Life's key question is not what, but who makes us significant. Just ask Mary.
It has been said that saints were the celebrities of previous eras. There is some truth in this. In the same way that online gossip feeds us morsels of gossip about George Clooney or Jennifer Lawrence, so all kinds of stories have clung to the saints over the centuries – some more plausible than others.
It is hard to get to the original Mary because she has become much bigger than the quiet Palestinian teenager who was visited by an angel, but it is worth the effort. The most famous words attaching to Mary, the song of praise which begins ‘My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour’ follows on from the news that she would give birth to the Messiah.
I don’t expect it followed on that quickly from the revelation because her unexpected pregnancy nearly led to a permanent separation between Mary and Joseph based on its apparent scandal. As usual, scripture is minimalist in its description of this moment, leading us to make our own inferences. One of these seems to be that when God moves quickly in power, he may leave some unexpected but unavoidable bruises.
We all like to manage our appearance to others, but here Mary had to forfeit this control, making her vulnerable to gossip and innuendo and nearly leading to the loss of her man altogether. Celebrities like to be in charge of their reputation; saints are often denied that choice.
Somewhere along the way, Mary regained her composure and was able to reflect with wonder and amazement on the role God had chosen for her in life, one so portentous that the only human response might be to giggle, rather like Abraham’s wife Sarah when she was told by visitors that she would give birth in old age.
Mary was immersed in a culture with a propensity to worship and offer God the kind of reverence in short supply in a society like ours where he is only referenced by the disrespectful epithet OMG. Yet there is an urge to worship that has been hard-wired within us, whether it is in response to watching the sun rise on a summer’s day, counting the fingers of a tiny baby or walking across a snowy landscape. For Mary, awe was generated by this strange conception and the arrival of an unplanned child. For us it is that this child - from God and of God – would die for us personally.
In a materialistic culture, the question people ask is: what makes me significant? The answer is controlled by the way the question is crafted. Things make us significant and the more expensive or exclusive they are, the better it makes us feel. But the glow we get is ephemeral and we need to move on to the next thing to feed our insecurity. A more spiritual way of addressing the problem is: who makes me significant? Here, people are the answer. While we always get our fill of owning things and move on to the next fix, we never get our fill of the relationships that matter and return to them again and again to be replenished. Chief of these is the relationship with God which the incarnation has made possible. This is the reason Jesus said that those who drink of the water that he gives them will never be thirsty. The well from which we drink is simply fathomless.
Mary also feared God and felt humility in his presence. Today we use the word ‘respect’ to describe what we believe is owed to us, but this is little compared to what we owe God. This fear isn’t the grovelling of a subject before some tyrant who can’t decide whether to grant our request or lock us up; it is pure reverence for a God so perfect and mighty that we know we have no ground of our own to stand on. Celebrity-gazers often cannot cope when they are confronted with the object of their desire. The actor Tom Cruise used to grab the mobile phone of a fan and start talking to the unsuspecting person at the other end. This has been replaced by the ubiquitous selfie, where we get to pose for a moment in time with the object of our admiration. It is captured for posterity but only lasts a second in real time. When God draws alongside us, he joins himself to us for good; he does not depart from the frame, never to think of us again. He sticks closer than a brother.
Mary was also humble. There is a lot of false modesty around today; people who think the world orbits around them but know they’ll be hated for betraying it and so find ritual but unconvincing ways of putting themselves down. When we read Mary’s words, we find a humble person who knows her place in the scheme of things, not as some downtrodden woman doing her duty by her man.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty, she says.
These words have a revolutionary feel to them, imagining a new world pecking order where everyone swaps places. As people, we tend to place ourselves on the side of the angels and so these words perhaps make us feel more comfortable than they ought to. But Mary knew where she fitted in, not in some falsely modest place at the foot of the table but up there on a level with those who sit on thrones. She was hungry for God and knew he would satisfy that hunger with good things.
News of a pregnancy is usually a cause for celebration, but it also represents a risk, which many are familiar with. We can bring a child into the world, but we cannot guarantee how they will leave it and Mary suffered more than most in this as she watched her adult son be tortured to death. We can’t really go to the place Mary went to emotionally because it is so dark and awful, but many mothers have had to in history and it is no wonder Mary figures so highly in human piety.
Obama's Covert Wars
The use of drones is going to change warfare out of all recognition in the next decades.
Through A Glass Starkly
Images of traumatic incidents caught on mobile phone can be put to remarkable effect.
What Are British Values?
Is there a British identity and if so, what has shaped the values and institutions that form it?