I stood in front of twenty Cuban women who I had known for only ten weeks, clinging to the Bible in my right hand. I shot a nervous look at my translator over my left shoulder.
She smiled in encouragement.
“Hi everyone,” I said in choppy Spanish, “I am excited about what I’m going to teach you today. I have a translator because my Spanish is…”
I looked to the back of the room at where the throaty comment had come from. I saw a familiar woman, one who had been to this gathering often during my time here, holding a handkerchief in her hands and playing with it gently.
“TU ESPANOL ES MAL,” she stated in her same loud, froggy voice, this time while a smile curled on her face.
Your Spanish is bad, she proclaimed, and although her statement lacked politeness or tact, she spoke the truth. I couldn’t hold my chuckle in.
Si, I replied. It is bad.
Bible studies are rough to plan in any language, let alone one that isn’t our first. As I sat preparing for that study the day before, I breathed deep and worried at the impossibility. It was me who realized that I needed a translator to help me with the greater points, although I could do okay with simple ideas- but what I wanted to communicate was loaded, and simple probably wouldn’t cut it.
Favor was the concept, and it was one that had been consistently attacked in this foreign land. To these women, “favor,” meant getting an extra monthly ration card, or a plastic bag full of eye glasses for family, friends and neighbors in need. Favor meant getting a passport, being chosen to go to University.
Favor wasn’t in the mirror in this poor, rural village, and it certainly wasn’t a word that God would use to describe them.
I learned five years before in a similar circle of women that what “highly favored” looks like to the world and what it looks like to God are two vastly different pictures.
Mary is an unmarried, pregnant teenage girl. She is poor, from the working class, and I always envision that when she arrives at the inn where there is no room, she is covered in dust. She is dirty. She is tired. She is smelly.
It doesn’t look so “highly favored” to me.
And yet, that is what the angel calls her, at the beginning of the speech that changes her life. He declares it.
Mary, he says, you are highly favored. (Luke 1:28)
Show me, I think. Show me highly favored, because right now, I see left alone.
I see the poor teenage girl covered in dust, I see a woman flattened by the shame of the world.
Show me highly favored.
As I had been taught years ago, I took these women to a scripture in Revelation, one that changed the way I prayed forever.
A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. 2 She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth. 3…. 5 She gave birth to a son, a male child, who “will rule all the nations with an iron scepter.” And her child was snatched up to God and to his throne. 6 The woman fled into the wilderness to a place prepared for her by God... (Revelation 12: 1-6)
There are many interpretations of this scripture, but from where I stand right now, here’s the one that makes the most sense to me:
A woman gives birth in both narratives to a male child who will rule all nations. The child (in omitted parts of the text) is pursued to be killed, but rescued by God, for God. Odds are, this woman is Mary, and the son she gives birth to is Jesus- but this version of the story sounds so different than the dusty one we tell.
Where the world sees a woman greatly troubled, God shows us a different kind of woman. Mary is the teenager, weary and poor, but in the sight of God, this average person is something different:
“A crown of stars,” it tells us.
“Shining like the son,” it explains in words that seem too small for their significance.
This matters because Mary isn’t necessarily anything special. She’s a simple woman, one who loves God deeply, but a human woman, nonetheless.
That day, I told those women that in some ways, we can’t trust a mirror. In a world where highly favored looks one way to God and a different way to everyone else, our view, our vision needs to change. We can ask God to see people the way he does in his mysterious sight, so different and much more magnificent than ours. And even when we can’t see, we can cling to the hope that he does.
I had a roommate who loved geodes, those rocks that can often be found in tourist shops: black on the outside, they at first glance appear to be a normal rock. When cracked open, however, the rock tells a different story: coming in a rainbow variety of colors, they are beautiful stones, and a sweet reminder that what we see at first glance won’t always tell us the truth.
When we run out of hope, when what we see is the black and dust and grime covering our lives, we can be gently reminded that what God sees is a beautifully different picture.