A great portent appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pangs, in the agony of giving birth. (Revelation 12.1-2)
My name is Mary. You will think that you know me well. You will have seen me in so many places, looking down at you, from a window, from a screen, a picture, a statue. You may have lit a candle before me, asked me to pray for you, cried before me, thought that I was the only one that you could talk to. You may have travelled long distances to a place that I was supposed to have visited, appeared in. You may have been in a shrine at which I was the centre of attention; looked to me for your healing, appealed to me for clemency. It’s so strange. You think you know me so well, but I bet you would pass me in the street if our paths could cross, not recognising me at all. In fact, I hardly recognise myself.
I’d lived a quiet life. Having older parents meant that I had to help around the house even earlier than other girls around me in Nazareth did. My mother was finding it hard to fetch the water each day from the well in Nazareth – so that quickly became my job, and the sweeping and the cleaning and then the preparation of the food, the baking of the bread. I would have like to have played with the other girls but I didn’t have time, with all this other stuff I had to do.
It’d be untrue to say that I didn’t resent it at times. Don’t misunderstand me, I loved my parents, but I’d have loved to have let my hair down, just for a moment, even though I’d never really been to many, I knew that I loved a party, a wedding, with the wine flowing and the guests awaiting the bridegroom and the women tending the lamps and the young women waiting to escort the bride.
But my life seemed to be shaped to me being like a handmaid, a servant. When I wasn’t cooking and cleaning I was quiet, I said my prayers, I waited.
It had been an ordinary day when my ordinary life became extraordinary. The chores were done, my parents had gone to market, I was alone in the house, thinking. And then, he was there, speaking to me, a messenger from God. I was scared at first, moved close to the wall where I was sitting as if I could get away. But any fear passed quickly, for the messenger brought peace into the room and into my heart.
And what I was told made me thrill in the core of my being. I was to be a mother, of a very special baby. ‘How?’ I asked. I had been betrothed to a local carpenter my father knew, Joseph, but we’d hardly seen each other and never spent time alone together yet. ‘The Holy Spirit’ was the answer. It was to be a holy baby, God’s baby.
My reaction? Well, I surprised myself. ‘I’m God’s handmaid’ I said. It was what I was used to. I had done it for my parents, I would do it for God, I would do it for the child who was, as I spoke, being planted deep inside me.
That was almost nine months ago and those have been turbulent months. When it became obvious to any one who cared to look at me my mother stopped me going to the well, after I’d tried to go at midday when only those women went who were shunned by the community. But she wanted to spare me that shame and so sent me off to a cousin down south who was also expecting a child.
And then, when I returned home, so that my mother could be my midwife, we were all told that there was to be a count of all the people in the country by the Romans. As I was now about to be married to Joseph (who had been wonderful about all this baby business – my father had chosen so well, a true husband for me) we had to pack our bags and head off to his home city of Bethlehem. I could hardly contemplate the journey – but I had no choice. And that is where I am now, on the back of a donkey, heading from Galilee to Judea.
You think you know me so well, but am I more plaster than flesh for you, object of fantasy and fascination, rather than real? I am a real girl caught up in extraordinary happenings. When one of your little girls is dressed up in blue and white and walks in, pretending to be me, she’s more like me than the statue that you look at. She’s probably really nervous, trying to remember her lines, a little bit of stage fright, not wanting to drop the baby. That was me, the quiet girl at the well, chosen for the purposes of God, a handmaid, not a queen.
Mary, pray for us.
in your humility and simplicity
you reveal so much of God.
May my life be lived more humbly