So, Christmas is fast approaching. With just a week or so until the schools break up, car parks filling with increasingly frantic shoppers and my postman groaning under the weight of internet order deliveries, my head has finally caught up with the festivities. This morning I have been sitting making fake Christmas puddings for a part of our Christmas celebration services on Sunday, and my daughter is studiously learning her lines for her part in the Christmas drama.
The truth is this year there is one thing that has been on my mind more than anything – or perhaps one person, and that is Mary. Mary has always fascinated me every Christmas, as the quiet centre to all the drama unfolding. As my daughter said when considering roles for her school nativity ‘Mary doesn’t even have any lines.’ – but she is very much the main character in one of the most amazing stories we’ll ever hear. Mary was young, she hadn’t experienced a lot of life, and she found herself in the most unusual of predicaments. She was going through dramatic changes, probably feeling uncomfortable physically as well as facing the potential disapproval and disgrace of people around her who did not understand what was going on.
This year in particular Mary’s predicament has really caught me. It all began when a friend and colleague of mine pointed out something. We like to think of Mary’s story beginning probably sometime around December the 1st, as we think of her dealing with her pregnancy and going to Bethlehem with Joseph. It all happens so quickly – the angel Gabriel visits, she finds out she is with child, and she’s given birth all before you know it! My friend pointed out to me however that the Anglican calendar celebrates a day 9 months ago, in March, which marks the day when the angel really did come to visit her and tell her she was going to have a baby. It’s really weird to think of the reality – when we like to think of it all taking place over a month, Mary had been dealing with this incredible news for ages.
It makes me think about what she must have felt and how on earth she managed. She must have wondered what on earth God was doing, and I imagine there were times – particularly in the early days when there was little to see physically for this pregnancy she had been told about – when she wondered if it was all real. How on earth did she manage through all of that time, to deal with the stuff going on in her head – the anxiety, the wondering, the not knowing what would happen. I’m someone who likes to know exactly what is going on – but sometimes when God is involved in things it just doesn’t work like that. Sometimes God’s plan takes time to pan out, and in those moments the waiting and wondering can feel unbearable.
I wonder if anyone else feels like that at the moment. The Bible often uses pregnancy and childbirth as a metaphor for things which God is doing – events and situations gradually and slowly unfolding. Pregnancy isn’t over in a month – believe me! – and often God’s working in our lives can feel just as slow. I know right now I am involved in a lot of situations in our church which have been going on for a long time. Many of them have a history and story which goes back years. All have their own element of tragedy and heartbreak, and all of them mean that this time of year in particular is terribly hard for those involved. When I watched my daughter’s school nativity earlier this week one line in particular almost brought tears to my eyes – and it wasn’t even hers! It was in the middle of the section where Mary and Joseph were depicted as travelling towards Bethlehem and in the middle of a song the music faded away for Joseph to say ‘Don’t worry Mary, it will be ok. God has promised to look after us.’ That’s the message I’d love to give to all those people – and yet I too know that actually I don’t know their future. I know God is in charge, but I don’t know how things will go for them. I don’t know how long it will take them to find peace. All I can do is promise to be there for the journey, just like Joseph.
When life throws things at you you never imagined the impact on your emotional health can be dramatic, and it takes time to find a way to work through these things. But that doesn’t mean God isn’t doing something. Mary must have been relieved when she finally had given birth to her baby. But at the same time like all new parents she was facing the start of a totally new – and all consuming – phase in her life. We know what she was going to face over the coming years, she did not. Instead she had a bewildering array of bizarre visitors, bringing gifts and hinting towards the dramatic future she and her son had ahead of them. The Bible tells us that Mary ‘kept these things to herself’ (Luke 2:19, the Msg), and that she pondered them – even ‘treasured’ them (same verse in the NIV). It’s not easy to do that with uncertainty and change, but like Mary we have God to help us.
If you are finding Christmas hard this year, I’d encourage you to think about Mary. Think of someone else facing emotional and physical uncertainy – of a future unknown but daunting, of promises made but as yet unfulfilled. Wherever you are I pray that you are able to find God this Christmas, and to trust that no matter how bizarre or tragic the twists and turns of your story may be, God is still in control.