Last year around this time, I found myself thinking a lot about the way Mary carried not only Jesus the Messiah but the often unrecognized weight of womanhood in a world that was hostile to it — and is still, quite often, hostile to it. Now that we’re in the middle of another Advent season, my mind has returned to Mary and the ways that the depth of her courage and the weight of her burdens are hidden in-between the lines of Scripture. But they’re ready to be found by anyone willing to see them.
When Gabriel visited Mary and told her she would bear the Christ child, he also told her of another miracle: that her aged and childless relative, Elizabeth, was in her sixth month of pregnancy. What happened after Gabriel left was rather astounding, but we tend to blow right past it.
Modern readers unfamiliar with ancient Near Eastern geography, culture, norms, and transportation options are likely to miss that this deceptively simple sentence represents a rather epic journey. Mary lived in Nazareth, and the Judean hill country town where John the Baptist was born was a 90-mile journey for Jews who didn’t travel through Samaria. It would be the first of several epic journeys that Mary would take, including one with Joseph to Bethlehem, another with Joseph and a young Jesus to Egypt, and another back to Nazareth years later.
We don’t know exactly what she had to do to get ready for this trip, but it likely involved connecting with a caravan, paying someone a fee, packing food, planning where to stop and sleep along the way, and coming up with a believable explanation to her family for going. After all, she had not yet told anyone, even Joseph, about her angelic visitation.
I believe she felt compelled to travel such a great distance not only to get confirmation of Gabriel’s message but to acquire witnesses. Because who would believe her, a young girl, based on her word alone? She was undoubtedly familiar with “A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.” (Deuteronomy 19:15) And if Elizabeth was indeed miraculously pregnant, she and Zechariah would be the exact witnesses she needed. We know now that Mary received abundant confirmation when the Holy Spirit came upon and filled John (in utero) and Elizabeth:
I’ve always found it interesting that Mary ended up staying with Elizabeth for three months but then left right before Elizabeth gave birth. I mean, I would have wanted to stay for the birth! But that’s just me projecting my modern American sensibilities and realities onto her situation. When I reviewed Levitical laws around childbirth, I realized the unique constraints Mary lived with.
Leviticus 12 and 15 together indicate that following childbirth, a woman would be considered ceremonially unclean for forty-one days. Also, anyone who touched the postpartum woman or anything she sat or laid down on would become ceremonially unclean. A process of animal sacrifice would be necessary in order to become ceremonially clean again. If Mary had stayed for the birth, she would likely have ended up staying into her 5th month of pregnancy, and she still had to make the 90-mile trek back to Nazareth. In addition to the complication that an obviously swollen belly would have posed, she probably also didn’t want to burden Elizabeth and Zechariah financially. In a culture where hospitality formed the bedrock for interpersonal interactions, they undoubtedly would have wanted to provide Mary with whatever sacrificial animals she needed. Having received their kindness and hospitality for three months, she most likely wouldn’t have wanted to impose on them further. Strengthened by the witness and support of Elizabeth and Zechariah, she made the lonely trip back to face Joseph, her family, the inevitable shame of small-town gossip, and her divine calling.
Mary’s response to God’s calling is almost universally praised, but too often, the burdensome and gritty aspects of her carrying such a hefty responsibility as a woman are missed or overlooked. There are indications in the gospels that Mary became, by virtue of her extraordinary and isolating circumstances, a contemplative. Twice, Luke indicated that she “treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.” (Luke 2:19,51) She’s an inspiration to all, male or female, who carry heavy, invisible burdens while following God’s call on their lives.