Trigger warning: mention of rape
I think about Mary a lot.
Not the Mary you see on Christmas cards or in stained glass windows or in children’s bibles. Not the milk-fed blond virgins in Renaissance paintings. Not the grownup white lady in crisp blue robes with the fat baby on her lap. Mary wasn’t any of these people.
I think about Mary as a scrawny kid, barely in her teens and engaged to a man who was probably more than twice her age. She’s be at that age where you’re all arms and legs, when whatever childish grace you had has given way to adolescent clumsiness. She has big dark eyes and long black hair tucked neatly under a veil. Her skin is brown. Her hands are small, quick, good at sewing a tidy hemline or kneading a ball of dough.
I think about what it must have been like to live in a militarized occupied state. How she must have kept her head down, ducked past the soldiers she saw on the street, in the marketplace, out front of the temple. She wouldn’t have talked to them unless she had to, and even then it would be in whispered monosyllables. Not because she wasn’t brave, but because that’s the reality of life under occupation. You don’t give them a reason to notice you. You don’t give them an excuse to hurt you.
They are looking for literally any excuse.
Maybe the baby’s father was god, but maybe it was the boy next door. The one she used to make mud pies with in the alley between their houses. The one whose nose she’d bloodied during an argument over who should get the bigger slice of cake. The one she used to run foot races with until her parents said she was too old to run around like a child anymore. The one who had dug the heels of his hands into his eyes so that he wouldn’t cry when he learned about her betrothal.
Or maybe the father was a soldier who didn’t like the way she looked at him, or else liked it too much. Maybe the baby was the product of one of the oldest and vilest war tactics known to man.
Maybe Mary lied, and hoped that no one would ever question a lie so huge and so outrageous.
Maybe after she said it enough times – to her parents, to Elizabeth, to Joseph – she started to believe it. Anything can seem true if you hear it often enough.
Maybe she talked herself into it, telling herself that the lord works in mysterious ways, that he can use any person in any way to fulfill his wondrous purpose.
Or maybe the only way that her mind could cope with the trauma was to alter the memory of what had happened. A beam of light, like the sun glinting off a sword. An angel in battle armour. A choosing. A blessing. A reason for all that suffering.
I think about Mary walking around Nazareth, her belly too big to hide anymore – not that hiding it would have done any good, because it wouldn’t have been long before everyone would have known her story. I picture her keeping her head high, thrusting her little chin out while the women at the market whispered and giggled, only to break down later at home, sobbing in bed while her mother strokes her hair. Late at night she hears her father in the next room reciting prayer after prayer. He asks for strength, for faith, for guidance, for something, anything.
There must have been some part of Mary that felt relieved when she learned that they were going to Bethlehem. At the very least, she had the chance to get away from the gossiping neighbours. Sort of a fresh start.
The donkey ride across country while nine months pregnant must have been pure hell. Every morning she must have bitten back a sob as she hauled her bruised, swollen body once more onto that beast’s back. She must have clutched the reins and gritted her teeth and counted the hours until she could lie down in the flea-ridden bed of some dirty old back-country inn.
And then there was that final inn, in Bethlehem, the one they came to late at night after being turned away from all of the others. Mary must have been miserable by then – she’d probably been having contractions for hours, barely able to keep herself from howling with pain as the donkey jostled her up and down the crowded alleyways.
Was anyone there to help when the baby was finally born? Did the innkeeper’s wife come out to the stables to hold her hand, wipe her forehead, and finally guide him out between her thighs? Or was it just Joseph, humbly leaning on his staff and trying not to be sick from the heat, the stench of blood, the sound of his wife’s gut-wrenching groans?
Was anyone there to teach Mary how to nurse? How to squeeze her breast between her fingers and draw the baby’s mouth towards her nipple? Did anyone tell her about plugged ducts or thrush or the creeping red ache of mastitis?
Was there even one person there to tell her she was doing fine, it was all fine, she was going to be fine?
I think about how very much alone Mary must have felt sitting there in that stable, a scared kid holding her own kid in her arms.
I think about her fleeing to Egypt, her days-old baby strapped to her chest with a strip of cloth. Everything there must have seemed so foreign and dangerous – though not as dangerous as what she’d left behind her. I picture her struggling to learn the language, to map the new landscape, to eat the strange food. But I also picture her entering the temple of Isis and finding comfort in the images of the goddess with the baby Horus on her lap. The story of young god growing up in hiding from his evil uncle-king must have felt familiar to her. I hope it made Mary feel less alone.
Mary was the kind of girl who got things done, a problem-solver, a person who thinks on her feet. She was the kind to ask “what next?” instead of “why me?” Mary was someone who doggedly put one foot in front of the other because if she sat down to rest she might never get up. After all, the only way out is through.
When I think about Mary, I think about all the women I’ve known who have faced adversity by putting their heads down and just ploughing through it. These women don’t give up because giving up is simply not an option; they don’t have the luxury of running away to some distant planet at the edge of a galaxy far, far away. They survive because what other choice is there?
That’s the Mary I think about.
Mary the blessed.
Mary full of grace.
Mary the most holy.
Mary the immaculate.
Mary the queen of heaven.
Mary the advocate of Eve.
Mary the seat of wisdom.
Mary the star of the sea.
Mary the daughter.
Mary the mother.
Mary the survivor.