When a Blessing Breaks Your Heart

“Blessed are you among women, ” Elizabeth ecstatically exclaimed to Mary, but I wonder.

In the run up to Christmas this year, I’ve been thinking about Mary, about her experience of motherhood, about what it means to say that she was “blessed among women.” How could a mother who would one day witness the suffering of her child be called blessed?

Luke 2 records the joyful encounter when Elizabeth and Mary—one barren woman and one virgin—celebrated their miraculous pregnancies together. Years ago I stitched a copy of a Coptic embroidery made in the 5th century that portrays the moment when the two women embrace, belly to belly, cheek to cheek. If it were an Instagram post, it might have been tagged: #blessed.

In what sense was Mary blessed? When I start flipping through the pages of the gospels, her life doesn’t look at all like the images I associate with being blessed. Simeon had an inkling of what was on the horizon for Mary. When she and Joseph took Jesus to present him at the temple in Jerusalem, Simeon spoke both a blessing and a prophetic word over the family. His blessing must have hovered over Mary’s heart like a thunder cloud: “and a sword will pierce your own soul…”

Imagine being a new mom and hearing those words. How is the sharp edge of a sword a blessing? How could the most precious gift become a source of the most intense pain?

When a gift comes with a blade

Reading on in Luke 2, it doesn’t take long to understand. The next time we find Mary and Joseph at the temple with Jesus, twelve years have passed. Now their son is on the cusp of adolescence, and they lose him. Assuming he’s with family and friends in the crowd heading home to Nazareth, they don’t realize until they’ve traveled an entire day, that he’s not with the group.

Distraught, they search for him for three days.

Mary combed the streets of Jerusalem looking for her boy for three days. It’s such a little detail with so much significance for a mother. Those desperate minutes must have ticked by like so many needle pricks to her soul. All the while her anxiety, her fear, her terror that he might be gone for good was mounting.

I have twelve-year-old. I don’t have to work very hard to conjure up the grief and the guilt that Mary must have felt. But then, she found him. And in a split second, Jesus’s response to her must have been more painful than all those tense hours of searching. Because the baby she had nursed, the one whose breath she had felt on her cheek, the one she had sung to and rocked to sleep, looked her in the eyes and dismissed her concern with a question too mature for his years: “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”

And a sword pierced the surface of the skin of her heart. Her blessing—her living blessing—asked her to let him go, to let him be who God was calling him to be.

But she wasn’t quite ready. Not that day. Not that hour. So she brought him home. And the insight Luke gives us into Mary’s interior thoughts at the manger—Mary “treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart”—we find again right here twelve years later (Luke 2:19 and 2:51). Perhaps Luke repeats the phrase for emphasis. He wants to make sure we understand that Mary treasured the time with her son. She treasured his presence in her home, in her life, filling her days. But she couldn’t possess this particular blessing. He wasn’t for her alone. And here’s the sharp edge: one day she will have to let him go.

Madonna Elousa, “The Mother of Tenderness.” Metropolitan Museum of Art

Letting Go of a Blessing

The next time we meet Mary, she’s come to visit her son but he’s surrounded by crowds that have come to see the man who has life in his words and healing in his hands. So she sends word to him, no doubt assuming he would make room for her. But this time, he steps full into his mission. Luke records the exchange:

“He [Jesus] was told, ‘Your mother and Your brothers are standing outside, wanting to see You.’ But He replied to them, “My mother and My brothers are those who hear and do the word of God.” (Luke 8:19-20)

And the blade sinks a little deeper into Mary’s soul. It’s as if he’s saying, “Mom, I’m not yours anymore. I belong to everyone—your claim to me is no different from theirs.”

Simeon told her this would happen. Mary may have had years to strengthen her heart for this thorny moment, and still, it must have been excruciating. I feel it. My children are still young, and already I know there may be a day when God calls them to some hard thing. I will have to bless and release them, but I know I will be tempted to cling.

Glancing at the moments we meet Mary in the gospels, we watch as Jesus gradually moves farther and farther away from her, defining his mission outside her domestic orbit of influence. Again and again, she’s asked, in essence, to let her son go.

Every mother’s instinct is to shelter, to protect, to hold on to the blessing of our children. But Mary came to understand that the most meaningful blessings take on a life of their own and touch the lives of others.

A Blessing that Broke her Heart… and Healed it

And that’s why she could stand at the foot of the cross. All these cumulative moments starting with Simeon’s serrated prophecy would carry her to that dark day when the sword that pierced her son would pierce her own soul. But in that moment of searing pain, she stood. She stayed. She was there with her child in his suffering. A blessing had broken her heart, but that same blessing would heal her hurt. Her son would become her Savior.

In Dorothy Sayer’s play, “The Man Born to be King,” Mary Magdalene and Mary Cleophas try to convince Mary not to come to the crucifixion, saying, “The sight will break your heart.”

Mary reminds her friends of Simeon’s prophecy and admits, “This is the worst thing; to conceive beauty in your heart and bring it forth into the world, and then to stand by helpless and watch is suffer…”

Mary was blessed—“the most blessed among women”—but she wasn’t blessed with wealth, power, a palatial home, a closet full of clothes, or sateen sheets. Her life was hard. Only a few years after her son was born, she fled as a refugee to Egypt because Herod was slaughtering children in his vicious search to end the life of her baby. When she returned to Nazareth, rumors must have swirled in the air surrounding the unusual circumstances of her pregnancy. She was poor and disenfranchised, making a home with a carpenter under the oppression of an empire that didn’t respect her faith or her freedom and that taxed the Jewish people mercilessly.

But Mary was blessed. She was blessed because she carried the light of the world in her womb. She was blessed because she mothered the One who would sacrifice himself to rescue hearts stained by sin. She was blessed because she witnessed the Lord’s salvation. She was blessed because the sword that pierced her own soul would also heal it.

If we look at the conclusion of Elizabeth’s blessing, we realize that Mary was blessed because she believed: “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” Mary was blessed because she was a woman of faith who could look beyond the present sorrow and believe that a light would dawn.

A blessing broke her heart. Then the same blessing redeemed it.

If we learn anything from Mary, it should be that a blessed life is not one free from painful experiences. A blessed life is being with Jesus in the middle of them. Being blessed doesn’t mean there won’t be tears; it means being with the One who will one day wipe them all away.