And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.” (Luke 1:46-47)
It’s become quite common for me to hear Mary’s Song, the Magnificat, spoken of as a revolutionary hymn; this wasn’t the case when I was young, though the air I breathed then was fragrant with Marian devotion. So it’s been incredibly eye-opening to be reintroduced to this part of the Christmas story in a very new light.
The other trope I now see quite often this time of year is the enthusiastic bashing of “Mary Did You Know,” a sweet song from the ‘90s that’s reviled from all directions; for both liberals & conservatives, the answer is clear: “uh, duh-doy! of course she knew.” Insert <because the Bible tells me so> &/or <quit your mansplaining> here.
As you might have guessed from the way I’ve set this up, “Mary Did You Know” is a song I actually did grow up with, and it touched me deeply. It would make me weep as my child-sized brain tried to comprehend the enormity of God.
As I drifted away from my faith, Mary would remain with me, but now, as a silver-plated charm that I kept in my wallet to remind me of my own mother while I was abroad. And though my unbelief was all-encompassing, I still felt very pained when I lost that charm one dark summer, in a park that I cloistered in when feeling utterly alone.
After becoming Episcopalian, she came back into my life, but now, as a symbol of the false theologies of my youth. I struggled when others seemed to find solace in Mother Mary’s embrace; very soon, I stumbled on a helpful refrain—“Mary, the Great Example, not great exception”—so I finally welcomed her back inside.
Yes, it seems strangely appropriate that the young girl who bore the maker of the heavens & the earth should continue to play surrogate for our very human concerns.
This year, I heard yet another new story about Mary: she was the first priest. The Rev. Deacon Caitlin Darnell opened my eyes to this, in one of her teachings on St. Martin’s-In-The-Fields’ virtual pilgrimage.
But I mean, no duh? I already knew that, right?
That’s what makes all those passionate denunciations of “Mary Did You Know” so silly; that’s not how knowing works—of this much, we can be certain, at least! We don’t need theories of knowledge or introductions to epistemology to feel this at our core. That’s just obviously not how knowing works.
We all know that we should eat better. We all know that we should be kinder to each other. We all know that, one day, we are all going to die. We know many things that we don’t really know until they slap us across the face. We know how hard it is to really know.
Yes, Mary can teach us many things, & today, as I listen to The Rev. Ruth Anne Garcia singing “Let It Be,” there are indeed one or two words of wisdom I can cling to, especially as we approach the darkest day of the year. But I read somewhere that the word “rejoice” in Mary’s song has connotations of literally jumping for joy—to “exult,” from exsultare, frequentative of exsilire ‘leap up’, from ex– ‘out, upward’ + salire ‘to leap’—to rise up! To spring forward.
What the reverend Mary is teaching me today is to live upwards & outwards, to move joyously, despite everything my childlike brain thinks it knows.
Today is the Feast of Saint Thomas the Twin, Apostle to India, most famously known as “Doubting Thomas” for insisting on physical proof of the risen Christ. His prudential empiricism & the way his mind seemed to work—he was the one to ask Jesus: “how can we know the way?”—makes him seem like a far cry from a patron saint of a word like “mystery.”
And yet, Christianity is not a mystery religion in which deeper truths are intentionally kept hidden from initiates; as we’ve learned from Saint Ephrem, the “mystery” of our faith is “understood as a simple sign—that is, a means of knowledge & of indication, such as the symbols of nature that proclaim Christ.” These mysteries were meant to be discovered, not hidden away, as Thomas quickly learned for himself when he touched Jesus & became the first to explicitly proclaim: “my Lord & my God.”
I identify with Thomas. Before I ever knew I’d end up believing, I heard a sermon at a Baptist church in Mansourieh that planted a seed of his kind of doubt inside of me. The sermon was a simple yet sympathetic re-telling of his story: what was Thomas going through? Was he too despondent to be with his friends that first time around? The pastor then pointed out how incredible it was that Jesus came back the second time just so Thomas would believe, but the first part was enough for me; I’d never heard that story told that way before, with psychological depth & sociological thickness—I started imagining these figures as friends & comrades with webs of dependency & bonds of trust, with moments of fortuity & disaster—& it made we wonder what else I hadn’t considered before.
It’s fascinating that everything we know about Thomas after that point is pretty much oral tradition. There are a few texts, like the Acts of Thomas, but these are considered non-canonical, if not heretical, so don’t quite pass the man’s own evidential standards. There is one fragment of writing attributed to Thomas, however, that’s had an interesting afterlife in both Christian & Gnostic traditions as an allegory of the soul.
The Hymn of The Pearl tells the story of an Eastern prince sent by his parents to Egypt to retrieve a pearl from a dragon; when he arrived, the prince forgot all about his royal origins, until a messenger came to remind him of his mission. So the kid wised up, & after finding the pearl, returned home to put on the royal robes that were always his by birthright.
It’s not hard to see the appeal of this ancient myth; at first gloss, it even smacks of the Christian arc of salvation. But it’s the writer’s attitude towards Egypt that rules it out for me; Egypt was not a place where the prince truly belonged, & by analogy, the implication is that our souls are simply asleep to the fact that they are foreigners in this fleshy existence.
That is the opposite of what I believe the Incarnation teaches us.
Christ had a body for Thomas to touch because that cosmic story that starts in God & ends in God is mysteriously tied to this flesh—this flabby flesh—not a theological abstraction like “sarx” or a generalized category like “mundus,” but this body, this time, these friends, those relations, that history, this event…
The Christian mystery is not a hidden truth behind a veil, but the infinite connections we live through right here, right now. It’s the exact opposite of the old Žižekian joke about loving mankind but disliking people. Not because everything or everyone happens for a reason, but because everything that happens is happening in a universe bent and shaped and flanged towards the ultimate reconciliation of all things.
This inky mystery is more occult than any esoteric practice can surmise, but it’s also tiny and manageable and mundane. It’s the stuff of friendships and travels and the stories we share. Everything is connected. Amen.
“O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High, reaching from one end to the other, mightily & sweetly ordering all things: Come & teach us the way of prudence.”
These are the classical words of the “O” Antiphon that open the last seven days before Christmas, during which, our anticipation grows through the invocation of seven attributes of Christ: O Sapienta, O Adonai, O Radix Jesse, O Clavis David, O Oriens, O Rex Gentium, O Emmanuel.
This tradition is new to me, so I find the word choices fascinating. That last name is perhaps the best known & most cherished, as Christmas is all about עִמָּנוּאֵל, which means “God is with us.” It’s more surprising to me, however, that we don’t find the other well-known name for Jesus: the Word or Logos. Where is O Verbum Dei?
The reason I’ve gathered for this omission is that these antiphons seem to have one job: to proclaim Christ as the fulfillment of the ancient messianic hope that shapes the whole Hebrew Bible. So when we call out to Christ as “O Wisdom,” it seems to me that we are making a rather large claim, one I find even more profound than the other six attributes: that Christ & the Bible’s whole Wisdom tradition are one & the same.
In other words, Jesus is Sophia, the woman who says “Come! Eat my food, & drink the wine that I have mixed” (Proverbs 9:1-6). If this is true, then Christ is to be found in some of the earthiest, most culturally-porous & intellectually daring writings in our canon.
Christ is in Ecclesiastes, wrestling with depression; Christ is in Jewish interpolations of Egyptian thought; Christ is in the world of human praxis, just as he is in planetary conjunctions & the movements tectonic plates. That’s pretty much the basis of a controversial school of thought in Eastern Orthodoxy, called sophiology, developed by theologians like Fr. Sergius Bulgakov, who I’m dying to learn more about when I get the chance. Just take a bite out of this juicy morsel:
“The purpose of economic activity is to defend & to spread the seeds of life, to resurrect nature. This is the action of Sophia on the universe in an effort to restore it to being in Truth. Sophia acts through the medium of historical humanity, and it is Sophia that determines the teleology of the historical process…If selfness in man could only be vanquished through self-improvement or religious dedication, selfness in nature is vanquished through labor & in the historical process” (Philosophy of Economy: The World as Household).
This recognition of Divine Wisdom acting through historical humanity is, I think, one of the biggest contributions that the Roman Catholic Church has also made in the last century, when it set about reforming itself around a theological vision of the signa temporum—“signs of the times”—in Vatican II. As one bishop who was at that council put it, the Church of Rome was to recognize that an event is certainly the voice of God if its nature & effects are good. Pretty basic, but it sounds a lot more badass in Latin: “Videtur eventus vocem Dei esse si natura sua et effectibus suis bonus est.”
O Vocem Dei! O Verbum!
These kinds of breakthroughs are really more like a return to form; to the ancient faith of refugee poets like Saint Ephrem, who wrote about both world & scripture as “Christ-bearing”—pretty much, mothers of God—but this isn’t happening in a neat & tidy way. These re-turns are painful; they are the slow, scabby healing of wounds that the Church itself has contributed to making. And there are plenty of Christians who want to go the other way.
Church Times recently shared an excerpt under the title of “An Earthed View of Creation,” as a reflection on O Wisdom:
“Creation has its own truth, its own integrity, & if, as we believe, it is the expression of the will of God, then taking to heart the truth & integrity of the created order, absorbing its rhythms & relationships & learning to live by them, is part & parcel of ‘dwelling in the truth’, to use John the Elder’s phrase.” (‘Light in the Darkness’ by Peter Sills)
The created order is ecological, & as any good climate scientist will tell you, that means that it is also economic & philosophical. Environmental destruction is the child of patterns of thought & exploitation that the Church has blessed for far too long; but in the light of Divine Wisdom, reforms that once seemed like Christians catching up with the modern world now look more like something primordial.
With Christ, we herald a true return to form, a new heaven & a new earth—a new “Sophic Economy”—based on apprehending this world for what it is, instead of blindly condemning it as fallen. That’s the way of Lady Wisdom, the way of first “scrutinizing the signs of the times,” then “interpreting them in the light of the Gospel” (Gaudium et spes)—of mightily & sweetly ordering all things.
There’s an innate desire for wholeness that, I think, we all share. We experience it in the aesthetic pleasure of reading a good story & gazing at good symmetry, composition, & color coordination. We seek out that sense of completeness in outfits, collectibles & must-see attractions. We strive for it in maps and spreadsheets and every elegant solution to every marvel of engineering.
It feels good when the pieces all fit, & to my mind, this longing for wholeness is a gestalt of a number of NT Wright’s “broken signposts”—justice, spirituality, relationships, beauty, freedom, truth, power—these indicators of our deep creaturely instinct for transcendence & desire for God.
God is transcendent because God is holier than holy; in fact, in the liturgy we say that God is Thrice-Holy: qadishat aloho, qadishat hailtono, qadishat lo moyouto. And so our sense of the sacred is quite literally God-shaped. This is great for worship, but the enormity of God is not always helpful for learning how to live; holiness is not meant to be observed & admired from an aesthetic distance, after all.
Holiness is as vast as God, but the God-shaped hole that we instinctually sense when something in our lives is missing—when the map is off, when the collection is incomplete, when the linework isn’t clean—is actually quite small. Holiness is about becoming whole with God.
To me, the connection between wholeness & holiness is more than just a play on words: it’s the very definition of what it means to fit into God’s purpose for the world. To me, holiness is less about how bad we are & more about how good it is to be interdependent. We like to connect things in our lives & our sense of self because deep down we know that everything is in fact connected—that holism is possible. Holiness is about all those connections. It’s about the intersection of the world’s hunger with our deepest satisfaction, as one discernment curriculum puts it.
Holiness is about all those connections tethered to God.
It’s always weird to hear people talk about God’s will for their lives, even if you believe in that reality; it sounds like someone’s kept the puzzle box cover with the big picture on it from you. Do some people really know what they’re supposed to be doing?
I don’t think so.
I think that we’re all working on this giant jigsaw one piece at a time; the only difference that faith makes is in the certainty that these pieces will fit. And the only difference that holiness makes comes when that faith turns into joy in not having complete certainty.
Some pieces will always be missing—in this lifetime, at least—but God can fill in the gaps as we go. That’s a lesson that the saints can teach us, but it’s also a lesson that we can never fully accept at a distance.
God is the compass; my life is a signpost—your life is where the coordinates converge.
This is a christogram from an altar cloth in the liturgical color of Christmas. It’s finally here. Merry Christmas!
The sigil shows the Latin forms of the first three letters of Jesus’s name in Greek: ΙΗΣ, or iota, eta, & sigma. Over the centuries, people have come up with all sorts of “backronyms” for these letters, from “In Hoc Signo” to “In His Service”; I guess it was pretty awkward to keep things that important at just three letters of just one name.
Back when I didn’t believe, it was Christianity’s very small & very parochial Christmas story that made it unbelievable. Just one name of just one child in just one village among just one people—what God is this? A small God for small minds, a tribal artifact, a joke. But I was in on the joke; I was free to explore the wide world without constraint.
Through a long arc of your traditional Hero’s Journey narrative, I discovered how all knowledge is situated, how every situation is embodied, & how all bodies are emplaced. And the further radicalized I became, the less hardened my heart was for what was about to happen.
While my back was turned, the shadows had shifted across that old familiar scene. Then one day, the joke was on me. Everything I’d learned fell into place & God’s very particular & very cosmic story had put it all together for me. Now I could return home.
At Christmas, we proclaim something absolutely foolish; a claim as ridiculous as it is revolutionary. Tonight, we proclaim that God is with us & that God has a name.