The Fragile Tent Christmas card, 2011…

Dear friends- may you be gifted with joy and peace.

By way of a Christmas card, I offer a picture, and a poem. The picture is by Janet McKenzie, whose art  inspired this lovely book.

Mary. Mother of God.

Where you born already divine;

A scrap of human flesh with a

God only skin deep?

~

Or did the shape of Messiah-

The mewling lion of Judah-

Need nurture?

~

At the breast of this mother

Scarcely beyond child herself

You took in milk

~

What sort of woman

Might school the star maker?

Whose sharp words

~

Could cut through a

Heavenly tantrum like a

Shaft of light through shadow?

~

Did she teach the turning of

The other cheek against some teenage

Provocation?

~

Or perhaps this was always the point-

Power and might made tender flesh

The highest now most lowly

~

The filling up of hungry mouth

The arms that hold

The pride at a first step

~

The learning and the loving

The pulse of blood in fragile vein

The summer cough

~

From this material

A man was made

Who became Messiah

Holy Mary, mother of God

This is a duplication of a post from the Aoradh website, and also on the Emerging Scotland Face book group. There was much (heated) discussion on the latter, and you can check it out here http://www.facebook.com/topic.php?uid=11526988099&topic=4447

I post it again with some trepidation, because entirely predictably, it has got me into trouble. Scotland still feels our sectarian separateness deeply. I have come to believe however, that despite genuine doctrinal disagreements, sectarianism has become a kind of sickness for us.

Not just the obvious football tribalism, but also within our churches.

I am from a Protestant background. Many things were given to me as absolute truth. Some of these I cherish, but many others I question and wrestle with.

One of the issues that was self evident to those from my church background was the fact that the Catholic Church was built on, at very best, very shaky foundations. There were debates as to whether it was really possible to be a Catholic AND a Christian. I lived in England, and these ‘truth-wars’ have mostly died down, but here in Scotland, there are many places (even outside football, and inside the church) where we still fight over the same battle lines.

Some of the sectarian positions Christians take up on this issue I can not begin to understand. Politics and social history are mixed in, along with the legacy of hurt and pain from previous generations. This has stained religion on both sides of the sectarian divide. Theological rationalisation for this hatred is very hard to bear though- all the stuff about the Pope being the anti-Christ, and the demonic influence on the formation of various monastic orders. I have heard these things rehearsed by otherwise rational and caring people in my town.

Back to my own prejudice however. When I was younger, these were the facts I knew about Catholics;

  • They prayed to saints, not God.
  • In particular, they prayed to Mary, and appeared to worship her.
  • They did all sorts of things according to Papal edict, not through their own direct study of the Bible.
  • Priests controlled access to God, through confession, absolution and the mass.
  • They had lost the vibrant influence of the Holy Spirit that was so important to my tradition.
  • They lived in a dead religious world of incense, Latin and gold leaf.
  • Rome wields political clout for its own interests.

All these facts I knew because someone told me them. I did not know any practicing Catholics- although I knew a few ex-Catholics (who were a bit like evangelical ex-smokers!) Likewise, it was possible to find evidence to support a negative view of the Catholic Church. Like most large organisations, it contains much that is rightly questionable.

But as I have become older, I have had to re-evaluate this narrow and blinkered view of Catholicism again and again. It is just impossible to avoid the evidence of God at work within and through the Catholic Church. I read and wept over the stories of the courage of the priests who lived out liberation theology under persecution in South America. I met Charismatic Catholics. I saw the immense depth and power of the contemplative traditions from various Catholic Orders, and the beauty in ancient liturgy impacted me perhaps for the first time. I have seen at close hand a Priest who operates in grace and love.

I also became less and less secure in the absolute rightness of my own traditions. I see the Reformation and subsequent Protestant project, in all its messy fervency, as richly blessed by God. But I am also aware of its dark side- the divisive self defeating squabbles, the constant battles of ‘truth’, the condemnation and judgementalism that has allowed our faith to co-exist with rampant capitalism, slavery and imperialism.

I am not Catholic, but now I have great Christian friends that are. I am proud to share my journey with people who have such a rich and complimentary understanding of who Jesus is, and how the Kingdom of God can be made real. I found I had much more I common with these friends than many from my own tradition. They confounded my prejudice, and joined me in my prayers to the Living God. Saints are barely ever mentioned, apart from as examples.

And then we come to Mary.

There is a wide variety of veneration of Mary across the Catholic Church. Many do pray to her directly. It is for those people to decide how that brings meaning to their worship, and not me. To those of us from a different tradition, perhaps we can even learn something from this.

Mary.

The bearer of the Saviour of history.

Virgin who risked all to carry Jesus to us.

This young girl was greeted by an Angel, who told her she was highly favoured

Despite her fear, she said ‘I am the Lord’s servant. Do with me as you like’.

In a burst of prophetic song, she sang this

From now on all generations shall call me blessed, for the mighty one has done great things in me!

Witness to Angels and Stars and Shepherds and wise men.

Protector and refugee in Egypt.

Real woman, wife to Joe, and other kids too.

Proud proud mother of the miracle maker.

Listener of sermons.

Worrier.

Lover.

Observer of arrest and trial.

Follower of the Cross on the way to Golgotha.

Broken hearted as the nails drove home.

Hearer of these words from a dying son

Dearest woman- here is your son (and to the man who Jesus said was the rock on which he would build his Church) Here is your mother.

Taker of the broken body.

Airbrushed out of the faith story by the Protestant reformists as reaction-formation?