The sultriness of a typical afternoon rendered the pathway—tens of meters to the village fountain—faintly dusty. Miriam was walking happily. Her arm along the amphora supporting it securely on her left shoulder enhanced the elegance of her slim Hebrew figure of 16 years as she walked along the fields.
- Miriam, how beautiful you are today-, Salome, her best friend complemented her.
Everyone in the youth group admired her charming beauty, her kind nature and there was no envy or distrustfulness in anyone toward her, so spontaneous and sincere was her smile. Even the older women, who followed in a group a short distance behind, had thoughts and appreciative words: that young girl has something special—she will bring “glory” to our little unknown village—they would whisper among themselves.
The young men always have an excuse to be at the curve where the path turns toward the fountain. They want to catch a glimpse of the girl who excites their heart, but they divert their sight from Miriam—her eyes are too transparent and sincere. Only Joseph gazes at her, doubtless he knows already that he is her promised spouse; not only that, but also he has already understood that the charm, the sweetness, the joy of a spouse for a believer comes to light in the journey toward the Lord God.
- You are beautiful as if you are expecting a special visit, continues Salome just as they reach the fountain to fill their amphorae with the crystal clear water.
The heat of the late afternoon made the air quiver, and nearly suffocating; to Miriam it seems—at one point—that the features of her friend dissolve and come back more solemn, and that her words resonate as if from a mysterious dignitary:
- Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you.
The glance, the words of that sudden appearance penetrate her heart and Miriam is troubled by it. Only God is full of grace and of glory! And the God of Israel is always with his people. What do those words signify, words so close to a blasphemy that only Satan could utter?
- What’s happening Miriam?, the voice of Salome calls her back to reality. We’re done and we’re going back, don’t delay. And, again, the mysterious being takes the place of her friend.
- Don’t be afraid, Miriam, for you have found favor with God.
Now Miriam is unsettled. She did not go to the biblical school of the rabbis, but her prodigious memory, which most young Hebrew people her age have, was racing through the Law and the Prophets—from Noah to Gideon, and then from Abraham to the great Moses, up to the Jews of her time. Those words “you have found favor,” or the invocation “if I have found grace” are always a prelude to a grand adventure of faith. Everyone knows it as “the God mission.”
Certainly, Miriam thinks, Yahweh will have prearranged a mission for me, but which one?
- You will conceive in your womb and bear a son. You will name him Jesus.
That is the mission of every Hebrew woman, it is the dream of every Hebrew girl, and it is the life outlined for every Hebrew woman, who has faith. Still doubt assails her; the fear in her heart becomes terror when the voice continues:
- He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom, there will be no end.
From the depths inside her, Miriam gushes forth an irrepressible protest:
How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?
The only man that she looks forward to know is Joseph, a man who certainly cannot give her a child destined for the throne of David. Miriam never fought against the requirements of life with a “no.” However, now she scrambles to fill her amphora She looks up to hide from view thoughts and words that trouble her and worry her. A short distance away, Salome invites her for the last time to hurry up. With a gesture Miriam lets her know that they should continue, that she would rejoin them, and robustly hoists the amphora to her shoulder—it never seemed as heavy as today!
And, behold, for a third time the image of her friend distorted and that mysterious voice spoke to her in a reassuring tone, emanating from majesty and strength.
- The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.
The fear, the doubt that nestles in her heart burst into terror and anguish. A child without an acknowledged father, a child who is not that of Joseph! A son who will be called holy—Son of God? Two dark and violent images of stoning for adultery and for blasphemy are engraved in her mind: is this the future that the obscure character unrolls before her as an inevitable destiny? What happened to the joy, the trepidation for the upcoming marriage, the sweetness that she feels in her bosom when Joseph smiles at her?
- And behold, Elizabeth, your relative, has also conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren.
All of a sudden, without knowing why, the terror in her heart gives way to peace—anguish to serenity—distress regarding the future to hope. And, if something mysterious were indeed rising from the womb of a history which the exasperated protagonists of her sinful people had rendered sterile?
The psalms repeated so many times come to her lips:
Our forefathers told us of the deeds that you performed in their time, in the old days with your hand! I remember the works of the Lord; I remember the miracles of the past.
Why do you hide your face and you do not take care of our miseries and afflictions? Extend your hand and come back to save us.
And Miriam hears herself say a word that surges spontaneously—almost as if it was not her word—coming from deep within her:
- Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.
The apparition over, Miriam lengthens her stride. Already her friends in front of her are out of sight and the shuffling group of women following her is still far behind. Suddenly she feels alone.
She is alone on a great journey of a people searching for God’s perspective. She is alone like the ark of Yahweh when it was booty in enemy hands. She is alone like the holy people when they were walking in the desert, when the glory and the cloud of the Most High preceded and accompanied them. In front of her is youthfulness, full of hope and longing for truth. Behind her not yet reached is maturity of adult faith, which only certainty fills with love.
Yes, Miriam, she hears herself say, go to Elizabeth, go to see that ‘nothing is impossible for God,’ go to the elders of your people to learn the ways of the mysterious God of Israel, the One who shows the faithful and the pure of heart the fulfillment of the promises.
Once decided, Miriam sets out on this surprise trip, while a question flutters in her mind and heart: the Most High will overshadow you. What do these words mean, and how will this happen?
Riding her little donkey, Miriam travels the paths that lead from Galilee to the mountains of Judea. She meditates on the glances, the words, the wishes, the messages of that day—she treasures everything in her heart. She travels through dusty villages, coming upon the glances of worried mothers, looking tenderly at the misery of babies left to themselves, pushing her mount to clamber up trails on hills in bloom, through lands drenched with the sweat of brawny men. She elates with sunsets fire-red like blood and with sunrises refreshed with dew. She sleeps in the homes of hospitable families, but her sleep is disturbed by screams and beatings in the near by houses. Husbands and violent fathers—perhaps drunk—were venting their anger on their spouses and helpless children. The chirping of songbirds and the flutter of swallows replenish her of joy in the morning. The howl of the crow and the owl bring back gloominess of the approaching night. The joy and suffering, the heartache and hope of this vast world, which permeates real life, were flowing by her little village unknown to her, but now it invades her like a sap with an irrepressible force. The promise of the Lord of Israel breaks into her, a heart full of compassion of that God who hears the cry of the oppressed becomes her. A new light illuminates history—God is in history and constantly acts in it. And behold, something shifts in her innards: it is the breakthrough of life.
Absorbed in her thoughts, possessed by the joy that only expanding life can give, Miriam didn’t notice that she had arrived at her destination. The donkey tackles the last climb of an undulating hill. A cluster of curious children accompanies her. The livelier ones have the intuition where she is headed and run ahead to announce her arrival. She enters a narrow clay courtyard in front of a modest house, where she sees her cousin, Elisabeth at the door. With a gesture she greets her and immediately like gust of wind she hears the enthusiastic greetings of her cousin:
- Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.
Then Miriam heard herself say:
- My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my savior.