Today I went to a Christmas Eve service at a local Mennonite Church. I, like most people who grew up in the Christian tradition, have heard the Christmas story countless times in my life. Thus, it is very easy to “tune-out” since we already know how the story is going to end. Mary is going to get married to Joseph, give birth to a pretty amazing baby boy – Jesus, and all will be right with the world. Everything seems calm and bright, doesn’t it?
Not entirely. Today when I was listening to the Biblical narrative a few things stuck out to me that I hadn’t noticed before. Firstly, the angel appeared to Mary (who traditionally we have assumed was a young woman, pretty much “clueless” about all that is physically involved in making a baby) and the angel gave these words “FEAR NOT, you have found favour with God.”
Okay, so I have heard the words FEAR NOT a lot, but let’s unpack this a bit. Mary had every reason to fear. Her life was about to collapse. She was not ready to be a mother, yet. She was still engaged, she was still trying to figure out what marriage even meant. Additionally, at this time period being a single mother was the furthest thing from easy. There were cultural norms and expectations in that day and age which saw such a choice as radical (in a not-so-nice type of way). We can only imagine the shaming that some people must have wrongly treated her with. She might have been charged with adultery which at that time often included the death penalty. So how could she not have feared?
Secondly, we are told that she found favour with God. While carrying the Christ-life inside of you would have been an amazing privilege that only one woman in the entire world was ever able to receive – I still think Mary must have been thinking “Me? Are you kidding?” Her idea of having favour (since Scripture explicitly mentions Mary’s virginity) would likely have been to do the honourable thing by having a child through the union of marriage.
She seems from her song to be a woman that others respected and that she had dignity – so I’m sure breaking the moral and ethical laws of her day were not something she entirely had in mind.
And yet, she went through with it. The Scripture speaks to Mary’s incredible character in that she consented to the will of God. Did she know what she was getting herself into? Did she know how brutal those 9 months had the potential of being? Was she prepared for stares, awkward questions, and people looking the other way? (I think watching The Nativity Story really brought this part home to me – how terrifying it must have been). Yet in her own words she describes herself as “blessed.” She states that from now on her name will be historically associated with a blessing. She calls herself “the Lord’s handmaiden” (signifying a sense of deep respect and submission to her task). The Scripture also says that rather than questioning or asking for details, she simply “pondered all these things in her heart.” She internalized it, and I cannot even begin to fathom how difficult that must have been, because other than Joseph and possibly her own parents, almost everyone else would likely have disbelieved her and maybe even shunned her. She had no professional counsellor to hash this out with. No therapist to walk her through the process. When it came time to give birth, we are not even sure if there was a midwife to coach her through her first experience of labour. And we have no record of prenatal classes.
What do we do with a story that is this messy and complicated? I think the answer lies in Mary’s attitude and subsequentially in our own attitudes towards God’s calling upon our lives. Although few (if any of us) will experience an angelic visitation, all of us have been called out by God for a special task only we are capable of achieving. God has given each one of us a reason to be on this earth at this time – something that no other person in history was able to attain. Oftentimes, when God calls us we have every reason to fear. We fear the unknown. We fear being used to dismantle oppressive systems that have long been in place. We fear going against societal norms that demand that we present ourselves in a certain way. And yet we are told FEAR NOT. We are told not to concern ourselves with the opinions of others, but only with the opinion of God who demands a life of rigorous honesty filled with justice.
Speaking out on behalf of the innocent, demonstrating for and with love, fully living into all that God has called us to be (whether single or married), promoting understanding of difficult topics, or daring to confront systems, churches or religious leaders who seek to hold others down may seem like the furthest thing from finding favour with others for us. In fact, it may feel like the exact opposite. While holding our picket signs in protest we may feel more alienated and disillusioned than ever. But somehow, there is a promise embedded in all of this that something greater might happen because of it. That something more significant is going to be achieved because of our willingness to say “YES.”
What is your YES this Christmas? What is God calling you to do that you are finding hard to surrender? What is the impossible task you feel led to but don’t know where to begin? Don’t worry about all these things. Don’t worry about the next nine months. Don’t worry quite yet about the proverbial baby that is going to spring out of your womb. Just focus on today. Just focus on how you are receiving that call. Trust God and say “yes” however timid you may be. After all, even though God never promised it would be easy, He did leave you with these words “FEAR NOT.”