Esther – Lifelong Friend
My name is Esther. There is nothing special about me. I learned at my mother’s knee how to wash clothes, cook, weave and sew, and all the various tasks that a woman needs to know.
My story is a simple one of two girls growing up together in the small, farming town of Nazareth in Galilee. It is a quiet place where nothing very exciting ever happens.
I had several brothers, but I was the youngest and the only girl in the family. That’s why my friendship with Mary was so special. She did not have a sister either and, early on in our childhood, we agreed to be sisters for one another. We thought we would always be in Nazareth and would never part, but God had other ideas, it seems, and I am still a little sad that we no longer live as near to one another as we did when we were young.
We used to hurry through our early morning chores so that we could go to the well together, and would meet up with other friends there. As we grew older we began to watch the boys – our friends’ brothers and cousins – and speculate whom amongst them our fathers would choose for us. It was casual talk to begin with, but as the time approached for us to be betrothed it became more significant.
I was the first one to learn who my betrothed was to be. Micah was a strong man, with a good reputation in the village for being a hard working farmer. I had known my father would be wise as he made his choice for me. I was very precious to him and he would not have given me to a man who would have mistreated me. Micah had kind eyes and I was content with my future.
One afternoon Mary and I were sitting outside her home when her mother called her in to the house. This was not unusual – maybe she needed help with a heavy pot or a tricky bit of weaving. But Mary was gone for a while and when she came out her face was serious. I asked her what was happening.
‘I am to be betrothed,’ she whispered, ‘to Joseph, the carpenter.’
I gasped in shock. To our eyes, Joseph was so old. He had been married before. He was not the sort of man that Mary and I had imagined would be her husband.
But he was a kind, understanding man and, once the shock of his age had worn off, we began to realize that he would make a good husband. In any case, Mary was not in any position to make a fuss for she was an obedient daughter. I might have tried to persuade my father to change his mind if it had been me. I tended to be a bit fiery, but Mary was not like that. She was a gentle girl who did what her parents required without any objection, and so she accepted the decision her father had made for her and began to prepare for her betrothal.
But life did not unfold as she had imagined it would. One afternoon I expected to sit once again and sew together with my friend. She did not come; and I did not see her that evening at the well either, so I went to find her. Her mother said she had completed her tasks and had gone out – she had thought she was going to see me. Neither of us was concerned. No harm would come to a young girl in our neighbourhood, especially one betrothed to such an influential person as Joseph.
I thought I knew where she may have gone. There was an olive grove, not far from the village and in it stood a particularly old tree. We loved to go there when we had the chance and share our hearts. So I was not surprised when I saw Mary under the tree. What did surprise me was that she was praying.
Now both of us believed in God, of course we did. We attended the synagogue on the Sabbath, and observed the annual festivals, just as the other women did, but neither of us was in the habit of praying under the olive trees.
I called her name and she whirled around, startled, as if I was the last person she expected to see. I was alarmed to see that she had changed. It was not a change for the worse – in fact it was difficult to identify just what was different. There was a certain presence about her that I had not noticed before. It was as if she had grown up in a moment and left me behind; as if something had happened to thrust her into adulthood. She would not speak of it. She said she had to speak to her parents and Joseph first. She refused to say more in such a gentle and firm manner that I did not raise the matter again. I realised, as I watched her during the following weeks that the change was not temporary. Mary was no longer a child.
From that day, her parents went around with grim faces and I could see that their displeasure upset Mary. Joseph was unhappy at first, but then he seemed to change, and the distance that had grown for a few days between him and Mary melted away and they became closer than they had ever been, as if something unexplained had drawn them together.
Mary often went to the olive grove, but now she went alone. She was not mean about it, but it was obvious that my girlish chatter was no longer as welcome as it used to be. I was sad rather than hurt. She was still a loving companion, but she was more like an older sister even though she was younger than me. She did not stop working, but she no longer ran with me doing the things that had given us so much pleasure. She moved in a graceful way, like the other young women in the village. The lack of physical exercise began to tell on her, and she began to lose her girlish slim figure. I made up my mind there and then that I would never slow down, for I did not want to look like my mother too soon – and for all her maturity, Mary was still a young girl.
Then she went away. She came to see me one evening to tell me that she was going to go to Jerusalem to see her cousin who was with child. Jerusalem! That was such a long way to go! She said it was a visit that she had to make and she would be travelling with her uncle, old Jacob, and his sons. They were potters and were taking their jars to Jerusalem to sell them to the temple priests to hold the sacred oil. She would be leaving early the next morning and would not see me again for a while.
I got up to give her a hug but she clasped my arms and smiling gently at me she held me at a distance and kissed me goodbye. My heart ached at what we had lost; the shared secrets and the closeness of our agreed sisterhood were no longer there. Yet she did it all in a way that did not reject me. I knew she still loved me as I loved her, but things had changed and I did not understand.
She was away for three months. When she came home I was shocked into silence; for she was with child, and glowing with the joy of potential motherhood, as most healthy young mothers are. But Mary was not yet married. She and Joseph were only betrothed. Who was the father of this child? My mother and the other women of the village were scornful. No wonder Mary’s parents had hung their heads in shame. There was talk of punishment. But although I could see the concern in her eyes, there was a sort of peace about her that was so strong it overflowed and touched me too.
I wondered how Joseph felt. I could not believe that he was the father for he was an upright, law-abiding man. If that was so, then he had every right to put her aside and take another wife. I was soon to find out his feelings. A day or so after Mary’s return, as I walked past the synagogue, I overheard my father and some of the men of the village having a loud discussion. I should not have listened, I know that, but I heard them speak Mary’s name with such derision that I stopped and stood rooted to the spot. Things had gone from bad to worse for Mary and the men were deciding what should be done – how she should be disciplined. I began to fear for my friend’s life.
I heard footsteps behind me, pounding through the dust and as I turned I saw Joseph hurrying to reach the synagogue. He did not even see me, such was his haste. He must have heard about the debate and ran to intervene. Having seen how eager he was to get there, I was surprised at the calmness in his voice as he stopped the discussions with one word.
In a strong voice that invited no argument he said one word.
Every man there fell silent, and I am sure every head turned to look at him. Joseph told them that he would take Mary as his wife and he offered her his protection. I breathed a sigh of relief. I had not realised how the tension had held me tight in its grip. There was a murmur of surprise from the men and then acceptance as they realised that Joseph would consider no argument.
And so it was. Mary and Joseph were married, long before I married my Micah; and chance would have it that a census was ordered by Caesar Augustus so that Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem where they needed to be registered, for they were of King David’s line. There Mary gave birth to her baby. They stayed away for a long time – far longer than the census took, and we knew that something terrible must have happened. Horrified, we heard of the massacre of the baby boys in Bethlehem. I could not imagine what those women were feeling and was grateful at that time to have no children of my own. I prayed to God that Mary and her child were safe, and I seemed to feel a peace about it – like the peace that I had felt when I discovered that she was to have a child.
In fact, my own little Abner was three years old when Mary and Joseph returned with their small son. Jesus was a delightful little boy with a bright sunny smile that melted your heart in the strangest of ways. It was as if he loved everyone he saw. He and Abner made friends with one another the day they met. I was so pleased Mary had returned. She had had many adventures and travelled far and wide whilst she was away. She did not talk about what had happened much. Her time away had changed her even more. There was a deep serenity about her that I had never seen before in any other woman.
We drifted apart after Joseph died and the children grew. Mary left Nazareth and went to Jerusalem where she stayed with her cousin Elizabeth, whose son had, by that time, been beheaded by Herod. Jesus was a controversial figure and in the end he was too great a threat for the Jewish and Roman authorities so they crucified him. How my heart ached for my friend. I could not imagine seeing any of my children suffer like that. It was too much, too much, for any mother to bear.
I saw her once again after that. In spite of all she had gone through she was still a serene woman. She had sent me a message via one of Jacob’s sons who had accompanied her on that first visit to Jerusalem. She asked me to travel back with him to visit her. My children were grown and gone and one of my daughters could care for Micah. So I went, and as we visited together, two lifelong friends still as close as sisters, she took me into her room and there she told me her story. It is well known now – the story of Jesus – but hearing it from the lips of his mother touched me like nothing ever had before or since.
It was as if the peace that I had always sensed about Mary was reaching out for me and inviting me to let it enfold me; as if deep in my heart I heard that peace whisper, ‘Come, my beloved, let me fill you with my peace and love.’
I wept and Mary put her arms around me.
‘Yes,’ she said, ‘now you too know the peace that Jesus brings. Come to him now and let him change your life as he has changed mine, even from the very moment he was conceived in my womb.’
And so it was that I became a follower of Jesus, the Christ. Not because I watched him as a man, travelling the country, teaching in controversial ways, standing up to the authorities, crucified on a cross; but through the gentle witness of his mother, Mary, my friend and the sister I never had.