It is probable that Mary knew what it was to journey through the wilderness: the most likely route from Nazareth to Bethlehem would be to travel south down the Jordan Rift Valley, bypassing Samaria, and then climb westwards up through the Judean wilderness; and it is possible that the flight to Egypt took Mary, along with Joseph and Jesus, through the Negev wilderness rather than down the hill country and along the coastal plain.
But there is a sense in which Mary lives out her life in the wilderness – and this symbolic sense connects her to us. To see this we need to look not in the Gospels, but in the closing book of the New Testament, Revelation. In chapter 12, John depicts a vision of a woman who gives birth to a son. Now (pay attention: this bit is technical!) the imagery in Revelation is what is known as polyvalent symbolism, where one image has several referents. Or, to put it in other words, this woman is a composite of four other things:
she is Eve (who gave birth in increased pain, and whose offspring would war with the offspring of the serpent, Genesis 3:15, 16);
she is the people of
she is Mary (who gave birth to Jesus, who will rule all the nations);
and she is the Church (whose offspring hold to God through Jesus).
So Revelation 12 is not a gospel account of Mary giving birth to Jesus, but, nonetheless, Mary is integral to the vision. In the vision, God had prepared a place for the woman in the desert, where she might be taken care of – by the wilderness itself! And so we can say that, while the wilderness may not have been Mary’s home in a historical sense, it is in a symbolic sense the place, chosen by God, of her provision and protection.
Likewise, though Revelation 12 is not a simplistic depiction of all humanity (through Eve), or the people of Israel, or the Church, these are integral to the vision and so we can say that the place God has chosen for our provision and protection – if we will flee into it, against all reason, for reason tells us that death alone awaits us there – is the wilderness.
So may the wilderness swallow up the flood that is about to overwhelm you…
A great and wondrous sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth. Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on his heads. His tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that he might devour her child the moment it was born. She gave birth to a son, a male child, who will rule all the nations with an iron sceptre. And her child was snatched up to God and to his throne. The woman fled into the desert to a place prepared for her by God, where she might be taken care of for 1,260 days.
And there was war in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.
Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say: "Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Christ. For the accuser of our brothers, who accuses them before our God day and night, has been hurled down. They overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death. Therefore rejoice, you heavens and you who dwell in them! But woe to the earth and the sea, because the devil has gone down to you! He is filled with fury, because he knows that his time is short."
When the dragon saw that he had been hurled to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child. The woman was given the two wings of a great eagle, so that she might fly to the place prepared for her in the desert, where she would be taken care of for a time, times and half a time, out of the serpent's reach. Then from his mouth the serpent spewed water like a river, to overtake the woman and sweep her away with the torrent. But the earth helped the woman by opening its mouth and swallowing the river that the dragon had spewed out of his mouth. Then the dragon was enraged at the woman and went off to make war against the rest of her offspring—those who obey God's commandments and hold to the testimony of Jesus.