St. Matthew's Episcopal

How Would Mary Wait?

Posted on: December 6th, 2011 by Robin Jarrell

In this season of Advent I have already enjoined each of us to all help one another in our Ad-venture of waiting for the Christ child to be born in the womb of our hearts.  And so that leaves me thinking:  How would Mary wait?

It’s a question that may be as impossible to answer as “what would Jesus do?” and possibly just as heretical, but now that the Blue Set of Paraments regales the sanctuary in St. Matthew’s, I find myself thinking very much about our Blessed Mother.

One of my favorite poems written by William Butler Yeats is about Mary – it’s called “Mother of God”:


The three-fold terror of love; a fallen flare

Through the hollow of an ear;

Wings beating about the room;

The terror of all terrors that I bore

The Heavens in my womb.

Had I not found content among the shows

Every common woman knows,

Chimney corner, garden walk,

Or rocky cistern where we tread the clothes

And gather all the talk?

What is this flesh I purchased with my pains,

This fallen star my milk sustains,

This love that makes my heart’s blood stop

Or strikes a sudden chill into my bones

And bids my hair stand up?


I am always so tempted to have this poem readily available whenever a brother-in-the-faith says to me that he can’t really understand Mary from a woman’s perspective.   I’m sure that Yeats was never pregnant himself, but I can tell you that I have been pregnant twice and this poem describes it exactly.  What makes this particular poem so miraculous, though, is the otherworldly way Yeats describes the haunting  joy all mothers feel.  Yeats invites us into the human condition of Mary just as our Lord Jesus invites everyone into the human condition of his incarnation and beckons us into the divinity of God.

The more I learn about this young woman and the more I study ancient texts and the history of first century Palestine, the more I am amazed that when the archangel Gabriel appears to Mary in the sleepy backwater town of Nazareth, she has the courage, the fortitude, the determination and, yes, the chutzpah to say:  Yes.

Despite her initial fear of the angel.  And despite the history of her immediate and tumultuous past.

In the years preceding the birth of Jesus, when Mary was a very young girl, the political climate of Israel was at a boiling point.  The Romans had taken over the country many, many  years before.  It was during a particularly strident rebellion by the Jewish people after the death of King Herod the Great, that the Roman governor from the neighboring country of Syria, Varus, brought four legions of his armies into Mary’s land to squelch the uprising of Jewish resisters against the Roman occupiers.  We know that Varus burned the entire city of Sepphoris which is just a few miles or so (about an hour plus walk) from Mary’s Nazareth.  Varus killed over two thousand people and reduced the rest of the inhabitants to slavery.   Put on the defensive in order to safeguard priestly families against illegitimate sons, Jewish law required that young women whose towns had been destroyed under siege lost the right to marry into any priestly family.   In all the devastation, who could be sure that any young woman had escaped a Roman soldier unmolested?

These historic events would have had an enormous impact on the family of the young Mary.  We may never know if Nazareth was also part of the siege of Sepphoris, as it probably was, but not mentioned in any historian’s report because it was simply not worth reporting since Nazareth was a back-woods Galilean village and not a big Hellenized “city” like its close neighbor.*

When the archangel Gabriel comes to Nazareth, in the face of overwhelming social and political turmoil, Mary reacts with calm and aplomb.  Who knows what kind of fear she was feeling?  (Don’t be afraid, Mary, the angel assures her.)  All I know is that the Gospel writer Luke tells us that Mary said “yes” to the Angel of God.  She said “Yes” to bearing the Messiah.  Mary said “yes” despite the fact that her possible connection as a bride to a priestly family (made all the more suspect if Nazareth had been through a similar siege as Sepphoris) would essentially be annihilated if she was found to be pregnant.   She knew full well that any young woman from a priestly family from a town subjected to a siege by the Romans AND found to be pregnant would certainly be forever an outcast.  As would her son.

Mary knew all of this.  And still, she said “yes.”  When I read and re-read the story, my heart leaps like the child in Elizabeth’s womb (the same child who will become John the Baptizer) when Luke tells us how the two cousins come together in joy to compare the miracles taking place in both their lives.   Mary’s “yes” is the answer of a noble, courageous and determined woman.    Mary’s “yes” is the answer of a veritable and true “handmaid/servant” of the Lord who is often portrayed as a submissive vessel but who proves herself a fierce non-violent warrior willing  to negotiate the social and political war zone of First Century Palestine in order to bring the Messiah into the world.

This is the woman who inspires me.  And beyond all the social and cultural obstacles in her path,  I marvel at the spiritual intensity and sheer faith that led her to take up the responsibility of becoming the Mother of God.   Mary certainly knew what she was up against.  She knew the ancient prophecies.  Perhaps she had even read Isaiah.  I can imagine that what she pondered in her own heart when she finally discovered her son lecturing to the Rabbis in the Temple was joy in the knowledge that she had been the one responsible for teaching Jesus Torah.

The Gospels report that Mary is present throughout her son’s ministry, even unto his death on the cross.  I believe that every one called to the priesthood comes especially under the guardianship of Mary in some way.  For if priests are to represent Mary’s son at the Eucharist and to proclaim the Good News with our lives, then surely we are all of us nurtured in our spiritual formation by the inspiration of Mary’s entire life which continues to sustain us with her resounding “yes” to God.

* I am indebted to the work of Marianne Sawicki in Crossing Galilee: Architectures of Contact in the Occupied Land of Jesus, (Harrisburg: Trinity Press International), 2000, for inspiring many ideas in this short essay.

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