Twelfth Month 14

He hath shown thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the LORD require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God? – Micah 6:8

*   *   *

No matter how we might yearn to perform heroic feats on behalf of our faith, the reality is that we often are called to small steps in daily action.

Even Mary had nine months after Gabriel appeared to her, and then there were all the days of Jesus’ childhood to nurture.

*   *   *

For this is he, that acquits his People of all Sin, old as well as new, taking away and cleansing them from the Sins of their first and fallen Natures, as well as pardoning, upon Repentance, those Sins which some have at unawares, or through Weakness, fallen into, after they have received the Knowledge of the Truth: For he who is called the Light of the World, the same is called the Lamb of God, that taketh away the Sins of the World. (Elizabeth Bathurst, 1655?-1685)

 

Twelfth Month 13

Joseph was a good man and he did not want to embarrass Mary in front of everyone. So he decided to quietly call off the wedding. While Joseph was thinking about this, an angel from the Lord came to him in a dream. – Matthew 1:19-20 (Contemporary English Version)

*   *   *

If Mary is quite young, as I sense, Joseph appears as significantly older – allowing us to consider all the implications and possibilities.

If Mary’s a firebrand, Joseph arises as deliberate and cautious. He does not fly off the handle at the news of her pregnancy, as a young man would likely do, but instead decides to act as rationally and honorably as the situation allows.

If God speaks to Mary by means of an angel, for this Joseph (like his namesake, Jacob and Rachel’s son), it’s by a dream – a step further removed from the Holy One in action.

Of course, as someone who took up parenting – as a stepfather – in my fifties, I want to cry out to him, What are you thinking! As if any of us really knows what’s about to happen.

*   *   *

God, who is rich in Mercy, for his great Love wherewith he loved us, when we were dead in Sin, hath quickned us together with Christ. For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the Image of his Son, that he might be the First-born among many Brethren. (Elizabeth Bathurst, 1655?-1685)

 

Twelfth Month 12

When Elisabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elisabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you bear!” – Luke 1:41-42 (NIV)

*   *   *

Here, of course, is an instance of “like recognizing like.” Both women were blessed by the child each was bearing.

Elisabeth has the wisdom to see beyond any social stigma to Mary’s pregnancy, and instead share her sense of exaltation.

*   *   *

Therefore they also believe, that every Man shall be raised in his own Order, Christ the first Fruits, afterwards they that are Christ’s at his Coming: Yea, they do believe, that the Dead shall be raised incorruptible, and that God giveth a Body as it pleaseth him, and to every Seed his own Body; there is a natural Body and a spiritual; there are Bodies Terrestrial and Bodies Coelestial, wherein they agree with the Testimony of the Apostle, which I think is sufficient to give all sober Inquirers full Satisfaction herein; for, as to my own Particular, I freely do confess, it suffices me that God will give unto my Spirit such a Body as it pleases him. (Elizabeth Bathurst, 1655?-1685)

 

Twelfth Month 11

… As he spake to our fathers, to Abraham, and to his seed for ever. – Luke 1:46-50 and 54-55

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One year, Life magazine published a special Christmas season edition that focused on Mary. Included where thumbnail-size reproductions of paintings, sculpture, and engravings of the Madonna and Child from many different times and places. At the time, I was also teaching this text to the teens and preteens in our Meeting, so I distributed the portraits around the room and waited for the reactions.

The whole point, of course, is that Mary, Jesus, and Joseph could look like any of us. They appeal to the entire world, and reflect it.

*   *   *

But though it be a Day of Trial, in which every ones Work must be tried as by Fire, and of sore Exercise with the Creature, yet is there a secret Hope lieth hid under all this, which is as an Anchor to the Soul, sure and stedfast, founded upon that Rock which endures for ever; and this bears it up above those Floods of Persecution, which the Dragon spues out of his Mouth, to drown that heavenly Birth that the Power of God is bringing forth within, which when it is brought forth, and comes to have the Government in the Soul, it must, shall and will reign over Death, Darkness, Sin and Corruption, and all the Powers of Hell and the Devil. (Elizabeth Bathurst, 1655?-1685)

 

Twelfth Month 10

… He hath helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy … – Luke 1:46-50 and 54-55

*   *   *

This verse comes after an enumeration of ways God has brought justice to the oppressed – suggestions of social and political revolution for a people currently under Roman domination.

Children having a mother with this awareness would no doubt be raised with an understanding that this is a God who “brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble” (Luke 1:52, NIV) and can do so again.

*   *   *

He [Satan] is not willing this Holy Off-spring should be born, and therefore doth he raise Wars without, and Fears within, stirring up the Wicked to revile and smite with the Tongue; and causing cutting Calumnies and sharp Censures to come from more fober Hands, hereby intending to encrease the Commotions which are within, by threatning the Soul with this, that now it must expect to be reproached with the Reproaches of Men. (Elizabeth Bathurst, 1655?-1685)

 

Twelfth Month 9

… And his mercy is on them that fear him from generation to generation. … – Luke 1:46 -50 and 54 -55

*   *   *

Whatever is about to happen, Mary observes, is a culmination of centuries of faithful families and households. The Nativity has its roots in the antiquity of Jewish practice and teaching. Now a new generation is coming.

Or, as a Mennonite woman once told me, in their tradition, God has no grandchildren.

The tradition is not handed down to a new generation, but handed over!

*   *   *

O! then ’tis a Time of Heaviness and of great Sadness with the Soul; Sleep departing from the Eyes, and Slumber from the Eye-lids, because of Grief in the Night-season; it being truly the Time of Jacob’s Trouble, even the Time when the Seed of Jacob is travailing to bring forth; and therefore doth that Dragon, the Devil, as in the general, so in the particular, seek to destroy this Birth. (Elizabeth Bathurst, 1655?-1685)

 

Twelfth Month 8

… For he that is mighty hath done to me great things; and holy is his name … – Luke 1:46 -50 and 54 -55

*   *   *

Pregnancy is only one item on her long list of rapidly occurring, overlapping experiences. Mary is instead aware of the divine presence informing her of the meaning of the events at hand, and leading her safely through it.

*   *   *

And the Spirit of Christ was promised to convince the World of Sin, of Righteousness and of Judgment, by which the Spirit and Prince of this World should be judged, and he cast out of his Throne in the Hearts of the Children of Men, whereby every one, who comes to experience God’s righteous Judgments, in themselves, to be brought forth unto Victory, such may also witness an overcoming of the Prince and Power of Darkness, thorough the spiritual Strength of his Son of Righteousness. (Elizabeth Bathurst, 1655?-1685)

 

Twelfth Month 7

… For he hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden … – Luke 1:46 -50 and 54 -55

*   *   *

Rather than seeing Mary as submissive and mild, the way she typically appears in lawn statuary, I sense in her reaction much more of a revolutionary or radical. She may be of humble origins (and, unlike her husband-to-be, we get no genealogy), yet she makes no apologies for her “low estate.”

Indeed, in declaring herself a “handmaiden,” she evokes Hagar, who becomes Abraham’s mistress and mother of what would become the Islamic people, rather than his wife, Sarah, the mother of the Jewish people. Handmaid also invokes Zilpah and Bilhah, the servants who become pregnant by Jacob.

Mary, then, knows the tradition.

*   *   *

This is he, who when he was on Earth, yielded both active and passive Obedience to his Heavenly Father in Life, Doctrine and Death; which I firmly do believe, was a Sacrifice acceptable unto God for the Sins of Men, by believing in whom, and yielding Obedience to him, Pardon and Remission of Sins comes to be known. (Elizabeth Bathurst, 1655?-1685)

 

Twelfth Month 6

… And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour  … – Luke 1:46 -50 and 54 -55

*   *   *

First she speaks of her soul, and now it’s her spirit, as if there’s a distinction. (This could well be another instance of Scripture repeating an element from one line to the next, a common practice.)

Either way, instead of admitting shame in her out-of-wedlock condition or appearing scared of the public consequences, she openly defies social and religious convention. Indeed, her utterances could be seen as heresy or blasphemy – here she is proclaiming herself saved rather than ostracized!

*   *   *

This experience had me thinking of the experience of opening oneself to what Quakers have called Free Gospel Ministry: “Thee will promptly discern the difference. Who can think of a more exciting – or precarious – encounter than that of being led to thy feet or thy knees in Meeting and being given, word by word, what is to be spoken? Sometimes it is like jumping off a balcony and discovering thee has wings and is actually flying. Thee will sense being held up in prayer – or coming clad in holy armor against the adversary, depending. To illustrate: I had an occasion in visiting when I kept trying to tell myself, ‘I’m not going to speak today. Give me a break, Lord, I’ve been speaking too often,’ but a succession of two or three quick vocal messages kept shooting me back to the seed I had been given for that morning. Finally, I sensed I could have no peace unless I were faithful, so I rose and waited for the words; all the while I spoke I silently prayed, ‘Lord, I hope thee knows where this is going, because I haven’t the foggiest idea.’”

*   *   *

This is he, who justifies by Faith in his own Name. (Elizabeth Bathurst, 1655?-1685)

 

Twelfth Month 5

And Mary said, My soul doth magnify the Lord … – Luke 1:46-50 and 54-55

*   *   *

The Angel Gabriel makes another appearance, six months after rendering Zacharias speechless. This time, he tells an astonished young woman she’s pregnant, her denials to the contrary. (I was about to ask who can argue with an angel, anyway, but then we have the example of Zacharias being struck dumb.)

Mary, obviously retaining the ability to speak, flees to her cousin Elisabeth, whose “babe leaped in her womb; and Elisabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost” on being greeted (Luke 1:41). What then ensues is the brief “Song of Mary,” or Magnificat, that opens with the astonishing lines, “My soul magnifies the Lord.”

*   *   *

And so the Creature finds Acceptance with the Father through the Son. (Elizabeth Bathurst, 1655?-1685)

 

How, after all, can anyone enlarge God? (Some translations instead interpret this as praises or exalts the Lord, which somehow diminishes the incomprehensible dynamic of Mary’s experience.) Something big, very big, is about to happen, and she’s at the center of it.