Mary and Hannah and a Woman in the County Jail

Luke 1:39-55

I find myself wondering at Mary now… wondering how it is that she came to be so articulate, so poetic, so very wise at such a young age. While there is much we cannot know about this young woman who was chosen for a life she could not have imagined, from what we hear today it is ours to conclude, at least, that Mary was raised on the stories of her people. No doubt this must have played a part in shaping who she was. Indeed, one has to believe that the stories of Abraham and Sarah, Moses and Miriam, Jacob and Rachel, and so many more including that of Hannah and Samuel were ones passed on to her long before her fateful encounter with the angel which brought her the unexpected news of her pregnancy which precedes the story that plays out before us now. More than that, especially as we listen in today, Mary must have committed Hannah’s song to memory, perhaps reciting it to herself once more as she ran to her cousin Elizabeth today. And as she ran that she came up with new, hopeful, world-altering lyrics of her own, carrying forward the same themes of God’s preference for the poor and the hungry and the powerless. (Indeed, if you haven’t done so already, take a moment to pause in Hannah’s song, laying it alongside Mary’s powerful words today: 1 Samuel 2:1-10)

And so it is these days I am wondering which such stories have shaped me, giving me direction and hope, understanding and wisdom in the midst of uncertain times. Certainly for me it would be some of the same that Mary must have known so well, but add to those:

  • The image of Mary running to greet her cousin Elizabeth;
  • The story of that same young girl giving birth in a place meant for animals with her stalwart husband by her side, heralded by angels and greeted by shepherds;
  • The memory of ancient Anna in the temple welcoming that baby boy;
  • Surely the story of the boy Jesus in the temple;
  • And the wonder of Jesus calling his disciples to a mission which would change the world;
  • The gift of miracles of feeding the hungry and healing the sick;
  • The story of the woman at the well who ran back to tell her neighbors who she had encountered;
  • And the memory of an early Easter dawn when death was replaced first by emptiness and then wondrously filled with life again.

All of these and so many more come to mind today for me.

And yet, I am deeply aware that there are countless competing stories in the world now, so very many not nearly as rich as the ones which have been gifted to me and which Mary was so blessed to have engraved on her heart and mind. Too many stories which hold too many empty promises…

And so it was a few days back that I dropped in at our county jail. I had been trying to get in to see a young woman, a friend of our congregation, who has found herself in an unimaginable place. Friday morning I was fortunate to bump into the County Sheriff who recognized me from one funeral or another. He called upstairs and put me in touch with a Corrections Lieutenant. They let me in to sit with her for a precious half hour.

Though we had only met once or twice before, she met me at the door with a hug which would not let go — so starved was she for simple human touch. There were tears shed, powerful fears spoken aloud, disbelief expressed. I could not, would not, argue with her grief or disbelief and certainly could not counter her fears for they are real. I could and did pray with her asking for peace and courage for whatever lay ahead.

Now there is much I am quickly learning about how the incarcerated are treated even in the local county jail. (And yes, I am not naive to the necessity of rules such as these. Even so, I grieve them.) The undergarments she wore under her orange jumpsuit had to be bought new and carried in wrapped in their original packaging. Her family and friends put money into two accounts: one for phone calls and another for the commissary where she can purchase everything from soap and shampoo to colored pencils. She has a short list of those who can visit her and they are limited to brief amounts of ‘face’ time twice a week. When they do come to see her they are on one side of a plexiglass wall and she is on the other, speaking one at a time through a wall mounted telephone. She is not able to reach out to take into her arms those she loves, not able to comfort her five year old child. She is powerfully bored much of the time and so her friends have taken to mailing her coloring pages and word find puzzles — torn out and sent outside their binding. It was as I was taking all of this in that she asked if I would bring her a Bible. “I will,” I said. “Next week.”

As I left I verified the acceptability of this with the Corrections Lieutenant who told me that indeed, I could bring her a Bible. As long as it was a soft cover one. I ordered one that very hour.

Now I surely do not know exactly what competing stories this young woman will be called upon to set aside in order to survive her worst nightmare. I do know that they include narratives of despair and hopelessness among a thousand, thousand more. For that matter, I do not know how familiar she is with the stories in that soft cover treasure I will carry in to her in a few days. I expect I will learn that as we go. If nothing else when we sit down in that bare room next week a few days before Christmas, I will introduce her once more to Mary’s story and her song. And Hannah’s story, too. And the hopelessness and fear and despair which surely must have informed both of their songs. And of how their stories turned and how their words sang of a powerful new found hope.

  • Which of these ancient stories passed on— even as they were to Mary — do you hold especially close to your heart? Which ones especially carry you in dark or uncertain times? Do those stories speak ‘as is,’ or have you re-written them with new words and rhythms to speak to your life today as Mary did?
  • What competing stories in your life do these stories passed along seek to counter?
  • What darkness, what despair, does Mary’s song bring light and hope to for you in the midst of your life this season?
  • If you were in my shoes this week, which gifts from that soft cover Bible would you lift up for a young woman in prison? Which ones so you think might especially serve as treasure to her now?


  1. I think if I were to share a story with your friend in the jail, I might go to the story of Joseph. It’s such a powerful witness to God’s timing and the opportunities to live in that time and grow through the adversity into a person of blessing.

    • Janet Hunt says:

      Great suggestion, Rebecca. Thank you. I am finding she has little acquaintance with any of the stories we hold dear. The story of Joseph will be a great place to dig in.

  2. Lisa Hartzog says:

    I think I would offer Jonah. It’s a simple enough story to read and deep enough to reflect on. I’d let her know it’s a comedy and a parable, and look for how it points out that God loves everyone, even the people we hate. And that God can use everyone, even when we go in the wrong direction for a while, and take a long time to come to God’s way of thinking.

  3. JoAnn says:

    I am always encouraged by Paul’s story. That no matter where I am in life God can turn it around in a moment and use me powerfully to do His will. No matter where we are, what we’ve done, God always has us.

  4. Mary Kathryn Kirkpatrick says:

    I have a friend who was wrongly incarcerated for a few months when she was a young woman with young children at home. In her prison cell, she slept with her Bible under her pillow. One night she was awakened when she heard a voice say, “Get up!” She sat up and saw nobody. She grabbed her Bible, opened it, and the first thing she saw there was Zephaniah 3:15: “The Lord has taken away His judgments against you, He has cleared away your enemies. The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; You will fear disaster no more.” The next morning the jailer approached her in her cell and said, “Get your things. You are being freed right now.”
    Your friend may not be freed right away, as my friend was. But I believe that the important phrase to understand here in Zephaniah 3:15 is that the Lord is not judging you. Also, in Zephaniah 3:17: “The Lord your God is in your midst…He will exult over you with joy. He will be quiet in His love, He will rejoice over you with shouts of joy.” To me, these verses clearly speak of God’s love for and care for the oppressed.

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