The pelican papers

A big bird’s eye view

Fiction: Two women of Nazareth

Posted by Ron George on December 10, 2012

Sofia Moroz Annunciation

Lady Day: The Annunciation, by Sofia Moroz

My name is Salome. I am old, now, but the story I tell comes from my years as a young woman in Nazareth of Galilee.

Galilee always has been a restless, rebellious place, but Nazarenes are good, hard-working people, even though most tend to be somewhat irreligious. We don’t take to outsiders even though we spend a lot of time among gentiles. They hire us to do their work, to build and feed their cities, but we prefer our own company to theirs. We would no more marry a gentile than a Samaritan.

Few of our families take the law and the prophets seriously and those of us who do are regarded as eccentric, which makes us more withdrawn than we might be if we lived elsewhere – Bethlehem, for example, or Bethany near Jerusalem. It’s not that we’re persecuted, but our less pious neighbors ignore the Sabbath and neglect the synagogue, which makes us seem stuffy and a little strange to them. We are the butt of jokes and jeers. We Nazarenes are all Jews, but we’re not all very good Jews.

What I’m about to tell you is something I’ve kept to myself since I was 15 years old. I wouldn’t be telling you at all, except for what’s been happening of late to my dear friend Mary, daughter of Joachim and Anne. Mary and I grew up together and we’ve loved each other all our lives. We’re not related, but we’ve always felt more like sisters than friends. Mary and I were friends in all the usual ways, but we also were deeply attached as spiritual kin in the faith of our fathers. Our families were pious and close. We attended synagogue together and shared many festive times – weddings, birth dedications, as well as the sacred days of our religion. We often walked together and rehearsed with each other the ancient stories we were taught in synagogue. In our own, young-womanly way, we were proud to be Jews. We loved each other more than anyone else on earth except our parents.

Mary Button Annunciation`q`qqq

The Annunciation, by Mary Button

In due course, Mary was betrothed to Joseph, a carpenter of Nazareth whose reputation was that of a pious man. I was betrothed to Simon, a tanner whose reputation was no less than that of Joseph’s. Both men were older than we by a number of years, well established in their trades and highly regarded by Jews and gentiles alike. Many were the weeks they spent away from Nazareth doing business among the gentiles, but they always returned home to purify themselves, resume their religious duties and participate in the leadership of their families and clans. Mary and I could not have been chosen to marry two men more respected in the social and religious life of Nazareth. We were honored by their intentions.

One morning, I awoke when it was still dark. I didn’t hear a sound but sensed something just outside our house. I peered through the door into moonlit darkness. Just as my eyes became accustomed, I saw a man standing nearby. I stepped outside for a closer look. The man approached me slowly. I couldn’t see his face clearly, but his clothes were white and shone shimmering in the moonlight as though he had wings.

He spoke: “Hail, Salome. Blessed are you among women.”

Stunned, I said nothing and turned to go back into our house.

Wait,” he said. “I have come to announce a great blessing to you and your family and all Israel.”

Are you a prophet?” I said from the doorway.

I am a messenger of God,” he said. “I bring you good news.”

I must awaken my father,” I said.

No,” the man said. “This message is for your ears only.”

Anonymous Lady of Sorrows

Mary as Our Lady of Sorrows, by Anonymous (ca. 1500-1510)

I stood indecisive in the doorway.

You are to be the mother of the messiah,” the man said. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and you will be with child born of no man but of the most high God.”

You’re a blasphemer!” I cried. “Get away before I rouse my father and brothers!”

I ran into the house. My heart was pounding with fright and anger. No messenger of God he but a demon dressed in white. I was trembling as I awoke my parents, but when we emerged from the doorway, the man was gone.

Are you sure of this?” my father asked. “Had you ever seen this man before?”

I shook my head no.

“My dear,” he said, “return to your bed and forget this awful dream.”

It was no dream, father,” I said. “The man was here, dressed in white, and he said I would be the mother of the messiah and made pregnant by the most high God.”

Shhhhhh,” my mother said as she guided me into the house. “No good will come from repeating the blasphemy.”

I returned to my bed but not to sleep. I brooded for days wondering about the man and his message. I stayed indoors.

At last, Mary came looking for me.

“I have news,” she said, “but I don’t think you’ll believe me.”

“Tell me,” I said.

“A messenger of God visited our house,”  she said. “He said I was to be the mother of the messiah and that I would be made pregnant by the most high God and that the messiah would be the son of God. It was blasphemous, but then I … I don’t know, I don’t remember saying anything, but something within me seemed to say yes.

“I felt something come over me and began to see something I’d never seen before. It was like a vision, though all I could see was the messenger. He was dressed in white and seemed to grow larger, coming nearer as I watched. That was frightening, but he calmed me with his voice and assured me that I had nothing to fear, that God was with me and that I was blessed among women. I felt embraced, but it wasn’t like a hug. It was a feeling of being wrapped in swaddling clothes and cradled in someone’s arms. I felt light, as though I were rising into the air – but then, suddenly, it was over, the messenger was gone, and I was left standing as though nothing had happened.

Stuart Redeemer rabbi

Redeemer rabbi, by John Stuart

“There was silence so deep it seemed to penetrate my soul. I fell to my knees and longed for the silence never to end. I wept, but I don’t know why, and then I slept as never before. When I awoke, I felt as though I’d been reborn.”

I looked at Mary, astonished.

I don’t know what to do,” Mary said. “My parents, Joseph – how am I to explain this to them? Do you believe me?”

Oh, yes,” I said, “because I, too, saw the messenger.”

Now, Mary was astonished.

The messenger came to me some nights ago,” I said, “just as he came to you. I said no, but you said yes. I will assure your family and Joseph that what you say is true.”

It wasn’t that simple; in fact, even though our families kept the secret, it became a scandal in our village. No one really knew anything, but everyone suspected everything when Mary went to visit her aunt in Judea. Gossip flourished, tongues clucked and wagged among the women at the well. Joseph became tight-lipped and surly when it came to business. He was all furrowed brows and blazing eyes. There were whispers of illegitimacy and divorce. Joachim and Anne didn’t believe the story of the messenger. Somehow, though, Joseph did. He told me years later that a messenger came to him in a dream and assured him that Mary’s story was true.

The census gave them an excuse to leave Nazareth and move to Bethlehem, where they lived a few years before returning. Joseph and Mary were pious as ever, but their reputations never recovered. Mary and I, though, became closer than ever. She told me stories she told no one else, especially of the birth of Joshua, destined to be the messiah, and their flight from Bethlehem after being visited by Persian stargazers.

Now Joshua has become a scandal to the village, a roaming rabbi who speaks of fulfilling the law and the prophets by loving our enemies. His followers claim he is the messiah, but he’s no messiah. He talks about the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven, but he has no armies, no legions, just a rabble of dreamers who seem to have nothing better to do than listen to him preach and start rumors about him raising the dead.

All of this frightens Mary, because her nephew John was executed for proclaiming the so-called kingdom of God. Now Joshua is following in John’s footsteps; and worse, he recently left Galilee for Jerusalem, and you know what happens to prophets in Jerusalem! Joshua has abandoned his family, his friends, his trade, his whole life, it seems, to live like a vagrant, preach like a fool and raise the hackles of religious authorities. Mary wants Joshua to return to Nazareth, but he’s no longer welcome here. It breaks my heart, too, because I remember him as an obedient, pious boy, and a young man smart and skilled. He might have proved himself worthy of respect, but the past three years have made that unlikely.

Mary is inconsolably sad. I have lost count of the times she has fallen into my arms, sobbing to the depths of her soul. She is a widow, and she is blessed with other sons who provide for her, but Joshua’s fate consumes her. She remembers the messenger, the promise and her profound experience of the presence of God. And now? She is the saddest of all women. Blessed? I wouldn’t say so.

I love Mary still. Her grief is my grief. Her pain, mine. I might have spared her all of this by accepting the messenger so long ago, and yet it seems as though things are now as they were meant to be. Our roles in each other’s lives might have been just the opposite, she the comforter, I the tormented mother of Joshua Immanuel bar Simon. Or not. Who knows? Now, it seems to be God’s providence that Mary has not endured all this alone, that she had a friend, a soul-sister, to walk with her, hold her hand and pray with her that all will be well.

We don’t know how our story will end, but now you know something of its beginning.

May God have have his way with all of us.

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3 Responses to “Fiction: Two women of Nazareth”

  1. I blog quite often and I really appreciate
    your content. This great article has really peaked my interest.

    I will book mark your blog and keep checking for
    new details about once a week. I opted in for your RSS feed as well.

  2. Fred Capps said

    What a lovely Christmas treat!

  3. Elizabeth McCafferty said

    I certainly hope you’re continuing this… :)

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