I WAS listening to the radio on Sunday morning with a heavy heart. Voices from Afghanistan were describing how the country had been abandoned by the UK and the United States, and now the capital, Kabul, was falling into the hands of the Taliban.
I was particularly moved by an interview on Radio 4’s Broadcasting House with a 25-year-old poet, writer, and children’s advocate, Shaffika, who, surrounded by chaos, abandonment and uncertainty in her country, refused to leave.
Shaffika said this: “I want to live here, I want to stay here. It’s my home. It’s my country. I belong here. You know this country, this city is muse for my poetry. It’s where I get my inspiration. It’s where I belong. . .
“Millions of people are losing. It’s easy to die because you will die, but this gradual death, seeing your dreams, seeing your passion, seeing your plans are falling apart, your country is falling apart for nothing for nothing. What was this for? For nothing.
“I never want to be a victim: I will have a sparkle of hope. It doesn’t matter how the light is dimmed, it is still a light and it is the power to overcome the darkness. Let’s hope for better days one day.”
I was about to attend a church service to celebrate a major feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary. If I was going to preach (which I wasn’t), I would have had to tear up my prepared sermon and speak about Mary in the light of Shaffika, and what was happening to her beloved Afghanistan.
I carried Shaffika and Afghanistan to church with me. During the service, we were treated to a beautiful and haunting rendition of the theme from Schindler’s List on violin and piano. For me, it is the music for abandoned peoples, and that morning it spoke of Afghanistan. I was moved to tears.
SO, WHAT would I have said about Mary if I had been preaching?
I would have started with the words of Shaffika, who loves her country and whose life was tied up not only in its past and present, but also in its uncertain future.
Shaffika is a strong woman who, unlike the world powers, will not abandon her country in the time of its greatest need, but faces its present struggle sustained by “a sparkle of hope”, believing that “It doesn’t matter how the light is dimmed, it is still a light and it is the power to overcome the darkness.”
Listening to the interview shone a light on the Blessed Virgin Mary, who was strong in faith and character, passionate, full of hope, and loved her people to the extent that she was willing to take on their pain and suffering as her own.
Over the centuries, the Church has, contrary to what we read in scripture, turned her into somebody resembling a cardboard cut-out. She is too often portrayed as weakly submissive, compliant, and insipid. When I look at her representations in stained- glass windows, I do not see a woman who sings about scattering the proud, bringing down the powerful from their thrones, and lifting up the lowly, but I see somebody who would say little and be obedient to all voices apart from her own.
Mary has a special place in the story of Christianity, because she was willing to be the mother of Jesus Christ, and to face up to the pain and traumas that came with this willingness. She never abandoned him or his followers, even though that put her life in danger on a number of occasions.
She has a unique place because she is the “God-bearer”. She has a relationship with Jesus Christ that nobody else can ever have. She is the “Mother of Life” who enabled a new creation to happen. Without her, the Christian story would have looked very different.
So, it is not surprising that, from the earliest times, Christians viewed her as special and wanted to honour her. It is also not surprising that early Christians wanted to show that the end of her life on earth was also unique, which is the origin of today’s festival of Mary. Nevertheless, just as the Church has sanitised and dehumanised Mary in many a stained-glass window, today’s festival could continue in that tradition.
On 15 August, the Church throughout the world celebrates the BVM. There are different emphases in the way she is celebrated. Many in the Western Church give thanks for her saying “Yes” to God — that is, for agreeing to be the mother of Jesus Christ. In the West, the Roman Catholic Church and many Catholic Anglicans celebrate the Assumption of the BVM, whose main focus is on the end of Mary’s life, when it is believed that she was taken immediately (fast-tracked) to be with her son Jesus Christ. Some believe that she was taken before her death; others believe that it was after her death.
The Orthodox Churches in the East, however, celebrate the Dormition (falling asleep or dying) of the BVM , with its main focus on her dying. Some believe that she was then taken to be with her Son; others believe that this was not the case. Both East and West are rightly wanting her to be accorded a special honour, but they portray it in different ways.
FOR this festival, I look East. The tradition of the Dormition of the BVM reinforces the reality of death, highlighting it as a stepping stone to a new reality. If there is no death, there can be no change, and the cycle of events continues as always.
Death is the doorway to change and hope, and, in the case of Mary, would remove her from the two-dimensional depictions in the stained-glass windows and place her alongside real flesh-and-blood people like Shaffika. Taking death seriously is a pathway to recognising radical change in this life: for many around the world, especially when facing personal, social, political, or environmental trauma, the only hope for real life is radical change.
Mary knew what it was like to be abandoned, to face fear and an uncertain future. She also wanted radical change for the good of her people. As a result of her accepting her calling, she played a major part in opening up new and exciting possibilities. I think that Shaffika and Mary would get on well together.
The Rt Revd Dr Brian Castle is an Hon. Assistant Bishop in Bath & Wells diocese and an honorary research fellow at the University of Exeter. This is an edited version of a blog originally published here.