Those of us who have endured numerous Christmas programs, pageants, plays and skits know that one of the central figures of the program is Mary the mother of Jesus. She is usually played by some pretty, pure looking teenage girl who sits wide-eyed, guarding her child as shepherds, angels and wise men enter and exit.
Do we ever consider as we look at this young woman, that she has just gone through the pain of childbirth – in a stable? She probably didn’t look as pure as represented on the stage. She was probably covered with dirt and blood – even manure!
For many observers, the story of Mary ends with the events of Christmas. But the story didn’t end there. Mary’s story continues and is mingled in the Gospels with the greater story – that of her son, Jesus. And it’s a story of pain and suffering. If we did not see her story from the perspective of eternity, we might even call her a tragic figure. But Mary’s life was a living out of a prophecy uttered not long after the birth of her son.
As followers of the Law of Moses, Mary and Joseph went up to the Jerusalem temple to present their first-born son Jesus to the LORD, and to present their offering of two pigeons (the offering acceptable for those too poor to offer a lamb) for the purification of the mother. There they were met by an old man who took the child up in his arms and uttered a prayer to God and a prophecy to the mother concerning her child.
In the middle of his prophecy, he said to Mary, “… and a sword will pierce even your own soul …”
Mary’s soul was to feel that sword often over the next 30+ years, as she raised that son to manhood, watched him live out that prophecy and die what many might consider an untimely death.
By this time she had already experienced some amazing – and painful – things. She had received a visit from an angel who told her she would become pregnant in spite of the fact that she had kept herself a virgin. That she would bear a son, who would be the King of Israel. She had endured the suspicions of her betrothed husband, who planned on divorcing her, until he too had been visited by an angel. She undoubtedly was forced to put up with taunts and whispers from her neighbors about her pregnancy, whispers that would even follow her son into his manhood.
She had, when near the end of her pregnancy, taken a long journey with her husband from Nazareth to Bethlehem as required for the census. There they’d had to find lodging in a stable where she gave birth to her child and had to place him in a feeding trough for want of a better place to lay him. There they had been visited by shepherds who worshipped the child and told of seeing a host of angels who sang his praises. Mary had just tucked those things away in her heart.
But the greatest pains were still to come.
After the temple visit Mary and Joseph settled in Bethlehem, where they were visited by Magi from the east, bringing gifts and worshipping her son. Next, a hurried escape to Egypt after being warned by God that King Herod was out to kill him. There they remained as refugees till Herod’s death. Mary undoubtedly learned in Egypt of Herod’s slaughter of children in Bethlehem. The sword must have begun to pierce Mary’s soul there. They then returned to Nazareth avoiding any place controlled by Herod’s family.
I’m sure that Mary and Joseph did their best to raise their exceptional child in the ways of the Lord, though it must have been quite a challenge. When he was 12 years old they took him up to Jerusalem again (his Bar Mitzvah?). On the way back in the pilgrims’ caravan, they discovered he was missing – a bit of pain that every parent has probably felt at one time or another. After three days’ search they found him in the temple, carrying on a question and answer time with the wise teachers. We can feel the anxiety turn to anger in Mary’s words, “Child, why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been worried sick looking for you!”
And we can feel the tip of the sword enter deeper into her soul as he looks up at them and replies, “Why were you looking for me? Didn’t you know that I had to be in my Father’s house?” Ouch! Mary is reminded that Joseph is not the child’s father and that the child, though hers by birth, was not hers to keep. We’re told that “they didn’t understand.”
Some time later, Joseph left the scene, apparently dying and leaving Mary a widow. By this time there were other siblings in the family, though Jesus as the first-born, would have been responsible for the care of his mother.
When Jesus had grown and left home and begun an itinerant ministry, there was a wedding in the town of Cana in Galilee. Mary was apparently serving and Jesus and his disciples were among the invited guests. When they ran out of wine (was this because of Jesus’ rowdy friends?), Mary called it to Jesus’ attention. Was she expecting something from him? After all, he was 30 years old already and apparently had done nothing that would indicate the fact that he was a King. Jesus’ reply seems puzzling – “What to me and to you, woman?” The word “woman” was not itself meant as a disrespectful term, though the whole question seems to be a gentle rebuke. He continues, “My hour has not yet arrived.” He seemed to be telling her that he was on a different schedule – a different agenda. She was no longer in control. We can feel the sword piercing a little deeper.
Mary must have heard of her son’s strange teaching when calling people to follow him. “He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me.” “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother, he is not able to be my disciple.” Hearing this must have thrust the sword a bit deeper. Perhaps that’s why some of his relatives thought he was crazy and wanted to have him arrested. I’m sure that drove it even deeper still.
When Mary with his brothers came to see Jesus, he ignored them. When someone told him they were outside looking for him, He looked at those around and said, “Who are my mother and my brothers? … Look – my brothers and sisters and mother!” Whatever else this meant it was clearly a cutting of family ties. When an enthusiastic woman yelled out, “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you,” Jesus corrected her, “On the contrary, blessed are those who hear the word of God and do it!” Faith is thicker than blood or mother’s milk. The sword again!
But without a doubt the sword went its deepest into Mary’s soul when she stood at the cross with the other women and John, the only one of the 12 who hadn’t run away. She heard him cry out, “Woman – look at your son!”
I suppose that anyone who is a parent would agree with me that parenting is painful. We share our children’s (and grandchildren’s) sorrows, pains and disappointments.
But I can only barely begin to imagine Mary’s pain. To be told as she was that you are the object of God’s favor, that you are going to give birth to God’s child – the King of Israel – and then to be told that you would suffer a sword through your soul. To see that child move farther and farther away. To watch that child suffer a horrible criminal’s death, seemingly bringing to an end all your hopes for him – God’s promises for him unfulfilled.
But that’s not the end of the story. Her son rose from the dead. Mary’s tears were dried!
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Scriptures (in order): Luke 2:22-35; Exodus 13:2, 12; Leviticus 12; Luke 1:26-35; John 8:41; Luke 2:1-21; Matthew 2; Luke 2:39-51; John 2:1-12; Matthew 10:37; Luke 14:26; Mark 3:21, 31-34; Luke 11:27, 28; John 19:21-27; Acts 1:14.