Thursday, December 8, 2011

Mary's Contradictions

Quaker writer Parker Palmer says that walking with Jesus involves living with contradictions, learning from contradictions, even finding energy and power in the contradictory experiences of our lives.  We embrace the calling of peacemakers, but struggle with our own anger.  We live in an age where everything is possible, yet feel so constrained by economics and despair.  We labor through a soul's dark night--and find there new vision and new possibility. 

Looking for encouragement, I find young Mary of Nazareth--looking within, speaking out, singing strong--in Advent readings and Christmas poetry.  A regular girl, a child of her times, Mary greets a strange messenger, an angel, whose promise of a child stuns her and flips her world on its ear.

Just this week, I came across the Raphael Soyer painting of "The Annunciation" pictured here.  Soyer imagines Mary as a working-class woman in New York, limited by circumstance, yet radically open to strange words of grace and calling.  Just as interesting is Soyer's vision of the angel Gabriel: a young woman in simple, but royal garments.  She is ordinary and divine, casual and evangelical.  Good news comes from a surprisingly unspectacular place.

"How can this be?"  In Soyer's painting, Mary seems troubled as much as thrilled by the angel's message.  "Am I able to take such a risk?  What if the urgency of grace overwhelms me?  What if my faith is too fragile, too frail?"  The angel, for her part, seems cautious, uncertain how the story plays out.  There's something so terribly human in this moment: Mary and her angel, exploring vocation and emptiness, powerlessness and hope.

As much as Jesus, Mary is our teacher on the path of Christian discipleship.  She reveals our humility and invites courage and strength.  Maybe what she's really saying--"But I am a virgin!"--is that she's alone in the world and young and so often overwhelmed by the world as it is.  Can't we all identify with that?  But standing there, in the washroom, with a reluctant angel...Mary comes to YES.  Eventually.  Prayerfully.  Powerfully.

"Let it be with me!'  This Advent, I pray for just this kind of courage: to live with all the contradictions in my heart, to learn from my human frailty, to find courage in Mary and her angel and the Child born in powerlessness and poverty.  Faith has nothing to do with doing everything perfectly, or with getting all the answers right.  It has everything to do with living the contradictions, taking up the cross, learning to love in the midst of pain and joy and ordinary responsibilities.  Like Mary.