Even though she meant to quietly slip into the back row of the church, so that her late arrival would draw no attention, she couldn’t do it. The aisle seats were taken, and no one seemed to be in any hurry to move across and make room for the latecomer. She started excusing herself and clambering through the small space between their knees and the back of the pew in front of them – that was embarrassing enough – but then she knocked over someone’s walking stick that had been left propped there, and down it went with an awful clatter. “Oh, I’m so sorry,” she said, too loudly, and bent to retrieve it. In the process she dropped her hymnbook, which fell on someone’s foot. She assumed the kick on her shins was purely reflexive, but it hurt just the same. By the time she slid into her seat, her face was burning. She sat there, staring at her feet, ostensibly in prayer but really just trying to compose herself. Her stepmother would have something nasty to say about this too, she thought. And there she’d been trying to do the right thing for once ..
By the time she was really aware o
f her surroundings, the choir had risen and started singing “Christians awake!” – a rather eccentric choice, surely, for a Christmas Eve service, with it’s explicit reference to “this happy morn”? But no one else seemed worried.
“ .. rise to adore the mystery of love ..” they sang. The words gave her pause. Surely, by the time you were an adult, the only mystery about love was why you ever fell for it in the first place? She had learned her lesson, and learned it hard. No man was ever going to seduce her again with a lot of empty words about how much he loved her.
Of course, the family had no idea yet that she was pregnant. How could she ever tell them? The mere thought of her father’s pain and her stepmother’s scorn was unbearable. Far better that she should just get rid of it, and they need never know. Far better. The only sensible thing to do.
Then why didn’t she go ahead? If she didn’t do something soon, it would be too late. After all, her child was certainly no “Virgin’s Son” like the choir was blithely carolling about, and in the small-town, church-centred world of her family, that was still a matter for deep shame. So why not? Apart from being single, she was just at the difficult beginning of her career. There was simply no room for a baby in her life.
But then, wouldn’t Mary have said the same thing? Not only was she single, the man she was going to marry was not the father of her child. Mary would have had far more social shame to deal with than she could even imagine. And yet she said yes. It was a mystery.
And Jesus – how could He bear to come down to a world where people would have said such cruel evil, untrue things about His mother? Surely He would rather punish them than die for them? It made no sense. There was something going on here that she couldn’t get her head around. It was a complete mystery.
Just then she realised that the choir were finishing the carol with a repetition of the first verse. There it was again: “the mystery of love”. In spite of herself, she smiled ruefully. There was a mystery of love here: Mary’s love for God, who asked so much of her, and of the baby she was willing to risk so much for. Even bigger was the mystery of God’s love for evil, cruel human beings. How could he?
But if this mysterious love lay at the heart of all things, then there was mercy for herself as well. No, she wasn’t pure like Mary, but now she realised that she was utterly forgiven. And if so much mercy was given to her, shouldn’t she show mercy on her unborn child as well? Shouldn’t this child, made by the hand of God and nestling deep in her body, have the right to live, and breathe and grow into whatever sort of person God had created them to become? If Mary had been able to find courage for love’s sake, then surely she could do the same, could find it from the same source?
It was enough. Even if there was no room for her with her own family, in this great story of salvation there would be room for this little child. And God would show her what to do, and what would be right for the child. For at the heart of the mystery of love was courage and faith.
The organ crashed its chords, she rose with the rest of the congregation and started to sing: “Love came down at Christmas ..”