BEAUTY CAN SAVE THE WORLD
so says the magnet pinned to the front
of my fridge. But what does it know
clinging to its empty whitewashed tomb?
But then as I drive beyond the endless
fields of rabbit’s foot and wild rye, I pass
a hillside of white tulips—their cotton
petals flinging the sunlight back to the
heavens like blazing signs of forgiveness.
And the grace of these moments reminds me
of a painting I once saw of nine women
wading into the shallows of a rice paddy—
the tops of their bamboo hats bent low, so
that from a distance they looked like nuns
deep in the throes of their morning prayers.
‘Beauty can save the world’
As I wrote on the Third Sunday of Advent, I have been thinking anew about the St Luke’s gospel narrative of Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin, and on Christmas Eve I try to spend some time contemplating Mary’s story. This year I noticed a connection between the two women I had not seen before. Elizabeth breaks her contemplative seclusion to welcome in her cousin Mary, who is as equally bewildered as Elizabeth by the visit of an Angel and the unexpected conception of a baby. I can imagine the two women comforting each other, despite their age difference. I can also imagine them trying to work out their faith together, turning over all they have been taught, all they have believed until the Angel’s visit brought their old life to a dramatic halt. Together they work out how what they thought they knew of God, fits into what they now know from the Angels’ revelations. Although they still see and know darkly, they are beginning to understand that they are known – the whole of them – by God. So when Elizabeth expresses her wonder and gratitude at feeling her child kick in her belly saying,
‘blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord’
(Luke 1.45 NRSV)
she was saying this to Mary. And how does Mary respond? In Luke’s narrative, Mary immediately responds with the words which have become known as the hymn called The Magnificat:
‘My spirit exults in God my Saviour
Who has done great things for me’
(Luke 1.46-7 NRSV)
Like the child leaping in Elizabeth, Mary’s spirit ‘exults’, it leaps upward and outward. Both women are aware that they are not only connected to each other in a new way, but they are being gifted a way to see God face to face. The irony is that they see God in their homes, in their seclusion and quiet, in their new everyday circumstances: they no longer need a priest like Zechariah, Elizabeth’s husband, to intercede on their behalf, in the Holy of Holies in the Temple.
Both women begin to know that God is intimately involved in their lives, and know that through that involvement God wishes to become intimately involved in the life of every living thing on the earth in a unique way. They find a new bedrock of faith within themselves. Through seeingdarkly and knowingdarkly each discovers they are bound up in the mysteries of God’s-being-with-us.
But Mary’s expression of faith, her ‘exulting’, is not just a song of jubilation at a personal, private, family interaction with the divine. Earlier this year I was brought up short by Winnie Varghese’s reflections on Mary, which feel even more apt to ponder as yet another wave of civilians from another country become nomadic refugees, being forced to migrate from their land:
I wonder about the sacred power of the earth and the truths our bodies carry for us. It is a learning and unlearning to recognise the baggage in our lives as other people’s limited imaginations and the true freedom of becoming ourselves.
Mary … for me speak[s] to the reality of women’s experiences through history. Loss and vulnerability and the rage that we would manifest, if we could, when we can, at the indignities or losses that are simply too much to bear. We don’t talk about Mary as raging, as far as I can tell, but it wouldn’t be a bad response to her life. Her beautiful baby vulnerable. Her little family threatened. Her adult son murdered. Her people conquered. She singings a pretty raging song in the Magnificat… (31)
(from ’How do all the parts fit?’, Revd Winnie Varghese, The Book of Queer Prophets, curated by Ruth Hunt (29-31))
A vision of the whole of Mary must include her rage.
A vision of the whole of God must include God’s vulnerability.
I don’t ever crave
Just small, gentle
hums of beauty
streaming from below,
above, and beyond simply
from paying attention.
Sound. Light. Shadow.
Art. Warmth. The night.
The morning. Dreams that
are not faraway but
exist right here –
already in my days,
hands, and heart.
intimately involved here. (iPhone image)