Simeon said to Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul, too.” (Luke 2:34-35)
Can you imagine hearing such words at the religious dedication of your infant? What a downer! Even if true, the words feel tactless.
That said, if Simeon’s message isn’t dystopian enough, allow me to infuse a bit of science fiction into this scene. Imagine that upon hearing this prophecy, Mary experiences a flash forward:
Mary: What day is it? Do you know, baby?
8-year-old Jesus: Sunday. Why doesn’t Daddy look at me the same way anymore?
Mary: That’s my fault. I told him something he wasn’t ready to hear.
8-year-old Jesus: What?
Mary: Well, believe it or not, I know something that’s going to happen. I can’t explain how I know, I just do. And when I told your daddy, he got really mad. And he said I made the wrong choice.
8-year-old Jesus: What? What’s going to happen?
This dialogue is obviously not from scripture. Rather the lines are taken almost verbatim from the 2016 film Arrival. Toward the end of that movie, the protagonist, Dr. Louise Banks, tries to explain to her 8-year-old daughter why she and the child’s father got divorced.
The weight of the words she says, “He said I made the wrong choice,” is lost without understanding the full context. Dr. Banks mysteriously experiences precognitive moments of her own future as the result of learning an alien language, and the dark side of this is that she has visions of a future where her yet unborn child will die prematurely of a rare disease. Through the acquisition of this “gift,” Dr. Banks learns her future child’s suffering will pierce her own soul.
The power of good cinema is that it captivates its audience. We identify with the protagonist and in this film we are left asking, “Did she make the wrong choice?” In Arrival, we empathize with Dr. Banks and wonder what we would do under the same albeit fantastical circumstances. If we knew our future child would bring us immeasurable love and joy but that she would also die a premature death, would we choose to conceive that child? Would we even have a choice?
Of course, we are not gifted with such foresight, so we can only vicariously ponder this scenario via the fictitious, but scripture states that Mary had foreknowledge that her child was destined for a life filled with great meaning but also great suffering. And it’s in hindsight that her oft-quoted line, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word,” still perplexes us. Did she make the wrong choice? Did she even have a choice?
During Jesus’ temple dedication, the prophecy of Simeon is a precognitive, supernatural moment. It’s filled with divine affirmation of the future and eternal Jesus. The child is God’s salvation, a light for revelation and glory. But Mary is also told that her motherly soul will be pierced by unspeakable sorrow. Such words can cloud out anything praiseworthy.
Advent is a time when we pray, long and look forward to the day when light dispels darkness, God-with-us comes and ransoms a captive people, and a new kingdom of righteousness comes on earth as it is in heaven. But even with all this hope in a redeemed future, Advent can also be a challenging time for many who have endured loss. It can be a time that pierces one’s soul with sorrow and robs one of the expectant joy of Christmas. It is the tension of both these realities that makes the Marian witness so potent.
In late 2016, my family and our small Anabaptist community experienced a traumatizing double funeral. Over the span of 14 years, two strangers became family and now eternally live in the presence of the One whose piercings redeem our souls.
Norma Martinez passed away at the age of 41 after a courageous 14-year fight against end-stage renal disease. When her son Gabriel (“God’s messenger”) was born, she went from the delivery room straight to the ICU in complete kidney failure. This young mother received news that without a transplant her life would be altered and her lifespan shortened. We knew from that day forward that one day her mortality would pierce the souls of her sons, husband, and even our family. Did we make a wrong choice to love her anyway?
Less than 40 hours before Norma’s passing, while on a ministry-related road trip, I was awakened from my slumber to the ringing of my cell phone. On the other end I heard my wife’s trembling voice convey to me the utterly unimaginable — our 14-year-old son, Eli, had died in a most unexpected and horrific manner. So far away from home and all that I knew as real, my soul, body, and mind were deeply pierced with an excruciating grief.
In those early days of grieving, I noted some distinct patterns in how friends sought to offer our family words of comfort. Our Anabaptist circle tangibly reminded us in word and deed that the body of Christ was a compassionate community, a fellowship of suffering. Our evangelical friends reassured us with prayers and scripture that our God who grieved the traumatic death of a beloved son knew what our loss meant. But it was our Catholic friends who offered us Mary. Through their initiation I found myself intimately identifying with her courage and resilience and found the examples of her wisdom and faith in times of suffering to be a tangible source of hope.
Yes, God as heavenly Parent suffered the loss of a child, but I would dismiss such identification by thinking, That’s God. In my grief I struggled with the very nature of God. Is God great? Is God good? Does God exist? Yet from the depths of my grief, I continued to cry out to God. Mary’s witness became a refuge for me. I saw in her a humility and brokenness that comforted me.
Did Mary make a wrong choice? We know how the story ends, but viscerally I cannot fathom the toll her son’s suffering took upon her life. She fled genocide as a young mother, only to see Jesus brutally executed as a young man filled with hope and promise.
Yes, we know the end of the story, but this is Advent. Suspend what we know and embrace that this foretelling and much of what Mary experienced as the Mother of God was traumatic. How many sleepless nights did she wonder if she’d made the wrong choice?
Returning to the pivotal scene in the film Arrival:
Dr. Louise Banks: Your daddy, he got really mad. And he said I made the wrong choice.
8-year-old Hannah: What? What’s going to happen?
Dr. Louise Banks: It has to do with a really rare disease, and it’s unstoppable. Kind of like you are, with your swimming, and your poetry and all the other amazing things you share with the world.
8-year-old Hannah: I am unstoppable?
Dr. Louise Banks: Yeah.
Death, like love, is unstoppable. Questions are the accents to the mysteries of life. My friend and singer-songwriter Brandon Goober penned these lyrics in remembrance of our son:
“We’re left asking questions and we ask them day to day;
there are no new answers but we ask them anyway.”
And Sister Joyce Rupp reminds us how we, like Mary, can rise above the questions and ultimately find redemption: “If, like Mary, we live in the fullness of each day, mindfully aware and grateful for what brings us meaning, happiness, contentment and security, we will not be spared the devastating emotions that spring up at a time of unwanted news, but we will also not be burdened with guilt or regrets over not having recognized and appreciated what is being taken from us.”
The questions and darkness of Advent are unstoppable. Suffering is inevitable. But our Advent hope is that, like Mary, we can find hope in the redemptive work of God, who took on flesh, who now dwells in our hearts and will reign in glory and reconcile all our questions and choices at the end of time.
This reflection appeared in The Mennonite magazine.