Sunday 22 December by The Very Reverend June Osborne DL
Isaiah 7 v 10-16
Matthew 1 v 18-25
It’s become my habit these last years to always read at least some of the Booker Prize shortlist of novels. The winner is usually a must but this year I was put off by the sheer length of ‘The Luminaries’ which won the prize. Whatever its quality my autumn didn’t look as if 800 plus pages of one book would be feasible.
Instead I read Colm Toibin’s ‘The Testament of Mary’ for no better reason than it is short and that someone gave it to me.
“the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel” which means ‘God is with us’ or in Isaiah’s case it could be a prayer “God be with us”.
On this last Sunday of Advent we usually think about Mary as a forerunner, looking forward to the Incarnation. So let me tell you about Colm Toibin’s Mary.
Mary’s looking back on the events of Jesus’ last days from her later years. Like all mothers the fact that she’d carried him in her womb and nursed him as a child defines how she saw this man. As she remembers watching his crucifixion she says;
“He was the boy I had given birth to and he was more defenceless now than he had been then. And in those days after he was born, when I held him and watched him, my thoughts included the thought that I would have someone now to watch over me when I was dying, to look after my body when I had died. In those days if I had even dreamed that I would see him bloody… I would have cried out as I cried out that day and the cry would have come from a part of me that is the core of me. The rest of me is merely flesh and blood and bone.”
Surely all of us who know the story of Mary giving birth in a stable and then stood at the foot of the cross watching Jesus being crucified have wondered how she understood the experience and Colm Toibin builds on that question of how women watch their children suffer. His Mary makes the decision not to stay until Jesus’ last breath, until he’s taken down from the cross because she’s afraid, both for herself but also for those with her, and she slides away to safety before she can tend her dying son’s body. That one fact then haunts her for the rest of her life. That to save herself she left him to die alone. She’s ashamed that she allowed others to bury her son. She cannot embrace the possibility that he redeemed the world because the way she sees her own story of escape is the filter through which she sees everything.
I’m very taken with this portrayal of Mary because it’s so recognisable in the lives of so many of us. Which of us hasn’t obsessed about something we’ve done or not done? A moment of failure of moral courage. A situation for which we blame ourselves even when all rationality tells us that we could have done nothing else. Something which keeps us looking back.
One of the most challenging carol services which the Cathedral did this year was the one for the charity the Lullaby Trust. It drew together supporters of that charity and people involved with its life because they had suffered in their family the sudden, unexplained death of a child – what we used to describe as ‘cot deaths’.
So many people in this run-up to Christmas find this season a struggle because of something hard which dominates their life. But none more so than those who’ve lost children or whose children’s lives are threatened. ‘I thought that I would have someone now to watch over me when I was dying, to look after my body when I had died.’
Behind the façade of each of our lives there is the story we tell ourselves about what has happened to us. Yet how we live with our own events, choices, and wounds isn’t entirely about our spiritual health or emotional options. If we look at what dominates the mind-set of the Western world we find a tradition of ordering things – that we live our lives seeking to discern what is right and appropriate, seeking to understand, decipher, know and if possible master and control, our lives. It’s out of that intellectual tradition that comes the rationality of science and materialism. We’ve made good order our goal. Now whilst order is essential for human society – and we are certainly praying hard that civil order will return to South Sudan before tribal or political loyalties develop into full-blown civil war – it’s not what Isaiah and Matthew are offering us as we close this Advent season.
They are inviting us to be people of hope. Not order, and not optimism which is almost entirely related to personality. Hope is about a conviction concerning the future which leaps into our present in such a way that it’s possible to view the stories of our past differently. And the way we tell the stories of our past should be such that we feel secure in the here and now and ready for God’s future: sure that he will save us, that the best is yet to come, that his kingdom of justice will triumph and he will judge us with mercy.
If that sounds all too theoretical compare the tales of Colm Toibin’s Mary with Matthew’s Joseph.
Mary in that novel tells her story of being Jesus’ mother as one of her own sense of betrayal. Because she can’t see past her behaviour on the day of his death she can’t see what God might have been doing through him, or at least she can’t believe it was worth it. She’s trapped in a particular version of how she tells herself what happened. And there is no future. She knows she wants more from the world but she no longer prays with her community for God ‘to give justice to the weak and the orphan… to rescue the needy, delivering them from the hands of the wicked’. She has no hope because all she does is look downstream to the debris of what once happened, without any sense of the redeeming force of the future.
Joseph meanwhile has a story which is causing him just as much pain and trouble. His expectation of a good marriage and a secure reputation in his community have all been shattered by something out of his control. He’s about to marry a woman who can be seen not to have been faithful to him. Actually he’s not going to marry her but because he’s a good man he’s not even going to humiliate her publicly but he is going to ‘dismiss her quietly’.
That is until he hears God’s voice, in the form of an angel in a dream, who tells him that he needs to see the same things differently. He needs to see his story through the lens of God’s future. And here is the definition of the hope Joseph discovers – that God is with us in that future. If God is for us then who or what can be against us?
So our hope is not about shaping our existence well in the present and trusting that a well-ordered existence which we can control will satisfy all we are and all we want from our life. Our friends in the Lullaby Trust give testimony to the need for more than simply believing we can order our world.
Instead we’re invited to be people of hope. We’re invited to be people who tell our saddest, unchangeable and most destructive stories differently. To do that we need to look upstream and see what is promised to us. To be a person of hope I need to live my present connecting with the core of me which prays Immanuel - God be with me. For the rest of me is flesh and bone and blood, mere existence.
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.