All of history lies in the shadow and in the story of two remarkable women.
They couldn’t be more different. Their lives were separated by centuries of time and miles of distance. Their families came from different places. Their lives on earth took very different paths. We might be tempted to believe that they shared absolutely nothing in common.
One was a princess. She was a co-regent over a beautiful paradise kingdom. All the world lay at peace before her. All of creation looked to her and her husband as their rightful rulers, managers, governors, and protectors. If ever the term of royalty belonged to a person, it belonged to her. Her life, marriage, and reign were the very pictures of a fairy tale life, of everything it means to be extraordinary.
The other was a peasant. She was barely paused on the edge of adulthood. She was a young teenage girl. All of her life had been spent in a small farming community scattered around the fields of a dirt road village. Her family would never have been thought of as important, or worth the notice of emperors and rulers. They were the salt of the earth, grounded in religious faith and family values, but as far as the watching world was concerned they were invisible. And so it seemed that this young girl, just beginning to ponder the possibilities of love and marriage, was destined to live her life ignored and unknown like the vast majority of history’s unseen faces. She was small, delicate, simple, expendable, and the very definition of ordinary.
And yet these very different lives of these wildly different women are bound together by a bond stronger than death that stretches unending into the deep recesses of eternity. That bond is what connects both these women together. This is their story…
The princess lived long ago in the very distant mists of time. Her life was perfect, quite literally perfect. All of her days were spent in the warm intimacy of her husband’s love and their combined intimacy with their creator, the great emperor of all things, over whose kingdom they governed. For a season it truly seemed that nothing, absolutely nothing, could spoil their joy.
But a violent rebellion came. A shadow-cloaked enemy crept unnoticed into their realm under the cover of night. As the princess and her husband walked through their lands the next morning she found herself pausing, and looking into the dark shade of a hanging tree. Someone, or something, was watching them. A giant serpent with scaly shimmering skin had coiled itself around the tree branches. It’s face was hidden in the shadows, but it was there. A soft hiss was heard. Yellowed eyes blinked back at them. Poison laced fangs appeared as the snake-king acknowledged the princess’ presence with a sly and seductive grin.
And Eve felt a shudder and a chill run up her spine. But she and her husband did not look away from the snake’s hypnotic smile. Nor did they rise to do battle against their garden’s invader. Instead, they paused. They listened. They doubted their friend and creator. They were deceived into believing that their already perfect kingdom could be far better, and they could be far greater, if only they would covenant together with the serpent as cosmic co-conspirators in a seductive coup. So they obeyed the snake’s seemingly innocent suggestion. And in the twinkling of an eye, as the great disguised-dragon slithered back into the security of the shadows, their world crumbled around them.
The animal citizens of their kingdom stopped in horror and then darted away from their presence. The bites of fruit they had eaten caught in their throats as they began to cough in discomfort for the very first time. A war had begun. Demonic spirits began to glare gleefully from the grassy riverbank. A thorny vine sprouted out of the fertile garden ground. A fog poured down over the misty forest canopy.
And so the princess and her prince, following the frightened trails of countless creatures, ran. They ran for their lives. In an instant, the cosmic conspiracy that had sounded so promising from the sales-pitch of the serpent was revealed for what it really was.
It was not the life-giving stance of an assertive, independent rule. It was not the one true path to unending power. It was the beginning of hell on earth.
So the prince and the princess had to be held responsible for the rebellion that they had so ignorantly launched. Their scorned love-sick creator followed the tracks they had left as they fled recklessly into the forest. He found them cowering, shivering, nervously seeking to cover their now shamed nakedness. In the early morning cool of the day, he found them.
He spoke to the terrified fugitives he found huddled along the edge of Eden. As their throats had caught on the fruit of their disobedience, his voice now cracked in a brokenhearted response. They had to leave. They had to walk away from the walls of their perfect world. They were now exiles. They were perfect no longer. The creation itself was cursed, cursed to unwillingly sprout and support thorns, famine, sickness, and death. The prince was stripped of his royal vestments and forced to take the role of a common workman. The venom of the serpent would continue to flow in their veins. Their bodies would begin to age. As the brambles and briars grew out of the once fertile soil, grey hair now began to grow from the couples’ head. Sickness swept into their lungs. Where they had once overseen a world of limitless life, now they were cursed to live as citizens in an empire of death.
The princess was cursed along with her husband, but her curse was far different. She was the one whose imagination had first entertained the tempting promise of the shadow-cloaked serpent. And so the creator pronounced a severe and strange punishment that contained a faint echo of a triumphant promise.
She would have children. She would begin a long line of descendants, and with every child she bore she would be forced to writhe in pain, as would all her daughters after, as a reminder of all that had once been given and all that had tragically been lost. Yet there was a promise and a prophecy as well. One of her descendants, one of her sons, one of the countless millions who would emerge from their once glorious line would be a prince, the prince, the one true king, the rightful heir to the throne of all creation. He would emerge in secret, and yet would one day conquer the forces of darkness, crushing the serpents skull, cutting off his head, undoing the curse, and restoring the whole creation.
So the princess turned farmwife moved into a small hut with her hardworking husband. They lived. They loved. They turned their dirt floor hovel into a home, a home in which a small flicker of their royal memories still danced, and in which a faint flicker of a future hope faintly burned. And with every birth pang, and with every new child born from the pain of the couples’ love, they wondered if maybe, just maybe, this would be the one their creator had spoken of. But he did not appear. The princess grew old. Her once beautiful hair turned white. For every new child that was born a line of age spread over her wrinkled face until one day the children stopped. No more babies would be born to the long lost prince and his long lost princess. The hope was passed to their children and their children’s children. Then they died, the first victims of the darkness that they had helped introduce to the world. Their once small family grew into vast races of humanity, spread out and migrating over the entire earth. Their lives, love, and dreams passed into memory.
Time passed…and still, the promised child, the greater Son of Adam did not come.
Thousands of years of history were written on the parchment of time. The creation was still clouded in darkness. The demonic faces that had once danced out of the briar bushes growing out of Eden feasted in the security of a world that belonged to them. The ancient serpent, that sly usurper, coiled himself onto the foundations of the earth, having proclaimed himself the one true king of creation. All the forces of evil, and all the visible signs of that curse which had been pronounced all those years ago gorged themselves on the thin remnants of humanity.
To the watching world it seemed that the good creator and emperor of all things had been defeated. While stories of his power were still told around the hearthstones of believers, everyone acknowledged that no one could remember a time when he had walked the paths where his people dwelled. His voice had not been heard for centuries. No doubt many of Adam’s children were tempted to call the story nothing more than a myth.
…as the world’s attention was fixed on a million other things, lost in an overlooked corner of the world, among a huddle of mud-caked huts…there was a girl…
…a girl named Mary.
She was pretty as far as that goes, alive with that still undiminished beauty that lasts for only a brief moment as the girl transitions into adulthood. Her hair was dark, her face tanned, and somewhere behind her deep brown eyes a faint resemblance of the princess looked out into the world. In spite of the youthful prettiness in her face, the one thing that could be said of her was that she was absolutely forgettable – not in the way that causes us to want to forget someone, but in that simple, common, and mundane way that causes us to forget the countless people we encounter whether we want to or not. She didn’t stand out in the crowd. She looked like all the other girls, her childhood friends, as they went about the daily chores of their households. Her appearance, childhood, aspirations, values, dreams, standards, and faith were just like everyone else.
As she went about her morning tasks, gathering water, attending to her younger brothers and sisters, her world had just recently taken an important turn. She had finally reached the age when she would be betrothed, committed to a young man who would one day be her husband. As she paused at her village’s edge, she and her friends would no doubt be lost in their talk and giggles about the handsome workman named Joseph to whom she had been promised.
Yet even her betrothal and coming wedding day was notable only by how un-notable they really were. All of her friends were falling in love, being betrothed, getting married, and starting families. That was the process and order of life, and Mary was nothing more than one of many.
And yet one morning, one morning among a billion mornings, everything changed.
The girl was going about her chores, almost mechanically doing the same duties she did every day. There was no way that she could have possibly known that at that very moment she was being watched. Once again, the creator, the lover, the great emperor over all things entered the story that he had started long ago. And once again he came to a girl, not a princess mind you, but another country farm girl. And once again his lovesick voice was heard whispering in the shaded morning in the cool of the day.
Mary was startled. And then she was startled again. A man, who for some reason was obviously far more than a man, walked up to her. He claimed to be a messenger from the halls of the emperor’s presence named Gabriel, a great warrior-general-angel. He had not made many journeys to earth in the eon’s of his existence. But for a few, a very special few, he was summoned. And this journey, this summons, this announcement, was very, very, special.
The peasant girl had been chosen, chosen out of an unceasing line of choices, the favored instrument that would finally unleash that ancient promised prophecy. The conquering prince was coming, and she would be his mother.
Like Eve before her, this word of promise was laced with the sharpened edge of pain. As far as things go, her life was about to be ruined. All of her plans, all of her aspirations, all of her dreams were interrupted. Her family was shamed. Her friends abandoned her. What should have been a joyful season in which she was allowed to grow slowly from a girl into a woman passed in the blinking of an eye. In fact Mary’s childhood was irrevocably ended before Gabriel had even finished speaking.
To undo what had begun long ago with her distant mother Eve, Mary would be forced to take onto herself that once royal mantle. She had to be wounded. Her heart had to be pierced, crushed, upended by chaos for all the days of her life. Eve’s shame would be hers. Eve’s embarrassment and guilt over actual disobedience would be Mary’s embarrassment and guilt even though she had not been disobedient in the way it seemed. No one would believe a word she said. Virgin’s don’t get pregnant. There are few truths that everyone on earth clearly recognize, but that is certainly one of them. And small, close-knit family communities of very moral men and women are not typically kind to teenage girls who come up pregnant and then spin wild stories about how none of it is really their fault.
Now her future became regulated to the rumors and sly snickering of the watching world. Her friends no longer stopped to talk and laugh. She was avoided. The small huddle of friends that she had known since she was a toddler now stopped talking when she walked by, and started whispering as soon as she had passed. Things would be so bad in fact that she would have to be sent away, taken to a distant relative’s house to try and quiet the village talk. As her stomach grew, her daily trips to the village water well (and everywhere else) seemed no doubt to be like the chores of an untouchable, a gentile, a demoniac, a leper, a tax collector, a harlot, or even worse, a woman from Samaria. These were her people now.
And what she had once thought of as a dream-filled romance crumbled around her. Some people wanted to kill her. Joseph just wanted her to go away.
Her future husband wanted to be rid of her, to be rid of her disgrace. It took another angelic visit to convince him to do the unthinkable, to embrace her shame. He would still marry her, but even that would never end their shame. In fact, it would only make it worse. Joseph’s obedience to marry the peasant girl would be interpreted by everyone in Nazareth to be an unspoken confession that what everyone thought had happened, really indeed had happened. Their families were shamed. The two marriage-bound sufferers were lawbreakers.
Joseph’s business soon dropped off. Patrons no longer visited his shop. Contracts for building jobs dried up. Joseph had once been thought to be a promising businessman, maybe even on a fast track to owning is own carpentry and contracting business. But that was before all this. Now he refused to rid himself of that girl. So now, like Adam before him, he would be forced to live as an exile among his own people, to force a living by the unceasing sweat of his brow. They would live on the line of poverty and destitution. That is how thing would be. In many ways, the inconvenience of having to travel out of town to file some tax papers would be a welcome reprieve from the gossip, avoidance, and condescending comments around him.
Mary’s sorrow would be worse. She whispered a faithful reply of submission to God’s plan, but the piercing whispers of everyone else would follow her all the days of her life. She would never be rid of them. She would always wear the reputation as a woman of the night.
Her physical pain would be her constant companion. She would be forced to feel Eve’s curse, but to endure it in a way that was far worse than any other in human history. Eve’s curse was pain in childbirth. Mary’s birth pangs would be savage, unimaginable and unlike those of any other mother in history. After all, the small and fragile bodies of teenaged virgins are not meant to give birth to healthy baby boys.
Even the new baby’s delivery room seemed to be hand-picked only for the discomfort and shame that it would bring to the new infant and to the infant’s family. Instead of the warm and comforting fellowship of her childhood home, in the presence of her family, Mary would give birth to the baby Jesus miles away from her family. Everyone but Joseph would be a stranger.
To make matters worse, there would be no soft bed and warm room to give even a reflection of comfort and rest. No, when the promised child came, he would ensure that all creation would be forced to acknowledge that his birth would take place in the most shameful of places possible, far away from any hint of a paradise. Mary and Joseph would be consigned to huddle outdoors in the cursed world of thorn bushes and briar patches, mimicking in a small way the huddled hiding of Adam and Eve, and surrounded by animals, animals like unto those animals who had fled from the garden paradise long ago.
And so it was.
If the shepherds camping just outside the village lights had been listening, perhaps on that chilled night they could have heard over their crackling campfires the piercing and panicked screams of a young girl, lying on a stone slab floor, writhing in pain, gripping the ground and enduring what must have sounded like the absolute worst of tortures.
That dark night was black and heavy, and it certainly was not silent.
Of all the strange sights that evening, a very few glimpsed a rare and spectacular sight. More angelic messengers flooded the starlit skies, and commanded the band of shepherds to go and welcome the newborn child into the sleeping world. So they went, but for the shamed couple welcoming that little child, they would hear no angels. They would only feel the cold, the pain, the hurt, the desperation, the worry, the curse.
The peasant girl could never have imagined that her little life would have brought her to such a place. The manure soaked mud around the manger was a really long way from Eden.
Yet everything that had ever happened, and all those long and laboring days since the rebellion began in the garden had been pointing forward to this one long and lonely night. The long road out of Eden led to the overgrown hillsides outside of Bethlehem, and every whispered hope from the princess and all her many children, had been building into a crescendo all the time into an echoed murmur over which only the gurgling cries of a newborn could be heard.
The princess was cursed to become a peasant, so that her distant daughter, a peasant girl from Nazareth might give birth to the deliverer who would march out to battle in the innocent armor of swaddling clothes to bring the exiled children of Eden back into a royal family as sons and daughters, princes and princesses again.
And the light shone in the darkness.
The candle burst back to life.
The serpent raged in anger, feeling the first heavy pressings on his scale-crusted skull.
The Son took in his tiny breaths in the cold, damp air of Bethlehem.
The child that Eve had hoped for had finally come.
And the darkness began to vanish…