Pastoral Letter - 16th December 2022
Updated: Jan 16
My Dear Friends,
The copies of the Bible which I have in my home are all rather old and battered. Some are centuries old, some I have had since being a teenager. But sometimes reading the Bible isn’t enough, sometimes one needs to "get inside" the text, as it were. Other Christians have felt this too. One, by the name of Ignatius (1491-1556) found it helpful to think of a passage, even a verse in the Gospels, and to imagine himself in the "then" of the moment. He would use the senses of his imagination to see, hear, taste, smell, even touch the moment which was being described. I remember as a student at Aberystwyth, a wonderful woman whose name was Claire, who was part of our “Ang Soc” (Anglican Society), describing Ignatian spirituality and my realising that I had been doing it for years! It is a way of picturing yourself in the moment, seeing Jesus, hearing Him speak, feeling what it must have been like to be present while He wrought miracles and walked the dusty roads.
The Christmas stories are a particularly rich source of imaginary visiting. For some reason last year I spent a lot of time in my mind with shepherds. I think I sent you a story I wrote about one shepherd’s experience of that first Christmas, on 24th December 2021. This year I have been particularly mindful of Mary, whom the Church remembers especially this coming Sunday, when Christians throughout the world will light the fourth candle on their Advent Wreaths to celebrate her role in the story of salvation. Someone reminded me recently that we think she was just around 16 when she gave birth to Jesus, the age of some of our young people. So much depended on one so young. God believed so strongly in the ability of one so young to bring about something so wonderful. What it took was for her to trust Him and to say "Yes!"
So what you will find below is my own personal imaginary encounter with Mary, whom we hear of in so few verses in the scriptures, but who was as human as any of us and who had as rich and as varied a life as it was possible to have 2,000 years ago. But what I would really like of course is for you to do your own imaginary speculating and seek to encounter more of the reality and fullness of one of the characters in the Christmas story for yourselves. If I can do it, any of you can!
Happy and holy imagining.....
It was my sixteenth birthday. I don’t know what I had been expecting, but not this. Earlier on in my life surprises had been good ones which had made me happy. Such as a new shawl of the softest wool, I still have it. I hold it to my face and smell the Spring, the air, the sea, even the sun. It is of the palest blue. They say it matches my eyes which are considered strange for a girl of my tribe. So many of my friends have brown eyes, except my dear friend Elizabeth, hers are like the green of the olive tree leaves and they always look at me with kindness. But the surprises I had this year were not anything like as pleasant as that shawl.
The first was not so much a surprise as a shock. I thought I had hurt myself, then I thought that I was dying when I saw blood coming out of me. My mother found me by the stream, a little way from where we live. It’s private there at certain times of day and a girl isn’t considered strange walking there alone, as we often go there to collect water. Sometimes it’s a quiet place and I go there to think things over. I see the reflections in the bright, flowing water, light reflecting off its surface and it is as though I also see my own reflection more clearly, not the visual image of me, but what I am inside.
It was there my mother eventually found me, crouching in the shade of a large tree which stands there where the steam flows past. An olive tree. I love the smell of it, it reminds me of Summer and of the delicious smells of the meals my mother makes and the crackling fire that warms me as she is cooking. There she found me, nestling in its shade, crying. "Are you adding more water to the stream, Mary?" she asked, trying to make me smile. "Oh Mama, I am ill, I am frightened I am going to die." I said to her eventually, through sobs and gulps of air. "Why? What’s wrong my child?" she asked and her eyes penetrated mine with concern. And so I told her. She cradled me. Then I heard her say, "Mary, you have become a woman." It was the strangest thing to hear. I, a girl, to be a woman. Then she explained and as the stream flowed past I felt more part of life and more aware of scents and sounds around than I had ever felt before and a wonder grew within me.
And it was there, by the stream, when another thing filled me with fear and with wonder once again. It was after I had received another surprise. My parents had told me that because I had become a woman, it was time for me to leave my home with them to make my home with another, whom they had found for me. The man was ancient, twenty seven! And I was just sixteen. When they told me who it was, I knew where he lived, or at least where he worked. I had often heard him sing, had often seen him smile at me as I had passed by his carpenter’s shop. I went that way, not to see him, but for the rich, pungent smell of the sap of the wood. I loved it. I suppose I would have to learn to love him too. My parents knew his parents, so it was all arranged. Joseph was his name.
Being betrothed to him filled me with feelings of anxiety, as I had felt when I thought that my body was sick and that I was going to die. I suppose I was dying, dying to who I had been anyway. My childhood was dying and I was becoming a woman. I was to leave our family home and make my home with another. There would be lots of dyings and new beginnings in my life, this was but the start. Dying and new beginnings have been the sequence of my story, so it was on the day I want to tell you of.
I was again down by the stream, I felt safe there and was reflecting on all that had been happening to me. It was still dark but I had not been able to sleep. The prospect of marrying Joseph was making me feel nervous and I suppose I was looking for consolation. I wasn’t crying, I wasn’t really frightened, I wasn’t even really thinking, I was just there, open to what was happening. A rustling disturbed me, it looked as though an old man was crouching down the steep bank of the stream, cupping his hands together and lowering them into the water. I could hardly see him in the half light of pre-dawn, but I heard him and saw the blackness of his shadow. Then it was as though he stumbled, falling into the water. I jumped up and helped him right himself. His tunic was dripping and I saw his eyes. They were like the dark brightness at the heart of a fire. They looked right into me: asking, telling, exploring, expressing, wondering and full of wonder.
Who was this man? He was obviously a stranger in Nazareth. "Thank you my child," he said courteously as I helped him up the steep bank. His voice was more resonant than voices I had heard before, perhaps he was a foreigner. I should be careful. But it was as if he sensed the fear inside me for he said the strangest thing, "Fear not Mary, for you are very much loved by God. God has seen you walk, seen you play, heard your laughter, and heard you sing. He has heard your thoughts and seen your dreams. He delights in you and wishes you to trust Him as you have never trusted anyone before. To throw yourself into His arms, like throwing yourself into the stream and then letting its current take you wherever it wishes. Trust, Mary. The Lord has great things in store for you, the very greatest."
Light began to spread onto the landscape. "Trust," he said, invited, demanded. "Trust," and his eyes began to shine in the first rays of the rising sun. "Trust," and the light grew ever brighter. "Trust," and the sun rose and it was as if light and warmth and life and fire filled me. "Trust," and a strength that was far stronger than I erupted and answered from within me. Looking into his eyes and trembling, I said, "Yes."