Why, oh why, does the New York Times continue to print an Anglican priest’s useless lucubrations week after week after tedious week? For the Reverend Tish Harrison Warren, on deadline, always decides to write a column with the theme, “How can we improve our lives by pondering Jesus?” There’s a slight variation this week, for she’s pondering Mary as well as Jesus. Click on the screenshot if you love Jesus:
The email bringing me Rev. Warren’s words (ceiling cat help me, I subscribe) was headed: “What Mary can teach us about the joy and pain of life.” Well, what can the fictitious virgin teach us about those things? Simply this: life is a mixture of joy and pain. We know this because Mary was told by an angel that she will have a great son, but at the same time she is greatly troubled, for she senses her son will come to no good end nailed to the cross. She had joy and heartbreak.
And so we learn that we have joy and heartbreak, too, and you can’t have one without the other. (Not true: many people have a ton of heartbreak and no joy.) The Reverend Warren:
Mary was called by God, and her life reminds me that the vocations that God calls us to inevitably involve both joy and pain. “Love and loss are a double helix this side of heaven,” I write in my book “Prayer in the Night,” “You can’t have one without the other. God’s calling on our lives will inevitably require us to risk both. We know this dappled reality in the most meaningful parts of our life: in struggling through marriage or singleness and celibacy, in loving and raising children, in our work, in serving the church,” and in our closest friendships.
(I think she stole the odd adjective “dappled” from another religious source, Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem “Pied Beauty.”)
How many times have you heard something like this, but without the goddy part? It’s simply the old bromide that life has both pain and joy.
And then comes the sermon: we can’t fill the hole in our lives without God and Baby Jesus, for the hole is God-shaped:
When I feel loneliness, loss and the emptiness present in even my very good life, I rush to fill it up. Winds of emptiness echo in a hollow moment of my day, and I run to distraction. I stuff my waking moments with busyness, social media, argument, work and consumption. These can be cheap attempts at joy, or at least at numbing any sense of grief.
But Mary’s story recalls that joy can’t be gotten cheaply. The pain of the world cannot be papered over in a sentimental display of tamed little angels and a cute, chubby baby Jesus. The emptiness in the world and in our own lives can’t be filled with enough hurry or buying power or likes or retweets. We wait for the birth of Jesus, who was called Emmanuel, God with us. We wait with Mary for our hunger to be filled.
This seems nothing more like an attempt to converting readers to Christianity. It’s surely more than Warren’s own personal story, for she tells it to “us”, and also informs “us” what we should do to fill our void. Or is she sayng something else? What is the sweating Reverend trying to say?
But now it’s time to head home, where I have Pinker’s new book waiting for me, a t-bone steak marinating in the fridge, and a good bottle of red wine to accompany it. For me, at least, joy can be gotten pretty cheaply: the price of a steak, a book, and some Rhone wine. As far as I’m concerned, Baby Jesus can wait.
Oh, and joy is absolutely free at Botany Pond, where Draco and Molly are the sole residents this sunny but chilly afternoon. Honey and her swain are long gone.