Blest Art Thou Among Women

History’s Most Famous Woman Remembered At Christmas time

We are all, believers and unbelievers alike, familiar with the stories, particularly at this time of year. The players are familiar to us: angels, the woodworker Joseph, a group of sheepherders, astrologers and astronomers from the Land Between the Rivers, the megalomaniacal King Herod, and, most of all, the young Jewish peasant girl Mary.

She may very well be the most recognizable woman in history, more so than political heavyweights like Catherine the Great and Elizabeth I, or more vain and shallow contemporary icons like the Kardashians. Churches, shrines, towns, ships, bodies of water, monasteries and holy orders bear her name. Millions pray for her intercession both in life and at the point of death. She is honored by Christians of most denominations. Muslims regard her as a  great prophet. There are some in the Roman Catholic community who wish to elevate her to the role of co-redemptrix. Down through the centuries, on occasion, she is believed to have appeared among us at such disparate locations as Fatima in Portugal, Guadalupe in Mexico and Lourdes in France.

And yet, we know surprisingly little about her. Only that she was once a young girl from a small village and that something unique in the story of mankind is supposed to have occurred to her, that she was specially chosen to bear the Christ Child, that she would become known as Mother of God. What has come down to us is largely limited to the words of the authors of the four Gospels, only one of whom, St. John, may have actually witnessed the incidents he reports.

When Mary was told of her special role, she answered in the words of the Magnifcat, echoing the song of Sara nearly a thousand years earlier when she learned that she would give birth to the prophet Samuel, “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior. For he hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden: For, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.”

Young Mary was betrothed to Joseph, a local woodworker who was most likely, as was the custom in those days, considerably older than her. Mary was probably in her early teens at the time. Her unexpected pregnancy would have been an embarrassment to Joseph, damning  evidence that she had been unfaithful to him. Being a kindly man, though, he decided not to renounce her or reveal her affair publicly. To do so might lead to her death by stoning. Whatever male who might have shared in her disgrace would not, it seems, meet an equally dire fate. However, an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream, assuring him of Mary’s loyalty and encouraging him to marry her, that her role was a most special one and that his was also preordained.

Fearing condemnation from her community of Nazareth because of her early pregnancy, Mary set out to visit her cousin Elizabeth in Judea. Elizabeth and her husband, being older, had not expected to have a child so late in life, and yet a pregnancy had occurred under circumstances as unique as Mary’s. When Mary approached Elizabeth, the unborn infant, the future prophet known to us as John the Baptist, leaped in her womb, recognizing the presence of Jesus. This among so many strange and marvelous occurrences surround the story.

John would grow into a sort of wild man, akin to those other Old Testament prophets, dwelling in the wilderness, living off locusts and wild honey, raging at the populace, demanding that they turn from their lives of cruelty, injustice and greed. Jesus would bring the world a message more gentle but more powerful than John’s, that of redemption, healing and forgiveness.

Late in her pregnancy, Joseph decided to take Mary to his home village of Bethlehem, in accordance with the dictate of the Roman emperor. It takes tax money to run an empire, and the emperor had ordered all citizens to return to their birthplace for a census, required for an accurate collection of revenue. The discomfort and inconvenience of  such a long, arduous donkey ride for a pregnant woman can only be imagined. By the time the couple reached Bethlehem, Mary was ready to give birth.

As an aside, there is a charming legend regarding Sicilian donkeys. That special breed of donkeys have a very visible cross in the fur over their shoulders. It is said that they are descendants that carried Mary to Bethlehem.

Given that the town was filled with travelers, there was no room at the local inn. And so, Jesus was born in a stable among livestock. Labor pains being what they are, Mary’s situation would have been extraordinarily miserable.

Who among us when feeling under the weather wishes to have visitors. And yet, shepherds, the outcasts of respectable society, arrived to witness the infant Jesus. Later, a group of astronomers and astrologers bearing gifts arrived from faraway Mesopotamia. Keen observers of heavenly phenomena, they regarded the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in the constellation Pisces as heralding the arrival of a new and long anticipated monarch.

While visiting  Jerusalem, to present the infant Jesus at the Temple, in accordance with Mosaic Law, Joseph and Mary encountered an elderly man named Simeon. When the old man beheld the infant Jesus, he blessed God and said, “Lord, now let thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word; for mine eyes have seen thy salvation which thou has prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for the glory of thy people Israel. Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is spoken against (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed.”

For Mary, these were dire portents, and she found herself troubled deep in her heart as Jesus grew from infant to child and later to man. Threats were on all sides in the ancient Middle East, a reality that seems to have changed little to the present day. Holy scripture hints that she experienced dark forebodings from time to time, even shortly after the birth of Jesus.

The Magi had let the cat out of the bag when they let it slip to the ever-suspicious King Herod that they had come to honor the newly arrived king of the Jews. As Herod ordered the slaying of all male infants in the area, fearing for the life of the newly born infant, Joseph and Mary decided to seek asylum among the thriving Jewish community of Alexandria.  

We cannot imagine what Mary’s thoughts and feelings must have been, raising Jesus in accordance with the laws and expectations of Orthodox Judaism, all the while harboring the awareness that there was nothing normal about the situation, that her young son was the incarnation of the Creator God himself.  

Of course, Mary’s anxieties came to fruition years later when Jesus was brutally tortured and executed. Perhaps no one can grasp the deep sorrow felt by Mary at the foot of the cross where her son writhed in agony, six-inch crucifixion spikes piercing the plantar nerves in his feet and driven through the median nerves of his wrists. This after having been flogged, a process that caused many victims to die of pain, shock, blood loss and dehydration. Perhaps she sensed a certain relief when he gave up the ghost and expired. There are other unfortunate parents who have experienced similar trauma, the mother of Emmet Till, for instance, a boy brutally tortured and lynched by a raving, salivating racist mob, or the fathers and mothers of school children gunned down by heavily armed malcontents in Uvalde, Texas, Sandy Hook, Connecticut, and all too many other places in recent years. 

Mary stands in contrast to those down through history who perpetrate such outrages as crucifixion and lynching. She also stands in contradiction to those such as the brutal and brutalized Roman soldiers who callously divided Jesus’s scant possessions among themselves, as well as those bystanders who found such nightmares entertaining. There are those among us who commit atrocities, there are others who devote their energies to opposing them, and there are those who live lives of apathy, obsessed with trifles and trivia, willfully ignorant of unpleasant realities. In their apathy lies their damnation.

In Jesus’s act of giving his mother to the Beloved Apostle John, he is believed to have made a gift of her to all of mankind. She is often referred to as Sorrowful Mother or Mother of Sorrows, lamenting not only the suffering and death of Jesus but of all who experience the paroxysms of pain or injustice. As Ares, the Greek god of war, now marches across the surface of the globe yet again, Holy Mary weeps for us all.

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Lorin Swinehart
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