Okay so this might not sound too seasonally cheerful… but I’ve been thinking about the Christmas stories and how in so many encounters in these stories, the participants are told “do not be afraid”.
But there is one story in which the chief participant, Mary, might well have expected to hear those words and they were not uttered. Instead she was told “and a sword will pierce your own soul also”.
This was at the moment when she had carried her precious eight-day-old son into the temple. It should have been an unequivocal moment of joy and celebration. Think about the journey she has been on: she has survived the shame and humiliation of an out of wedlock pregnancy (and avoided being stoned to death for it). She has survived the trauma of a three-day journey in late pregnancy. She and her child have survived her first confinement, most likely in a cave and probably without the support of familiar and reassuring family females.
And now she comes to the temple eight days later. She has a good man at her side. She has come to give thanks and to be ritually ‘cleansed’ from the birth; it is her big moment of respectability and victory and to cap it all two venerable prophetic individuals seem overjoyed to see her and her child.
Wouldn’t you want this to be one of those moments of reassurance?
Wouldn’t a ‘do not be afraid’ or even a ‘well done Mary’, have seemed to be an appropriate pastoral response?
Instead (breaking all the rules of prayer Ministry ‘no mates, no fates, no dates’ which won’t be written for 2000 years anyway) one of these two prophets tells her that her child will be a very ambivalent figure. Some will love him and some will hate him, and then they say those devastating words “and a sword will pierce your own soul”.
Perhaps at this moment Mary didn’t need to be told not to be afraid, because she was not afraid at this moment of joy. But it is as if she is reminded “Mary, this calling is not yet done and if you think it’s been tough already and that God should cut you some slack – it’s going to get a whole lot harder. You will not know either exactly who this son of yours is, there will be times when he appears to even disown you (“who is my mother and brothers?”) And who appears so recklessly to walk into Jerusalem knowing so many people hated him, setting so little value on his personal safety – my own mothering heart flinches with the agony of how that feels.
As a direct result of her son’s actions she will end up at the foot of the cross watching him die in agony. ‘What on earth is going on here?’ She must have wondered. ‘What happened to all the glorious words and hopes expressed in her Magnificat?’
At such a moment of utter bleakness the only words that might have offered her any comfort may well have been those harsh words said in the temple that day when Jesus was eight days old. How ironic that something that seems so jarring thing to say that a baby naming celebration might, many years down the line, have been the only thing that helped prepare Mary for the cross. The idea that someone somehow knew that this was going to happen might have been the only shred of comfort on that bleak day.
But how does all this help us?
It reminds us that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not extinguish it. No matter how dark that darkness is (and you don’t get much darker than Good Friday when the sun itself refused to shine). It helps us because when everything seems hard, impossible, painful, distressing, when we think that everything has ‘gone wrong’, it hasn’t necessarily.
It reminds us that we only see a very tiny part of a much bigger story and that in God, as Julian of Norwich would have us remember, “with God, all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well”.
I love the song ‘Mary did you know?’ Which crescendos on all the great things that Jesus grew up to do. But it never mentions the darker moments. And, of course, the answer to the question posed in the song title is obviously, ‘No’, Mary did not know of any of those great and wonderful things about the child she was asked to carry into the world. How could she? She was just an ordinary, limited, stumbling, uncertain individual just like I am and just like you are. Here is a version of this song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lIjD-_ETxEw
But she had said yes to her calling and she stepped into it only ever knowing a tiny part of it. Over and above her and over and above us all is a bigger and greater unfolding story of redemption. A story of hope and joy. Mary wasn’t telling the story, she couldn’t control the story. She only ever knew a tiny part of the story but none of that stopped her playing her part and that part would involve pain, pain far worse than childbirth but the pain would not be the end of the story.
And that is the second way in which all of this helps us: we are all only partway through our own stories and God is still only partway through his. We can be sure that even when we are following his calling there will be moments when to our mind ‘God has lost the plot’ and our pain and confusion feel overwhelming. But terrible feelings do not represent the truth of the situation.
The truth of the situation is that we are in God’s greater story and we are promised that pain, tears, separation, death and uncertainty are merely plotlines that will be tied up and dismissed before we reach ‘the end’. Until we arrive at that moment we need to hold steadily to the promised certainty of God’s love, faithfulness of God’s character and be willing to respond courageously to God’s call.
The dilemma of this call is so exquistely expressed by Kahil Gibran in his poem/essay ‘On Love’ which already exists out there in the internet world so I hope I may quote it now (although it’s quite lengthy and so full of ‘meat’ it deserves a posting all of it’s own)