This won’t really shock any of you, but in case you don’t know me yet, I grew up on stage at church. From the time I was two years old all the way through high school and even into college, I performed on stage. In fact, it became a part of my church’s Christmas tradition that each year from about the time I was twelve, I sang Amy Grant’s song “Breath of Heaven,” also known as Mary’s song. Every year for about four or five years, I sang this song during the Christmas season. Soon, it became that embarrassing part of my families’ Christmas tradition. It was embarrassing, but also fun. To this day, we all pretend like we don’t know that Grandma is going to put in a CD and say, “I bet you can’t guess who this is?” and my twelve-year-old voice will come through the speakers . . . and we would all pretend like we have NO idea who it is.
Needless to say, Mary’s song was actually a big part of Christmas for me growing up. It was also an important teaching tool in my young faith-development. Because I remember the year I turned fourteen that the song was suddenly different . . . and not just for me, but for the church. Because the year I turned fourteen, it suddenly hit everyone that Mary was my age when all this happened 2000 years ago. And there was something extremely powerful and disconcerting about the realization that she was me when she was told about the new life growing in her womb. A teenage girl, chosen to bear the greatest gift the world has ever known. And as we heard from reading her song of response today, this girl graciously and humbly accepts God’s message to her, and even praises the Lord for what is to come. Her hymn of faith is pretty remarkable for one so young.
History has been kind to Mary, and that in and of itself is worth taking notice of. Not all women faired so kindly through the corridors of time. But Mary, her reputation is sterling. Think about all the art in which you have seen Mary portrayed. She is serene, almost always wearing blue and white . . . colors that represent purity and holiness. Her hands are soft and either lovingly holding the Christ child, or folded together in reverent prayer, or extended outward in the ever-loving embrace of the woman who was viewed as the ultimate mother . . . welcoming, inviting, loving. She often has a halo of light encircling her head. And . . . she almost always looks older than she actually was. She looks about the age you would think a mother would be . . . rather than the teenage girl that she was.
And this got me thinking . . . you know, this is what history has painted for us . . . what most of us were taught in Sunday School . . . joyful, faithful, humble Mary. And she certainly was all of those things. Her song shows us just how faithful she was. Because what we forget, what we don’t tend to talk about, was that she was an unwed teenage mother. While she lived in a different culture, reactions to pregnant teenage girls haven’t changed all that much over the millennia. Mary . . . thirteen or fourteen, engaged, and pregnant. There is one glaring difference between Mary’s time and ours. Her becoming pregnant outside of marriage could have been a death sentence. Think about that. As we know from other biblical accounts, women accused of adultery were taken outside the village walls and stoned to death. No questions asked, no trial, no stopping to interrogate the other party involved, and certainly no mercy.
God’s pronouncement to Mary that she would carry a holy child was a death sentence. And I have to wonder, how bad did it really get for Mary and for Joseph? Our picturesque nativity sets don’t allow us insight into the their struggles. We are not given a lot of details in the text about how Mary and Joseph suffered for their part in God’s unfolding story. But we’re given a little bit of a clue and if we’re honest, we can imagine how it went over when Mary’s only answer for everyone about her child was that, “God willed it and made it happen by the Holy Spirit.” She lived in a small town. Imagine the looks, the whispered conversations that stopped when she got close. Think about the snide remarks and comments she had to endure. Joseph struggles with what to do until an angel tells him in a dream that she’s telling the truth . . . God is behind all of this. And so Joseph joins Mary in the spotlight of scandal and shame. He marries her. And on this side of history, it’s pretty easy to gloss over the sacrifice that Mary and Joseph made to play their role in God’s story.
They lost friends over this. Mary lost her reputation. What about their parents? What did Mary’s own mother think? And it would not have ended when Jesus was born, either. How long did the holy family have to put up with people comparing Jesus’ looks with Joseph’s? How many times did Mary have to pull Jesus to her skirt and shield his ears from cruel speculations and accusations? Everyone knew that he wasn’t Joseph’s kid. Mary probably carried a scarlet letter around with her for the rest of her life. In fact, I wonder if during that difficult pregnancy, Mary became the woman who had to go to the well in the middle of the day to avoid all the others? Or if she ever got tired of having to comfort her son when others teased him about Joseph not being his dad?
I ask all these questions because I remember when it hit me at fourteen years old, just how hard this must have been on Mary. History has a way of glossing over some of the pain and shame that she probably endured, but I remember my fourteen-year-old self thinking, “If that happened to me, no one would believe me.” In fact, I remember one day holding a baby outside the university ministry office on my college campus. I was simply doing a favor for the university minister’s wife as they were in a meeting and needed someone to hold and rock Lainy. So I took her outside and walked around humming and talking to her. And I began to notice that people were looking at me funny. They kept doing a double take. One person even walked up to me and said, “A little young aren’t you?” and it hit me, all these people were just assuming this was my baby, and making the judgment that I was far too young to have a child. Those few hours of looks and judgment and snide comments gave me a whole new understanding of what it may have felt like for Mary.
It makes me have such a deep level of respect and compassion for Mary. It helps me see her hymn in a whole new light. Sweet, gentle Mary was also tough and brave and courageous and willing to do anything for the child she had yet to meet. And her faith wasn’t shallow by any means. She accepts what God tells her and rather than see it as a social or perhaps even literal death sentence, rather than looking at all it will cost her, she has faith that God is working on something bigger than what she can see. That is a faith worth emulating. In the toughest and most difficult circumstances, I wonder how many times Mary repeated the words to her song in her head and in her heart just to get through another day. She had faith that God wouldn’t abandon her or allow her to go through this without a bigger purpose in mind. She chose to see Jesus as a blessing and not a burden. I hope and pray that when life gets tough, I have that kind of faith.
Because even though Mary may not have fully known all that God was going to do, we have the advantage of being on this side of history. And do know what else I wonder? I wonder how much Mary and Jospeh’s faithfulness to God’s plan impacted their son. As we know, Jesus later seems to have quite a soft spot in his heart for women who’s reputations are less than sterling. When he meets the woman at the well, was some part of him picturing his mother? When he saves the woman caught in adultery and ashamed, and he helps her up and asks her where all her accusers went, was it because he remembered all the accusations hurled at his own mother? Or the woman who anoints his feet with her tears and everyone is aghast? Did he see some of his own mother’s tears at being scorned? Did he remember wishing that someone would have stood up for her? Treated her with dignity? I think so. I think that Jesus knew first hand about the damage that other’s words and actions could cause, and mistakes or not, everybody needs someone to love them. Jesus knew first hand the fierce love and compassion and faithfulness of a mother who had sacrificed everything for her son, for her God.
On this side of history, we can see that God was true to his promise, and Mary’s song came true. Despite her early hardships, she has been revered and generations have indeed called her blessed. In fact, history has erased the scarlet letter she probably labored under for so long. Her son was indeed the one who brought down the powerful and lifted up the lowly, including so many lowly women, and God indeed did great things.
This advent season, as we look at the flame of the candle of faith, let’s remember that Mary’s faith was so deep and so strong that she gave up everything for God’s bigger plan. Let’s remember what it must have cost her. The flame of faith burns brightly, and shines, even in the darkest of times. May we learn from Mary’s faith that God is working, even when it is hard to see or feel. And maybe, our faith in the darkest times has more of an impact that we will ever know. What if Mary’s unwavering faith taught her son, God’s son, something about compassion, mercy, forgiveness, perseverance, and faithfulness to God’s will? Those traits that were then so evident in his life and ministry? That had an untold impact on all he met . . . no matter their reputation or their past. This is the Christ we follow. This is the example that has been set for us.
May our faith give us the strength to rise to the occasion, as it did Mary, “for the Mighty One has and will do great things.” When we look at our nativity sets this year, may we see with the eyes of Mary. Eyes of faith that help us to see the good, even when all around us seems bad. Eyes of faith that learn to see blessings in our burdens, and promises in the midst of our trials. Eyes through which the flame of our faith burns brightly, for all the world to see. Amen.
Kristy Bay is associate pastor for youth and education, Milledge Avenue Baptist Church, Athens, Georgia.