Mystery and choice

Luke 2:22-40

If you love murder mysteries you’ve never had it so good. Currently Father Brown is doing another series, Endeavour is working his way through 1960s Oxford, Midsomer Murders are still finding more corpses, and Death in Paradise is on to its sixth series. If that’s not enough excitement, and if money is no object, you can even book your place at a murder mystery dinner aboard a specially chartered steam train.

I love detective stories, both for the puzzle to solve, and the setting to appreciate. I was nurtured on Agatha Christie, before discovering there were others, dare I say better. In particular, I love the classic final scene, the denouement, in which the great detective assembles all the suspects in a room, and unveils the truth. What had seemed like a jumble of random events is revealed in all its murderous coherence. The puzzle is solved; the villain is arrested; and after chaos, fear, and evil, the natural order is finally restored.

I do, though, have an issue with murder mysteries, and that’s the name. While they are very entertaining puzzles, they aren’t really mysteries. Real mysteries are completely different. Real mysteries don’t get solved or tidied up. The deeper you enter into a genuine mystery, the more wonderful, the more surprising it becomes.

The word “mystery” has the same root as the word “mystic.” When we say that life is mysterious, or speak of the mystery of love, we don’t mean that they are in need of neat solutions. Life is mysterious; love is mysterious, because they have a depth that we can’t express in words. That’s why we turn to the arts to express and explore them; to poets and painters, sculptors and musicians, in other words, to people who are not in the business of explanation, but of saying things that words cannot say, pointing to that which is beyond description, beyond human understanding.

In the same way, we miss the depth of the Christian faith if we see its doctrines as a set of intellectual puzzles, if we try to bend our mind around the riddle of how God can be three and yet one, how Christ can be fully God and yet fully human. For God is surely the ultimate mystery, a mystery of infinite depth and wonder. God is someone to be encountered, to be explored and enjoyed eternally, not something to be explained, dissected, and understood in every minute detail.

God doesn’t reveal himself so that we can say “how interesting,” and then get on with our lives just as before. God reveals himself so that we can be drawn into his life; can be transformed by the depth and wonder of his love. This mystery is at the very heart of the story of Jesus, forty days after his birth, brought by Mary and Joseph to the Temple in Jerusalem. Simeon took him in his arms, hailing him as the “light of the nations”. There’s a song about this story which reminds us of the very paradox about the nature of God that this story presents us with. The English translation of those words says:
The old man carried the boy: but the boy ruled the old man.
Whom the virgin bore, and afterwards remained a virgin:
the very same to whom she gave birth, she worshipped.

It may sound like a riddle, a puzzle: how can Simeon hold his ruler? How can Mary give birth to her God? But the point of this mystery is not to excite our minds, but to change our lives. The same paradox is expressed in our Bible readings. While human beings have built glorious temples for God to dwell in, this story of presentation of Jesus in the Temple celebrates the fact that God’s real temple is the body of Jesus Christ: a helpless infant, who grows up to be crucified.

This mystery of Mary giving birth to a child who is God lies at the very heart of Christianity. In Jesus, God has placed himself in human hands, has become vulnerable to our actions. The Christ-child is the son and yet the Lord of Mary: the very same to whom she gave birth, she worshipped. He is entirely dependent on her nurture and love, and utterly defenceless against the violence of the powers of his age. And yet he is the King of the Universe.

God doesn’t reveal himself just to provide us with information. By coming among us in Jesus Christ, God is offering us an invitation. In Jesus, God has placed himself in our hands, so that we might place ourselves in his hands. God becomes human, becomes vulnerable, to warm our hearts to love. That’s something he can’t win by thunderbolts and flashes of lightning, by the fear of hell and the threat of judgment.

Mary shows us how we might respond to this great call of love. It’s Mary’s “yes” to God’s revelation, Mary’s willingness to carry his Son in her womb, which makes the rest of the story possible. God seeks to come among us, to place his very life in Mary’s arms. Mary says “behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” She places her life in God’s hands, at his disposal. And Mary keeps on saying “yes”, “yes” as she kneels before her Son in worship, “yes” as she offers him her nurture and her care, “yes” as she stands at the foot of the cross when his disciples have all fled. Mary knows more than anyone what it means for God to place himself in our hands, for God’s own Son us knit together in her womb, and nurtured in her arms. And Mary shows us what it means to place ourselves completely in God’s hands.

Obedience gets a bad press these days, because we live in a society that idolises self-sufficiency and independence. Mary shows us that giving up our independence makes us more, not less, alive. In the Gospels, we learn that Mary is observant and prayerful, brave and confident, faithful even to the foot of the cross. She shows us that saying “yes” to God requires far more than passive acceptance, it takes courage and strength.

Mary’s courage and confidence will soon be tested to the limit. She and Joseph have to flee to Egypt with their son, refugees from Herod’s violence. In the years which follow, she will know the greatest fear of every parent, as she stands by her son in the hour of his death. Mary knows the cost of saying “yes” to God. Her faithfulness poses a question to each of us today: do we recognise in Jesus the very life and light of God? And if so, are we willing to respond, whatever the cost, by placing our lives in his hands?

Charles Causley put it like this in his mystical poem entitled ‘Mother and Child’:
Holding in clear hands
The world’s true light
She lifts its perfect flame
Against the night.

About its pulse of fire
Earth and seas run,
Season and moon and star,
The unruly sun.

Upon the hill a scuffed
Thinness of snow,
First of green thorn, a stream
Stopped in its flow.

She keeps within her hand
The careful day
Now the wound of night
Has bled away.

Vivid upon her tongue
Unspoken prayers
That she may not outlive
The life she bears.

Mary wasn’t the only one to face the cost of following God. Janani Luwum stood against the terrors of Idi Amin in Uganda; Maximillian Kolbe gave his life for another in a concentration camp; Oscar Romero assassinated presiding at mass in his cathedral; Father Jacques Hamel murdered last summer in France; these are all examples of many people who placed their lives in the hands of Jesus Christ, regardless of the cost; who had courage and confidence in the mystery of his love.

Most of our lives will not contain such dramatic choices, thank God, but each of our lives will declare, in what we do, much more than what we say, whether we will share in Mary’s “yes” to God; whether we will allow the mystery of love to transform the depths of our hearts. May it be so for each of us today. For it in that “yes” we too will find the light of life.

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