Literary Witness 8
Mary’s Pure Realism
By David Mills
“If the world wanted what is called a non-controversial aspect of Christianity, it would probably select Christmas,” observed G. K. Chesterton. The worldly thought then, when he wrote this in the 1920s, as they often think now, that Christmas doesn’t have much to do with religion, beyond the cheering idea that God became an infant.
They apparently didn’t realize that the infant grew up, and that he told some truths they didn’t want to hear, and that their first century peers killed him. They certainly don’t now.
This month we celebrate the first chapter of the Christmas Story, the Annunciation. In it, God tells us that the story is not so sweet and cozy.
He tells us this through Mary’s great song of praise and prophecy, the Magnificat, noted C. S. Lewis. The psalmists, he wrote, were wrong to be so angry and resentful in all their psalms calling not only for deliverance from oppression but for the destruction of the oppressors, but they were right to want justice.
In the Magnificat, Mary speaks of the same sufferings, though she doesn’t offer the psalmists’ curses and laments. She offers only a calm, factual statement that God has scattered the proud, cast down the mighty, sent the rich away empty. We hear “a girl’s voice, announcing without sin that the sinful prayers of her ancestor do not remain entirely unheard; and doing this, not indeed with fierce exaltation, yet — who can mistake the tone? — in a calm and terrible gladness.”
“There is then, mixed with the hatred in the psalmists, a spark which should be fanned, not trodden out. That spark God saw and fanned, till it burns clear in the Magnificat. The cry for ‘judgment’ was to be heard.”
There is in Mary a pure realism we sometimes miss, because we turn to her mainly for comfort and not for instruction. At least I do. We like to think of the Mother of God as our blessed mother too, but mothers not only kiss our cuts and bruises but tell us the truth. The woman the Father prepared to bear His Son saw reality clearly in a way we may find a little too clear, because we are sometimes the proud, the mighty, and the rich.
When we hear the Magnificat, I suspect most of us tend to think of kings tumbling from their thrones or Saddam Hussein in his cell or the ceo of an enormous corporation being hauled out of his office in handcuffs. We don’t often think of ourselves snarling at the defenseless check-out girl or avoiding the awkward young man looking for someone to talk to after Mass or dashing past the friend who needs help because we don’t want to get entangled in his problems or using our skills in argument to browbeat the rest of the committee into agreement.
Not that we proud and mighty always listen to Mary. “All through the centuries our Lady looks down, in pity and in protest, upon the world whose warring passions pass her by. She holds the secret of the Incarnation, the message which men learn so hardly, and are so quick to forget,” wrote Ronald Knox. “. . . She told us, so long ago, that God would scatter the proud in the conceit of their heart, would put down the mighty from their seat, and exalt the humble; and we go on playing our foolish games, pretending that we are out of earshot of our mother’s voice”
But the cry of the oppressed for judgment shall be heard. The Immaculate One has said so.
And yet that is not the whole story. Through the Immaculate One a new world has been made in which we can be rescued from the judgment we deserve.
Through the Annunciation and the birth that followed, Chesterton noted, God has associated two ideas “remote from each other; the idea of a baby and the idea of unknown strength that sustains the stars.” These ideas “are not naturally or necessarily combined. . . . It is no more inevitable to connect God with an infant that to connect gravitation with a kitten.” We see the connection because we are Christians, even if we are only “psychological Christians” but not practicing Christians, as Chesterton put it.
The pagans would never have thought of this in a million years. But after the Annunciation and the birth of Christ, even for the purely secular man, “there will always be some savor of religion about the mere picture of a mother and a baby; some hint of mercy and of softening about the mere mention of the dreadful name of God.”
“This combination of ideas has emphatically, in the much disputed phrase, altered human nature.” That is also what Our Lady announced with calm and terrible gladness.
David Mills is the author of Knowing the Real Jesus and Discovering Mary and writes a weblog for Patheos. He has served as the editor of Touchstone and executive editor of First Things. “” appeared in the March/April 2010 issue of Lay Witness.
SOURCES: Chesterton, “The God in the Cave” in The Everlasting Man; Lewis, “The Psalms” in Christian Reflections; Knox, “Mount Carmel” in Pastoral Sermons; Chesterton, ibid.