By: Al Gustafson, Spiritual Director
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Thomas Merton, the American Catholic writer and mystic, argues that God has revealed so little to us about who Mary the mother of Jesus is, that what we say about her is more a reflection on us than it is on her. Meek and mild, pure and undefiled were the images of Mary that I remember from my early religious education.
Feminist writers critique the Church’s understanding of Mary. They observe that Mary is often described in art, literature and theology as being passive and self-negating. And they ask, is this who she really was? Let’s try a little thought experiment.
Imagine what life might have been like for a 1st century Palestinian girl. In parts of the Middle East even today, girls and women are second-class citizens or little more than chattel. Meek and mild, pure and undefiled is the way many cultures prefer and condition their women to be. Mary grew up in such a patriarchal culture.
So it is quite extraordinary to imagine that in a culture that conditioned her to think of herself as movable property, Mary at the ripe age of 13 or 14 was able to birth Christ in the world. We can never imagine the stress it would have created to conceive a child out of wedlock in that culture. She traveled cross-country pregnant, on donkey, as a refugee. She seemed, at least for some amount of time, to be a single parent, and through it all, loves her son into his public ministry. During the Wedding at Cana, when Jesus performs his first miracle changing water to wine, it is Mary who tells him its time to get to work. At the end of his ministry, there is Mary at the foot of the cross bearing witness to the crucifixion of her son and then holding his lifeless mutilated body in her arms. These are not the actions of a mild and meek woman.
Merton says that Mary’s “sanctity is perfectly hidden”. It is an odd description that explains why Mary’s identity is hard to pin down and it points to the essence of Christian spirituality. For Merton, sanctity is being emptied of the attachments of our cultural and psychological conditioning so that we might be more receptive and open to the Love of God that can move through us, with us and in us.
In other words, if God’s love is to expand, we have to contract. For God to become bigger, we must get smaller by emptying ourselves of the limits of who we think we are; letting go of what we hold on to so tightly; surrendering, not to an external power, but in order to realign ourselves with our Higher Power. We empty ourselves and find favor with the Lord because there is now space for God’s Love to enter into us.
We might say that Mary perfectly emptied herself of her first century Palestinian girl identity and we are still talking about the creative act of that self-emptying 20 centuries later. What are the chances a Palestinian girl could be as courageous and fierce, as wise and loving, as strong and such a voice for justice as Mary was? Impossible! But as Gabriel says to her at the Annunciation, with God all things are possible.
21st century America, like 1st century Palestine, hungers for Love’s creative action in the world. We all seem to be holding ever tighter to our fear, anger and sadness, stubbornly attached to our cherished ideas and beliefs. This results in divisiveness not just between political parties, but also between neighbors, co-workers and family members.
An Advent inquiry: What am I holding on to so tightly that it has become an obstacle for the Light of Christ to flow in me and through me? Can I imagine, that if I emptied myself and loosened my grip, there would be more space for Love to enter the world through my life? I let go in order to let Christ come.