The bible says Jesus was conceived by immaculate conception. Meaning, Jesus grew in Mary’s belly with no assistance from an earthly father. Over 2000 years later, reading this story with a lens of faith, this is easy to believe. Most take this information and nod, adding it to their basket of things they believe without too much effort.
But let me take you back 2020 years. Back to a time when women had different choices and a way of life than we do now. There was no Teen Mom TV show on MTV. There were no social workers to counsel a 16 year old girl on what her options were if she became pregnant. Families did not gather around a teenage pregnancy where mothers, suddenly turned grandmothers embraced this new child and helped her daughter finish school or go to work while she cared for her new grandbaby.
Back in the time of pharisees, women were stoned for becoming pregnant before they were married. Without trial or an official decree, they could be brought to a town center while a mob would hurl rocks at their bodies, deeming them unclean to be among them. This was a possibility even if there was a hint or a rumor that a woman spent time alone with a man before she was married.
You know that time you lingered after church so you could talk to that cute person in your Sunday school class? Or that time your crush gave you a ride home from school? If you were the woman in that scenario, and it was 2000 years ago in Judea, this would be a justifiable reason for you to die. There was also no #metoo movement 2000 years ago. An assault on a woman, where she was taken against her will would also be cause for her death. After all, now she was unclean.
So while we take in with ease and adoration, a vignette scene of a woman, round with the Christ child, riding atop of a tired donkey on her way to Bethlehem, I want to paint another picture of what Mary might have endured. How she might have been viewed by the people in her life and community.
From what we know of this culture and this time, this is what my imagination and heart tell me.
I imagine Mary was alone. I imagine Mary was scared. Very few people in her life would have actually believed that she was visited by an angel and that the baby she carried was a literal Son of God. There was time to get married before the child inside of her became a potential death sentence, but not much. I imagine the marriage became rushed. There were customs and traditions and I am sure it was leaked as to why the marriage between her betrothed was hurried along. So even after Joseph married her, and their union made her pregnancy less of a risk, there still would have been whispers and rumors that the child she was carrying was not the result of her recent marriage, but happened before. Weeks? Months? With Joseph? With someone unknown? The Nazarene rumor mill must have peddled out all kinds of stories and conjectures.
So as Mary’s belly would grow each week, I imagine staunch and God fearing Jews in her community might still give her a side eye or a wide berth as she passed and would view her as unclean, unworthy. As she held God inside of her, how many people avoided her or gossiped about her, maybe even glad she was away to Bethlehem when the baby was born. And after Jesus was born, and she returned to her hometown, and waited the necessary amount of weeks or months, when she might have stood in line of the mikvah, a holy place where her people would go to have a ritual bath and become clean, I’m sure there were a few who shook their head, viewing her as a hypocrite and liar.
And to some, I imagine Mary would carry this stigma her entire life, and never be viewed as clean ever again. A devout follower in her day would need a long memory if they themselves were to remain clean and pure before God.
So when we read the words of Jesus, turn the other cheek, forgive again and again, love your neighbor, forgive them because they don’t know they’re talking about, they don’t know the full story, I imagine Jesus, a strong and gentle teacher, who taught these radical ideas with a calm and faith filled countenance. But I also imagine a young mother, who experienced a life where turning the other cheek was something she already knew about. A woman who needed to rely on a God of forgiveness and mercy among a community of damning zealots, probably already knew how to forgive time and time again. I imagine a young mother, passing through town, with
her son following close behind, as they passed beggars and lepers, asking just as many curious questions as any child might. She would need to explain the world and how it worked. Maybe even needing to shield his young eyes from a public stoning of a woman caught in adultery, I imagine she would teach him that God is loving and those that seem unclean, are worthy of God’s love just as much as the scribes and pharisees and rabbis. If not more so.
I imagine a young mother teaching her son that it is through the meek and poor and lowly of heart that God speaks. After all, how much more lowly could you be in this time than a woman, unclean and unfit to marry if it was punishable by death to be otherwise?
I imagine a curious and ready servant of God, with his mother’s words echoing in his head, going to the desert to fast and pray, heeding that call to preach. To take others this message of God’s love to those who were never taught that they were worthy of it. How important and how personal this must have been, this charge from The Father to teach this, when Jesus himself witnessed his mother already living her life this way. I imagine how necessary this message seemed to his mission of teaching a new way to worship and hold God in your heart, even if you took too many steps on a Sunday. Even if you conceived a baby before you were wed. You had access to God’s love without a ritual bath before the Sabbath. No mikvah was needed after you buried a loved one. God could be with you in the midst of your grief. You didn’t need to avoid certain people to remain holy in God’s eyes. But having faith in a man who spent most of his time with those who seemed the furthest from pure and holy was the way to approach Heaven. Spending your own time with those that seem the furthest from holy and pure is the best way to approach Heaven.
I imagine that night in Bethlehem, a 16 year old girl, cradling her newborn baby in her arms, how holy that moment must have felt. How close she must have been to God, letting her new baby suckle and find his first meal at her breast. I imagine how her heart must have swelled with the very love that her Son would later preach was available to all who followed in His ways.
I imagine the Divinity that must have coursed through her soul. I imagine she felt a closeness she didn’t know was possible.There, in a dirty barn, surrounded by animals, I imagine Mary felt holy, worthy and clean that night Jesus was born.
I imagine these things as I reflect on what I learn from Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ.
May we all remember those among us that seem unclean, unworthy. May we walk next to them and welcome them to our table. May we listen and sit with those who do not have the words to tell their full story. Even when we don’t understand their path, may we listen and let them in our lives because we know they carry a portion of God in them anyway. Even if we don’t understand how. May we be as Mary. Willing to be a witness of God’s love. Ready to be a vessel of God’s love. May we be God’s love.