The Slave and The Virgin

Jesus in the gospels is like that friend who 50% of the time is awesome to be around and 50% of the time is saying the most awful, awkward things that no one wants to hear.

We get a little bit of both in our gospel story today.

We have the beautiful teaching of the value of the sparrows and the hairs of our head being numbered, and then the somewhat less beautiful teaching of Jesus coming to bring a sword instead of peace and the guarantee that dysfunctional family life will continue well into the establishment of the Kingdom of God.

It is passages like this that make me admire Mary, Jesus’ mother, even more than I already do.

She has seen Jesus act out this very teaching. From his seeming lack of politeness at the wedding at Cana to asking people who are his mother and brothers and sisters, appearing to reject her entirely, she has seen it all and still sticks by him all the way to the Cross.

But we know of course that Jesus loved his mother, even valued her highly in the leadership of the disciples, in which she took an even greater role after his ascension.

The gospels don’t tell us of the more tender moments between them, we have to imagine those.

The week in Jerusalem leading up to his crucifixion, for example. As he was riding herd on clueless disciples and maybe taking stock of the time he had left and what his earthly life had meant to him, I wonder if he thought about his childhood.

I wonder if it was hard for him to look at his mother and see the grief that lay ahead of her.

I wonder if she looked at him, watching him talk and heal and sometimes gaze off into the distance with sadness in his eyes, and felt something clench in her heart.

I know another story of a mother and her son traveling a hard road, and we read it today.

Hagar has always been “the other.”

She was a slave, an Egyptian, worth nothing to Abraham except as a vessel for his lust for an heir.

No one asked her if she wanted to have sex with her master, if she wanted to have his child, if she wanted to be abused and hated by her jealous mistress.

How many women through history, in this country and around the world, have been in this position?

How often has the oppression of patriarchy divided women and made them hate each other rather than share their strength?

But Hagar the powerless, the despised, the rejected, used, tainted, and cast aside, has something none of the insider women in the Hebrew Scriptures have.

An angel of the Lord comes to her and she is the first woman in salvation history to hear these words: “Now you shall conceive and bear a son.”

Before the three angels foretell Isaac to Sarah and Abraham, Hagar receives the promise first.

As Mary says, God has lifted up the lowly, and as Mary does, Hagar ponders these things in her heart.

Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac will travel their own road, fallible humans caught up in the spirit of God and fascinating us as they tread the pages of scripture larger than life.

But Hagar is very much more like us, like us when life’s events are sweeping over us and we have no control.

Hagar is holiness, fear, and trust visited upon an ordinary person.

Hagar is caught in between triumph and defeat, lost in a world in which Jesus’ prediction of householders turning against one another is already true and has dire consequences.

She and Mary are sisters, and what we see them share, we can find within ourselves.

In the eyes of society, Hagar and Mary were not vessels of holiness.

First and foremost they were unwed mothers, with all the stigma that goes along with that.

Even today single mothers still face sideways looks and higher insurance premiums, religious condemnation and substandard housing, condescending kindness and two jobs that still won’t pay the rent.

A single mother’s wilderness seems to cover the Earth.

So it was for Hagar and Mary.

Bethlehem, Egypt, Nazareth, the whispers of scandal followed Mary.

No matter the clear love that permeated the family, the rumors said that Jesus was not Joseph’s son and Mary was a shameless woman that Joseph only married out of kindness.

Hagar’s wilderness was literal.

One day Sarah’s bitterness consumed her, and “Abraham rose early in the morning, and took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed, and wandered about in the wilderness.”

Now think of Mary at the foot of the Cross.

Think of her faithfulness, her courage, and the blinding pain she felt as she watched blood and sweat mix on the face of her child, saw his gasps for air grow fainter and fainter.

Go there with her and see that Hagar stands there too: “When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, ‘Do not let me look on the death of the child.’ And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept.”

Where is your grief?

Who in your life do you see suffering and wish you could help?

Where is the loss that you think no one wants to see?

What within you has been abandoned, cast out, banished alone to the wilderness?

Maybe it’s your prophetic voice, your healing hand, your sacramental story.

Who are the sisters and brothers you have despised, the sisters and brothers who have despised you?

Facing the truth in our lives is like going into the wilderness. It is lonely and dangerous.

This is part of what Jesus means when he says in our gospel today, “Whoever does not take up the Cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”

Most of the time we think of taking up the Cross as a voluntary, purposeful activity, taking on some difficult task or relationship as an act of obedience and self-sacrifice.

Sometimes taking up the Cross is exactly like that.

But much more often than a deliberate bearing of the Cross, which can quickly devolve into smug self-righteous martyrdom, the Cross comes to us.

A cancer diagnosis, a car accident, a job loss—crisis comes crashing in on us.

And even in the midst of that situation in which we seem to have no control, no influence over what’s happening to us, we still have a choice: whether or not we take up the Cross.

What does it mean to take up the Cross and follow Jesus when our lives are falling apart?

It means fixing our eyes on him and moving forward one small step at a time.

We don’t have to feel brave or sacrificial when we’re doing it.

We can carry the Cross feeling angry, feeling hurt, feeling lost, but as long as we carry the burden as best we can and keep walking after Jesus, we are doing the right thing, and God will not let us fall farther than God’s outstretched hand.

Hagar found this out for herself. “The angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, ‘What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Come lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.’ Then God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink.”

Do you feel the power in that line?

“Then God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water.”

That must have been what Mary felt like when she saw her son alive again on Easter day, like a woman dying of thirst who suddenly had all the water she could ever want.

Many times when the darkness begins to cover the sun in our lives, we cannot see the well of water that is available to us.

We need God to open our eyes to the well of grace and strength right in front of us.

That well can be the support of a family member, a chapter in scripture, a song or a garden or a book or a friend.

Even if you can’t see the well of water right now, keep praying that God will open your eyes to it.

Like it was for Hagar and for Mary, it may be the first step on a journey with God you could never imagine.


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