‘Do to me just as you promised,’ she says. Words from the mouth of a young girl in ancient Israel, a virgin, never married, facing news that would shake her to the core.
However, this isn’t the story we expect. She is not Mary. Instead, a girl we don’t know; I wish I knew her name. We know a little of her story from Judges 11 and our hearts ache when we read it. Her story was told and retold for thousands of years: after her father’s battle victory he had to fulfil a conditional vow he’d made. A cruel and foolish promise that he would sacrifice in thanksgiving a burnt offering of whatever came out of the door of his house on his return to greet him first.
Perhaps a goat would run out. A lamb. Or a working animal, like an ox. How did this military man not calculate or expect his only child, his daughter could be the one?
That she would run to meet him singing?
What is the sound of victory if it costs you all you have?
So his heart broke. If only he had vowed differently. If only an animal had come through the door first. But now the doorframe must be painted with the blood of his daughter.
For a couple of months this unnamed girl goes away with her friends to weep. She is denied her future and she asks for the opportunity to grieve. I don’t know how she does it, but she accepts her fate. In her words I heard echoes of Mary’s words in Luke 1: ‘May it be to me as you have said.’
Two girls, two futures changed by events outside their control. They each get a few months to ponder and get away. One stops singing to grieve what is lost and the other learns about pregnancy and birth, singing and silence.
The sacrifice of the warrior Jephthah’s daughter comes after a victory, and although it seems senseless to us, in his eyes it must have felt connected. The sacrifice of Mary’s son many years later looks senseless as well, but is a necessary step in a victory too.
The grief and the love go hand in hand. The victory and the sacrifice.
Today we see the children of Aleppo being sacrificed and we grieve lost futures, lost hopes and foolish promises. They did not opt in to this. Their sacrifice is not necessary. Their blood on doorframes is a violation and an outrage. What kind of victory can possibly happen here?
‘Nothing is impossible with God,’ the angel tells Mary.
‘He has lifted up the humble,’ she sings later as she understands.
God alone turns things around from chaos to order and from despair to hope.
O Lord God, lift and bless the children of Aleppo today. Free them from the fighting and the fear and the mess and the madness. End this senseless war and plant peace, deep, life-giving and fulfilling in every heart in the region. Show us doors of life instead of broken buildings.