I never quite got into comic strips. Since my parents did not have any around when I was growing up, I never read them, and since I never read them, I never got them when I finally did read them; at least not enough to make reading the funnies in the paper a habit.
But I do like cartoons. I remember a wonderful Santa Claus cartoon. Santa sits in the patient chair at a doctor’s office, the doctor leans on the desk, toward Santa Claus, and says, “The good news is that, while it’s the worst case of dyslexia that I have ever seen, there are ways of learning to cope with the disorder. The bad news is that you’ve been mixing up your Naughty and Nice list since the beginning of time and rewarding all the rich people for being jerks and punishing all the poor people for being disenfranchised.”
I think I like the cartoon because it gives voice to the fundamental injustice of the world. Not that all rich people were jerks, or that all poor people were saints, but that goodness is not necessarily rewarded materially. The cartoon gives expression to the saying, “Nice guys finish last.” And implicitly, it asks us whether we may have our list mixed up as well.
Now, these kinds of observations (like, “nice guys finish last”) would not exist if there weren’t some truth to them, and the few who cross over from a life of poverty to a life of affluence are not the norm but the exception to the rule. So, we can simply accept things the way they are, get used to them, and carry on. We usually call this being realistic.
Or we can refuse to accept such inequality. But refusing to accept inequality and injustice can make us resentful and bitter. So, most just get used to things the way they are.
What such getting used to things does to us is that it robs us of our imagination. We no longer imagine the world as it could be, or perhaps should be, but simply take it the way it is. Since everything seems already determined, by the time we’re 25, we stop imagining, we stop dreaming, except on a much smaller scale. We now dream personal dreams that no longer threaten any existing order but affirm the existing order.
Author Marilynne Robinson says that many world views we encounter are deterministic, that is, we function according to certain conditions, genetics, psychology, behavioural (i.e. reward and punishment), rational choice economics (the shortest route to the best reward), social conditioning, and so forth. Of course, if that is how we approach the world, we are no longer able to use our imagination, we are no longer able to think outside of the box, we no longer can question the existing order. Determinism throws away the gift of our mind. And our mind is where we articulate our faith. Robinson also says that ‘if you do not believe in the legitimacy of thought, you cannot believe in the legitimacy of faith.’1
So, determinism restricts our imagination to remembering the way things once were: The Lord’s Prayer in school and church as civic duty. Churches full – if you have ever travelled in the Maritimes you may remember the wonderful signs warning of church traffic (I am still not sure whether the signs imply high traffic volume or bad driving). You remember Sunday School classes bursting at the seams, without remembering that most of those same kids eventually dropped out of Sunday School.
Mary, the mother of Jesus, also remembers. She remembers not how things once were, but she remembers God’s faithfulness over generations; and God has gifted her with three things that prevent her from imagining the future to look exactly like the present or the past: Youth, Holy Spirit, and poverty. Because she is young, because the Holy Spirit dwells with her, and because she is poor, she will not believe that the way things are is the way things are supposed to be. And that vision Mary shares in her song.
But it all begins with the angel appearing to Mary. It was Gabriel, the same angel who had appeared to Zechariah, and who had then identified himself as one who stands in the presence of God. Mary asks Gabriel how she, a young teenage girl, could become the mother of God, and Gabriel simply answers that all things are possible with God.
Mary consents to such life-upsetting favour, but in doing so, she also confesses that indeed, with God all things are possible.
All things mean not just for her, but for the whole world. And so when Mary begins to sing, she sings about what God has done for her, but she understands that this has implications for the whole world.
She believes and the thinks.
She knows that if God has looked with favour on the lowliness of her, then this is the pattern the paradigm for how God looks upon all the lowly. Just like we understand the liberation from the bondage of Egypt, the election of the shepherd boy David, God’s love as his people’s husband to say something about who God truly is, so Mary understands that her election to give birth to Jesus is not just her election but it says profound things about how God looks upon the world. God longs for more than personal salvation, God longs for the salvation of the whole world. Mary knows that this story is not just about her.
I read some place that when Luther translated the New Testament into the language of the people, he left Mary’s song in Latin for he did not want to lose the support of the princes who might easily have felt threatened by her song. Someone else reports that in the 1980s Mary’s song was banned from public prayer and recitations in Guatemala for it imagined a world so different from the way the rulers of the day wanted things to be.
Mary, I suppose, had nothing to lose. She was a peasant girl who had gotten pregnant out of wedlock. However, I would like to believe that she sung not because she had nothing to lose but because she could not imagine not to sing, could not imagine not to dream, and could only imagine the world as God wanted it, not as she wanted it.
Governments don’t not like it when churches make political statements. But Mary teaches us that the Gospel is political, has the power of imagination, and is stronger than fear. May we who live in a time of determinism and personal fulfillment be infected with the imagination and the faith of Mary, the mother of our Lord, the first believer, and our sister. May we imagine that God’s love for us is not just about us, and may we sing with Mary.
1 A talk given at DePaul University on 24 April 2008