This year, at the beginning of December, St Peter’s welcomed women and men from the Christian and Muslim traditions to explore together the significance of Mary/Maryam in our faiths. Since that evening I feel as if Mary has had much more significance as I have travelled through Advent expectantly to these last few days before Christmas.
I have to admit that as a young woman growing up in church I did not really relate to Mary. She seemed to be revered more for what she had not done rather than what she had done and therefore became rather a passive figure. In her perputal virginity and perfection she seemed removed and remote – a slightly scary statue looking down from rather high shelf in a stiff and formal parlour.
But as I have got older I have come to admire Mary more and more. I am inspired by the bravery she showed and the risks she took in saying yes to God. I think of her when I am challenged to try new, unexpected things.
Sometimes when confronted with the pain or suffering of someone I love I think of Mary at the foot of the cross. Mary, who would rather face the agony of seeing her son die than leave him alone, stays with Jesus when others have abandoned him.
This Advent we cannot help but be aware of the suffering of so many people across the world who are uprooted by war, traumatised by conflict or caught up in the crossfire of violence. Mary’s song, the Magnificat,gives me the words I need to express longings for a peaceful world in which the lowly are lifted up and the hungry are filled with good things.
But perhaps the most surprising shift in my understanding of Mary happened when this poem that was read at the Mary/Maryam event in St Peter’s. Suddenly I understood the universal significance of Mary as the one who carried Jesus within. The poem is by the Sufi poet Rumi and is called The Body Is Like Mary:
“The body is like Mary and each of us has a Jesus inside.
Who is not in labour, holy labour? Every creature is.
See the value of true art when the earth or a soul is in the mood to create beauty,
for the witness might then for a moment know beyond
any doubt, God is really there within,
so innocently drawing life from us with Her umbilical universe,
though also needing to be born, yes God also needs to be born, birth from a hand’s loving touch, birth from a song breathing life into this world.
The body is like Mary, and each of us, each of us, has a Christ within.”
I think that one of the reasons the picture of Aylan Kurdi on the beach had such an impact is because he reminded many people of their own children and grandchildren. Babies are not so easy to label by ideology or religion or even ethnicity and perhaps that is why the image of God revealed in baby Jesus also has such a universal appeal.
But until I heard the Rumi poem I had not thought of Mary in the same way – as a figure who represents in some way the whole of humanity which bears at a deep level the image of God.
Our evening also showed very practical resonances. One Muslim woman who attended a Catholic school said she loved the fact there were images of Mary in school because ‘Mary dressed like her.’ This was for me a wonderful reminder that early Christians would have dressed in a way we now describe as distinctively Islamic.
It seems to be time to get Mary down from the high shelf and dust her down to explore more deeply all that she has to offer in a world where millions of women still feel humiliated, where many hungry people are waiting for good things, where the proud rule in the imagination of their hearts and deep divisions between religons scar human relations.