Written and told on Christmas 1 (B), inspired by Luke 2:21-40, but drawing on much more of the Christmas story.
Mary had grown up watching the women in her village as they went about their lives as wives and mothers. Much time was given to preparing and cooking the food, looking after their own children and those of the community, looking after the men’s needs, and of course, the cleaning.
Mary helped as they extended hospitality to family and travelers, and she learned what her role would be in teaching her own children about their faith… someday. And as she grew into a young woman, her mother had made sure to teach her the rituals unique to women.
When she and Joseph were set to be married, life seemed to be following the pattern she had come to expect. They would make a family together and be part of the community in which they had both grown up. And then the angel showed up.
Since that day, it seemed that all of life was filled with mystery. She still had no idea precisely how God had made it happen, but here she was, holding a baby. In the moment, there was no other answer she could have given the angel. After all, how do you say “no” to the messenger of the Lord?
She vaguely remembered the words she’d sung, extolling the wonders of God and the faith that God’s promises had inspired in her. But mostly she held onto the way she had felt- full to the brim with joy and faith and trust… And she treasured the words that had proven irrevocably true: “Nothing is impossible with God.”
It had become obvious enough to her and Joseph within weeks of the angel’s visit that Mary was indeed pregnant. In Mary’s mind, it was almost as great a miracle that Joseph had not cast her aside or allowed her to be stoned. And that, between them, they had managed to keep their families from disowning them completely. Even in relationships, nothing is impossible with God.
She had been so thankful for her time with Elizabeth and Zechariah. It was a comfort to find them equally dumbfounded and overjoyed with the prospect of welcoming their own miracle child. Mary smiled at the memory of how John leaped inside Elizabeth’s womb at her greeting. That’s how Elizabeth had known and blessed her – even before Mary could tell her story. Zechariah’s knowing eyes echoed the refrain without his saying a word – with God, nothing is impossible.
The long ride to Bethlehem, the crowds, the noise… It had almost been too much to endure, especially as the time to deliver crept closer. Looking down at the child nestled in her arms, like so many mothers before and since, Mary shook her head and wondered at the reality that he was the one who had kicked and squirmed and made her so uncomfortable. She had come to know him then as a mysterious guest, and now she was coming to know him again, especially when those beautiful eyes opened and locked onto hers.
Mary was thankful for her memories of the night of his birth. Not the painful parts – the way her body had seemed to take on a life of its own, muscles pulling and squeezing in places she’d never been so aware of, and all the stretching and pushing from within. Those memories she could do without, “especially if you ever want a brother or sister” she murmured to the infant.
But those other memories, those she treasured. The way Joseph found someplace for them, even the middle of that crush of people. The women who had heard her cry out and answered his pleas for help, almost making up for being so very far from home and family. Joseph’s eyes – terrified and yet filled with love and hope as he looked into her eyes and then Jesus’. Mary imagined her own eyes, a slightly different shade of brown, but equally scared and amazed at what God had done through her.
The baby nuzzled and mewed, ready to suckle again. She looked at his face, noting just how much he’d grown since the shepherds had made their visit. They were another sight she promised herself not to forget. The oldest looked almost as weathered as his staff, too old to be taken in by fancy, and yet he was the most eager to tell of the host of angels they had seen. The youngest of the bunch, peering out from behind the others looked at his feet when they reached that part of the story when they were all so afraid.
Mary remembered nodding, hoping to reassure each of them that she understood miraculous, crazy and impossible. She had looked over to Joseph, who smiled that knowing smile of his, just before taking the baby into his arms and allowing the shepherds a closer look. Their faces had changed somehow, the lines relaxed as though a weight had been removed or a lingering pain had disappeared. Their words of praise were among the treasures that she held tightly.
The nights and days since had run together, in the way that any parent of a newborn can understand. The baby fell into a pattern of sleeping and waking that made it possible for Mary to rest in short bursts and do some healing. And then suddenly it was the eighth day, the day baby boys were to be circumcised and formally given their names. Mary wondered if all mothers were as torn over this ritual, knowing how much it must hurt the child, and yet trusting in the God who required it as part of his covenant with Abraham so very long ago.
Joseph had sensed her worry, and she was again thankful that he had chosen to stand beside her and the child, in spite of the whispers and urgings to the contrary. As he wrapped his arms around them both that eighth night, she knew he would be a good father, a good husband. She let go of the worries, tucked the memories back into her heart, and rested.
After forty days, even Mary was able to return to the temple, at least to the outer courts where the women were allowed. She was feeling stronger, more like herself, even as she wondered at the way her body was becoming more attuned to the child and his needs. As she and Joseph took the baby to the temple, she was aware of the way people looked at their little family. Some clearly recognized themselves, holding their own young children in a way that said, “Oh yeah, we’ve been there”. Older couples looked fondly upon the infant, perhaps thinking of grandchildren or other babies in their extended families.
Some of the women saw the child and then looked quickly away, as if seeing this proof that God blesses other women with babies was too much to bear. These were the women Mary wanted to rush up to, tell them about Elizabeth and Zechariah, about the angels and the ways God made clear that nothing was impossible.
But they had a purpose for this temple visit – it was time to go and officially set Jesus, their first-born son, aside to the Lord and offer a sacrifice to mark the day. They could only afford two small birds, but they took part in the ritual whole-heartedly. They had been entrusted with the Messiah, even if no one would know for years to come. “And how would they know?” Mary mused “He looks no different from other babies.”
Just as the thought entered her mind, it was time to present the child to Simeon. Mary was vaguely familiar with what would be said; she and Joseph had talked about it the night before. So it came as a surprise to hear Simeon depart from the script.
He took the child in his arms, and blessed God, saying:
“Now, according to your word, Sovereign Lord, permit your servant to depart in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples: a light, for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.”
Simeon recognized Jesus, not just as a beloved first-born child of Mary and Joseph, but as the light and salvation prophesied for centuries by the likes of Isaiah. He had seen and known the Christ child without being told a thing. This was new. It was exciting and terrifying. It was impossible – but yet, it was so clearly of God as to not only be possible, but inevitable.
The old man had been promised that he would see the messiah, and God allowed Simeon to hold the promised child in his arms. The glow in his eyes as he prayed and pronounced the blessings was another treasure for Mary’s heart, even as she pondered the harder words he spoke. The warnings that there would be troubles to follow. The child would grow to be a man with both allies and enemies. This would mean joy and sorrow for Mary, as well.
The prayers for strength she had spoken as she awaited Joseph’s decision, as she traveled to see Elizabeth, as the birth pains had started… Mary knew they would be her companions as they raised this child of promise who would one day bring long-awaited salvation to God’s people.
Mary reached out to take the baby from Joseph. She longed to hold him, to pray blessings over him, to memorize every tiny detail about him as a defense against the passing days becoming years too quickly. In her reverie, she allowed Joseph to guide her away from Simeon.
But before they could make their way out, an old widow walked directly toward them. Her voice startled Mary, and she looked up to see that it was the prophetess, Anna. Mary had not met her, but she knew immediately who she must be. So many had spoken of her tremendous faith and of her life.
For the eighty years she had been widowed, Anna served in the temple. She prayed day and night, night and day, often fasting as part of her worship. Some said she was more attuned to the working of the Lord than the men who were allowed into the inner courts of the temple. Mary didn’t know about that, but she believed that Anna’s heart was as pure as any woman’s could be.
Mary found herself uncovering Jesus, allowing Anna to get a better look at his face. Like Simeon, Anna gave thanks and blessings to God, but then she turned from Mary, speaking about the child to all those around them.
Simeon may have been ready to die after seeing the Christ child, but Anna was ready to bear witness to what she had seen, to proclaim the good news to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.
Mary could see the way power surged through the woman’s aged body, and she remembered how that power had overtaken her. She wondered at the babe in her arms, knowing that somehow that power would be made known through him. For nothing is impossible with God.
As the holy family left the temple, Anna moved about, as filled with God’s Spirit as the prophetess Deborah – the great judge and military leader- and the prophetess Huldah, who, in the days of King Josiah, verified that an ancient scroll was indeed the word of God.
The words Simeon and Anna shared with Mary and Joseph and all who would listen that day didn’t start a movement. They were still predictions of what would be once the years passed and the boy they held became a man. This messiah would usher in a new age, a new covenant with God that would be for all people.
That is good news of great joy! And yet, as the words of the carols we sing today remind us, we continue to wait for the fullness of that new age to come. We live in the now and the not yet, in the time and space where the Kingdom of God is, but not what it shall one day be.
Like Mary, we know, and yet cannot begin to understand, exactly what that means for us. There is power – we’ve felt it at times, haven’t we… And like Mary, we treasure those moments, we ponder them in our hearts. We hold tight to the memories and the promises so that, when we look at messes we have made, the brokenness that we have inherited, the chaos that enters our lives unbidden, we can take heart. We can trust that we are not responsible to fix all of it. And we can begin to take those first small faith-filled steps. With God.