“Can a woman forget her nursing child,
that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb?
Even these may forget,
yet I will not forget you.
Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands;
your walls are continually before me.” – Isaiah 49:15-16
The Lord descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the Lord. The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness…” – Exodus 34:5-6
As a young woman, the Advent season has always prompted me to wonder about Mary. There is a lot of church tradition and doctrine that surrounds her, which makes sense given her status as mother of the Son of God. However, I find myself pondering about her life more and more as I anticipate the birth of Jesus alongside her.
So much of that focus in the church on Mary revolves around her pregnancy. Since the Gospels are severely lacking in detail beyond the birth, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus, Mary is center stage only as she is giving birth. While I realize the Gospel writers were concerned with preserving the most vitally important parts of the life of Jesus, I so often wish there were more stories about his childhood. I would love to read about what it must have been like for Mary and Joseph to raise him.
The only instance (in Luke 3) details a particularly comical situation in which Jesus stays behind at the temple in Jerusalem after the Passover celebration to ask questions of the priests. His parents, who assume he is amongst their rather large family returning home, make it a full day before they realize Jesus is not with them. I can only imagine what must have been their abject terror when they realized, “We lost Jesus!” They returned to Jerusalem, and found him in the temple after three days.
I’m not a parent, but I am a daughter. When I read this, I try to think about what would have happened if I had been left behind on a family vacation at the age of twelve. If I had been missing for three days, my parents would have recruited the whole country to look for me. No stone would have been left unturned, and I’m not even the Son of God.
This line of thinking prompts another interesting question that has obviously been asked many times before: Mary, did you know? Luke seems to think she did. The angel tells Mary that her child will be the Son of God. Although I’m sure she didn’t know exactly what such a baby entailed, she had to know that Jesus was special.
What I want to know is if Mary knew what was ultimately in store for Jesus. Countless films have beautifully depicted their mother/son relationship. Many of them presume that Mary had something of a prophetic insight into the death and maybe even the resurrection of her son long before the events took place.
As a first century Jew, Mary would have had a very particular image of the Messiah who had been prophesied for so long. Given the context of the Roman occupation, first century Jews in particular were awaiting a king in the most literal of senses. They were expecting a large, strong man, one with years of military training and experience, one who would lead an army of Jews to overthrow the Roman government in Palestine and subsequently rule in its place. The salvation her people were expecting had less to do with their sins and much more to do with a desire to rule in the land that God had promised to them. [Incidentally, this view of the Messiah explains much of the disciples’ confusion about the identity of Jesus. They believed, even until the end, that he would be their military hero. Despite his insistent explanation, they did not understand until after his resurrection.]
If this was what Mary expected of the Messiah, it is entirely possible that she did not associate her son with that figure. With such a specific image in mind, and given her up close and personal VIP invite to witness the incarnation, I’m not sure she would have drawn that connection. While the angel did provide a specific description, this coming savior was not foreseen as divine.
Still, even if she did not have any particularly special foreknowledge of her son’s purpose, I imagine she would have slowly understood who he really was and what he was there to do. At the end of his ministry, when all the people around Jerusalem and the surrounding countryside whispered and conjectured about this Jesus of Nazareth, when the Pharisees were plotting against him at every turn, publicly harassing and condemning him, even when he went into the city at Passover despite the throngs of people who would have been there, I like to think Mary knew something big was going to happen. I like to think she at least read the signs and understood that her son was going to die. While the disciples seemed to think he was gearing up for a military insurrection, Mary would have known that Jesus would submit to death “as a lamb to slaughter” rather than incite a violent rebellion.
Imagine yourself for a moment as Mary. Although you never planned on it, you hold and support his tiny body within your own. As he grows, you can feel his movements. Sometimes, just before his birth as you travel the dusty countryside to Bethlehem and camp off the road, he wakes you in the middle of the night, rubbing against your ribs and stealing your breath. His heart beats right alongside yours, and eventually you can’t tell them apart. Even before he is born, you think you couldn’t possibly love him any more.
And then you see him. After hours of painful labor in a dirty stable, he is in your arms, ruddy and screaming. And in those first moments, when you feel his tiny hands resting gently on your chest as you comfort him, when you nourish him from the milk of your own body, when you brush your hand through his soft, dark hair, you know that you would do anything for this child. You know that your new reason for living has taken his first breath and cried his first tears.
This love, a mother’s love, is God’s love for us.
The word ‘merciful’ is the first adjective in God’s very first biblical self-description in Exodus as God passes before Moses on Sinai. That word is translated from the Hebrew rachuwm (רַחוּם), a word that is almost exclusively used to describe God’s compassion.
Rachumw is derived from the Hebrew root racham (רָחַם), which translates as womb, or more specifically, as birth canal. This is the word used in Isaiah to talk about a mother’s love. The author makes a beautiful sort of play on words: can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should have no rachumw on the son of her racham? While the human author expects a resounding “No!” in reply, God’s answer is this: “Maybe so. But, my children, I could NEVER forget you. See, I have your names written on the very palms of my hands. I think about nothing except for you.”
Friends, the love is God is the love of a mother. The love of God is like the journey of a baby through the birth canal of his mother. It is tough, and messy, and dangerous. But when all is said and done, there is new life.
Thousands of years before the birth of Jesus, as the Hebrew language was formed and the Old Testament was written, God’s love was linguistically derived from a woman’s womb. How fitting then that the Son of God, the very love of God incarnate in human flesh, would one day come to be through a woman’s womb.
As we continue in our celebration of Advent, remember this love. Remember the love of Mary for the son whom she loved without condition. Remember the unbearable heartbreak she experienced upon his violent torture and death. Remember the despair of the Sabbath, when she could not even attend to his body. Remember the incomparable joy of new life when she learned of his resurrection, no doubt reminding her of that warm spring night so long ago when she first held him in her arms.
Finally, remember God, who says to us, “My children, who I bore and nursed and taught and loved, I have your names written on the very palms of my hands.” All we have to do is look and see the scars to know that this is the truth.
Mary, did you know that your baby boy is Lord of all creation? Mary, did you know that your baby boy will one day rule the nations? Did you know that your baby boy is heaven’s perfect Lamb? This sleeping child you’re holding is the great I am.
Grace and peace,