I remember being instructed many years ago in the subtle but distinguishable difference in the pronunciation of the words merry, Mary, and marry. I’m sure that on that same day I probably learned the difference between pin and pen.
But I can’t say that I have altered my cacoepy in any significant way; I guess I am just a bit rebellious that way.
I love words. And I respect the subtle differences in pronunciation that occur in language (I am no Archie Bunker, thank you). But old habits are hard to break, aren’t they?
So when I say “Merry Christmas” at this time of year it is apt to sound a whole lot like “Mary” the mother of Jesus, or “marry” in the nuptial sense. I just can’t help myself. Or won’t.
But my recalcitrance is not the point of this blog, so . . . leave it!
What does interest me is the relationship between these three words; words that seemingly have no connection whatsoever except their similar sound.
Merry, of course, carries the meaning of cheerful, jolly, happy, and lively. It is rooted in an early Germanic word that carried with it the idea of short lasting or brief, i.e. making time fly by quickly. It may have seen its highest usage around the year 1900.
Mary was the mother of Jesus, as is widely known. The name comes originally from the Hebrew name Miryam or Aramaic Maryam, which in Greek was made into Mariam, Miriam, and Maria. The meaning may carry the notion of something bitter. The name was held too sacred for common use until the end of the 12th century, but has become common from the 17th century to the present.
Marry has been used of the state of matrimony, the intimate union of two life partners, at least since the 13th century. Oddly, in the middle of the 14th century it was also used euphemistically as a variant of the name of the Virgin Mary, to express surprise or indignation.
When Jesus was conceived Mary had no reason to be merry since she had not yet married, she was only engaged to be married. And so at first, she was “greatly troubled” (Luke 1:29) by the news. But once she realized the significance of the role she had been chosen to play, she became merry, even beyond merry, she was elated.
Mary said, “From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me . . . .” (Luke 1:48b-49a).
Indeed they have. And indeed He did.
Although the shame of Mary’s pregnancy before marriage has been depicted in movies, e.g. Jesus of Nazareth (1977), and The Nativity (2006), and current society would not even bat an eye at her plight, it is still worth noting that her delight overcame the monumental sense of shame and guilt that many must have tried to place upon her.
Mary was indeed . . . merry.
Eventually she and Joseph did marry, of course, but prior to the wedding the child was born in a Bethlehem stable, “because there was no room for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7). His birth was heralded by a sonorous angelic army (Luke 2:13-14). And the Gospel of Matthew records the presence of an ominous star in the sky guiding wise men to the young child (Matthew 2:1-12) to whom they presented precious gifts.
But glorious as this was, the child was destined for difficult times in the years ahead. And his mother, Mary . . . she was destined to feel the bitter pain of a “sword” that would “pierce” her soul (Luke 2:35). Mary would feel the bitterness of her name.
What strikes me about Christmas is that its glitz, its brightness, its twinkling lights and shiny ribbons overshadow and obfuscate the baser reality that is the true back story to the birth of this famous baby.
And in blurring the true picture we also forfeit the powerful redeeming value of this fantastic event.
For the story is that from an obscure village a King emerged; out of the disrepute of an illegitimate birth true legitimacy was achieved; through one man’s capital punishment for crimes against the state was birthed the payment for the crimes of all mankind.
The beauty of Christmas is . . . not seen in its beauty; rather, in its ugliness. Its underbelly. Its shadow. True light cannot be seen in the midst of all the brightness; it longs for darkness in which to do its work of illumination.
The unmarried pregnant teenager gives birth to the saint.