Letter To Mary
December 21, 2008
It was two thousand years ago in a stable, surrounded by oxen and donkeys and your husband Joseph, when the main event was supposed to have happened: your giving birth to Jesus. The image of it 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 of Bethlehem. There’s something special about you.
And I’m not alone in my feelings about this. Through 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 reverence.
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 God. 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 women 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.
That’s what I call 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. It all begs for a closer look.
Though right at the start, I need to acknowledge that opinions differ about the exact nature of the strength I’m talking about. Perhaps it boils down to a question that Christians have had from almost the very beginning: 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?
The question is one of perfection vs. imperfection, and Catholics in particular have opted for perfection. 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 perfection and your strength. All sorts of doctrines laying 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 the kind of mother you needed to be, to nurture and support the perfection of your son. Your miraculous qualities made you strong.
Mary, my own mother’s family believed this, being the good Catholics they were. But I myself grew up Protestant and eventually became Unitarian Universalist, and both influences lead me to balk at all these 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 absolutely do not. 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 son. Your ordinary, imperfect humanity was good enough, and gave you the strength you needed. In fact, there’s a sense in which it’s to everyone’s advantage that you were imperfect, since the idea that God could be born through someone living just an ordinary life 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. A source of great hope.
Mary, I really resonate with this idea. That you could be strong despite your flaws and imperfections. That you could be strong exactly because of your flaws. 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 the times when I feel I’m totally screwing things up, and there won’t ever be enough money in the proverbial therapy jar my daughter will draw on to set things right. I just have to trust that being good enough is good enough.
I don’t know. Did you have to be perfect to do true justice to your child Jesus? To be strong 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, Mom, stop trying to rush me! Stop pushing, already! Jesus is not very nice as he says this—calling you “woman” is just not nice—but you know that the bark is worse than the bite. I’ll bet you even rolled your eyes. You are the Mom, after all. And the rest is history. Jesus turns the water to wine, and this really was the perfect first miracle. It really was. 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). Here’s what I mean. 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 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. And whatever the reality happens to be, at least one thing is clear: religion in the hearts of the people is irrepressible, and it’s going to break through the walls put around it, every time. Whatever political or intellectual regimes do or plan to do, you, Mary, are not going to allow them to carry the day. You are a defender. People hunger for your presence, and you show up. And not just in Fatima, but all over the world, over the course of centuries. That’s what the record shows. I’ll grant that all we might be talking about here is some kind of communal hallucination—many explanations presuming nothing supernatural have been put forward—but what’s definitely real as real can be is 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.
Dear Mary, again and again, people go to you for strength. Some people might say that you were docile, and compliant, and weak, but I don’t believe it. You were strong enough to parent Jesus and give him good guidance and mentoring, and you’ve been strong enough in the hearts and minds of Christians through the ages to appear to them as a protector in times of tribulation. That’s what I call strong.
Yet there is one more thing that comes to mind when I consider people’s fascination for you, and it has to do with a different kind of strength. The strength it takes to step into the unknown. The strength it takes to be vulnerable and let go. The strength it takes to step back from broken dreams, and let them die, and still know that you are OK. 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. You know all about what it takes to step back from a dream, and let go.
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, I’m praying for the strength to move into the second half of my life, and to let go of all my sadness and regrets. I know it’s not as dramatic as the death of your son on the cross, and yet there it is. I’m firmly into mid-life now, and with this has come a strange pressure building and building in my life, one that is pushing me to perform what I guess is itself a kind of miracle. Forgiving the fact that my body is changing and is not like it used to be; forgiving the fact that I was not able to accomplish everything I wanted to; forgiving the fact that all the brilliant, beautiful Christmases of my childhood will never come back again; forgiving the fact that precious people have died out of my life, and I will never be able to share with them who I am as an adult. This miracle of forgiveness. Water into wine. I need to perform it. I need to. It’s so I can make peace with my regrets. It’s so I can draw from my past in a healthy way. It’s so I can truly appreciate all the wonderful things I have right now: my family, my friends, my job, my health, my future. It’s so I can move forward, and keep on moving forward. It’s so I can believe that the best wine of my life will indeed come last, never fear.
Mary, I need a nudge from you, just like you once gave your son. I need you to light a fire under me, I need you to help me know that there’s no perfect moment for forgiveness, that there is no better time than now. Mary, in this Christmas season, I am praying to you for strength, for myself and also for so many others who are where I am right now, in one way or another. Whatever the age. Whatever the situation. Experiencing life changes. Facing the unknown. Feeling vulnerable. Strengthen all of us. Nudge all of us. Light that fire. And if we should snap back at you like your son did, and say, “Woman, what concern is that to you?” I know you’ll understand that the bark is worse than the bite. Just roll your eyes. You are the Mom. You’ve been there, done that. You know. Just show us the way to the most amazing kind of strength there is: to be hurt and yet come back; to be broken and yet to be whole; to endure ruined dreams and yet still dream; to give up so much, and yet, in the end, find more than you ever used to have. Water into wine. The best wine saved till last.
Mary, I thank you for your life, and I bless your name. Be with all of us this Christmas time.
I am yours, sincerely,