Advent is a time of preparation. But how shall I prepare? How do I make myself ready to welcome the Holy Infant when he comes? ‘Let it be done unto me according to your word,’ says Mary. Dangerous words: inviting Almighty God to enter in, to do his will in us, through us, is a very serious business indeed. I wonder whether Mary knew what she was getting herself into. I imagine not: her special nature meant freedom to say yes, not foreknowledge of the consequences of her assent. Would she still have said yes if she knew how much it would hurt? I suppose, if she knew the whole story, she would have seen from the outset that it was worth it. And it is difficult to imagine how much a child’s rejection will hurt before you have even become pregnant.
Ah, Mary! You know the pain mothers feel. ‘A sword will pierce your own heart’—is that not the way of motherhood? Our Lord’s first miracle, as recorded in John’s gospel, he performed at you behest, but not without resistance. ‘O woman, what have you to do with me?’ he asks, rhetorically and not very politely; ‘My hour has not yet come.’ Is that any way to speak to your Mother?
I would have rankled. ‘Don’t call me woman, son,’ I might have said, ‘I am your mother.’ It hurts when a child distances himself from his mother. I know. I’m not sure I could have simply let it slide. But she does. Ignoring his cheeky reply, she addresses the servants. ‘Do whatever he tells you,’ she says. And so unfolds the miracle of the water and the wine; Jesus saves the wedding at Cana.
Was this an ordinary interaction between Mother and Son? Did Jesus routinely speak to Mary like that—‘woman, what have you to do with me?’ It sounds so cold. For all the tenderness we find in the beginning of Luke’s gospel, and the poignant image of the pietà, there seems to be some tension in their relationship. Jesus is unapologetic when they find him in the temple. We have heard his tone at the wedding at Cana. And then there is the episode recorded in the synoptic gospels in which his mother and brothers come to find Jesus. He says, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ Were he anyone else, we would think of him as a spoiled, ungrateful son. Who disavows his own mother, allowing anyone ‘who does the will of God’ to take her place? How hurt she must have been over and over again, as he slipped away from her. ‘A sword will pierce your own heart,’ indeed.
Mary figures for us the pain in child bearing that I think is bound up with the curse in Genesis 3. The pain of loss that the pietà captures does not begin with our Lord’s passion. No, Mary’s passion is life-long. From the moment she finds she is pregnant before it is appropriate—what will she do?—until she sees him crucified, being the mother of our Lord is a path that leads through suffering. She is worried and hurt like the rest of us: being conceived without sin doesn’t make her invulnerable.
As much as she shows us the enduring pain of motherhood, she also shows us the fierce tenderness of an ideal mother’s love. However many times he rejects her, she keeps following him. When the disciples are all scattered, she remains.
All the unseen pain of motherhood, Mary brings into the light for us. Without rancour or bitterness, she never scolds—though she admonishes her wayward 12 year old. And she doesn’t complain about how cold he sometimes seems. She doesn’t regret having given herself up to be the mother of this unusual child who brings her so much grief.
Of course it wasn’t all thorns and barbs. There are many joys as well, and Mary would have known these also. But in the season of Advent, when we are surrounded by images of a young and radiant woman beaming with joy over her infant Son, we ought to remember that her discipleship, like ours, took her through hurt and loss. It is the way of the cross, on which Mary is uniquely poised to lead us.
So we should not hesitate to let our prayer this Advent be, ‘Let it be done unto me according to your word.’ We should tremble, perhaps, for there is no knowing where such a prayer will take us. But we can be sure that the Lord is there, and Mary has already made the way for us.