A staple of spy novels and movies is the sleeper agent. A man or woman who has been positioned in a country with orders to blend in, but who is ready to act when called upon. Before a sleeper agent has been activated, he or she goes to work, watches television, has friends over on Friday nights. In other words, lives a normal life.
In fiction, sleeper agents never have the big picture. They carry on with normal life until a secret messenger is dispatched, and they are sent into action. They are told what to do but not why they are to do it, and they have little idea how their actions will contribute to the whole. What they’re instructed to do may even seem trite: “Go to the 7-11 on Woodland Ave., buy a quart of chocolate milk, and leave it on the front porch of 99 Elm Street.” What that has to do with anything or how it is going to help the war effort the sleeper agent does not know. His or her job is not to know but to obey.
Much of the tension in these stories arises from the fact that the agent doesn’t know why he or she is being asked to perform some action. They must trust that their superiors know what they’re doing and are making the right call.
It strikes me that the mother of Jesus had a lot in common with the sleeper agent of spy fiction. She was in a foreign, hostile land. (Scripture often pictures the earth as under the authority of a foreign power, a usurper.) She blended in: a young woman, engaged to a respectable, hard-working man, sharing in the life of her small community. Then a secret messenger was sent to her and everything changed.
She was a teenager when she was activated for duty. Talk about being in the dark: she was given her mission, which was potentially hazardous, but told nothing about how it would all work out. When Mary said yes to God, she had no idea how her fiancé Joseph would respond. He could have trashed her reputation. He could have dumped her. He could have done both. And the fact is he was going to dump her but was prevented from doing so because he too was an agent, and he received last-minute orders to go through with the marriage.
When Mary accepted her orders, she didn’t know that troops would one day surround her village, looking for her child. She didn’t know they would carry out a massacre. She didn’t know that she and Joseph and the baby would be forced to flee the country and live in hiding abroad. She didn’t know that, when she came back to her own country years later, their former province would be unsafe and they would have to relocate to the north.
Consider Mary’s story. She was threatened with the loss of her reputation and her fiancé. She was forced to flee her home and even her country. Then began (as far as is known) years of silence, without directives. Years. Was she doing the right thing? Was there more she should be doing? She must have longed for certainty, longed to place her life and the life of her son on some well-defined grid, and lay out how everything was going to happen. If Mary was like us, she was hungry for information, but it was not forthcoming.
In Mary’s life, there was always room for doubt. Doubt about herself, about Joseph, and about how things would turn out. Consider the uncertainty she endured when her son, having grown into a man, faced death threats and repeated attempts on his life. Think what she went through when his disciples sent word that he had been arrested. And then the ultimate disaster: his crucifixion. How did that fit the plan?
At this time of year, people frequently talk about getting into the Christmas spirit, by which they mean generosity or cheerfulness, and that is good, but it doesn’t go far enough. But the spirit of Christmas is also the indomitable spirit of Mary, which says: “I am the Lord’s servant …May it be to me as you have said.”
First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 12/22/2018