01 December 1987
What was Mary like and why did she do it? She was alarmed by the visit of the angel to tell her what would happen.
Edited By JOHN LESTER AND AILSA HAMILTON
Christmas would never have happened without Mary. She said 'yes' to an impossible request. She was asked to carry in her womb the son of God. He was to be her son too.
Such is Christian doctrine. But what was Mary like and why did she do it? She was alarmed by the visit of the angel to tell her what would happen. But she loved God and trusted him and accepted that she had been chosen.
The Bible vividly reflects a real person across the centuries, in spite of the gilding of hallowed writings and glorious works of art.
There is the appalling story of the birth of her first baby, when she is away from home, with nowhere to go and no mother to help her. Such was the first Christmas.
Mary had moments of rare understanding and illumination. This shines out in that most revolutionary of poems, the Magnificat, with its vision of what it would mean for the world if God's ways were practised and lived. She speaks from her own experience when she says, `God has put to rout the arrogant of heart and lifted high the humble and meek.' She makes clear that what matters is not wealth, privilege and influence but the `fear of God'. (Thank heavens someone wrote it down: so many illuminated moments, when truth glows with clearer colours and added dimensions, are lost as the usual level of life closes in.)
Mary's panic and horror when her 12year-old son goes missing on a long journey home from Jerusalem are quite recognizable. Distraught with worry, she and Joseph retrace their steps. When they eventually find Jesus sitting serenely in the temple in discussion with scholars and priests, she is justifiably angry: the natural reaction after the initial relief. Jesus's reply, though to the point, shows the sublime one-trackmindedness of a 12-year-old: `Didn't you know I must be about my Father's business?' Mary, we are told, stores up these things in her heart and ponders them.
Years later there is another human and understandable moment. The neighbours all think Jesus is mad. Swayed by what everyone is saying Mary goes with others to try to get him to leave the crowds and come home. His reply is crisp: `My family are those who do the will of God.'
Then at the end, she watches at the cross as - at the age of only 33 -Jesus's last moments drain away. For her it is the end of so many hopes, so much love with its unquestioning hard work and unconsidered sacrifices. She has the rare courage to stay and suffer with him, without being able to do anything except keep faith with God herself: perhaps the hardest thing of all when those we love are hurt.
Much wisdom comes to us today from other women who have suffered like Mary.
Nadia Mandelstam, widow of the Russian poet who disappeared in Stalin's camps, comments on the 20th century, `I do not believe any preceding age has been marked by such a passion for self-advancement as ours. It is the disease of our time.' She adds, `Total absorption in oneself is a sure sign of mental illness, something to which whole nations may succumb as well as individuals.'
How different from Mary, who made so much possible and without whom, for many, life would have no meaning and the world no hope.
Christmas is possible again this year. Not just the dearly loved traditional Christmas with its Christmas tree magic and Santa Claus for the children, with the parties and feasting for those who have food and friends to feast with - but the heart of Christmas without which the rest is so much froth. Such is Mary's Christmas - which begins with trusting and loving God and accepting that we too are chosen, each individually, to make much possible.