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How shall this be?

By Annie Waddoups


She cowers on the bed as a young girl would, introduced (by an angel, no less)
to an overwhelming assignment/calling/challenge/blessing.  I feel for this Mary, the initial weight of the impossible evident in her slouch and gaze.

Moments later she straightens her posture and says “be it unto me” and “behold” but I love that the artist* paints the humanness of Mary’s initial “how shall this be?”

Every year I find something different in the nativity passages of the New Testament to identify with: the seeking wise men, the dazed shepherds, the distracted inn keepers. This year I’ve lingered over the figure of that young Mary and her “how shall this be?” keeps ringing in my ears.

I have had several “how shall this be?” moments in my life.  They happen (for me) in that margin between invitation and acceptance of a calling, between the answer to a prayer and the standing up and going to work. Part wonder and part panic, I think these thoughts are understood by God to be a portion of our experience on earth rather than a Thomas-like doubt or lack of faith.  They are expressions of the gap between my knowledge and God’s.

There are times when I simply can’t see how shall this be.  On and off, this is where I’ve been this year. What then?

I’ve come to realize (but don’t always remember) that needing to know in advance how things will work out is less important than knowing that they will.  There have been times when, loaves-and-fishes style, extra minutes miraculously show up in my day. There are other times when I struggle and fail and grow, more like Peter in his faltering sea walk.  So I learn, through tiny miracles and mundane duties, that giving my trusting heart to the optimism of the question (an eager, curious “how shall it be?” rather than a pessimistic one) yields a more joyful experience (and with less soggy feet).

That’s why I love this young, pausing Mary—she’s at the brink of realizing how wonderful and weighty it really shall be.

.  .  .

Have you had a “how shall this be?” moment?

What participants in the nativity story speak to your life this year?

.  .  .

*By the way, the artist Dante Rossetti used his sister Christina as the model for the painting of Mary above.  Christina Rossetti was a writer in her own right who wrote these Mary-like words:

In the Bleak Midwinter:

What can I give him

Poor as I am

If I were a shepherd

I would bring a lamb

If I were a wise man

I would do my part

Yet what I can I give him

Give my heart.

About Annie Waddoups


33 thoughts on “How shall this be?”

  1. I have some sort of "how shall this be" moment every day, usually to do with parenting my sons. Or having just moved, to dealing with everything that the move has stirred up in me.

    I always have loved the magi's camels, and the donkey Mary is usually depicted riding (though who would want to ride a donkey when heavily pregnant is beyond me). I remember reading a story of the nativity, totally from the donkey's point of view. I wish I could find the story again – the donkey was quite curmudgeonly to begin with, but ended up quite attached to the new family. I identify with the quiet efforts the camels and donkeys made to bring to pass such amazing events, all because they put one more step in front of the previous.

    And Joseph speaks to me more this year. Faith, dedication, determination and more faith in the face of so much difficulty – what a guy!

  2. Selwyn! i read that story too – but can't remember where either – i will look!

    Mary amazes me – I love her so! I like to sneak a baby blanket into a Nativity each year – but for the last few years, the churches are locked and a few said it did not fit their decor! lol!

    For a long time i only wanted to identify w/wise men – still seeking – then a few years ago, i realized, it is ok to seek – but eventually you must find.
    So now I wish to have the fear, joy, wonder and excitement of the shepherds this year!

  3. Great post. I love the painting, I don't remember seeing it before.

    This year I'm thinking about the stereotypical things we think of about the Nativity that aren't necessarily true – just our modern interpretation of things. The program The Mortal Messiah – Christ's birth (on BYUtv) got me thinking about these things. They mentioned that the inn may not have been an inn the way we think of an inn, like a motel. But that it may have been a communal house, or even a relative's home that was so full that there was no privacy for a birth. So choosing privacy over traditional setting, Joseph chose to help Mary give birth in place that had a manger (which could have been a cave, similar to the cave Jesus would be buried in and resurrected from).

    I'm so grateful for modern revelation and learning that helps us learn reality, which is so multi-layered with meaning.

  4. Annie, I love this. And I love this painting. It completely captures that first overwhelming incredulity of that moment, and expresses perfectly my own trembling spirit when faced with a new trial, a new calling, an unexpected change in the status quo.

    *Parenting. (Yes, Selwyn! Yes- almost everyday!)
    *Infertility challenges.
    *My husband's layoff that turned into a 2 year unemployment.
    *Moving across the country.
    *Callings– too many to name.

    ["I’ve come to realize (but don’t always remember) that needing to know in advance how things will work out is less important than knowing that they will."]

    I've learned this too, and am working on meeting this generously profered peace at a quicker pace. I am learning to actively work on "settling in" to a trial, the "be still, and know that I am God" part of it all.
    I still have those days, where I am filled with doubt and trepidation, but I know that there can be comfort and peace if I seek it out.

    Being a woman, wife and mother, I can't help myself from focusing on Mary; her discomfort, her doubts and fears, her pain, her first tender moments of joy when she finally holds her baby.
    And then my thoughts turn to Joseph. I think of Joseph's own "how can this be" moments. I think of my own husband, when I am in pain or doubt or any other thing he cannot immediately fix. I think of Joseph's frustration with not being able to provide Mary with the things I'm sure he would have liked to, and I think of his love, devotion, and the incredible faith he must have had.

    Thanks for the lovely nudge to think about these things this morning.

  5. My oldest was born in January and I thought a lot about Mary that Christmas as I was so heavy with pregnancy. My next was born in September and again I thought about her all Christmas with my new infant.

    This year, I keep hearing this song on the radio http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7D-DH9aT3bs and I keep crying when I hear it. This time of year always makes me reflect on Mary.

  6. "How shall this be" has been, unfortunately, my watch cry a bit this year. As my husband has worked regular 200-240/hr work months (in attorney billable hours that's 50-60 hours spent each week fixing whatever problem, not the additional necessary hours spent just being at work doing admin stuff) this year, gotten his share of an across the board pay cut, and served as bishop in a economically needy and otherwise YOUNG ward (except for the 4 funerals we've had this year of elderly members), every day has seemingly begun with an "I just don't know" but throughout the day, almost every day when I'm willing to look and feel, I find myself blessed with an amazing feeling of watch care , what I've been calling the hollow of thy hand feeling (from that 80s mission farewell song). Everything is not perfect; we've still had vomit, ear infections, broken appliances and life. But we are blessed. That's I guess why the line about the importance of knowing things will work out superseding the need to know how they will work out was particularly touching for me. Thank you.

  7. Selwyn, the donkeys and camels! I've never thought about them and now you have me doing an internet search to find that story. Quiet, reliable efforts are what hold the world up. Best of luck on your unpacking and new adventures.

    Traci, I loved this: "I realized it is ok to seek but eventually you must find." Thank you. As a sometimes constant seeker, I needed that.

    Jendoop, illuminating. Thank you for updating my mental picture of that nativity night. Time to get a cave for my nativity scenes 🙂

    Jenny, I'm with you and Selwyn on the parenting moments. I love your point about getting to that peace quicker over time. It made me think of wearing a path that becomes easier to travel as it gets used. And Joseph! What a constant, loving, patient man.

    Anon, Janet, and Michelle: Yes. Thank you.

    Angie, Wow. You are well acquainted with that zone of invitation/opportunity this year. "When I'm willing to look and feel, I find myself blessed with an amazing feeling of watch care" Love that; thank you for sharing your experience.

  8. When I've had moments like this, I've had the feeling that I was in the middle of a very important part in my life story, I just didn't know the conclusion to that part of the story yet. Especially times when I received personal revelation that meant I needed to take action and do something that was especially hard. I knew that I must do it…I just needed to have the faith to act and know that the results would be great.

  9. I've been thinking a lot about Mary this Christmas too, as I'm sure most mothers do at some point or another. Beautiful thoughts in this post, and I love the sentiments of "In the Bleak Midwinter"…it's used in one of my favorite Christmas songs this year by Sarah McLachlan.

  10. "In the Bleak Midwinter" has long been a favorite Christmas song of mine. Christina Rosetti also has another poem-turned-song that I really just discovered this year: "Love Came Down at Christmas."

    Thanks everyone for your insights.

  11. "Breath of Heaven" is my all-time favorite Christmas song because it captures so well for me both the feelings of Mary, but also how inadequate I feel as I face life's challenges. I especially love the part: "Help me be strong…Help me be…Help me" It's as if her prayer changes right as she's trying to pray it, and realizing that rather than praying for what *she* wants, she needs to just pray for help. It shows her dependence and reliance on God.

  12. Traci, good sleuthing!

    JoLyn, thank you. Looking at it in a big-picture way (as an important part in your life story) gives needed perspective. I was thinking in terms of those bigger moments when I wrote the post and it's interesting to read these comments about both the crucial, big moments and the daily, smaller ones where we have that space to wonder and decide.

    Corktree: I think you're right; it's the mother in me. I remember the nativity story taking on a completely different meaning my first Christmas as a mom, 16 years ago. Now I marvel at Mary's tender age for such a momentous role!

    Stollerblader & Jenny: Breath of Heaven is an annual favorite around here, too.

  13. That whole "how shall this be" has been going on for the last couple of months for us. We were two weeks from the end of a work contract when another job opportunity popped up for my husband just in the nick of time. And then the whole moving process seemed near overwhelming because we could never get a firm date to move for the longest time. Usually we have moved ourselves, but this time someone else moved us and I was bewildered at how that was supposed to work too. My husband kept repeating "I don't know how it's going to work out but it will." and I was amazed that it did. Is it my imagination or are many of the greatest blessings the result of jumping in with faith blindly, even if it does seem to be counterintuitive?

  14. Thanks for the art history. I quite like the Pre-Raphaelites but I didn't know that Dante Rosetti's sister wrote the lyrics to a couple of my favorite Christmas songs. I've seen the image of Rosetti's Annunciation before, but I have never seen the original. I'm a fan of annunciation paintings, and there are zillions of them. Every painter and his cousin Leonardo did one.
    This one is still my all time favorite:
    I saw the original of it first, in the Philadelphia Museum of Art and it stopped me cold. I studied up on the artist, who is a Black man, and who painted this in 1898 in a highly-trained academic style. He's an unusual and interesting character, but the painting itself is brilliant. I love the multi-layered look on young Mary's face, and in the gesture of her body.
    If you're ever at that museum you should go see it, it's one of their treasures.

  15. Mommie Dearest – thank you so much to the link of the painting – it is phenominal – you're right, stops you in your track -and so poignantly beautiful!

    oh and thank you all for your patience, i obcessed a little on the donkey story – hehehehe

  16. Jendoop, definitely. Segullah's first craft kit!

    Mormonhermitmom, No, not your imagination…that's often true, I think. Marriage, for example, is one big leap of faith IMO. Best of luck in your new location & happy unpacking.

    Mommy dearest, thank you so much for the link to that gorgeous painting. It is stunning and a nice companion to the one posted here. I can see a raw, honest quality in Mary's face that does (you're right) stop you in your tracks. I'm on the east coast so maybe I'll take a field trip to see it in person. (p.s. "every painter and his cousin Leonardo did one" made me laugh out loud.)

  17. I don't think it's an accident that you wrote about this at the same time as I have been reading Luke 2!
    The amazing thing for me was to read about the shepherds, and their enthusiastic response to the news. We have a missionary in the field, and I couldn't help thinking that he was indeed spreading the good news like the shepherds did this Christmas!
    And then to read on, past the part I learned from "Charlie Brown's Christmas," on to how the Savior's mission was witnessed to Mary and Joseph at the temple, how the Savior began His mission in the temple… hmm, I'm seeing a pattern. 🙂
    Reading what John the Baptist taught each group of people who were seeking to do God's will; reading Luke's account of Christ's baptism; seeing connections in Joseph's genealogy to names I recognized; and ultimately seeing Adam identified as a "son of God."
    That thrilled me, and humbled me — if Adam,who is our common father, is a son of God, then we are God's children, too!
    Wow! All that in two chapters I haven't read fully in years! I need to read the Christmas story more often than once a year, and I need to read about and remember Christ even more!
    Thank you for your post!

  18. I wonder on a daily basis why God chose to send my last two kids so close together, with the older of the two being so incredibly busy and needy. On the really super hard days (like today) it helps to remember that God is in charge, and even things that seem impossible and overwhelming and crazy can work out in the end…and can be guided by His hand in the process.

    On another note entirely, I love the idea that we need to have faith in Jesus Christ during times of trial, not faith in ourselves, or faith in our plans, or faith in the timing or outcome we want. Just pure and simple faith that our "How shall this be?" pleas will be heard and answered by a loving God.

  19. I'm 32 weeks pregnant, so definitely thinking about Mary. Lately my 'how shall this be?' has been with buying a house; it seems like such a small concern, but we really felt strongly that we should buy it. We were supposed to close in October, but delays keep coming up. Our rental that we're living in has been one disaster after another (currently a faulty furnance that keeps shutting off and has been doing it for a week). It seems like a small thing, since we have a home, but I'm getting anxious for a comfortable place with room for all of us before I have this baby. I guess I'm getting a small taste of how Mary felt and I should remember that even if I'm still here in the 'stable' it will be OK! (I'll just use extra blankets, LOL)

  20. "How shall this be" has been my thought all year. Years come and go and some are harder than others, this one takes the biscuit. Among other things we have had a break in, a flood, 5 months unemployment, my husband becoming Bishop, and my losing our much wanted baby at 12 weeks recently just days after telling everyone about the pregnancy. I do not understand it, I cannot begin to fathom why. I just have to hope that there are reasons that one day I can understand and accept. Trusting in the Lord is what I know is right, right now I can barely speak to him though.

  21. Kay, so sorry to hear about your miscarriage! I hope peace and healing will come in their time, and that you will find solace this Christmas season. You have had a difficult year, indeed.

    Annie, thank you for this post—I've loved reading it and all of the comments. Like Jenny, I'm trying to learn to "be still, and know that I am God"—that scripture has become a mantra for me this year.

    Thanks for giving me much to ponder as I head off into the frigid morning to do Christmas shopping—I need to be reminded of the reason for the season.

  22. Kay, I want to add my words to Melissa's in saying how sorry I am to hear about your almost Job-like year. Thank you for your honesty.I'll hope right along with you that the coming year will bring more peace and comfort.

    FaithNotFear, thanks for sharing your Luke 2 insights. It's one of my favorite parts of the season, the turning again to the same story we've heard over and over and gleaning something different.

    Heidi, yes. Amen.

    FoxyJ, Stay warm!!

    Melissa & M&M, thank you.

    Merry Christmas, Segullah friends!


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