Story of Mary and Hope for Survivors of Sexual Abuse.
Reflections on the Story of Mary
(Matthew 1:18-25 and Luke 1:28-2:52)
If you are like any other sane, rational person, then right now you are thinking something along the lines of “What the heck does the story of the virgin Mary have to do with victims of sexual abuse?”
Well, there are two glaring, in-your-face points I want to make.
First, there was a whole lot more to Mary’s story than just her being a virgin. Her story should serve as an inspiration to all survivors who continue to face struggles in this life.
Second, the God who created this entire universe did not use his power or the importance of his plan to redeem humanity as an excuse to use anyone. I do not believe for one second that the sexual abuse and the way it has been mishandled in church culture is remotely representative of what the Bible teaches us about following God. No religious figure or institution is more important than the dignity of a human being.
How Mary’s Story has been misused
Mary’s story is amazing, powerful, inspiring and real. It needs to be heard. The sanitized version of the perfect, pale, timid, woman walking around in a bubble of holiness that many churches tell presents little hope for survivors. She is held up as the ideal that none of us can ever attain. Unfortunately, there is a whole tradition of bad teaching about sex and purity supposedly in Mary’s name. This bad teaching is used to shame people into submitting to a controlling church culture. It’s actually sickeningly tragic. It also forgets about the prostitutes and other survivors in Jesus’ family heritage. I could write a book about the wrongs that have been done in the name of worshipping Mary’s virginity. The virgin birth is not even the emphasis of the birth story of Jesus. The virgin birth is a sign that Jesus was the Messiah, but certainly not the most powerful one. Because let’s be real, there’s no way to prove it. Thankfully, there were around 300 other prophecies that Jesus fulfilled!
Sons of gods were common in most ancient mythology
Also, just to be clear, ancient religions were filled with stories of gods lusting after women, having sex with them and tossing them to the side. Luke is writing to an ancient Roman audience. His readers grew up believing in Zeus. Remember him? The super lusty god who created half the problems in the universe by sleeping with humans and angering his goddess wife Hera? The Roman Emperors claimed to be “sons of gods” and they had sex with whoever they wanted to. So, as uncomfortable as it is for Christians to talk about, God having a son with a woman would not have been shocking to Luke’s original audience.
Mary’s Story was a HUGE contrast
What would have been absolutely 100%, mind-blowingly, core-rockingly shocking to Luke’s ancient Roman audience was the way that God had a son through Mary.
First, Mary was a peasant woman. Women in poverty were disposable playthings for men in power. And in striking contrast to the ancient world’s view of women, God sent a messenger to Mary to get her permission. Just mull that over in your mind for a little while. I don’t think we can ever fully wrap our limited minds around this detail of the story. Ancient Romans probably laughed at this.
God Honored Mary
The angel greeted Mary and called her “highly honored.” The angel revealed God’s plan to bring his son into the world through her. Mary was understandably scared, so the angel reassured her as he explained God’s plan. Mary agreed to the plan and even though she was scared, she said “may all of this be fulfilled” Luke 1:38 (NIV), demonstrating that she wanted to be part of this plan.
And then there is the act of conception... I think Luke knew this would bother his ancient audience as much as it bothers us today. And as awkward as it must have been, the gospel writers questioned Mary about how it happened. In Luke’s description, he used a Greek word: episkiazo.
This word meant to surround with brilliant light. Many Bible translations use the word “overshadow” because the idea is hard to translate. The idea was that something was creating such bright light that it caused everything around it to seem shadowy. It’s the word New Testament writers frequently used to describe God’s presence. It referred to an uplifting, holy, empowering, beautiful, experience which edified the person. It was not in any way a creepy instance of God using people the way humans use each other. God elevates people who choose to follow him. He elevated Mary. She was not an object to be used by a petty god. She was a young woman who was being empowered to be a fierce survivor in a harsh world.
I need to camp out with this part of the story for another minute. As I write, I feel like I can sense little old judgmental ladies cringing. But I have to write this. I’m talking to survivors who have seen how cruel and awful this world can be, especially when it comes to sex. As I’ve already mentioned, we all know tons of stories of religious people sexually abusing those they have power over. It’s sadly common. No good person should want to have anything to do with a God that even hints at promoting such things. Sorry. Not sorry if this offends your religious sensibilities, but my religious sensibilities are offended by people covering up abuse and shaming people over sex issues.
I absolutely believe that Luke gave us these details about the story of Mary to provide a startling contrast to the gods and the culture of the ancient Roman (and modern American) world. All that abuse y’all are covering up and justifying ‘cause you think your mission is more important than the “unimportant” people you hurt: GOD AIN’T ABOUT THAT!!!!
Mary needed to be empowered because her path was not an easy one! She had unbelievable struggles, gut-wrenching fears, doubts, and eventually “had a sword pierce her own soul.” But when it was all over and she was asked to tell her story, she was able to look back on everything she had been through and say, “My soul glorifies the Lord, and my heart rejoices in God my Savior.”
Mary’s Struggles Provide Hope for ALL Survivors
Our struggles and traumas are obviously a lot different from Mary’s. And if you are like me, your mind is screaming at you about how much more your struggles are caused by your own bad decisions and not the more honorable trials of a hard path. I get that. I wrestle with that a lot, too. My mind instantly rejects finding inspiration from Mary because I’m far from living the kind of life that causes people to put up statues of me and worship my purity. But God doesn’t make that distinction. That’s a distinction from which Jesus came to free us. It’s a judgment that religious people make, but not God. He loves all of us: virgins AND survivors whose sex lives could inspire an MTV series with ten seasons worth of escapades.
When we choose to follow him, he enables us to be bold in our struggles. Even when those struggles are X-rated in their origins, God will help us when we turn those struggles over to him. He wants to empower us to follow him, even when we are the cause of our struggles. He wants to give us power to stand strong when life is beating us down. He will give us hope in the worst situations and give us purpose even when things don’t change. We just have to learn to hear his voice and understand his incredible acceptance of us.
I pray that you can see this as you consider how hard and powerful Mary’s story really was.
The traumas Mary endured:
After wrestling through the idea of raising the Messiah, she had to deal with the judgment she was bound to receive. Ancient Jewish people took virginity so seriously that a woman who was found not to be a virgin on her marriage night could be stoned to death.
And that was just the beginning of the struggles this amazing survivor faced.
2. Giving birth in a stable
Before baby Jesus was born, most of us know the story of Mary and Joseph traveling to Bethlehem where they could not find a place to stay. Mary ended up giving birth to Jesus, the Son of God, in a stable. It is one of the most beautiful pictures of God’s heart for humanity. He chose to come be one of us and enter the world as a helpless baby in a place where animals ate and did their business. It wasn’t the stuff that moms dream of when they plan their babies’ birth stories; it was dirty, hard, lonely and amazing.
3. Only being believed by social outcasts
The story gets even crazier and more awesome. Most of us know about the shepherds showing up soon after the birth of Jesus. It’s depicted in most every nativity scene: cute little shepherd boys with adorable little lambs to add to the quaint picturesque scene of Jesus’ birth.
Only shepherds were dirty, stinky outcasts. They did one of the worst jobs in their society. They slept outdoors and hung out with a bunch of other outcasts. People generally viewed them as dangerous or at least suspicious. Can you picture Mary, basically camping out in a stable just after giving birth to Jesus? Then a bunch of guys who were basically ancient thugs showed up and worshipped Jesus. It must have been mind-blowing for her. This isn’t how kings are supposed to be born, and those certainly weren’t the people you’d expect to be his messengers. (And the shepherds certainly weren’t going to help her reputation!)
4. Poverty and Knowing the conflict Jesus and her family would face
The story then takes a leap forward a few weeks. Mary and Joseph took Jesus to the temple for a purification ritual and to dedicate Jesus. We find out from the sacrifices that Mary and Joseph offered that they were very poor because they weren’t able to afford the normal sacrifice. While they were there, a priest named Simeon came up to them and took baby Jesus in his arms and praised God.
Simeon said, “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too” Luke 2:34-35 (NIV).
I don’t know if you’ve ever had a child or held a newborn, but there is a certain sense of protectiveness that you feel. As you look at this precious child, so unable to care for themselves, everything in you wants to protect. Imagine Mary standing with her infant in her arms. Simeon looks at her and tells her, “This child is going to cause powerful people to fall and lowly people to rise. People are going to speak out against him and it will show where their hearts are. And as he goes through all of this, you are going to experience such devastation that it will feel like a sword has pierced your soul.”
If she were not clinging to something bigger than herself, I don’t believe she would have continued. At this point, I feel like I’d be saying, “Uhmmm, excuse me Simeon. That’s not a very good blessing. This is the Messiah. How about you try again….”
But God’s message to his followers is never that our path will be easy. It is that it will have meaning and He will be with us. The Americanized version of following God, which focuses so much on physical comfort and praise from people, would not have helped Mary much in the ordeals she would endure as she raised Jesus.
5. Being a refugee
We know from Matthew’s (and other non-biblical scholars) account of the early life of Jesus that within a few years of Jesus’ birth, King Herod tried to have him killed. In a huge display of sad irony, Herod went to the Jewish religious scholars and asked them about the prophecies of where the Messiah would be born. The scholars did not go look for the Messiah of the prophecies, but they shared the information with Herod. Herod had his soldiers kill every male child in Bethlehem and the vicinity. Those were Joseph’s relatives and their friends’ children. Mary and Joseph had been warned and escaped to Egypt where they lived as refugees for several years until Herod died.
After Herod’s death, Joseph and Mary brought Jesus back to Israel but were afraid to return to the region of Bethlehem because Herod’s son had taken his place, and he also believed Jesus was a threat.
That’s a traumatic first few years of motherhood for Mary!
6. Seeing Her Son be Crucified
We don’t know much more of Mary’s story. But it’s important to know that she wasn’t journaling about all of these events as she went along. What we know of her story is what she shared with writers who interviewed her after Jesus had been crucified and resurrected. Understanding all that she had endured makes her reflection of the story more beautiful. Mary looked back at it all and this amazing survivor remembered it this way:
“My soul glorifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me—holy is his name.
” Luke 1:46-55 (NIV).
As Mary reflected on all that God had brought her through, she rejoiced in how God lifted up the humble.
Hope For Survivors
So, my survivor friends, that’s what it’s all about. God cares about everything you’ve been through. He cares about every struggle that you have endured. He didn’t give you the story of Mary to beat you down with an ideal you can’t live up to. Her story shows us all that when we follow him, he will lift us up!
The beautiful, NOT WHITE picture of Mary is from the artist, Jason Jenicke check out his work! Tell him I sent you!
Today’s post is an excerpt from my book, Rum and Cola for the Survivor’s Soul