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Surrounded by Men

Today, I received an email, with this video attached. As I listened, I imagined the story unfolding ...

A young woman has been betrothed to a man, according to Jewish custom. She discovers that she is pregnant, and tells him. Knowing that he's not the father, he plans to divorce her quietly; but, after a dream, decides not to.

A census is called, and this means them travelling a long way to the man's hometown. Whether by foot, or by donkey, it's a long gruelling journey (and I mean journey).

Imagine, going anywhere pregnant.

Heavily pregnant. It's hard enough sitting down and standing up. Your husband doesn't have a chance to book somewhere to stay, let alone a midwife, and you realise you're going to give birth to your baby in a strange town among strangers. Or, just you, hubby, and bubby.

If it was me, I don't think I'd be sanguine about it!

Tired, aching, and probably very emotional, you finally arrive, to find there is nowhere - nowhere - to stay. No hospital in this town, to deliver the baby in sanitary conditions. No woman to support you through the birth of your first baby.

That husband of yours, who could have abandoned you but didn't, who knew the baby wasn't his but chose to raise it, can't leave you alone while he looks for shelter (you might deliver alone). So, he drags you around on that exhausted donkey, until he finds a lean-to behind a full inn.

You both feel trapped in mutual obligation. But then again, you both had a choice and you made it.

People are inside, drinking and catching up. They're so loud! When I say people, I mean men, because women are not permitted in that part of the inn. They're somewhere else, trying to sleep or get their own families to sleep.

You're aware that your time has arrived. Somehow, after that long and tiring journey, you have to find the energy to give birth, because the waves of labour have come.

You're in a shed, you and hubby, as well as some livestock that have come in from the cold night air. It's crowded, and the humidity inside is oppressive. There's hay everywhere, and hubby uses it to fashion a kind of bed.

This ain't glamping!

There's a stong smell of manure and animal urine, and a goat bleats in terror of what is happening to you. This is no pretty Christmas card.

The reality, if the nativity story is true, is that poor Mary could easily have been angry and wretched while in labour. It would have been hard to breathe, because of the stench inside that shed. It could have been freezing cold; and don't even get me started on the cleanliness of the manger they put Jesus in after he was born.

But wait!

There's Mary, as exhausted as any human could be, trying to sleep; and who turns up? Shepherds. Scruffy boys and smelly teenagers who've come in to check out what all the fuss is about, thanks to those noisy angels, singing hosanna on high! And hey, got anything to eat? We're starving.

Can a girl get some sleep already?

She didn't come to Bethlehem prepared for guests and socialising. She came so Joseph could be counted in the Census (were women and children counted?). They travelled light.

Where do you think the shepherds went when they had met the Holy family? Did they make room in that lean-to, when the "three wise men" turned up (complete with at least three more animals, and probably servants too)?

If these men really were wise, they would have waited until Mary had a good night's rest!

We have so many versions of the same Hollywood style nativity story, that we forget all the confronting stuff. The dirt and sweat from the road. The thirst and dehydration. The flies. The heat of the sun or the cold of the night, or maybe the overwhelming humidity.

We take for granted, that the journey only lasted as long as it takes to read the story. We take for granted that Jesus' birth happened after an easy labour in a clean environment.

And for me, the shock comes most keenly at the thought of Mary being a woman surrounded by men.

In my family, my mother would visit or stay with my sisters when they had their first baby. My sisters do the same. It's important to have women to support a new mum, and preferably her own mother or another close relative. Joseph's mother wasn't even there.

So, not only do I feel for Mary in her lack of feminine support; I feel for her in being outnumbered at her most vulnerable.

When I bought my current home, Mum gave me a copy of a picture with which I grew up. It's an icon called Our Lady of Perpetual Succour, and it's full of symbolism. When you think of the mother and baby photos you've seen, the mum usually looks at her baby. She often smiles with love.

In this icon, Mary looks directly at us. Jesus looks to one of the angels carrying the cross upon which he will be murdered. But Mary looks at us.

I've come to understand my own mother's love for, and devotion to, Mary. Without her, our world would be such a different place. And I mean that in terms of Christianity, Catholicism and all the various denominations. But I also mean it in a completely different way.

I've come to be a Marian. I admire all that Mary was, and love her for all that she is. She is with me always, but I guarantee that she's got time for you too.

So I invite you to meditate on Mary, to learn about her, and to welcome her into your life.


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