Nativity scenes abound this time of year. I have them in my yard, my dining room and my living room. The Holy Family is so familiar, yet I would love to see the face of the real Mary in her hometown of Nazareth. You can see a lot in people’s faces, in their expressions, happiness, sadness, surprise. What people feel is often “written all over their face.” I wonder what was written all over the face of Mary? What can we learn from Mary that is relevant to us today?
We may feel like we know the face of Mary because she is well-represented in art. I marvel at the things that are surely wrong in much of it.
This painting by Italian painter Fredrico Barocci (1592-1596) depicts a serene and confident Mary. The angel Gabriel is looking up at her with great reverence. This Mary is literate, reading a small prayer book. That is a bit problematic since bound books were not around when Mary carried Jesus. Literacy was not common in the time of Mary and literacy among woman even less so. However, this Mary likes cats so I can’t help but like her for that.
This next painting by Rogier Van der Weyden (1399-1401) includes a Mary that is rather well-to-do. She has some pretty fancy digs with the inlaid tile floor, lavish furnishings and a heavily draped canopy bed. That is pretty surprising for the tiny, backwoods town of Nazareth where archeologists find that most folks of the day lived in caves carved into the soft stone of the hillside. No tiled mosaics there date to the time of Christ. I can’t picture this uptown Mary handling the news from Joseph that the Grand Hyatt Bethlehem lost their reservation and they’d be sleeping in the stable.
To me, these Mary’s look too mature, too sophisticated, not to mention too Anglo. So, what do we know about the face of Mary from the Bible?
In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a village in Galilee, to a virgin named Mary. She was engaged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of King David. (Luke 1: 26-27 NLT)
So we know that Mary is from Nazareth, a tiny Jewish town in Galilee. Nazareth was not sophisticated place like the Gentile/Roman town that was nearby, Sepphoris. Folks passed Nazareth on way there. Nazareth = Podunk, pop. 100. Tiny and insignificant. Folks from there were considered hicks from the sticks. Thirty years later, Nathanael, a skeptic who was invited to hear Jesus speak, questioned, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” That’s where Mary lived.
We also know she was a virgin and she was engaged. The custom in her day was for arranged marriages. Father’s typically arranged marriages when daughters were very young, 13 or 14. Engagements usually lasted a year, but Mary would have been considered as good as married from the time her engagement was announced. Had Joseph died before their marriage, she would have been considered a widow.
28 Gabriel appeared to her and said, “Greetings, favored woman! The Lord is with you! ” 29 Confused and disturbed, Mary tried to think what the angel could mean. (Luke 1:28-29 NLT)
Here the Bible tells us about the face of Mary. Mary was “confused and disturbed,” which also translates as “deeply distressed.”
30 “Don’t be frightened, Mary,” the angel told her, “for God has decided to bless you! 31 You will become pregnant and have a son, and you are to name him Jesus. 32 He will be very great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 And he will reign over Israel forever; his Kingdom will never end!” 34 Mary asked the angel, “But how can I have a baby? I am a virgin.”
35 The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the baby born to you will be holy, and he will be called the Son of God. 36 What’s more, your relative Elizabeth has become pregnant in her old age! People used to say she was barren, but she’s already in her sixth month. 37 For nothing is impossible with God.” 38 Mary responded, “I am the Lord’s servant, and I am willing to accept whatever he wants. May everything you have said come true.” And then the angel left. (Luke 1:30-38)
Maybe this is the face of Mary, painted by Henry Tanner in 1898. This Mary is a young girl of simple means. No books. No rich robes. No leaded glass window. This Mary isn’t serene and confident. She isn’t meek and demure. This Mary is deeply confused and worried and nervous. She is listening intently to God’s plan for her. She has reason to be worried. Hers would be a high-risk pregnancy. In Mary’s time she could have been called an adulteress. According to Deut 22:23-24 the punishment is to be stoned to death. Confused and disturbed indeed!
Mary received news that she had found favor with God, and this is what God’s favor looks like? When we look at face the face of Mary we learn that sometimes what God calls us to do is hard. Sometimes what God calls us to do derails our lives from what we planned.
Sound familiar? Life is all mapped out until that unexpected turn, that diagnosis, leaving us too feeling confused and disturbed. Mary was called to parent an extraordinary child. So were we, just a different kind of extraordinary.
I see one more thing in Mary’s face. I see bravery. Being brave doesn’t mean being without fear, being brave means saying yes despite the fear. Mary couldn’t see what lay ahead for her, and yet she replied, “Yes.”
“I am the Lord’s servant, and I am willing to accept whatever he wants. May everything you have said come true.” (Luke 1:38 NLT)
What is God calling each of us to do that is hard? I’m pretty sure I know. Are we brave like Mary when God calls us to do something hard? When we think we have everything planned out and our lives take an unexpected turn, does fear try to push its way in? When God looked past the fear on the face of Mary and into her heart, God saw a servant who is willing to say, “Yes.”
Often we hear about living after the example of Christ. Perhaps we are also called to live after the example of Mary.
Find in each of us the heart of Mary. We admit at times we are afraid. At times we are insecure and overwhelmed. Mary was too. There is no shame in fear, but those are the times when we need to feel your presence the closest. Help us to trust you with willing hearts. Amen.
Fredrico Barocci, Annunciation [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons
Rogier van der Weyden, Annunciation [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Henry Ossawa Tanner, The Annunciation [Public Domain]. via Wikimedia Commons