Every Christmas brings the ancient story of Jesus' birth into conversation with modern times, and this year, as in many years, I look to Mary for how to navigate extraordinary joy and extraordinary pain in the midst of everyday life. As a Protestant Christian I do not venerate Mary as Theotokos, but Mary always stands at the center of the nativity story alongside her family: her husband and fellow dreamer Joseph and son Jesus. In the reading of Luke's Gospel nativity story, I find inspiration in her teen-aged candor, her heart for the outsider, and her quiet reactions to both moments of wonder and moments of tragic loss.
I love that Mary is a teenager. Most of my life in congregations has been spent with teenagers as a youth pastor or youth sponsor, and so I always look at Mary through the tempestuous and dramatic temperament of Shakespeare's Juliet in modern skinny jeans and Ugg boots. For the past several Advents, I wrote and prepared a Christmas skit to modernize the Christmas story using pop culture as a lens. We had a ball brainstorming and enacting ideas. One year, we imagined the angelic chorus that sings to the shepherds to announce Jesus' birth as an episode of heavenly "Glee." We re-wrote the lyrics to the show-stopper "Don't Stop Believin'" with a faithful twist: "Just a city boy, born and raised in South Galilee ... he took a lowly donkey to Bethlehem..." One year we imagined potential nativity characters from Elizabeth to the stable's donkey auditioning to sing for the Christ child a la "Bethlehem Idol." But my favorite remains one called Nativity News. As reporters break the news of Jesus' birth we catch an imaginative, modern glimpse of the teenage Mary as a field reporter at the Bethlehem Holiday Inn stable interviews her:
In Studio Anchor: By the way, who are the parents of the baby?
Field Reporter: You won't believe it but its Joe from right here in Bethlehem. He had recently moved to Nazareth to open an Ace Hardware store -- he's a gifted carpenter as many of us know -- but he had to come back home for the census and he brought with him his pregnant fiancée, Mary. They're planning a June wedding, and I think they should push the Holiday Inn for a discount on the reception hall for this whole stable debacle. Oh, wait, here's Mary now. Excuse me, Mary, it's Nativity News, can we have a word?
Mary: Um ... OK, but I, like, just had a baby.
Field Reporter: Yes, of course, you must be exhausted.
Mary: (rolls her eyes) Duh.
Field Reporter: So, what was it like traveling all this distance and then having to give birth in a barn?
Mary: The trip was not cool. I needed to stop, like, every 5 minutes to make a pit stop. Joseph never wanted to stop, he'd be, all, "Come on, Mary, can't you make it to the rest area?" And I was like, "Uh, no, I have to go now. If I could, like, wait, I wouldn't have said, like, I need to go now."
Field Reporter: So, how was Joseph in the delivery room?
Mary: Oh, he rocked; it was the animals that were a pain. I kept telling the donkey, "Look, donkey, I, like, need that manger. And the donkey was all, "Hee-haw, no," and I was all, "Hee-Haw, yeah."
Field Reporter: Wow, so much drama! How are YOU doing through all this?
Mary: I look fine on the outside, but I am like, totally pondering all this in my heart.
This last line, loosely translates from Luke 2:38, never ceases to inspire me as Mary turns to introspection in the midst of all the action. Women in Scripture can be prayerful like Hannah, laughing like Sara, taking action like Tamar or Judith or Ruth, but I've struggled to find a passage noting a faithful woman as introspective. But here, as shepherds gather in and the star still shines, after his birth and before their exile to Egypt, while the death of countless children lies on the unforeseen horizon, Mary ponders all these things in her heart. Or as Eugene Peterson's "The Message" translates:
"Mary kept all these things to herself, holding them dear, deep within herself."
Mary's ability to carve out sacred space to behold and ponder deeply resonated with me first over 16 years ago when a dear friend died a few days before Christmas. Up to that point I had been sheltered from the inevitable dissonance of celebrating the holidays while carrying loss, sadness and questions. As every hymn sounded in a minor key and I struggled to live my favorite traditions with a heavy heart, I began to notice Mary. I first noticed how when we move past her initial trusting response, she immediately seeks support from her relative Elizabeth and then turns her heart to those overlooked, cast out and suffering. When extraordinary, life-changing events happen, Mary teaches us to turn to another who can support us, and then to take actions that remind us that no matter how wonderful or wretched our current circumstances, we are not the center of the universe. Turning our hearts and minds to the plight of others, can help alleviate the pain in our lives by in part distracting us, in part giving us control over some small corner of an out of control world, but most of all, helping us re-frame. After living through the aftermath and recovery of Hurricanes Katrina, Ike and Gustav, and serving countless families in hospice care, I saw first-hand how healing the act of reaching out to help a neighbor or loved one in need can be, both to commiserate as well as work together to take baby steps in re-framing a new expression of life.
Especially this year, as many across our nation continue to reel from the tragic deaths at Sandy Hook Elementary, as children of all ages are missed acutely this Christmas, I look again to Mary. As we hear in the Gospel of John, at the foot of the cross, Mary beholds her son, suffering and dying. Again, she first turns to another for personal support, this time named by her son who asks John to care for his mother. But eventually, she will re-frame. After his death and resurrection, she will join the Christian movement, still thinking of outsiders and serving those cast out or suffering. And yet, I find it hard to imagine that as a mother she will ever forget the human suffering of her son, even while she finds new expressions of life.
Mary believes, Mary ponders, Mary grieves -- an inspiration to modern people, ever experiencing extraordinary joy and extraordinary loss in the midst of ordinary life.
Amy Ziettlow is the co-author of an upcoming report, "Does the Shape of Families Shape Faith?" To read more from Amy Ziettlow, visit www.familyscholars.org or follow her and Elizabeth Marquardt @TheGenXCaregiver.