I don’t know how all this will sound when I put it down baldly on paper. So far I’ve kept this story close. It’s such an unlikely story that I hardly expect anyone to believe it–and at the same time, it’s so unutterably precious–I’ve wanted to keep it away from sceptical eyes.
My heart is full of it, though. Like a bird that must sing, I find myself bursting with joy and pride and wonder. The very cells of my body seem to resound with an otherness that tells me that I am not my own; this story is not my own; this child is not my own. The promise of the angel and words of old, familiar scriptures keep turning over in my mind. I’m either staring madness in the face or something is happening that is truly the end–and the beginning–of everything we know. I want to shake every person I see; they all seem to be sleepwalking through their lives. God is coming, I want to tell them! We are not alone–not forgotten! Love is with us! If God can use me to change the world, he can use anyone …
The day everything changed was ordinary, in some ways, although at that time we were already bathed in a sort of amazement–conscious of God being on the move. Lovely Elizabeth, my relative and dear friend, had not long sent word of the strange story of her unexpected pregnancy. We’d cried and laughed at the enormity of her tale: the visit from an angel that stood in the very presence of God–poor Zechariah struck dumb when he’d not been able to comprehend it all–her giddy joy and heartfelt relief at being able to move on from all those years of disappointment and the awful snubbing.
I carried an awareness of Elizabeth’s miracle with me that day as I worked–tending animals, kneading dough, sweeping floors. I thought about Joseph, the hard-working man who would one day become my husband, and dared to imagine the children we might one day have; bright voices that would fill the courtyard, the sweetness of a little hand slipped into mine. How bitter Elizabeth’s journey of waiting had been!
The afternoon was growing thick with golden light when the angel appeared near where I stood grinding flour, slightly sweaty and sore-footed. Perhaps I had angelic visitations on my mind but I knew at once he was from God. Dropping my utensil I stood, awkward and clammy mouthed, before doing a sort of awkward curtsy. “Greetings, you who have been specially chosen,” he said. “The Lord is with you.” I nodded–or shook my head, or both at once–unsure how to respond. I kept my eyes down. Specially chosen? That sounded ominous. Something terrible must be going to follow. What would I be required to do to prove my trust in God? My throat parched, my tongue stuck; I began to shake.
Seeming now more human than heavenly, the angel stepped forward, clasping my hands. The touch was a relief; his large, warm hands held mine with a reassuring pressure. “You don’t need to be afraid, Mary,” he said, and the speaking of my name was a benediction. I met his eyes gratefully and they were warm and kind, full of a promise that all would be well. He looked earnestly at me and in the looking it was as if my very soul were being called forth. Shyly, I allowed my heart to be absolutely seen, peeled back to the innocent, childlike core where there are no disguises. That kind, bright, truthful face spoke love and courage to what it saw there. In that moment of being seen, I believe I was called into the fullness of myself: it was a coming of age, of sorts. He spoke again.
“God has chosen you for something special.” I almost interrupted, laughed like Sarah in the old story, thinking it wasn’t possible; wanting to demur that I was in fact the most ordinary of girls in our very ordinary village. I had nothing to offer God. But he was talking again and his voice had taken on the mightiness of rivers and mountains; and the joy of bright afternoons. “You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”
It was strange, but the preposterous things he was saying made sense. I heard them as a string of offered gifts, agreeing with the rightness of each one as he spoke, and bowed my head, closing my eyes in acquiescence. I wanted to cry; my heart bounded with a beautiful hope and thankfulness to God for loving us and remembering his people, downtrodden for so long.
I didn’t so much question the truthfulness of what had been spoken, as to ask this kind, understanding man who knew my destiny, how it was all going to work. “How will this be,” I said, “since I am not married?”
He nodded, understanding what I meant. “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. For no word from God will ever fail.”
I nodded. I could cooperate with God on this. Elizabeth was walking before me; I would not be alone.
“I am the Lord’s servant,” I answered, my head bowed again in submission to the God I had always known at the core of my being, and always trusted. “May your word to me be fulfilled.”
I felt a light touch on my head, a blessing; then I was once again alone.
In the days that followed I was grateful to remember that I could go to Elizabeth and Zechariah’s. The journey alone was a gift, giving me a reprieve from my family and friends. It was good to immerse myself in the rhythms of travel, in the heat and dust and tired muscles. The passing landscape acted as a balm; girding my subconscious with the knowledge that all things could be faced one step at a time. In the wideness of the countryside I could cry hot tears without the burden of observation and ride the waves of incredulity as they came.
Like spiritual mothers and guides, the testimonies of the women of our faith rose to comfort and encourage me; I churned over what I could remember of the songs of Hannah, Judith, Deborah and Miriam. Their declarations of a powerful, unconventional God, so bent on using unlikely people and working in unusual ways, seemed very apt and poignant as I walked, invisible and unimportant to those around me, and burning inside with a consciousness of the way God would soon make himself known.
By the time we reached the green hill country, a place in which I’d always felt peaceful and secure, I felt my mind had caught up with my heart; I was ready to face an unknowable future. Calling out to Elizabeth as I stood at their front door, I realised my heart was racing with excitement; my voice was somewhat high-pitched and tight. As my cousin appeared in the hallway she stopped abruptly, clutching her round stomach. Her face quickened with tears and she came forward, holding my hands in much the same way the angel had done just days before. Again I was grateful for the gift of skin, of hands to hold, of human contact to anchor me amid the rush of all this divine intervention. “God has blessed you above all women,” Elizabeth said slowly, “and your child is blessed.” I felt a rush of hot wonder at these words–did I already look different? How did she know? At the same time there was relief at my secret being named and thankfulness for her affirming stance, for the lack of questions or any of the dreaded condemnation. We embraced, each of us amazed, allowing tears and laughter to mingle in the holy space between us. I was conscious of the differences in our circumstances; my young cheek so soft against her older, tired one; my middle girlishly slim against the miracle of her expanded form.
Elizabeth held me at arm’s length. “Why am I so honoured, that the mother of my Lord should visit me?” She took my hand and placed it on her belly. I looked down at it, shaking, still warm-cheeked and wet-eyed. “When I heard your greeting,” Elizabeth said in amazement, “the baby in my womb jumped for joy.” She looked at me steadily, smiling, perhaps thinking now of her sceptical husband: “You are blessed because you believed that the Lord would do what he said.”
It was wonderful to be in such safe company and to be able to tumble forth all that had been percolating in my mind these last few days.
“Oh Elizabeth–how my soul praises the Lord,” I began in relief, my words shaping themselves toward the familiar patterns of the old hymns:
“How my spirit sings within me of all that is good, conscious of how everything magnifies God and makes him visible! He is indeed my saviour!
For he took notice of his most ordinary servant girl,
And from now on all generations will call me blessed.
For the Mighty One is holy
And he has done great things for me.
He shows mercy from generation to generation
To all who fear him.
His mighty arm has done tremendous things!
He has scattered the proud and haughty ones.
He has brought down princes from their thrones
And exalted the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
And sent away the rich with empty hands.
He has helped his servant Israel
And remembered to be merciful.
For he made this promise to our ancestors,
To Abraham and his children forever.”
I stayed with Elizabeth and Zechariah for about three months, at which time it seemed like the right thing to do to go home and trust that God would be with me in the next chapter.
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