Protestants have tended either to ignore Mary outright or to treat her exclusively as a Christmas character. While she gives birth to the object of our faith, Christians don’t often consider Mary herself as a woman of faith. Both Luke and Matthew agree in their nativity accounts that Mary became pregnant prior to her marriage with Joseph.
Both Gospels agree as well that Joseph knew he was not the father of Mary’s child. The darker side to the annunciation is that when Mary receives news she will become pregnant by the Holy Spirit, she is almost certainly hearing news which no one else will believe. Wagging tongues and whispering gossip will almost certainly follow Mary from here on out, speculating as to the ‘true’ cause of Mary’s premature pregnancy.
According to custom, Mary would have been no older than sixteen when she became engaged. According to tradition, Joseph most likely was an older man, marrying for the second time. According to Torah, because Mary and Joseph were betrothed, any sexual activity prior to her wedding day would have been understood as adultery not fornication (Deut 22.23).
What if a woman in Mary’s position claimed she had been raped? What if her husband had brought false charges against her? What if she flatly denied any wrongdoing? For such murky, disputed circumstances, Numbers 5 prescribes the ‘law of bitter waters’ wherein a suspected adulteress would be brought before a priest, required to let down her hair, and under oath drink a mixture of ash, holy water and the ink from the priest’s written indictment.
The woman’s oath: ‘May the Lord make you to become a curse among your people when he causes your womb to miscarry and swell.’ If guilty, according to Numbers 5, the woman would become sick. If she did not become sick (an unlikely happening) she was acquitted.
Whatever we may think today of such customs, this was the reality which governed Mary’s world. It was the reality in which she nonetheless, hearing Gabriel’s news, replies: ‘May it be…’
Mary would’ve known the likelihood she’d be accused of adultery. Just as surely she would have known the proscribed punishment she might receive. Mary would’ve known how Torah insisted Joseph divorce her, and she certainly would’ve known that whatever child she gave birth to before marriage, regardless of the angel’s promises, forever would be regarded as an illegitimate child and banned from the cultural and religious life of Israel.
Still, in the face of all those likelihoods, Mary summons the courage to say ‘May it be with me according to your word.’
The obvious conclusion we can draw from this scene is that Mary had a faith sufficient to say yes to the vocation God had for her. We can assume Mary had faith that the God of Israel is merciful and would protect her. We can assume Mary knew from her scripture stories of women- suspect women- who nonetheless played a part in God’s plan and were safeguarded and ultimately rewarded by God. Mary must have known, we can imagine, that God’s call is very often a summons to serve and to suffer for love’s sake.
When Mary assents to the annunciation, she does so knowing her life will never be the same. Her Nazareth, she had to have known, would never look at her the same way again. It’s in Mary’s ‘Yes’ to God here in Luke 1 that we can spot for the first time the shadow of her Son’s cross. If we allow Christmas to be merely about sentimentality, we miss how Mary suffers for the Messiah before the Messiah himself suffers. Indeed one could speculate that Jesus learns suffering love and the demands of faithfulness on his mother’s knee.
Many of the women we meet here in Guatemala are no older than Mary would have been before the first Christmas Eve.
Though their circumstances are different, many will know what it is to love amidst suffering and what it’s like to bear a burden for another’s sake. No doubt many of them, like Mary, rely on the faith that God protects those who have no else to protect them.
Perhaps this season when you see Mary in a Christmas creche back home you will think of some of the women here with brightly woven dresses and boldness in their eyes.