Mary was in Nazareth when the angel Gabriel came and told her that she was going to become a mother. Maybe Gabriel handed her a lily or maybe that was just the later ornamentation of a Renaissance painter, but she got the message. She went immediately to see her cousin, Elizabeth, who had in common a less-than-common coming to the journey of motherhood.
My notice came via two telephone calls, separated by a few years. The first came on a Friday afternoon from a county protective child services worker.
“Are you ready for a child?”
I replied that I was, and assumed it was a newborn infant of an incarcerated mother-to-be that we would foster until she got out of jail and back on her feet, or until someone in her family came forward to help with the child.
“No, this is a different baby. This one is nine months old, and we have just removed him from his mother’s care because she was seen shaking him. He is currently at the hospital, undergoing a scan to rule out bleeding in his brain.”
I answered that our reply was still yes, but that we would just need to know what kind of formula to get.
A scrawny, cranky, nine-month old, nine-pound boy showed up at our door. We cooed over him, held him, and as humans are want to do, tried to elicit a smile from him. No such response. We got all the information we could from the county worker and tried to find the formula that agreed with his colicky appetite. It seemed that he had a predisposition for a career in the dairy industry, because he had an amazing ability to make cheese.
No shepherds came excitedly to see him, no angel choruses sang, but we rocked him and sang to him softly to help him get to sleep, and then repeated it a little while later to get him back to sleep when he woke up crying.
No kings from the East came to visit him either, but he went for weekly visits with his biological mom, and then later, his biological dad, as the plan was for him to be reunited with one or the other of them. However, he did visit experts of the West. He needed the wisdom of cardiologists, physical therapists, and the courts to decide how long he should stay in foster care.
I ponder with Mary the information she got when she and Joseph took their baby to Jerusalem to carry out the rituals of the Law. After he blessed God, Simeon turned and said to Mary:
“This child marks both the failure and the recovery of many in Israel // A figure misunderstood and contradicted— // the pain of a sword-thrust through you— // But the rejection will force honesty, as God reveals who they really are.” (Luke 2:34-35, MSG)
Just on a practical level, Mary probably turned to Joseph and instructed him to not, under any circumstances, make a little play sword for him out in the carpenter’s shop. Not even with leftover wood. Nope. No swords. Nothing pointy.
But seriously, rejection? How does a mother face the news that her son is going to be rejected? Misunderstood? Contradicted? Is this where the sorrow began for Mary? Is this the beginning of the pain?
Anna, the prophetess who had been a widow for 84 years, was a little more upbeat. Luke tells us that while Simeon was praying, she showed up, broke into an anthem of praise to God, and talked about the child to all who were waiting expectantly for the freeing of Jerusalem (Luke 2:38, MSG).
You know the type. Anna would have made a great PTA chairwoman, selling the donkey cart bumper stickers that read: “My son is an honor student at Nazareth Middle School.”
That’s the kind of Advent we want. Just the good news, please, and shield us from the pain, the uncomfortableness of the suffering to come.
Now fast-forward a couple of years after that skinny little fellow came to our home. He was growing, walking and talking, and had accomplished what pediatricians call milestones. He had also captured our hearts.
A county worker called and said that we needed to talk.
“Oh no,” I thought. “It’s the dreaded ‘It’s time for him to go back to his biological family’ speech.” I had braced myself for this, and had even tried in vain to ready myself for it. But what came out of the woman’s mouth was something totally different.
“We were wondering if you and your husband would be willing to adopt?”
Would we? Could we? That’s when I wanted to quote Mary,
“Let it be with me just as you say!”
We went back to see the wise judge of the West again who decreed that this child was “henceforth, for all intents and purposes, the child of (us), and that said child shall be entitled to all the rights and privileges, and subject to all the obligations, of a child born to Petitioners.”
What an amazing route to motherhood adoption is! One minute you are just acting as a mother, and as soon as the judge decrees it, you are the actual, legal mother with all its rights and obligations. Even the birth certificate is changed to reflect the legal reality of adoption.
So our son was three years old when we took him up to the temple (well, actually, it was the historic Falls Church Episcopal) and presented him for baptism. No Simeon or Anna stepped forth to proclaim anything, but there was a body of believers who joyfully promised to do all in their power to support us in our life in Christ.
Maybe that was similar to the company of pilgrims Jesus’ parents traveled among up to Jerusalem when he was twelve years old. On their way home, Luke tells us that they travelled for a whole day, and when they didn’t find him, they went back to Jerusalem looking for him:
The next day, they found him in the Temple seated among the teachers, listening to them and asking questions. The teachers were all quite taken with him, impressed with the sharpness of his answers. But his parents were not impressed; they were upset and hurt.
His mother said, “Young man, why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been half out of our minds looking for you.”
He said, “Why were you looking for me? Didn’t you know that I had to be here, dealing with the things of my Father?”
But they had no idea what he was talking about. (Luke 2:46-50, MSG)
Clueless. Doesn’t that sum up the way it feels to have an adolescent? Have I been half out of my mind trying to understand my son’s behavior? Have I been “not impressed?” Have I been upset and hurt?
I totally get Mary here. She’s been given a responsibility that she takes seriously, and she senses that it could go south any minute. I’m sure she was relieved when she saw Jesus in the Temple, but the fear caused by his absence was visceral. (She knew about the robbers on the roads out of Jerusalem.)
“How could you do this to me?”
I am right here with you, Mary. Doesn’t my son remember all the sleepless nights I spent on his behalf? Doesn’t he remember all the visits to the doctors for the regular appointments, to say nothing of the emergency visits late at night? The open heart surgery? The hours spent reading to him, and then home-schooling him? And now, as the neurologists and the psychiatrists and the special education folks are trying to make out what is going on in his brain, I realize that he is still dealing with the ‘things of his father’ and his biological mother, too. Pain has come, and may stay awhile but we are not left alone in it. He has been misunderstood, contradicted, and rejected. And as his mother, I have wept in the present.
But I have come to understand that Mary was not where the story of Jesus started. She was just the point where he entered this world. The jumping-off point of the incarnation, if you will, but not the whole story. The Apostle Paul helps fill in the story as he writes to the believers in Ephesus:
How blessed is God! And what a blessing he is! He’s the Father of our Master, Jesus Christ, and takes us to the high places of blessing in him. Long before he laid down earth’s foundations, he had us in mind, had settled on us as the focus of his love, to be made whole and holy by his love. Long, long ago he decided to adopt us into his family through Jesus Christ. (What pleasure he took in planning this!) He wanted us to enter into the celebration of his lavish gift-giving by the hand of his beloved Son. (Eph. 1: 3-6, MSG)
Long, long ago … even before Nazareth! And that long ago sweeps us up in its arms and carries us forward. I am not the beginning of my son’s story either, nor am I the end. His worth is not based on how good my skills of motherhood are. My worth is not based on how he turns out. God has settled on us as the focus of His love, and He’s going to make us whole and holy by his love. We are on that journey, in the company of pilgrims. Journey on!