In relation to boys, girls have always had a very short childhood, inversely proportional to the wealth of the family. Two thousand years ago in Palestine they were hardly off the breast before they were expected to conform to strict behavior patterns. Little girls grew in the knowledge that they were second class citizens, forever beholding to their parents and their male siblings.
Long before puberty girls had to fill the role of mother to their younger siblings, be a housekeeper assistant in the home and in the field and a confidant to their mother. At an early age they learned that younger brothers ate more, were clothed better and pampered by their mothers. The word stoicism was born with Palestinian girls in mind.
For women of any age there was no such thing as quiet time or personal relaxation. They had to learn everything about life and making a home in a short space of time. Clean the house, carry the water, tend to crops, clean and mend clothes, prepare meals. If someone in the family was ill there were extra chores.
From childhood, girls and women went to sleep physically and mentally exhausted, often hungry. All of this was the norm, expected and therefore accepted. The well-being of a family depended upon everyone pulling their weight, though invariably the women pulled more. Discipline and responsibility were attributes of living that built character and stamina, which in turn formed the foundations of society.
From the time Mary knew herself she realized that she was outwardly the same, but different to others on the inside. Born without original sin she had the graces of the Holy Spirit, which allowed her to withstand temptation, and gave her an awareness that set her apart for a special purpose.
At puberty she was promised to Joseph, an older man. Mary expected to give up her childhood for the security of a home – trusting and hoping that her husband would be a good provider, hopefully kind and possibly gentle.
It is difficult for us to accept the full import of the message of Gabriel in our society. An out of wedlock pregnancy meant almost certain death in the Palestinian world. Behavior which now seems harsh, provided protection from illegitimate children for normal families that did not have welfare resources or incomes that allowed single parent families.
Mary, though shaken, surprised and obviously anxious, was able to rise to the occasion. Almost immediately she realized her purpose. While her favored state of Grace allowed her to put her complete trust in God, her life experiences gave her the physical and mental strength to take the next step. “I am the Lord’s servant, I will do as you say.”
Sometimes society bends and allows a reprieve when it is not directly confronted with a reality that it is unable to accept. Learning of Elizabeth’s pregnancy gave Mary the opportunity to allow Joseph to accept her condition and the means to avoid a scandal, by legitimately visiting Elizabeth to assist with her confinement.
Judah, the home state of Elizabeth, was south of Jerusalem, a long way from Nazareth. In chapter two of Luke it looks as though Joseph left Nazareth to join Mary in Judah after the birth of John the Baptist and before they moved to Bethlehem, where he and Mary had to register.
The Magi brought three gifts for Jesus. Gold to honor Him as a King and Frankincense to recognize his priestly function. Myrrh is a sweet smelling gum that was used in perfume and medicine, but when mixed with olive oil was used as an anointing oil and embalming fluid. The significance of this would not have been lost on Mary, especially after meeting Simeon when they took Jesus to be presented in the Temple.
Simeon was an old man and a mystic. The Holy Spirit told him that he would see the Messiah before he died. His appearance and remarks about Jesus startled Joseph and Mary, especially when he said to Mary “and you yourself a sword shall pierce.”
King Herod, who entertained no wish for a competing King had specifically requested the Magi to report back to him when they were departing his territory, which they did not. This resulted in the infanticide of the innocents as recorded in Matthew:2:16, but not before the Holy Family were warned by an angel to flee to Egypt.
This sequence of events, each one an enormous psychological challenge, does not relay the courage that Mary was forced to display. A trip to Egypt from Jerusalem on the back of a donkey with a baby was death defying. The first fifty miles was through dry mountainous country with the remaining hundred or more miles through desert.
It was a route favored by robbers who would cut your throat just for the donkey. Joseph was an ideal husband for the times, a carpenter who could go anywhere and find work for a carpenter made nearly everything, except instruments of war.
The only other episode that Luke relates about the child Jesus is when he was found in the temple by his parents after being lost for three days. Joseph must have been a good provider, for every year the Holy Family traveled from Nazareth to Jerusalem for the feast of the Passover.
It was most likely an exciting and fun filled time for Jesus, accompanied by so many relatives, friends and acquaintances. Luke tells us how frantic Mary and Joseph were while retracing their steps in Jerusalem until they finally discovered Jesus in the Temple.
The exchange reveals that Jesus was an otherwise good son: “Why have you done this to us?” – “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” How many parents have experienced curt retorts from a pre-teen son? This one was the truth.
Men seldom remember, or even notice the intricate details of their infants, but mothers learn every square inch of their babies, and share in the excitement and joy of creation with God.
John tells us about a seamless garment in his account of the crucifixion – the most valuable possession of Jesus. Who could have woven such a gift of obvious prestige except a Mother for her Son. To make a seamless garment requires a loom the width of the finished article, an expense and luxury beyond the reach of peasants. Joseph must have fashioned the loom as a gift for Mary.
It takes about fifteen minutes to spin an ounce of yarn and about two hours to weave an inch of fine linen. How many hours did Mary invest in that tunic, each minute a gift and memory of love?
We all recall that moment when we leave home to enter the world. The last words before the final farewell. “Let me look at you,” which carries all the pride and anxious sorrow of a mother. The seamless garment was made for Jesus when he was a man, before he began his ministry. He was sent out in the world literally clothed in memories of Love.
Mary remained on the fringes when Jesus conducted his ministry, but there is a notable absence in the time leading up to his crucifixion. In Luke there are three occasions where Jesus predicts his death. The third prediction (Luke18:31-34) graphically outlines the passion.
The Apostles did not understand, but Mary was probably the only one who knew what Jesus was saying. When we receive bad news about a loved one, the immediate question that screams out is “Why?” This is a time of suffering that we are forced to endure, a time when we are tested in our faith, when we can even become angry with God. While Mary quietly endured her suffering she gained the strength to walk with her Son to his death.
We can assume that Mary was present from the moment she received the news that her Son was arrested. But why? Jesus knew the agony she would be put through and could easily have prevented her from being there. But, Mary was meant to be present to experience the agony of her son.
She is the example who shows us that suffering is part of our lives. God does not abandon us in our grief, but builds in us a strength so that we can be there for others in their time of need.
How many mothers could endure that death so graphically depicted in the Mel Gibson movie The Passion of Christ? She was there to the bitter end, until once more she could hold him in her arms. It is a moment so exquisitely and painfully captured in Michelangelo’s Pieta. This was the sword that pierced her heart – the fulfillment and purpose of her existence.
Our image of Mary is most often a statue or picture of a beautiful, tender, young, virtuous woman. It is an image that conceals a lady of ultimate wisdom, courage, strength, and character. The bond of Mary to our God is one of Love. The eminence, confidence and esteem bestowed upon her in heaven is breathtaking, and serves as a glimpse of the reward that awaits those who love God. It is extraordinary the degree that God humbles himself before his created through love.
Mary is constantly on call as our defender against Satan, consistently using her power to save us from temptation. Throughout history she has persistently appeared during critical times to save us from ourselves and the enemies of the church.
Minutes before his death Jesus provided for his mother. “Woman behold your son, son behold your mother. These words apply to us so that we also may look upon Mary as our Mother. Let us pray the last line of her prayer, “Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death,” so that we too may live in hope to be in her arms when we draw our last breath.