A mother knows her son's face. Mary saw that her son's was like flint. Tears streamed down his cheeks. She knew they didn't spring from the palms, the "hosannas," and the effervescence of the moment.
The authorities seized her son a week later, and all the disciples fled. Maybe one of them—probably John—went to Mary. She would have been able to tell by the look on his face that the time had come. And so, she went to find her son, to be with him in those final hours. Maybe Mary was numbered among the "great crowds [that] trailed along behind, including many grief-stricken women," as he was making his way to Golgotha, staggering under the weight of the beam.
Can't somebody help him?
Maybe a mother's cries moved the heart of a guard that day when he seized Simon of Cyrene and "forced [him] to follow Jesus and carry his cross."
The next picture we have is of Mary crumpled at her son's bleeding feet. Where else would she be? She used to check him for fevers, bandage his cut fingers, and wash his cloak. And now a heap of tears and wails sitting at the foot of her son's cross is all that remains of a loving mother's pierced soul.
Why did the angel call me favored? Where is the favor in this?
"Dear woman." She would look up and meet the eyes of her dying son, who was trying to speak between gasps for air. "Here is your son." He would turn his head slightly and look at John, the disciple who had brought her. "Here is your mother."
When Jesus left home as an adult, did Mary linger in the carpenter's shop? Did she pick up the apron from the bench and hang it on the peg? Did she start dinner? Was she confounded by the rebuke in Cana? Or when Jesus asked amid the throng at Peter's house, "Who is my mother?"
Such questions and affliction are part of dying the small deaths that precede living new life. Even the handmaiden of the Lord had to be made new. As a mother, Mary needed to understand why her beloved son would treat her that way. He understood that. But he also understood that as a struggling human being, Mary needed the Savior more. And how could she have found her Savior without first letting go of her son?
Excerpted from Sacred Journeys by Wendy Zoba. Used with permission of Tyndale House. Scripture quotations taken from the New Living Translation and New International Version.
Copyright by the author or Christianity Today/Today's Christian Woman magazine.
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