Read an Excerpt
Speaking for Ourselves
Voices of Biblical Women
By Katerina Katsarka Whitley
Church Publishing IncorporatedCopyright © 1998 Katerina Katsarka Whitley
All rights reserved.
To a Poor Girl, Such Promises!
Mary Remembers the Coming
All of the Gospel of Luke, specifically 1:26–56; 2:1–52 Matthew 1:18–25; 2:1–11
(The speaker is Mariam, the mother of Jesus, and the listener is the evangelist Luke.)
Yes, Brother Luke, I'll answer your questions gladly Do sit with me a while then. Talking about his early years is my only comfort now. He has been gone from earth a long while. I miss the child he was. My old heart warms at the memory of his sweetness.
And you will write a book about him, you say, so you want "perfect understanding of all things from the very first"? Yes, I will help you. You are a learned man, beloved physician. They tell me your Greek is beautiful—you are a master of the language. But you must try to think like a Jew to understand me. Yes, write your book. Very few know his early years; even Markos did not touch upon them. Nobody really asked about them for a long while—not after the horror of the cross, and then the glory.
Let me warn you, I drift easily these days; my years are long. Soon I, too, will go to the Father. My days are numbered. Do not let me sleep. You are a busy man.
Where shall I begin? (She listens to Luke's question.)
What did I think of during those days? The strange, scary birth, the smelly stable, and my beloved Joseph, all alone with no one to help him. Was I scared? Beloved physician! You know your science well, but you have never given birth. So how shall I explain? With all my other children, the pains seemed the same. But with him, the firstborn, even the pains were different; as though less eager was he to enter the world, yet more alive when he came than any infant I have ever seen.
A few hours before his birth, exhausted after the long journey from Nazareth, looking at Joseph, who could not find a room in the inn, and seeing his agony, I had wept at our aloneness. Was this the favor God had shown me? But afterward, when the Babe in my arms wept to enter this world, then lifted up his little hand and touched my own hot tears, I felt that rest, the peace that passes understanding, that our poets have sung about.
And soon the shepherds came in, and we were no longer alone, but rejoiced in their company. I see you heard of the shepherds? Did one of them tell you? There was a lad among them. Perhaps he's living still ... (Pauses, listening to Luke.)
And now you ask if they were frightened when they saw the angels. Have you ever seen an angel, Brother Luke? No? Then how shall I describe to you the awesome aspect? The shiny, holy quality of these servants who stand before our Lord? You want to fall on your knees, to hide your face from the brightness. (In awe) When the Blessed Gabriel appeared to me, the trembling in my soul lasted for days. And long afterward, my eyes deep inside hurt from the light that seared me to the soul.
So I knew the shepherd's fear when the angel appeared to them that night. It is a good kind of fear, you understand, a holy thing. I knew from their eyes when they crowded into the stable that they had been in the presence of that brightness. Wordless at first, they looked for a sign, the swaddling clothes, and among them they found the Babe. So they fell on their knees, and then their tongues were loosened, and they spoke and sang at the same time. Then they told us of the angels' words to them ...
You want to know what they were? I'm almost hesitant to tell you. How did we all forget them so soon? Thirty-three years later there was no hint of all that glory—not with him hanging broken on a cross. We all stood hopeless, away from him; even I, his mother, had forgotten the angels' words and had no hope, no hope ...
(Her tone changes from sadness to remembered sweetness.)
But that first night in Bethlehem the shepherds told us, and we all believed them. "I bring you good news," the angel told the shepherds, "good news of a great joy which will come to all people. For to you is born a Savior ..." (With amazement) Can you imagine? An angel of the Lord revealing this great secret, the hope of Israel for generations, to the shepherds? And when they told us, I remembered Blessed Gabriel's words to me nine months earlier: "The child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God."
To the shepherds, and to a poor, unmarried girl, such promises ...
But he did exalt the humble all that night. So lovely a night, Brother Luke. The manger smelled of springtime after his birth. The darkness was dissolved, and in that lowly stable shone the light of a holy presence.
It was a comforting light, not hot like the sun's, but silvery, like joy come alive. A light that sang entered the stable. Maybe it was an echo of the angels' song I heard, but the whole place was full of music. And I didn't even stop to wonder, is it possible that this baby in my arms is the Messiah of Israel? That night everything seemed possible, even peace on earth ...
(She drifts into a dream.)
Ah, yes, I see I must have drifted away. It's easy to doze off at my age. Every time I think of that blessed night, I seem to leave the world.
Afterward, we moved to the house of one of the shepherds, who by then had offered us hospitality, embarrassed of the stable. In all our happiness, we lulled ourselves, Joseph and I, that we would enjoy the baby like normal parents and call him our own. I suckled him, held him, and changed him, loving him while Joseph fashioned a crib for him with his clever hands. The days passed in contentment, so that again Joseph and I forgot the strange apparitions in the night, the wonder and the prophecies.
But when we took him to the temple for the Presentation, an old sage by the name of Simeon, who was a prophet, brought the fear and the wonder back to my heart. He took my Jesus in his arms, his old face shattered in smiles and tears, and he said upon looking at my baby, he said: "Mine eyes have seen thy salvation, oh Lord." I knew, of course, that Jesus was not mine, but that he was a gift to all. Then Simeon's old eyes looked into my mind, and there was hard mercy in him as he said, "And a sword shall pierce your own soul also." I knew his meaning. I felt it suddenly in my heart: the horror of my life thirty-three years later.
And again we forgot, but then the Magi came in all their strange splendor and filled us both with foreboding. Different from the shepherds they were, ah yes. We were familiar with shepherds, had even become familiar—no, that is not the right word—had become used to the appearance of angels, but these visitors! They entered trailing many-colored robes, and sparkling with their jewels. They spoke strangely, they even smelled strange. Joseph looked lost. Up to then, he had been serene amidst the wondrous events of our lives, but in the presence of these Magi from the Orient, he became so confused, he stuttered.
Then one of the royal visitors approached me as I held my son, knelt, and uttered a great speech that I did not understand. Joseph, who knew some Greek, asked him the meaning of his words, and this kneeling prince of this world repeated them. "He is calling our Jesus King of the Jews!" Joseph explained in amazement. "How is it possible that these strangers know of the Messiah?"
But I was no longer surprised. It all fell into place—the words of Gabriel to me and to Joseph, the angels' words to the shepherds, and now the utterances of these wise men from the East. I again felt deep within me the knowledge and the light that were given to me upon that first visit from the angel. This baby Jesus was a gift of God for the whole world. Then I put this knowledge away until later, much later.
For immediately something happened that took from me the joy of the Lord and gave me the fear of a mother for her son. Our strange visitors knelt and offered gifts to the baby Jesus. There was a box of beautiful gold pieces, and my first thought was, lovely, I shall save it for him and he will not need to suffer want. I did not know then that the moment he was old enough to do so, he would give it all away to the poor. The other gifts were spices and perfumes. I still remember the pungent smell of frankincense permeating the room. But then one of them lifted a wreath of myrrh, and Jesus reach for it, grasped it, and put it on his head. And there was such a serious, intent look on that innocent face that a cold hand clutched at my heart when I smelled the bitter incense all over the lovely hair. Myrrh, I thought, myrrh for burial, my son. And I suddenly saw it as it happened thirty-three years later—the washing of his body and the anointing of it with myrrh ...
Ah Luke, a sword pierced my heart that night in the presence of all the earthly wisdom of our visitors. Do you understand a mother's heart? What kind eyes you have; you must have known another's pain. Yes, I have grown weary, but I must finish, my young friend. You may not find me able to tell you again, so let me continue.
You asked what made him different from other children. Well, nothing really. He was childhood personified. All the joy and vivid energy of childhood were his: playfulness and curiosity and great generosity of spirit. Except for one thing, he was truly different. You see, I had other children by then and knew the difference.
Jesus was the only child I ever encountered who knew the meaning of total obedience. Do you know what that means? You nod but look bemused. How can I explain? When the day sang with its springtime promise and he longed to run outside to play or lie under a tree, all I had to do was look at him and say, "Help me with little James, my son. Look after him for me today." Jesus would stop at the door, turn around without regret, and do exactly as I asked, never once complaining.
And always, throughout the time he was with us, I wanted to spare him the suffering to come. I longed to keep him from pain. Let it come to me but not to him, I prayed, not to him. As though I knew that in this one desire of mine he would truly disobey me. I know now that there was no other way for the world to meet his perfect goodness. Only the cross. And soon he knew it.
But I have drifted from your questions. During those early years there were hints of both the glory and the pain, but they came more rarely. Soon he left home for good, without ever looking back. The rest you know. Blessed be the name of the Lord.
Questions to Ponder
1. How has your understanding of Mary changed after reading this monologue?
2. The Greeks call Mary "Theotokos," the mother of God, or more accurately, "God-bearer." God chose Mary, a woman of no previous importance, to bear Jesus, the Son of God. How does this knowledge shape your own understanding of God's ways of working in the world?
3. If an angel of God came to you and revealed the kinds of secrets he did to Mary, would you believe him? Would you do whatever you were asked to do?
4. In some religious traditions Mary is considered not only a virgin but sinless as well. Is this important to you? Why or why not?
5. Many mothers today, particularly those in inner cities and in war-torn parts of the world, must live with the realistic fear that their sons will not live a long life. How does Mary's courage speak to the realities of our violent world, where teenagers die at record rates?
Was This the Promise God Had Given Me?
Mary Remembers the Last Hours
John 19:25–27; also, John 2:1–5
All of the Gospel of Luke
(The speaker is Mariam, the mother of Jesus, and the listener is the evangelist Luke.)
What broke on the cross that day, Brother Luke, was not his body only, but my heart. I thought of Joseph. How he used to take a long piece of wood and, putting it across his knee, he'd break it in two with the pressure of his powerful hands. I said, "You broke me, Almighty. You broke me like a stick of kindling, and just as useless now."
For what sorrow can compare to a mother's sorrow? Seeing her son, her firstborn, dying on a tree, hanging there—that strong manly body hanging like a sack of bones. Hanging by the hands whose very touch was healing itself—hands now bloodied and torn.
"They used to beg you for miracles, my son," I cried, "and you never said no. No matter how tired you were, you stretched out your hands and healed them. Do it now, this one last time, for me, not for your sake but for mine. Heal my heart; come down from that cross and heal me."
(Very quietly, the whole picture still vivid in her mind.)
He didn't even look at me. He was absorbed in his own terrible sorrow, and I didn't think it had to do with the pain of his body. It was that distance that came over him when he listened to his "Father," as he put it. But that day, where was his Father? I think that his Father's absence was behind his sorrow, and I knew it by the cries that escaped him. So the abyss opened between us, and what I remember now about that day is the darkness.
(She remembers Luke's presence.) What kind of darkness? Is that what you are asking? Ah, if I could only forget it ... (Runs her hands over her face.)
You know how lovely our nights are in Galilee. The light lingers and lingers and the dark comes softly, so you still see faces with a sweet glow on them. And then the stars are lit, low and so near and bright in the blessed sky. It was nothing like that. That is the darkness you know.
This came suddenly, like the frightening storms over the lake; it came with a groan, like an angry curse, and covered everything with menace. The sun's light failed.
You look perplexed. It was the middle of the day, you see, and the sun's light failed. I cringe to tell you what I thought then. A good daughter of Judah doesn't think in such terms. "God is dead," I wailed, and it must have been at that moment that his soul left his body.
(Pauses. Her voice changes, trying to become matter-of-fact, but as she describes the scene, it reaches a crescendo.)
There was a crowd around the crosses, and the crazed Roman soldiers and all, but especially those Romans, were deathly frightened. The others, our own, were beating their breasts. They, who moments before were abusing him, were now running away with screams, asking God not to punish them for their evil deed. Curses and shameful words filled the air, and I don't know who was crying—maybe it was me—but I can still hear the lament.
"Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never suckled." Later John told me that, because of the noise and fear, the crowds missed hearing the most loving words from the cross: "Father, forgive them," he had cried, "for they know not what they do." And all of us have been drawing comfort from that ever since.
But during those three hours the darkness was winning, and I kept remembering a psalm. I think I heard him cry it out, but John was leading me away by then, so as not to see the final agony. I remembered how Joseph used to teach him the Psalms. Once was enough—Jesus memorized them and delighted in them. He went about his chores repeating them, his lovely eyes with that secret light of understanding in them, full of their meaning, but that psalm made him so quiet. "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani"; "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" he asked in pain and wonder, and I realized then that I had been asking the same thing. Why have you forsaken me, my son? That is when all abandoned the watch and turned in despair and fled. There was nothing left to live for.
(She is recalled to the present.)
But I am running ahead of my story. You see, Luke, I have not spoken of this to anyone in years.
Even the glory afterward did not diminish the pain of that day at the foot of the cross. Do you know that in moments of such terror and sorrow you remember so much of your life that you think eternity has passed? When I heard him cry out in thirst from the cross, I relived that day in Cana. You've heard of it? Well, it's all true. But what you don't know is that I went a-meddling. (She smiles. This memory is pleasant.)
I was so proud of him, and the wedding family were close friends. "Do something," I told him. "They have run out of wine." But what I really meant was: It is because of you that the place is running over with uninvited guests. They are the crowds that follow you.
But he only looked at me. Then he said, "My time has not yet come," and that's what I remembered under the cross. "Now," I cried, "now your time has come, and it is full of terror, and for what?"
Excerpted from Speaking for Ourselves by Katerina Katsarka Whitley. Copyright © 1998 Katerina Katsarka Whitley. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
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