Chapter 1 (The Messiah)
How could a mother’s heart go through all that and not stop beating? Mariam had suffered more than most mothers. A sword had indeed pierced through her heart, as was predicted early on. Due to the mental agony, her gentle life was on the verge of ebbing out. She had lain unconscious for many hours. No one could tell whether she would wake up again. And those who loved her best thought it best that she never woke up again in this world, but passed on from the swoon right into the other world. Why should she come back only to be endlessly tormented by memories too horrible to live with?
Who could have foretold or thought of, even in their darkest imagination, the events that took place? But it all began with such bright wonders! Celestial beings moving back and forth to deliver messages to humble humans!
It started with a strange incident thirty three years before, when Mariam was just a young woman. As usual, she had been busy that day, helping her mother with household chores. She had fetched water, ground flour and kneaded it, cleaned the house and done several other small works. She was also getting her wardrobe and other things ready for her soon-coming wedding.
She was engaged to be married to a carpenter named Yosef, living in the same town of Nazareth. Though of humble status, Yosef and Mariam had a royal lineage. They were both descendants of David, the great king who ruled Israel about a thousand years before.
In the evening, after finishing the household chores, Mariam went up to the terrace to relax and get some fresh air. She sat down and meditated on some of the teachings about God in the Synagogue, where she went with her parents every week on the Sabbath day. Her thoughts stayed especially on the expected Messiah, who was to come and save the people according to God’s promise. Many thought that he was going to save the nation of Israel from foreign rule. ‘When is the Messiah coming? Our nation has waited for such a long time,’ she thought.
She was suddenly shaken off her reverie. A stranger appeared and stood before her. He was a man in white clothes, she noticed. But she dared not look at him. She shaded her eyes with a hand and turned her face down. Her surprise turned to confusion when he greeted her with the words “Peace to you, highly favoured one! The Lord is with you. You are a blessed woman!”
She was greatly disturbed, but kept silent. ‘What a strange greeting! What can it mean?’ she thought. Her hand on her forehead shook.
“I am Gabriel, a messenger of God,” the stranger said.
Gabriel! She had come across that name in the sacred writings, the Scriptures read out in the meetings in the Synagogue. ‘The angel who appeared to the prophet Daniel in olden times! O Lord, what is happening?’ Her mind screamed, though no sound came out of her mouth. Her whole body trembled violently. She felt she was about to faint.
“Don’t be frightened, Mariam, God’s special grace is on you,” the angel said.
“Listen! You will soon be with child, and give birth to a son. He will be God’s own son. You must name him Yeshua, Saviour. God will give him the kingdom of his forefather David. And he will rule forever, without end.”
She couldn’t take it in. Her mind was in turmoil.
In a soft, shaky voice she asked, “How can I have a baby now? I’m a virgin.”
“You will give birth through the work of the Holy Spirit. The power of God will work it out. So the child will be holy, and he will be the Son of God.”
After a short pause, the angel gave her another piece of news. “Your cousin Elisheva is expecting too, in her old age. This is the sixth month. They used to call her barren. For God, nothing is impossible.”
Mariam was deeply troubled and excited at the same time. Have a baby that has no human father? What would people think? Wouldn’t she be accused of illegitimate pregnancy? Who would believe her explanation that it was God’s doing? She could be stoned to death as punishment for immorality. But then, what a great privilege to be the mother of God’s son! That’s worth dying for! In any case, one must obey the Lord, whatever happens.
At last she replied, “I am the Lord’s servant. I accept whatever he says.”
Mariam sat on, thinking. She recalled a Scripture line that the teacher in the synagogue read out some days back: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel, God with us. Her heart started thumping wildly.
‘How can this be? Am I to be that virgin that the Scripture talked about? But I am only an ordinary girl, how come I’m chosen?’ she thought.
‘And the news about Elisheva, it’s so wonderful! I wonder why she didn’t inform us about it. Anyway, I must visit her. There’s so much to catch up on. I hope my parents will give me permission.’
It was a pleasant journey, in the company of happy thoughts. She was excited at the prospect of meeting her elderly cousin after many years. In age, Elisheva was closer to Mariam’s mother than to Mariam. But they had much in common, and were good friends. When she reached the house, she exchanged greetings with Elisheva, who welcomed her warmly. As soon as Elisheva heard Mariam’s voice, the baby inside her leaped.
Then, through divine inspiration, Elisheva called out loudly “You are the most blessed of all women! And blessed is the child who will be born from you! But how is this, that my Lord’s mother comes to visit me? When my baby heard your voice, he jumped inside me with joy. How wonderful that you believed the Lord’s message, that will be fulfilled!”
In reply, Mariam chanted praises to God:
“My heart praises the Lord;
My soul is glad because of God my Saviour,
For he has redeemed me, his lowly servant.
From now on all people will call me blessed
Because of the great things the Mighty God has done for me.”
The cousins had a lot of news to share. Elisheva talked about how God answered their prayer for a child after so many years. Mariam told her about the angel’s visit. They sat talking till late into the night.
“Why didn’t you send me news of your pregnancy? I came to know only because the angel told me. Why did you keep such a happy thing secret from me?” Mariam asked.
“You see, it’s a wonderful thing that has happened to me. I’m happy beyond words. But it’s also slightly embarrassing. I’m too old to be having my first baby, aren’t I?” Elisheva laughed as she said this, and Mariam joined her. Elisheva continued, “I told my neighbours and relatives here about it only this morning. We had lots of visitors coming to congratulate me today. The last visitor had just left when you arrived.”
Mariam stayed on for three months, till her cousin’s son was born. The baby was named Yohanan.
Soon after Mariam returned home, she confided about her physical condition to her mother.
“What have you done, Mariam?” hissed her mother in shock and white rage.
“Mother, please listen. I take an oath in the Lord’s name that I have done no wrong. Remember, I told you. That evening, when I was on the housetop, Gabriel the angel brought a message from the Lord God. He was the one who told me about Elisheva too, and what he said about me has come true.”
Mariam related the incident and the whole conversation again. Her mother listened in wonder. Mariam had told her about the angel’s coming before, but she had not fully grasped its significance, or hadn’t taken it in complete seriousness. Now that the thing actually happened, she realized its gravity. She knew her daughter well; she was not a liar. She was godly and idealistic, but was down to earth as well. She was not the type likely to have delusions. The vision she saw must have been real, she concluded.
“We cannot hide this from Yosef, we must tell him at once,” she told her daughter.
“Yes, mother. But he will find it hard to believe.”
“I will talk to your father. Perhaps your father should inform Yosef. And we cannot blame him for whatever decision he may take about it. If he declines to marry you, we cannot complain. Oh my daughter, what will become of you!”
“Let the Lord’s will be done” was Mariam’s calm response.