Learning to Focus

There are experts in nearly every field of human endeavor.  There are expert wine tasters, expert roof repairers, expert balloonists, expert heart surgeons, expert fly fishermen.  And I would gladly take the advice of these folks, should I find myself in need of it.  So when I was given advice some time ago that was said to come from an expert in a field I had never heard of, it gave me pause.  I hadn't known about the need for this expertise, but here it is.  An expert stringer of pearls is said to offer this advice: "Pearls should be restrung once a year, and if you wear them a lot, twice a year."  That's good advice, I guess, though I don't happen to have pearls valuable enough to worry about restringing.

My pearls, such as they are, are not so much the product of an irritant to an oyster.  I would say my most beautiful and precious pearls are more the product of experiences, and sometimes irritants, that resulted in my growing something new within me.  And I would guess we all own pearls like those.  They're hard to come by and very precious, aren't they? 

So when I heard the insightful comment by the expert stringer of pearls, I figured that the comment must have application for us all.  It's true, isn't it, that our hard-won pearls of wisdom, our beliefs, and our experiences need some periodic reconsideration or restringing?  They need it and deserve it, being the pearls they are, if they are to be preserved.

The Church, after all, periodically restrings its pearls.  Notions that seemed at some earlier point to be eternal truths, give way to new thoughts and ideas.  The unfolding of the Church's views of Mary, Jesus' mother, is a case in point.  Who is Mary?  Well, perhaps when we think of Mary, especially at this time of year, we think of the fairly simple portrait the gospel story offers us of a young woman laying her newborn child into a manger.  But what took Mary to the manger in the first place and where the Church took her afterward is also a fascinating story.

The scriptures actually tell us precious little about Mary.  The Gospel of Mark begins at Jesus' baptism in the Jordan as an adult, so nothing's said of Mary and his birth.  Matthew's gospel makes a bit more of her.  She's a character in the story of Jesus' birth, but Joseph is much more prominent.  In the Gospel of John, she's never even called by name.  Only the Gospel of Luke tells us much about her and our reading today was of her only real speech.  But what a speech.  It's called the Magnificat for the Latin of the word "magnifies," used in her opening line, "My soul magnifies the Lord."  The Magnificat speech has become the basis of gorgeous, timeless music and stunning art.

And in fact, in the years during which the Gospels were completed and then transmitted to the early church, Mary's place of significance was already being forged through art and music and church thought.  She was called by many lofty titles, almost as many as you can find for Jesus.  Her image found its way onto paintings and frescoes, sculptures and icons.

Eventually, it's said that more European cathedrals were dedicated to her honor than anyone else, including Jesus.  And perhaps more prayers were said to her than to anyone else.  The prayers of all the rosaries prayed over all the years have addressed her, "Hail Mary."

Now, who was this Mary?  Not so simple a girl at the manger anymore, but more some exalted figure.  So exalted, as a matter of fact, that many of the 16th-century church thought that much too much had been made of her.  And so the Reformation smashed her images, whitewashed her face from the church walls, and denounced prayer that honored or addressed her.  No more "Hail Mary" for Protestants, except on the football field.

And yet devotion to Mary never really waned.  Mariologists are people--experts--who study the whole phenomenon of Mary through the centuries, and their research is fascinating.  They point to reports of her appearance to children at Lourdes and Fatima where people still flock to get a glimpse.  The Virgin of Guadalupe was a vision of Mary reported by a peasant in Mexico that is commemorated still with parades and processions and devotions.  And as recently as 1950, by Papal authority, Mary was declared by the Catholic Church to have been assumed directly into heaven at the end of her life.  Millions of people had petitioned the Pope for this declaration to be made in 1950, which is in my thinking, fairly recent.

So, Mary's very much with us yet, isn't she?  Why does she remain so deeply important?  What are we finally to make of her?  When the dust settles, who is Mary to us?

Well, just as the church has, through the past two millennia, thought and re-thought its understanding of Mary, restringing its pearls, so to speak, on her account--so, too, I have reworked my thoughts on her.  We all interpret others' lives, I think, at least in part, based on our own lives; and I'll admit that I've had to resort or reshuffle some of my thoughts on Mary in light of my own experiences.  How much do I, as a mother, for example, share with Mary? 

Now we've had our differences.  No angel announced the specialness of my children, though I had no trouble discovering their remarkable qualities myself.  No one put me on a donkey at nine months and carted me across the desert for a census-taking.  I went in a Volvo through a snowstorm, though.  And pregnant Mary never had the thrill of seeing an oh-so-tiny face and a little clenched hand on an ultrasound screen.  So, yes, our experiences were quite different.

And yet, being a parent, I think I can truly appreciate just how seriously Mary pondered things in her heart about her child, as the scripture puts it, because I've pondered, too.  I know what I've worried about and hoped for.  I know what's kept me awake nights.  If you are a parent, you've wondered, too, I bet. 

But what ponderings, exactly, occupied Mary?  And how did she decide to accept the angel's offer of this pregnancy?  "Making the decision to have a child," Elizabeth Stone writes, "it is momentous.  It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body."[i]  Did Mary know that when she accepted the job of motherhood?  I don't think I did.

So many of my questions about Mary, this critically important and influential woman of faith for two thousand years, will simply remain forever unanswerable.  But the best clues we do have about Mary, her faith, her nature, and her character, I think, lie in her hymn of faith we call the Magnificat.  It's the best we have to go on.

She begins it, "My soul magnifies the Lord."  Curious wording, don't you think?  Some modern translators want to make it easier for us, if less poetic, by rephrasing it in English as "My soul praises God" or "My heart rejoices in the Lord."  Now once I would have appreciated that clarity.  But now, now, I prefer her original poetry.  "My soul magnifies the Lord." 

Magnifies implies make bigger, make greater, enlarge, on one hand--an image that Mary's burgeoning pregnancy with the messiah certainly makes fitting.  But a magnifying glass has another very interesting potential, besides making things look larger.  A magnifying glass can focus bright light into a tiny, hot point of intensity.  Remember trying experiments like that with a magnifying glass?  The glass can concentrate light into a single brilliant spot. 

When Mary says her soul magnifies the Lord, maybe she's pointing to a possibility we rarely acknowledge.  Maybe what she's saying is that the depth of who we are, our souls, can focus reality in certain ways--ways that have the capacity to shine on and affect those around us.

Can't we think, in the course of our own lives, of people whose influence upon us has been great, maybe without their ever even knowing, precisely because of what they brought into focus through their lives?  I've had such experiences with special people.  Haven't you?  

And what about what we bring into focus through our lives?  What we focus or magnify to those around us makes all the difference doesn't it?  Imagine all the experiences you've had, all you've known, all you've had and lost, and gained again, all you've loved and learned--and now use your life as a lens, like a magnifying glass, to focus it all to a single point of brightness.  And what would the point be?  What are you capable of bringing to focus?

Actually, I can see Mary best now as the sort of magnifying glass or lens that faithfully gathered the light of God's love and condensed it, focused it to human shape and form as Christ was born.  I think she brought God's love to a small point of great strength, brightness, and brilliant intensity.  And I find myself considering in this Advent season, whether or not, like Mary, we could bring God to focus.  Surely, in every era, God's love must find ways to be born anew in the world.  Could we do it?

It does seem to me that every human life, bathed in God's love and light as we all are, has at least an opportunity to focus a part of it and deliver it to the world.  But are we, like Mary, capable of doing it?  Are we worthy of doing it?  Our tradition has spent much time and reflection on the worthiness of Mary for the task set for her.  How about our worthiness?  That's always been a sticking point for me, worthiness.

A number of years ago when I was anticipating my own ordination in a few days and reviewing the United Church of Christ ordination service, I came across a place in the service that made me stop and consider how worthy I was for even the fairly straightforward job I was proposing to take.  The service had one voice say, "She is worthy," and the whole congregation was to reply, "She is worthy, indeed!"--with an exclamation point.

I went to the senior minister who was helping with the plans for the service and I explained that in all humility I just couldn't keep that phrase in the service.  There were lots of people far more worthy than I was, and I could name fifty of them.  How silly I was going to feel having hundreds of people proclaim, "She is worthy," with an exclamation point, no less.  That had to go.

I'll never forget his response.  He said, "Well, we're keeping it in the service for two reasons.  First, because the bulletins are already printed.  But, secondly and more importantly, we're keeping it in because you've missed the point.  That affirmation isn't so much about you as about God.  It's the congregation saying they believe in a God so loving, so powerfully compassionate that God can transform most any willing soul into being worthy, even you."

I've thought over and over again what a gift this analysis of God-granted worthiness has been to me--because this vision of a God prepared to transform us helps me begin to grasp the final verses of Mary's beautiful Magnificat speech.  The crux of the speech, commentators will tell you, is the end when she proclaims a powerful prophetic vision.  If we are to understand what Mary is all about to the church, we must look at this part of her speech.

She says that God will bring down the powerful and lift up the lowly.  Now once I heard this as a judgment, as if to say:  "All imbalances will be redressed by God, the final arbiter of right and wrong.  And woe be to you if you've been wrong!"  But I don't hear it like that anymore.  Now I hear in Mary's words only God's extraordinary love for us, as worthy people.  This is a love too powerful to sit by and allow us to be lost to heights of conceit or self-centeredness.  A love too powerful to sit by and allow us to be lost to depths of poverty or depression or despair.  The high will be made low and the low will be raised up.

Mary's Magnificat poetry is not a threat of judgment, and it's not even primarily about us.  It's mostly about God, for whom perhaps we are, after all, the priceless pearls that need, for our own good, some periodic reshuffling, resorting, and restringing.  We're too valuable and too beloved to risk losing.  And Mary's speech helps us see that.  She leaves us this vision of ourselves and our worth in God's eyes.

I think this is why Mary has been adored for centuries, why she is still glimpsed by people in desperate straits.  She has, in so many ways, focused and delivered God's love; and she finally helps us to see that tended by God as we are, we are worthy and needed for delivering that love to the world, too.

And so, as you approach Christmas, my hope is that you will approach that event at the manger as Mary did, expectant with God's love, and willing for God to change you, to restring you if needed, like precious pearls, to preserve you always. 

This Advent, couldn't you become an expert at focusing God's love and bringing it to the world?  If so, then, hail Mary and praise God.  Christ will continue to be born among us! 

Let us pray.  We thank you God for every new hope that comes to us in this advent season, for your ageless love and for every astounding way you have found to be present among us, even being born among us.  May we, through all our lives' highs and lows poise ourselves to bring you to focus in the world.  Amen.


[i] Elizabeth Stone, www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/251228.Elizabeth_Stone.