Whilst in my old age my health is starting to fade, I knew I needed to hear my nephew Jesus preaching before I draw my final breaths. I struggled up the mountain joining the large crowd already gathered there. His words carry over the gentle breeze.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
Within an instant my mind is transported back to that day just over 30 years ago when my cousin Mary had come to visit and I said similar words to her
Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfil his promises to her!
Her news had already reached our household. She was pregnant, and not yet married to Joseph. A scandal this big could not be hidden for long, and likely to bring shame to our whole family. Tales of angels weren’t really helping, better to move away in silence than to make up such unbelievable stories. And yet, there was I 6 months pregnant, with our much longed for son, John. He’s become quite the local hero, preaching in the wilderness, urging our nation to repent ready for the coming of the Messiah. But I get ahead of myself. I was still pregnant. That in itself was quite the miracle.
Zechariah, my late husband, and I had been praying for a baby for years. But it wasn’t too be. I could hear the other women laughing at me behind their hands as I used to walk in the market place. Pointing at the woman forsaken by God. Imagining what terrible sin I must have committed to not be able to have children. I had tried to pacify myself with stories from the scripture of Hannah and Sarah, that one day, if we continued to be faithful, that God would grant us a child too. Like Hannah I wept many tears before God. But eventually even I had to admit that it wasn’t going to happen. My days of childbearing were over. And I learned to live with the pain, the feeling of incompleteness.
We tried not to blame God, we tried to find the fault in our own lives. Zechariah was a priest and he continued with his priestly duties, amongst a nation that sometimes seemed so far from the life described within the scriptures. We were good at keeping the rituals, and hoping for a Messiah, but somehow we seemed to have lost the reason behind it all.
Then one day, Zechariah returned from the Temple. He was unable to speak. He’d obviously had a vision but couldn’t tell us what he’d seen. He drew pictures of angels and babies in the dust and wrote the name John. My heart missed a beat that maybe, just maybe, he was trying to tell me that I was going to have a baby, a son. That God had sent a messenger to tell him, just as the men came to Sarah and Abraham all those years ago. But as the subsequent months passed and nothing happened my hope started to fade away again to nothing. I wondered how I could have been so stupid to have believed that God might have noticed me.
But then it happened. I didn’t dare to believe it at first. I hid away from other women as my belly began to swell. It surely couldn’t be possible. But as the baby inside me grew stronger and started to kick I knew that it was true. And then after 6 months had passed the news of Mary’s pregnancy reached our door. Another woman in the family involved in a baby related scandal, but this time maybe one of her own making. Part of me wanted to believe the rumours of angels, I mean Zechariah had seen one. But it’s far -fetched to believe a woman can become a mother without something going on, even for God.
But as Mary approached on that day and I heard her calling across the valley, I felt God’s spirit come upon me, and John leapt within my womb. I could barely contain the excitement that I felt as I knew that Mary’s story was actually true. She really had seen an angel. Not just seen an angel, but spoken with him too. That she was pregnant with God’s own son, coming in power and might to rule over the Jewish nation once again. That the child within her was the one told of by the prophet Isaiah the Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father and the Prince of Peace. I don’t know how I knew. It didn’t really make any sense. But I knew. And I called out to Mary “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb”. How honoured I felt to be in her and her baby’s presence. I knew that the scandal she was currently living in would pass, that not just our generation but also those to come would see the living God at work within her and her child. Mary must have felt it too as she sang a wonderful song of praise to God how generations to come would call her blessed, how God had come to save his people.
We sat and we chatted for hours by the fire that night. Tales of excitement and wonder of all that had taken place. But all our chatter was not able to prepare us for what has taken place since then. The strange takings place at Jesus birth where shepherds turned up at the stable flushed with joy at seeing thousands of angels in the sky. The wise men arriving with gold and frankincense and myrrh. The hurried escape to Egypt to avoid the death of my beautiful nephew, whilst other mothers had to mourn the loss of their beloved sons. Jesus getting lost at the Temple when he was just a boy. Poor Mary was beside herself. And now my son John preaching and teaching in the desert. Well he was until just a few days ago, when Herod’s soldiers came and took him into prison. How fortunate that Zechariah did not live to see this day. That news is bad enough, but I did not have the prophecies at John’s birth that Mary was given in the temple soon after Jesus birth that a sword would pierce her very soul.
And it makes me worry for Mary and for Jesus, what will become of him, that is going to cause her so much pain?