Pondering: Advent 1
So many years ago – so many memories come to me as I sit here by myself in John’s home. My life was lived so fully but at such a young age. As the memories flood back I can honestly say I have indeed been blessed and favored by God.
I remember my childhood. It was so different from my contemporaries. I did not know the fun of hide and seek after the chores were done. I did not have ordinary friends to talk to and with whom I could share confidences. My life was sheltered. Perhaps that was part of the preparation…
An account of Mary’s birth and childhood is recorded in the Infancy Gospel of James, one of those early Christian writings that circulated at the beginnings of the Christian Church but were not included in the canon of what we know as the New Testament.
According to this account, Joachim was Mary’s father and Anna was her mother. Theirs was a childless marriage in the tradition of Sarah (Isaac), Hannah (Samuel), and Elizabeth (John). All women gave birth well after child bearing years and in answer to prayer. Childlessness was a serious matter because it was considered a sign of God’s displeasure. It would also mean there would be no one to protect the woman in widowhood.
Anna prays her lament and suddenly a messenger from the Lord God appears to tell her that she will conceive and give birth. Her child will be known around the world.
I was that child. My childhood was determined for me before I was born. My parents dedicated me to the Temple. Only unlike the prophet Samuel, I was a girl and therefore my life was particularly restricted. My childhood was spent amidst the Temple practices of worship, study, High Holy Days, and sacrifices. Although the Temple was a very busy place I was an observer not a participant.
That was acceptable until I reached the age young women become physically able to bear children. Then it became an issue of purity and impurity. My life changed again.
A husband was chosen to take me as his wife. I was lucky when it came to that. Joseph was a kind man. More would be asked of him than he could ever imagine.
Mary was considered betrothed (engaged) to Joseph. She would normally be betrothed for a period of one year. Then Joseph would come to her home and take her to his home, the symbol of the wedding. The celebration would last one week. Legally however the relationship was sealed with the betrothal.
Things did not proceed quite according to ancient customs. After the betrothal was announced, Mary got a visitor. Gabriel, the messenger, was from God and had something to tell Mary.
I remember the feel of the true purple and scarlet threads as they slipped through my hands. I had been spinning the scarlet thread that would go into the new veil for the Temple of the Lord. I took my water jar and went out to fill it. That is when I heard those words:
“Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
Gabriel’s words conform to the structure of birth annunciations in the Hebrew Testament. An angel or messenger says “Do not be afraid.” Then the woman is named and told she will give birth to a child whose name is also disclosed. Finally the future role of the child is described in sacred language.
I admit I was fearful. I was confused. I was anxious. Yet I remember Gabriel’s calming presence. I knew at the core of my being that this was God sent and God promised.
Most of the art work depicting the Annunciation has Mary in some sort of pious pose, usually holding a book or being next to a place for study. The most intriguing painting I found was “The Annunciation” by John Collier. In it Mary is shown as a suburban schoolgirl, complete with saddle shoes and a uniform with a white blouse and blue jumper. She stands outside the door of her house. A vase of lilies is between Mary and Gabriel. Lilies are a symbol of virginity. Its modernity reaches across the centuries and is a reminder of the youth and vulnerability of Mary. The account from the Infancy of Gospel of James 10:1-12:2 tells the story this way:
“Meanwhile, there was a council of the priests, who agreed: ‘Let’s make a veil for the temple of the Lord.’
And the high priest said, ‘Summon the true virgins from the tribe of David.’ And so the temple assistants left and searched everywhere and found seven. And the high priest then remembered the girl Mary, that she, too, was from the tribe of David and was pure in God’s eyes. And so the temple assistants went our and got her.
And they took the maidens into the temple of the Lord. And the high priest said, ‘Cast lots for me to decide who’ll spin which threads for the veil: the gold, the white, the linen, the silk, the violet, the scarlet, and the true purple.’
And the true purple and scarlet threads fell to Mary. And she took them and returned home. Now it was at this time that Zechariah became mute, and Samuel took his place until Zechariah regained his speech. Meanwhile, Mary had taken up the scarlet thread and was spinning it.
And she took her water jar and went out to fill it with water. Suddenly there was a voice saying to her, ‘Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women.’ Mary began looking around, both right and left, to see where the voice was coming from. She became terrified and went home. After putting the water jar down and taking up the purple thread, she sat down on her chair and began to spin.
A heavenly messenger suddenly stood before her: ‘Don’t be afraid, Mary. You see, you’ve found favor in the sight of the Lord of all. You will conceive by means of his word.’
But as she listened, Mary was troubled and said, ‘If I actually conceive by the Lord, the living God, will I also give birth the way women usually do?’
And the messenger of the Lord replied, ‘No, Mary, because the power of God will overshadow you. Therefore, the child to be born will be called holy, son of the Most High. And you will name him Jesus – the name means “he will save his people from their sins.”’
And Mary said, ‘Here I am, the Lord’s slave before him. I pray that all you’ve told me comes true.’
And she finished (spinning) the purple and the scarlet thread and took her work up to the high priest. The high priest accepted them and praised her and said, ‘Mary, the Lord God has extolled your name and so you will be blessed by all the generations of the earth.’”
The story of the Annunciation can be found in the Gospel of Luke 1:26-38.
Grace and Peace