Perhaps we need to rethink our impression of Mary, the fresh, bright-eyed mother of Jesus–blessed by God, most fortunate of all women. We often think that Mary was a better moral gatekeeper than those around her, which is why she won the Jesus lottery. But, I don’t think God chose Mary because she was a virgin. I suspect God chose Mary because she had demonstrated her faithfulness throughout a life of suffering. So, from a ‘normal’ perspective, Mary didn’t win the lottery at all–instead, she kept striking out. This, after all was often the case for those who won the lottery with God. Consider Abel, Job, Ezekiel, Isaiah, Paul, the disciples, and many others. Even Daniel the wise was a captive, and David the king was initially a refugee.
Listen to Mary’s response to her winning lottery ticket, her Magnificat. She marveled that she would be called blessed by all generations, but didn’t seem interested in ‘spending her winnings’ in the manner of most lottery winners. She spoke of God’s mercy going forth, the powerful brought low and the hungry filled with good things. Her heart poured forth praise for the God who was setting the wrongs right. It’s hard to imagine this reflexive response flowing from a heart that never wrestled with injustice, pain and suffering. Mary was a virgin, but her character was likely more shaped by the grimy sludge of suffering than the shimmering beauty of a wedding gown.
This, after all is precisely what God does, and is truly at the heart of the Christmas message: labor pangs bring forth the blessed child. God brings healing out of suffering and joy out of healing. Suffering, healing, joy; they are rarely far from each other from God’s perspective. In fact, in many cases it is difficult to have good tidings or great joy that has not first been preceded by great suffering.
I learned this, at least in part, from my own group of Mary’s. They too had suffered, and God was bringing joy out of their suffering as well. Their bodies were healing from vesicovaginal fistula or VVF, which is a hole between their birth canal and the bladder or rectum, caused by complications in childbirth or violent rape. Victims of VVF often deliver a dead child, and then suffer from years of continually leaking urine and stool. Their souls were healing from the pain caused from being rejected by their families because of their stench, and deemed worthless in a society that determines a woman’s value by how many children she produces. It is estimated that over 12,000 new women contract VVF every year in northern Nigeria alone.
I met a few of these ladies at a hospital in Jos, Nigeria. They had come to a Christian hospital, for many of them as a last resort, only after years of exhausting every other possible option. They came to receive multifaceted aid: corrective surgery, counseling, job training, education, and Christian discipleship. They came for healing, but were surprised by joy. They came to find their place on earth, and found the kingdom of heaven instead.
We met at a graduation/celebration ceremony held in their honor. I remember the ubiquitous African plastic chairs, the brilliant vibrance of their robes, and the heat and sweat. But most of all I remember the joy. In America we express and describe joy with a smile, or maybe even with our eyes. But in Africa the joy is in the music. Joy pulsates in the drums, soars in the melody and vocals, and twirls in the dance.
The doctors healed their bodies, but joy healed their souls. And the music gave flight to their joy. Where there is great suffering, God brings great joy.
And here is the most beautiful part of all. As they danced and sang, these ladies who had known little else besides scorn, ridicule, rejection, and hate (all things Mary would grow accustomed to as she raised the One who everyone considered her bastard child); a crowd gathered as they danced. The outcasts possessed an irresistible, magnetic draw on those around them. People pressed into the room, bodies clustered in the doorframes, faces and hands lined the lattice windows. We were having a party; and joy, after all, is found in parties, and everyone within earshot wanted in.
I believe these “impure” discarded ladies had far more in common with Mary than most of our cheerfully virginal teenage youth group girls. I believe these ladies have a far greater understanding of the joy Mary experienced because they had a far greater yearning for the justice Mary hoped for. I write this piece during a period of national suffering, even as our nation will likely never understanding suffering the way Nigerians or Mary’s Israelites did. Even so, may God make us like the VVF women, may God make us like Mary: may God bring healing from our suffering, and joy from our healing.