A n A d v e n t M e d i t a t i o n
I want to tell you something. It’s a little private and personal. I hope you can keep a secret. Some of you, I know, are mothers; many of you are parents. Maybe you’ll understand.
I’m worried about my daughter.
“Oh,” you will say, “you’re a mother. What mother doesn’t worry about her daughter? Especially in this day and age—when we see more and more Roman soldiers on the roads; when more and more young men of the House of Israel are inflaming themselves with plots against Herod and talk that a political Messiah is on the way. Who can rest easy about a daughter in such days? Who knows what would happen if Herod or the soldiers were to grow violent? What would happen if the government began executing all the young men of Israel, as it has already crucified some of the Zealots who are stirring up unrest throughout Palestine? How could a daughter ever find a husband and protector then?”
Well, yes, those are worries. But they are not really the source of my problem. My daughter has a husband promised to her. She was betrothed to him just a short time ago. We gathered in my home for the writing of the ketubah, the marriage contract. We ate and drank and sang praises for the Almighty’s blessings late into the night. The rabbi received a token from the groom for my daughter; the scribe wrote out the conditions of the contract, and two witnesses signed and stamped it with their seals. In a few months, after a proper waiting period, the marriage was to be finalized under the huppah, the sacred canopy. I was so happy for my daughter, that she was about to enter into the respected ranks of married womanhood. I was so happy for myself, that she would soon be able to bear our household a new generation of heirs.
Well, heirs…yes, that is the source of my problem. My daughter is betrothed; she has a husband-to-be. But now, it seems that…This is so difficult for me to talk about.
I might as well say it directly: My daughter is with child.
Yes, I see you drawing in your breath. I see you raising questions with your eyes. My daughter is betrothed, but her marriage has not yet been finalized under the sacred canopy—and yet she is already with child. I suppose now you can understand why I began by saying that I am deeply worried for her.
I guess I should have introduced myself to you earlier. But you seemed so kind . . . I immediately launched into telling you my story. I suppose you can see how long I have been wanting someone in whom to confide.
My name is Hannah; people not from the House of Israel sometimes call me Anne. I come from a small town in Galilee, called Nazareth. I doubt you’ve ever heard of it. It’s off in the mountains, on a road that winds up toward Damascus in Syria—a road that not many people travel any more. It is a quiet town, most of the time, some seventy miles or several days’ journey from Jerusalem.
My husband was a farmer in Nazareth, and a righteous man. I say “was,” because he died a few years ago—may he rest peacefully in the bosom of Abraham. In some ways, I suppose I am glad. It would have been so hard for him to hear this news about his daughter, the apple of his eye.
My daughter’s name is Miriam; I think you call it Mary in your Gentile languages. Since her father’s death, she has been such a help to me—working in the vegetable gardens behind the house, tending our few animals while I busy myself with the household tasks.
Miriam has always been a quiet child. As a young girl, after her chores were done, she preferred spending her time alone in the fields rather than playing with the other children. When her father was living, he would gather us every morning at dawn and every evening at dusk in the corner of our home that pointed toward Jerusalem, and there he would read to us from the Holy Torah. Miriam always seemed to listen so closely to those writings. Her eyes would shine!
There were certain stories that she just couldn’t seem to hear often enough. Like the stories about her namesake . . . You know that it is the custom among our people to name daughters after some important figure from our history. My Miriam loved to hear about that earlier Miriam, the one who was the sister of Moses: the young woman who was so resourceful that she saved her baby brother from destruction by an angry Pharaoh by hiding him in a basket of rushes and floating it among the reeds at the edge of the Nile. Thanks to her, Moses grew to be a leader of our people, to liberate us from slavery in Egypt. And when our people had miraculously crossed over the Sea of Reeds, leaving the forces of Pharaoh drowning behind them, it was Miriam who led the women out dancing with their tambourines, singing:
Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously!
The horse and the rider, God has thrown into the sea! (Ex. 15:21)
My Miriam used to love that song when she was growing up. I would often hear her humming it to herself as she went about her work in the house and in the fields.
Perhaps even more than she loved the stories about her own namesake, Miriam seemed to enjoy hearing the stories about mine. My name is Hannah, as I said. The woman for whom I am named was truly remarkable. Late into her life, she had not been blessed with children, so she prayed to the Almighty. I memorized that prayer as a girl, and my daughter Miriam did so as well:
“O Lord of Hosts, if you will indeed look on the affliction of your maidservant and give to your maidservant a son, then I will give him to the Lord.”
And it came to pass that Hannah our ancestress conceived and bore a son. She called his name Samuel. Faithful to her promise, she took him to the house of the Lord at Shiloh where she gave him over to the ministry of the Almighty before Eli, the priest.
Like Miriam the sister of Moses, Hannah the mother of Samuel had a triumphant song to sing:
God raises the poor from the ash heap, and lifts up the needy
to make them sit with the princes and inherit the seat of the Lord! (I Sam 2)
My Miriam used to say how much she liked the idea that the Almighty would someday put down the wealthy from their positions of privilege, and lift up those who were poor and of low degree. She used to say she would gladly consecrate a child of hers to the service of such a God!
But better even than the songs and stories of Miriam and Moses, better even than the songs and stories of Hannah and Samuel, my Miriam has always loved the teachings of our great prophet Isaiah: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel, which means ‘God is with us’” (Is. 7:14):
The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
and the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them. (Is. 11)
What Jew among us does not thrill to these words that tell of the glorious age of the Messiah to come? What human being among us does not thrill to hear of a day when justice will be fully accomplished—when everywhere, among people and within nature, all at last will be peace?
We do yearn for this, don’t we? I don’t know how things are in the places where you live, but I can tell you that in Nazareth there is a deep longing for that peaceable realm. So many people are hungry. What little income we have from farming is taken away by the heavy taxes of Herod’s government, so there is scarcely enough left to put food on our own tables. And it’s not just our bodies that are hungry. Deep in our spirits, something seems to be dying. I am not a rabbi or a scribe, or even an educated woman, so it is hard for me to name this “something.” But I can see it when I look at the faces of my friends and kinfolk in Nazareth. In their eyes, there is a lingering sadness. God said through the prophet Isaiah that a Messiah was coming to fulfill our deepest yearnings. But we are so tired of waiting. Like the Psalmist before us, we wonder: “How long, O Lord?”
In light of the problems of my people, I suppose my personal worries about my daughter seem rather small. After all, according to the laws of Judaism, cohabitation before marriage is no crime. If Miriam’s bridegroom chose to conclude the marriage by conceiving a child with her before the ceremony under the sacred canopy, technically no offense has been committed—although such haste does seem a bit improper. But there is something I haven’t yet told you, and I am afraid to do so. For not only will you think my daughter immodest: you may think her mad, as well.
My daughter, the dreamer. My daughter, the lover of Isaiah’s prophecies and the tales of Hannah’s miraculous childbirth. My daughter, the rainbow-chaser who dances alone in the fields, singing songs of Israel’s deliverance from captivity. My daughter, Miriam. As any good mother would have to do, I confronted her about her pregnancy. I asked her if Joseph had done this unseemly thing. I thought perhaps she could defend him; I thought perhaps she could explain him. I don’t really know what I thought she might answer. I do know that I never dared to expect she would respond to me in the way in which she did. But she looked at me calmly. Her eyes shone the way they used to when her father would read to us from the holy writings. She spoke one sentence to me: “Mother, a virgin has conceived in Israel.”
You can imagine that I scarcely knew what to say. I was going to cry “Blasphemy!” But something kept me from it. Perhaps it was the look on her face. Miriam has always been a quiet child, I told you that. But a different quality seems to have crept into her quietness. I am not a rabbi or a scribe; I am not an educated woman. But I am a mother, and I can sense certain things. There is a mystery about my daughter: a serenity, a radiance. It is as if there were angels hovering over her, as if she were surrounded by the splendor of protective wings. I scarcely know how to describe it. But if you could see her . . .
“Well,” you say, “after all, she is with child. Doesn’t every woman at that time take on a certain radiance?” Perhaps. Perhaps you are right. Still, my son-in-law is from the house and lineage of David, and it is from this house that the One whom we are awaiting is to be born…
Now you will think me foolish and preposterous as well—a dreamer, like my daughter; a proud old woman, about to have her first grandchild, who imagines that the baby to be brought forth by her daughter is to be the offspring of the Most High. Well, let me assure you: you can think nothing of me on this score that I have not already thought of myself.
But…let me dare to ask you this: What if it were true? You know about the wild, eager dreams we have for our children. More than this: you know about the wild, eager dreams we have for all children. You can imagine with me, can’t you, how wonderful it would be if that realm which Isaiah foretold were about to come true: that time when “the wolf lies down with the lamb”; when “they shall not hurt or destroy in all God’s holy mountain”; that time when all children shall play in safety and in plenty because everywhere, everywhere, all will be peace?
What if that time really were coming soon? What if somewhere—not in my daughter necessarily, but somewhere—quietly, secretly, the gift of God-with-us was preparing itself to be born? Wouldn’t we pray together, with eager longing: “O come, Emmanuel!”? Wouldn’t we join that ancient Miriam with her tambourine and that ancient Hannah with her triumph song to celebrate a God who comes to liberate and lift up the needy, the weary, and the oppressed?
Maybe I am a dreamer, like my Miriam. Maybe I am, after all, a foolish old woman. But I will tell you this. Despite my worries about my daughter; despite my worriedness and my weariness about the state of this world in which we are living, sometimes an unexplainable hopefulness wells up from deep within me and swells so strong that I can scarcely contain it. Sometimes I look at my daughter who is with child, and I just want to break out laughing. Sometimes, I see a light breaking through the clouds, I feel a stirring in the air around me, and I know—I know—that the everlasting arms of God are near. Sometimes, I tell you, I can almost believe that the Age of the Messiah is at hand.
So yes, I am worried about my daughter. But also, I am expectant; I am eager. I confess to you that my aging heart beats fast. If it is to be that my Miriam gives birth to a normal, healthy child, then I assure you I will rejoice with great gladness to welcome Miriam and Joseph and their baby into my home. But if. . . do we even dare to think it? If my daughter, or anyone’s daughter, is soon to give birth to the Promised One—then not only I, but all women, and all men and children, and even the moon and the morning stars together will break out in singing:
“Glory to God in the Highest! And on earth, peace. At long last, on earth, peace.”
Mary Louise Bringle
Mary Louise (Mel) Bringle is a Professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Brevard College in Brevard, NC. Her Ph.D. in practical and pastoral theology is from Emory University. An award-winning hymn writer whose original texts and translations appear in the hymnals of numerous denominations in North America and Scotland, she has served as President of The Hymn Society in the US and Canada and as chair of the Presbyterian Committee on Congregational Song, responsible for creating the hymnal Glory to God.
black and white photo by Janko Ferlič