On the Season of Perpetual Hope.

Growing up in Eastern Europe, I spent a lot of time in old, Gothic churches dripping with concrete saints and steeples that spiraled endlessly up towards the sky. I’ve learned to squint and search for the sketches of faded frescoes tucked away behind the altar, and grown to love the soft glow of candlelight flickering off the stone walls. As I’ve traveled, I’ve noticed that icons and stained glass windows of Mary almost universally depict her as a sort of Stepford wife–steady and serene. Her quiet smile and outstretched arms make her look more like the Mona Lisa, and less like a virgin teenager who’d just found out that she was expecting the Savior of the world. Those images of Mary make me forget, sometimes, just how fragile and afraid she must have felt. I forget that she was a regular girl with regular dreams for her life—all of which were radically altered by what the angel announced to her that day.

Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!

I wonder how that felt to Mary. The prelude to the announcement that God had chosen her to be an unmarried, pregnant virgin.

I wonder if the news felt less like a blessing, and more like a visceral unhinging—a placing of every treasured dream that she’d had for her life on the altar, without even an inkling of how much more brightly the fire would burn. What did being “favored” mean for Mary?

You will endure the disdain, scorn, and shunning of disgusted neighbors and once-dear friends that you used to share meals and stories with, play with, worship with. They’ll whisper about you, turn the other way when they see you, and shame your parents. Favored one. He’s with you.

You’ll feel lonely. Favored one. He’s with you.

They’ll call you a whore, a liar, and a lunatic. Favored one. He’s with you.

Your fiancé—the man that you’ve planned a life with–may parade you into the heart of your town where the people who once loved you will hurl rocks at you until you’ve been bludgeoned to death. This is Joseph’s right, and you have every reason to expect him to exercise it. Favored one. He’s with you.

If Joseph decides to spare your life, your best case scenario is that he’ll leave you, and no one else will ever think of marrying you. Without a husband to care for you, you’ll become a destitute, homeless single mother. Favored one. He’s with you.

And then, what she could not have foreseen and would leave her heart so wholly battered–

The precious boy who once clenched your fingers as he took his first, teetering steps will one day be murdered just steps away from you. You’ll hear him scream as nails rip through his hands and feet. You will watch every heaving, shuddering breath that he takes on that hill, and you will be powerless to so much as stroke his face or hold his hand. The crowd will laugh and sneer right beside you as blood streams down his writhing body and sobs level you to the ground, and you wonder if the grief of it all will swallow you whole. Favored one. Even now, He’s with you.

I wonder if sometimes, Mary didn’t feel very favored at all as she carried Hope Himself inside of her. I wonder if sometimes, she just felt exhausted and sliced open—overwhelmed by the raw, suffocating heartache ever-before her. And still, she chose praise as her response.

To be favored and treasured and chosen by God Himself doesn’t mean an absence of pain. For Mary, it meant infinitely more of it—at least for the duration of her life on earth.  But goodness, would any of us doubt for a minute that Mary was precious to God? Would we question for a second his fierce love for her, His unwavering commitment to her, His presence with her?

Advent is the question, the pleading, the desperate are-you-really-coming? It’s the lonely how long, the grieving and yearning and hoping for what we can’t yet see. Christmas, then, is the answer to our longing, the promise that in the midst of unspeakable pain, there is Hope and He’s come to rescue us. It’s the reminder that just as it was with Mary, our own dreams for our lives are anemic and pale in comparison to the story that God is writing. And while the temporary pain of what God is working behind the scenes might pierce us through to bone and marrow, Emmanuel—God WITH us—reminds us that in the midst of wrenching pain, we are not alone. The heartache of Mary’s life was true and real—but God’s declaration over her was truer, deeper, more real than anything that she could see. His love for her was more relentless, His plan to deliver her more unyielding. What I love about Christmas is that it does not pretend pain away—it points our pain to the greater story at work, and reminds us that Hope has come.

A weary world rejoices, indeed.

Comments

  1. I was just reading the “fear not” passage in Luke this morning (well, the Mary fear not). As always, I’m struck by her response, “Be it unto me according to Your word.” (that’s from memory and not exact I’m sure) For real. That was her little 14-ish-year-old response?!?!?! So chosen.

    • ashleypdickens says:

      CANNOT get over the way that she responded. I kid you not, had God offered me that gig I would have politely turned it down. It’s so easy for me to to gloss over the weight of what it meant for her.

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