I’ll never forget being inside the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. It’s a dreadful place really, the smoke of oily candles have over the centuries stained the interior into a dank, dark and dingy medieval black, the razzle dazzle of gold embellishments decadently drip off every painting and altar lending the church a feel that at best could be described as somewhat kitsch and the black cowled monks represent an ascetic religion far removed from my own.
And yet it wasn’t these images that sickened me, made me want to cry out and left me pondering faith gone awry long after. As I lined up to descend into the holy grotto, said to have been where Jesus was born, I noticed a second file of people waiting in front of a heavy ornate painting of the Blessed Virgin Mary the Mother of God.
This row was comprised mainly of South American Catholic pilgrims. They had a poor look about them. The small carved wooden mementos and artefacts from Bethlehem, which are renowned, jam packed into the white plastic packets which hung from their arms, purchased from roadside souvenir vendors, probably with Made in China stamped on the back of them.
Once they got to the front of the queue they reverently bowed to the painting of Mary, kissed her golden hand, offered up a prayer and then pressed their packets against the picture committing the contents of it to her. The priests walked up and down the row selling candles to the ignorant as part of the sacred charade.
I was mortified. I felt betrayed. I felt like leaving the building.
I give Mariology a hard time because of the excesses, the fantasies and the heresies that are tagged onto it but this weekend I’ve been thinking about Mary and I’ve realised that there are at least 10 things that I love about her. In no particular order and by no means exhaustive here’s my list:
1. Her humanness: In front of her stands the Archangel Gabriel delivering a message from God on high and her initial response is about as human as could be expected,
2. Her maternal memories: My mom kept a shoe box of things that she thought I’d one day find important. My Scout badge, a plague my dad painted for me as a baby, the silver broach I wore at my christening. Mary wasn’t that different,
3. Her purity: Unlike Rob Bell I really believe that I Mary’s virginity is critical to sound Christian doctrine. When Gabriel declares to the girl, “you will conceive in your womb and bear a son,” I can imagine the furrow on her brow and her innocent questioning voice asking,
4. Her bubbly spirituality: When she visited her cousin, Elizabeth, she just can’t contain herself and under the power of the Holy Spirit bursts into song and praise in Luke 1:46 – 55.
5. Her husband: Joseph gets the short end of the stick. He, by his own admission, wasn’t Jesus’ natural father and he drops off the scene rather fast but he remains to me a fine example of a man who unswervingly followed the Lord’s command. I like that.
6. The results of her child rearing: As Christians I know we’re to bring our children “up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” But that’s easier said than done. My two kids are living proof that we are all totally depraved even from our mother’s womb. But Mary got it right. OK, granted He was God and sin could never have tainted Him which would have made the obedience issues I have with my two a little easier. Listen again to Luke’s account, speaking of Jesus,
7. Her devotion to Jesus and to His Church: Mary was there at the beginning of the story, she witnessed Jesus Christ the whole way through. She stood at the foot of the cross when most others had deserted Him and she was among those praying in the opening scene of Acts when Matthias was chosen to replace the traitor.
8. Her Pain: As she stood at the foot of the cross she saw Jesus, tortured, bleeding, dying. He was not a spiritual fiction or a fanciful idea to her, He was a man, who walked and talked and bled and died. Mary saw that and stood as a witness to the truth.
9. Her focus: Mary didn’t disappear after Jesus’ death but rather witnessed our Blessed Saviours resurrection. And she was found amongst the number praying at the start of the book of Acts. Like the conversion and martyrdom of our Lord’s brothers Mary’s testimony points to the veracity of Jesus’ life, ministry, death and resurrection.
10. Her Son: God, made man, in Jesus Christ, was her son. In Him dwelt the fullness of deity in human form and likeness. The child who was born from her womb is the Lord to whom I owe my allegiance. King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Gabriel announced,
I do believe that Mary’s words of prophecy spoken to Elizabeth rung true then, ring true now and will ring true forevermore,