One of the best-known images of this season is that of the Manger. The figures tell the story of a mythic scene from 2000 years ago, and they are perfectly silent. A wall of silence separates THEN from NOW. But what if we could break the wall?
That’s what I will do now. Here is my letter to Mary, the mother of Jesus.
December 22, 2019.
It was two thousand years ago in a stable, surrounded by oxen and donkeys and your husband Joseph, when the main event happened: your giving birth to Jesus. The image is one I have known all my life, from Christmas cards, paintings and works of art, outdoor manger scenes, and even from some Canadian and American stamps I used to collect as a boy.
The image of you holding the baby Jesus; the strength and protection of your arms. To this my eyes would always go, even if there were other amazements to look at, like wise men, or shepherds, or the Star.
I’m not alone in my feelings about this. Throughout the ages, and around the world, feeling for you has always run deep. Catholic, Orthodox, and some Anglican Christians out-and-out venerate you. In your honor, Mary, they compose poems and songs; they paint icons and carve statues; they kneel before your image; they even pray to you for intercession with your son. I know this personally, for my own grandmother was Ukrainian Catholic, and I can still remember her fervent prayers, the depths of her devotion.
But it’s not that Catholics like my grandmother, or Anglicans, or Orthodox are setting you up as some idol. They don’t see you as divine. It’s just that honor is being given where they feel honor is due—you, after all, are supposed to be the bearer of a God. Even Muslims, who deny that Jesus is God, honor you. You are the only woman in the Koran who is directly named; and along with Jesus, you are said to be Ayat Allah, or the “Sign of God,” to humankind.
I call that special. You are important for so many people around the world. Hunger for you is great. And that’s what this letter is about, Mary. The comfort and protection of your mothering arms. Your strength.
People can’t seem to get enough of it. I know I can’t.
It all begs for a closer look.
Though right at the start, I need to acknowledge that opinions differ about the exact nature of your strength. From almost the very beginning, Christians have wondered what you needed to be like to give birth to one who was supposed to be without sin. To raise a person like this.
Did you have to be without sin, too? Or was your ordinary, imperfect humanity good enough? Exactly what kind of strength are we talking about?
Catholics in particular have seen you as perfect. That’s the official position, anyway. They see you as having a miraculous kind of independence from sex and death. This is what gives you your strength. All sorts of formal theological doctrines lay this out. The doctrine of the Virgin Birth, according to which God directly impregnated you. The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, which says that you yourself were the product of a miraculous virgin birth. The doctrine of Perpetual Virginity, meaning that all of Jesus’ brothers and sisters had to have been cousins, or they had to have been children from a previous marriage of Joseph’s. And then the doctrine of the Assumption, proclaimed by Pope Pius XII in 1950, which says that you never physically died, and that you ascended bodily into heaven at the end of your days. All of these are doctrines Catholics have discerned over the years, as ways of articulating your strength and explaining how you were able to be adequate to what your perfect son needed to grow up true.
Mary, my own mother’s family believed this, being the good Catholics they were. But I didn’t grow up Catholic, and in high school I had an intense, six-year-long fling with fundamentalism of the Protestant variety. I eventually got over that and now, gratefully, I’m a Unitarian Universalist. It’s been a winding road, getting to this point. But in no stage of it did I take on the Catholic doctrines. I never grew up thinking that life in a body and all that it implies is tinged with sinfulness. As a Unitarian Universalist, I respectfully but firmly disagree. In being born, in sensuality and sexuality (whether gay or straight), and also in dying, all people possess inherent worth and dignity.
I believe it.
I also believe that you did not need to be perfect to meet the challenges of raising your prodigy of a son. Your ordinary, imperfect humanity was good enough, and it gave you what you needed. The thought brings me great joy, actually, because God being born through just an ordinary human being is scandalous in a wondrous sort of way. The thought that people could be used by God for great things despite any and all limitations is wondrous. it’s a source of great hope, and these days we need all the sources of hope we can find…
Mary, I really resonate with the idea. That you could be effective despite your imperfections. That you could be wise exactly because of your sins. The Unitarian Universalist in me loves this, and every day, I walk in trust that the universe will receive whatever I offer up to it, however flawed, and turn it to some good, somehow. This is the core of my religious faith, and above all, it’s the core of my faith as a parent. As a father, the responsibility of parenting would be unbearable if I didn’t believe that being good enough was good enough. Know what I mean? This belief is sometimes all I have to go on, to get me through times when I feel I’m totally screwing things up, and there won’t ever be enough money to put in the proverbial therapy jar for my daughter…
I don’t know. Did you have to be perfect to do true justice to your sinless child Jesus? To be enough for him?
What’s clear is this. I’ve read stories in the Christian scriptures that hint at your parenting style, and I’m impressed. You really knew what you were doing.
Here’s one story that springs to mind. It’s the story of Jesus turning water to wine at the wedding in Cana of Galilee. There you are, at the wedding with Jesus, who by now must be around 30 years old. He’s never performed a miracle before, and let’s assume that he’s wanting to be very careful about choosing the right first miracle, since the first of anything can be a predictor of everything else to follow.
The first miracle has got to be special. It’s got to be right. And Mary, you know this. You also know that people can get so anxious about getting things right the first time that they might never even allow for a first time—to them, no time will ever seem special enough, nothing will ever seem good enough.
So when you learn that the wine has all run out at the wedding party, you see that this is your opportunity to do a little mentoring. Light a little fire under your son, the brilliant rabbi. So you go to Jesus … and nudge him. “There’s no more wine,” you say. Jesus catches your drift, senses the pressure you’re putting on him, and he replies, rather testily, “Woman, what concern is that to you? My hour has not yet come.”
In other words, MOoOM! STOP IT! Jesus sounds like a sulky teenager here—it’s just amazing how seasoned adults of practically any age can time warp right back to being a teenager when a parent pushes the right button—but here’s what you know: the bark is worse than the bite. I’ll bet you even rolled your eyes, tough cookie that you are…
The rest is history. Jesus turns the water to wine, and this really was the perfect first miracle. It couldn’t have happened at a better, more joyous time (during a wedding party) and the central message it telegraphs, essentially, is that the power of God (or whatever Mystery that that word “God” stands for) is everlasting abundance. Everlasting abundance that people can tap into even in the midst of moments of scarcity and loss. Even after the worst has happened. Even after all that, the best wine can still come.
Don’t give up hope. Don’t give in to despair.
Mary, this is a great message, and you are the one who nudged Jesus into making it. You helped get him unstuck. You were part of a great mentoring moment.
That’s got to be one of the reasons for why people can’t get enough of you. It’s about your awesome responsibility as a parent, and the great job you did, perfect or not.
There’s also this: the way other people have experienced your parenting and protection, long after your physical death (or, as the Catholics would have it, long after your bodily ascension into Heaven).
I was reading the other day about the history of a country named Portugal and its political struggles, particularly in the early 1900s. The country’s monarchy had been ousted and replaced by an almost totalitarian regime, and this regime was determined to eradicate the country’s Catholicism. Religion, it thought, was pure superstition, and destructive, and wrong. Tolerance towards religion is just part of the problem, and it only makes things worse. So this regime closed the churches down, and it confiscated their property. It banned religious holidays, as well as the teaching of religion in schools and colleges. Its actions were so aggressive that even people in rural areas—people who are usually unaffected by the quicksilver fads of urban sophisticates—took notice and went underground with their spirituality. Things got very, very bad.
This is when you came in.
The story goes that, in 1917, you appeared in a vision to three children from the rural village of Fatima. You encouraged them to stay hopeful in their religious faith, to pray for sinners, to keep on saying the Rosary. You appeared any number of times, and it is said that in your final appearance, on October 13, 1917, the crowd was far more than three children—something like 70,000 people, including newspaper reporters and photographers. Eyewitnesses said that it rained heavily that day, but at one point, the clouds broke and the sun took center stage, at which point it spun like a disk, radiated flames of scarlet, yellow, and purple, and then plunged towards the earth in a zigzag pattern, finally returning to its normal place, and leaving the people’s once wet clothing completely dry.
That’s the story. I have no clue what actually happened. All we might be talking about is some kind of communal hallucination. But no one can deny that you are in people’s hearts and minds. You are there. And when the threat to religion or to life is great, they draw on you for strength, they take comfort from you, their imaginations soar with and through you. And not just in Fatima, but all over the world, over the course of centuries..
And now, as the politics in our nation and in our world seem to be going haywire—and as we’re struggling to grapple with climate change—oh Mary. We could really use another visitation from you. We really could.
I’m just saying.
But there is yet one more reason why you have fascinated humanity for two thousand years now. How you, Mary, model the sort of strength it takes to be vulnerable and let go. The strength it takes to step back from a broken dream and let it die. Mary, you understand all about this. Blessed among women, you were condemned to witness your son’s execution on the cross. That’s what I call a broken dream.
You know all about broken dreams.
This is the real reason for why I am writing this letter to you today. Perhaps the influence of my Catholic grandmother is stronger than I knew, and really, this letter is a prayer. For, you see, there have been so many broken dreams. I pray for the people I serve in my congregation—all their life changes and losses that I know of and those I don’t. I pray for my country which is so mired in injustice and cruelty. I pray for my own life too. All the brilliant, beautiful Christmases of my childhood which will never come back again; all the precious people who have passed out of my life and they are shrouded in silence forever; all the hurts I have caused and cannot heal.
Mary, I pray for a miracle. Water into wine. My people. My world. Myself. So we can make peace with our regrets. So we can savor the wonderful things that we do have. So we can keep on showing up to our lives every day with an open heart, no matter what, staying curious as every moment the Mystery unfolds, and unfolds, and unfolds.
So we can believe that the best wine of life will indeed come last, never fear.
Mary, nudge us, just like you nudged your son. Light a fire. And if we should snap at you like your son did, and say, “Woman, what concern is that to you?” know that our bark is worse that our bite. Just roll your eyes like the tough cookie you are. You understand. Just keep showing us the way to the most amazing kind of strength there is: to be hurt and yet come back; to be all in pieces and yet to be whole; to endure ruined dreams and yet still dream; to give up so much, and yet, in the end, to find more than you ever believed possible.
Water into wine. The best wine saved till last.
Dear Mary, I thank you for your life, and I bless your name. Ayat Allah.
Be with all of us this Hanukkah and Christmas time.
I am yours, sincerely,