When we tell Mary’s part in the Christmas story it’s easy to idealize her. It’s as if she had such great faith in the word of the Lord, even as a young woman, that all she needed was God. It was Mary and God, alone in a world of people who scorned her — even her parents and fiancé didn’t believe her story and rejected her — and yet she had great faith.
That’s how we’re supposed to be. Or so we think.
But God sent Elizabeth to Mary. How would Mary have managed without her older cousin? Could her faith have made it? Apparently not.
God gave Mary a visitation and proclamation from the angel Gabriel. And she had early symptoms of being pregnant, even though she’d never had sex. You’d think that would be enough!
But it’s not enough for you and me. The Bible says that we’ve entertained angels and not realized it (Hebrews 13:2). We’ve experienced manifestations of God’s glorious provisions in many instances of beauty and blessing, but in the trials of our life, still we doubt. Still we fear. Still we feel hurt and alone. Still we slide into feelings of shame. (I’m talking about false condemnation sent by Satan.) It was the same for Mary.
It’s a very harmful expectation that we put on ourselves — and that well-meaning preachers and friends may put on us — to think that in your trials all you need is God. Just rely on God and the Bible to believe and do what’s right. This mindset invariably fails us and puts shame on us.
The Bible itself testifies that we need to participate in the Body of Christ relationships of empathy and compassion. The Lord Jesus even commands us to love one another. His “new commandment” of giving and receiving love with family and friends is connected to his Great Commandment that we love God and our neighbor (Mark 12:30-31; John 13:34, 15:12).
Mary needed Elizabeth. Early in her pregnancy, it must have seemed that all she had to go on were her hormones, feeling sick, and sensing something was different in her body. Am I really pregnant? Has God really made me be the mother of the Messiah? Was that really an angel? What will people say? I could be stoned to death as an adulteress!
Publicly, Mary felt she was wearing the Scarlet A for “Adulteress.” This was Mary’s shame. She felt embarrassed and downcast — even though she had done no wrong.
But Mary saw that the word God gave her in private about Elizabeth being miraculously pregnant in her old age was indeed fulfilled in public. Elizabeth was showing! Elizabeth’s baby in her womb was leaping in response to Mary’s voice!
Mary took heart from her cousin-mentor — her faith was strengthened and she was in-couraged. She sang with joy for all the world to hear: “My soul glorifies the Lord!”
Elizabeth’s empathy cured Mary’s shame. God used it to show the strength of his arm of salvation to Mary, lifting up her self-esteem with his shining favor and lifting up all the lowly from all generations who trust in Christ (Luke 1:48-51).
Empathy facilitates the incarnation of God; it’s divine compassion embodied in a person. The eternal Son of God becoming human in Jesus is the fulfillment of perfect empathy.
When you’re hurting or struggling you’re probably also tempted to feel bad — like you’re not strong enough, like you’re too needy or too emotional. These kind of shame messages are something most of us feel at times. Shame leaves us feeling separate from our loving Father in the heavens always near us. Our soul starts to suffocate.
The safest way to get your soul breathing again and to experience the coming of Christ is to find a friend. You need someone who will listen to your heart, give you empathy, and pray for you. That’s what Mary did with Elizabeth and that’s how she had the courage to carry on when everyone was maligning her. (As I like to say, “Empathy is Oxygen For Your Soul.”)