A Christmas Blessing for 2020
Many people have a favourite Bible verse, but for me, there is one that has always moved me to tears, every ... single ... time ...
It is this line in John's Gospel:
"When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, "Woman, here is your son." (John 19.26)
It was this scripture that first led me to faith. For me, becoming a Christian initially happened through my hearing the scriptures read aloud in Church. It was the scripture that first convicted me and this came before I knew the power of the Holy Spirit in my life and before I developed a mature understanding of the Sacraments. At first, I just liked Jesus. It wasn't any more complicated than that! To me, the stories about Him in the Bible painted a picture of a man whose love was perfect, consistent and could always be trusted. And I liked the sound of that.
But was it true? I mean, was it history or legend? Was He actually God and was His death really the way to be saved? And was it really great to tell people that they needed 'saving'? It was Mary, the mother of Jesus, who became the avenue through which I first glimpsed and believed, that it is not only true, but that Jesus' love laid down is the answer to everything that's broken. Mary, that is, as I met her in the scriptures.
There is no erasing the awkwardness of it; I had a Catholic and Reformed experience of faith, that was intertwined, from the very beginning.
Before I ever understood that there were Church traditions which said that Mary was immaculately conceived and assumed into heaven; it was Mary at the foot of the cross who led me to believe.
Before I studied Irenaeus' theology of the recapitulation of humanity through Jesus as the new Adam and Mary as the new Eve (hence, Jesus calling her, "Woman" in John's Gospel); it was Mary at the foot of the cross who led me to believe.
Before I understood why there were statues of Mary in my Catholic school classroom, depicted as a young, blonde woman with a perfect, alabaster complexion, wearing a blue gown that clung to her child-bearing hips, standing on a snake and holding Rosary beads; it was Mary at the foot of the cross who led me to believe.
Before I married an Italian man and was eventually introduced to the Festa della Madonna in his family's hometown, where a statue of Our Lady would be literally paraded through the streets, on the most important feast day of the year, and before I developed an internal dialogue about whether and what practices give glory to God, and how this could be culturally deconstructed, and what this might communicate to people standing outside of the tradition; it was still Mary, in the Bible, at the foot of the cross, who led me to believe.
And before my friends showed me pictures of the miraculous appearances at Guadalupe, and before I came to confront the anti-Catholic spirit in my life, that was quick to dismiss almost everything associated with Marian devotion as 'idolatry' ... before all of that came into proper dialogue ... it was Mary ... at the foot of the cross ... weeping over the blood-soaked, lifeless body of her own son, blessed and broken for all the world, who led me to believe that Jesus is Lord.
This is only my story. People come to know God's love through so many billions of different avenues and, over time, multiple encounters, paired with a growing understanding of the Word of God. These become the 'new norm' in Christian living. You grow used to having a rich, layered, tapestry of experiences of God; so much so that, after awhile, you can lose appreciation for what it's like to not have that perspective, and you forget the natural inclination to wonder whether the Bible is basically nothing but a bloody collection of ancient children's stories. I have journeyed with so many people as they have explored Christian faith and, like falling in love, every love story is different. It is never the same from one person to the next, because it's love (!!), and love is personal. I truly believe that God meets us each in a personal way, as He graciously works through every Church, theologically perfect or not, tailoring each person's first encounters to their specific story, personality, skepticisms, fears and even long-term calling.
Also my daughter's name.
I don't think I can write this without crying ...
A mother has no choice but to vicariously suffer. As a mum, if you don't weep inwardly when your child weeps, laugh when they laugh, well up with pride, as you watch them make friends, realise their dreams, grow into adults, something isn't normal. You actually have no choice. You have no choice but to experience a deep, spiritual and psychological share in what they go through. You don't live their life for them, but you do taste a decent chunk of the pie. You drink in the sweetness, and you have to crunch on the crust of the gravel sandwiches that life inevitably serves your child, as inescapably as the fact that at thirty nine weeks, you have no choice but to give birth.
Honestly, in the final analysis, I think we can over-emphasize the image of Mary groaning with Braxton Hicks contractions on a donkey.
Mary bore the burden of carrying the unique and unbreakable bond of a mother and child, with the Son of God, to His death. Simeon prophesied it: "A sword will pierce your own soul to." (Luke 2.35)
And regardless of our own journey as disciples, not one of us will never know what it uniquely cost her, and, as such all generations will called her, "Blessed." (Luke 1.48)
I understand, as I look on her trembling hands, holding her son, from the cradle to the grave, that it needed to be this way. If God had only felt the nails and tasted the spit and the gall, the absence, denial and betrayal of friends, as well as the eyes of the ones who stayed to the end, the sacrifice would not have been enough. His death was not a mere formula; or a spell. It was love, sacrificing everything. To undertake the separation and indignity of death on our behalf, first, He had to live in complete surrender to the bonding and dignity of human love; of being a son and a brother; a baby and a teenager. It was a unique work that only He could achieve; a cost that only He could ever know; a salvation that only He can be credited for.
But it did not only implicate Him.
It was impossible without the broken hearts of loved ones, and the piercing of a mother's heart; without the hay, the swaddling clothes; the myyrh and the aloes.
So I believe.
Peace on earth is our Christmas hope, and it is more than a vain hope. It is outworking everyday, just as it was framed in the muddied arms and broken spirit of a mother on Calvary. Jesus is one to share, "Behold, your mother." (John 19.27) Mary's love for Him would now extend to sons and daughters within the family of Christ; and we, in turn, are called to be spiritual mums and dads, brothers and sisters, who draw our love, not from our personal preferences, who we like or who we don't like, or what church band we prefer to listen to, but from our unique, personal bond with Jesus. And Mary's bond was unlike any other.
I cannot look on His eyes and not see my brothers and sisters on the other side of the world, or the other side of the debate, or the other side of the Marian theological dividing lines. I cannot.
And Mary could no less love Peter in his running away, than John, in his staying; or Thomas in his doubting, than Mary Magdalene in her believing.
Which is why we are going to believe for reconciliations that seem impossible; because we may not be able to step over every ideological or theological dividing line, indeed, we shouldn't. But we can look over the lines, and see the sacrificial love poured out by our brothers and sisters on the other side and have the courage to say,
"I see you;
I will stay awake with you;
I will be proud of you;
I will love you; and
I will mourn with you."
Merry Christmas to everyone reading this post, with love from all of us at The Francis Project (a rediculous vision, based on a rediculous Gospel, that actually turns out to be true!!!)
Article by Heather Cetrangolo,
24 December 2020