Call Me Blessed

Sabbath Day Thoughts — “Call Me Blessed” Luke 1:39-55

Ma kara!  What was the meaning of this?!

The messenger had disappeared with a snap.  The place where he had stood seemed to pulse with an invisible energy.  The air had a whiff of ozone, like the Judean desert after the crack of heat lightening.

I shook my head and looked around.   Down below, some goats were foraging in the thicket next to the wadi.  Up above near the caves, chickens were scratching the packed earth by the bread oven.  No one seemed to know or care that I had just met Gabriel himself, the messenger of God Almighty, holy be his name.  The angel had left me with more questions than answers.  Had our prayers been answered?  Was God sending the Messiah?

I know that I had said yes, but as I walked home, my head filled with second guesses.  Nazareth was an unlikely hometown for a Messiah.  Here half-naked toddlers clung to their mother’s skirts and gnawed breadcrusts to sooth teething.  The Holy One of Israel should be born in a palace, wrapped in silks, tended by a legion of nannies.  The Messiah should be born to a princess, and I was a village girl with dirt under my fingernails from weeding the garden.  Had Gabriel really spoken, or had too much sun stirred my overactive imagination?

At home, my Ama greeted me with a smile.  “Ah, Mary!  It’s about time.  We’ve had news of our cousin Elisabeth.  At last, she is to bear a child.”

My eyes grew wide.  It was just as the messenger had said.  For as long as I could remember, we had prayed for Elisabeth, that God might open her womb.  But years had passed, and there was no child.  The skin at the corner of her eyes had creased in a web of fine lines, and still there was no child.  Her hair had begun to gray and the shoulders of her husband Zechariah rounded with age, and still there was no child.  Hers was the most hopeless of cases.  Yet my Ama was telling me the impossible: a baby was on the way.  I was needed.  In the morning, I would depart for Hebron with my uncle, my dohd, Joash.  There I would help Elisabeth until the child was born.

If Elisabeth was with child, then anything was possible.  I looked down at my flat stomach with my brow creased in wonder.  I should tell my Ama.

“But Ama . . .” I began.  She brushed my words aside.

“Not a word, Mary.  You are going to Hebron and that is final.  You would just be underfoot here, mooning over Joseph anyway.  This will be good for you.”

Joseph may have been the best future-husband ever, but I didn’t think he would take kindly to my news.  Maybe getting out of town was a good idea.

Early in the morning, before the sun had risen, Joash came with his two donkeys.  A slight man with a scraggly beard and bright eyes that took in everything, Joash was my mother’s youngest brother.  He was a trader of spices and opobalsam.  Twice each year, he traveled to Jericho at the edge of the Arabian desert.  Always he returned with fragrant treasures that he swapped for what was needed: eggs, flour, cheese, linen.  He also came with news of our people, news that often made my mother weep or turned my father’s eyes dark with rage.

Dohd Joash gave me a hug and went in to see my parents.  I waited in the courtyard, scratching his donkeys and wondering how long it would take us to make the eighty-mile trip.  Before long, Joash was back.  He handed me a sack of rags and some day-old bread from my Ama.  “Tuck these into your pack, Mary,” he said and handed me the lead for one of the donkeys.  Apparently, we were walking.  This would take a while.

Later that morning as ha shemesh neared the middle of his journey across the sky, we stopped in the no-man’s-land between Galilee and Samaria.  “Mary,” Joash instructed, “Take your sack of rags and bread and leave it there.”

He pointed to a broad rock, like a table, about fifty yards from the roadside.  It seemed ridiculous, but I did what I was told.  A movement in the brush caught my eye and made me scurry back to the safety of my dohd.  Before we left, I saw a dozen lepers at the rock, stick figures swathed in stained bandages, pawing through my sack with fingerless hands.  Such a terrible, lonely life!  “Can’t they be helped?”  I asked my uncle.

Joash gave a sad sigh and a little shrug. “Perhaps when the Messiah comes.”

On the third evening, at the edge of Shechem in the shadows of Mt. Ebal and Mt. Gerizim, we stopped at the tax collector’s booth.

“Ah, Joash!  I see you are again on your way to Jericho,” the tax collector greeted us.  He was a fat man with grease in his beard and a gold tooth.  Beside his booth was a pen where some listless sheep and goats were attended by a scrawny, barefoot boy in a filthy, hand-me-down tunic.  His enormous eyes looked dull.

My uncle shared news of the Galilee while the tax collector greedily eyed the two donkeys.  Once the pleasantries were over, the tax collector got down to business.  “Ah, Joash!  What is a man to do?  Every year, Herod expects more of me.  I regretfully inform you that the toll has doubled.  Such a sad state of affairs.”  The two men haggled until they reached a compromise, then my uncle pressed a gold coin into his well-fleshed palm and we left.

As soon as we were out of earshot, I wanted to know, “How can he treat his child like that, Dohd?  Did you see how thin and miserable the boy was?”

My Uncle Joash raised a quizzical eyebrow.  “His child?  Your parents really need to get you out more, Mary.  That boy was a slave.”  My shock prompted my uncle to put a comforting arm around my shoulder.

“But uncle,” I asked, “To treat a child like this, surely this is something only the Gentiles do?  Who can stop such a thing?”

A bitter look crossed my uncle’s face.  He turned back to his donkey, “Perhaps when the Messiah comes, Mary.”

When we reached Alexandrium, we contended with even worse.  In the Decapolis city of Alexandrium, the Israelites, Samaritans, and Gentiles mix.  They don’t especially like one another, but there is mutual advantage in trade.  Before we reached the city walls, my uncle stopped.  He tucked my head scarf protectively across my face.  In a voice so stern that I dared not disobey he instructed, “Stay close and do not look up.”  I stood in my uncle’s shadow as we passed a small company of Roman soldiers sprawling in the shade and we entered the city gates.

In the middle of the market, we were stopped.  I recognized some of the soldiers who had sized us up as we passed.  They pushed and hassled my uncle.  Where was he going?  What was his business?  Was he a friend of the emperor?  At the same time, two men edged between me and my dohd’s protective shadow.  For every step they took toward me, I took a step back.  Within moments, I would be gone, lost in the crowd. 

“What have we here?” a soldier asked, plucking the scarf from my face with a practiced hand.  He cupped my chin and tipped my face up, as if assessing my value. 

Before I could shout “Dai!”  Enough!  He snatched his hand back with a curse, as if it had been burned.  He shook his head and pushed me back to my uncle.  “Leave them!” he ordered, backing away.

My uncle dried my anxious tears and tucked my scarf back across my face.  “You were born under a lucky star, Mary.  Do you have any idea how fortunate you are that they changed their minds?  Such is our lot until the Messiah comes.”

I know that Gabriel had called my blessed, and my Dohd Joash had said that I was lucky, but I hardly felt so.  In fact, every day that we traveled, I felt worse.  At first, my small breasts began to hurt and swell.  Then, I began to feel fatigue, so weary in the evenings that I was asleep within moments of lying down.  That day, I had felt queasy upon waking.  The smoke from the fire roiled my gut and made my head swim.  If this was blessed, then I wasn’t sure I wanted it.

The more I saw of Israel, the more I wondered what any child born to me could ever do to help.  Our people needed saving in more ways than I could count—from sickness, greed, corruption, poverty, occupation.  It would take more than an army of babies full-grown to bring that sort of change.  As we came to the edge of Hebron and looked for the home of Elizabeth and Zechariah, my thoughts were bleak.  It would take God Almighty himself, blessed be his name, to turn things upside down.

I watered the donkeys and gave them some grain while Joash went in to speak with Zechariah.  As I neared the door, Elisabeth rushed out, looking expectant and joyous.  She pulled me close and hugged me to her round belly.  I could feel her unborn child kicking and wriggling between us.  Suddenly, Elisabeth gave a cry and held her tummy.  She looked at me with keen eyes.  I sensed that somehow, she knew.  She knew my fear and worry and doubt.  She knew my truth.

The words she said next were like a healing balm for my troubled heart, “Would you look at us?  You, too young.  Me, too old.  We are filled with the promises of God.  It may not feel like it right now, Mary, but you are blessed.”

She reached over and rested her hand on my stomach, “And blessed is this child within you.”

And in that moment, it seemed anything was possible.  God Almighty, holy be his name, could set Israel aright.  The proud could be humbled; the lowly lifted up.  The rich sent away empty; the poor filled.  A peasant girl from Nazareth could give birth to the Messiah.  Why not?

“Visitation” (In the predella: Episodes from the Infancy of Christ)
Mariotto Albertinelli (Florence 1474 – 1515), The Uffizi Gallery

Luke 1:39-55

39 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42 and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43 And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44 For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

46 And Mary said,

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47     and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
    Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
    and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
    from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
    he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
    and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
    and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
    in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
    to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

Siskin Green perform “The Canticle of the Turning,” based on the Magnificat, filmed for BBC Scotland’s Reflections at the Quay.

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