The Reverend Professor Vernon White, Canon Theologian
Two women meet. Each has an unborn child in the womb. New life palpably stirs. One child leaps in the womb. And in both mothers-to-be something else stirs too: an instinctive recognition of being part of a wider purpose: a purpose bigger than anything they could have created for themselves. One of them, Mary, the mother of Jesus, gives voice to it. And so she sings the song of praise which has come to be called the Magnificat: she sings of a great divine purpose of mercy and justice for all generations which would unfold through her and her child.
That was our Gospel reading. A pre-eminent example of the genius of biblical narrative: its capacity to convey a sense of divine purpose not by direct metaphysical claims or abstract concepts but by the sheer power of its story telling about ordinary human experience. For, ostensibly, this was just ordinary life: two new mothers sharing their experience - but the way it's narrated shows this ordinary human experience pregnant with this other meaning: literally and metaphorically pregnant with divine meaning, the sense that God is at work in these lives…
This unique capacity of the bible to convey God in ordinary human experience isn't meant just to illuminate past events. It's also meant to illuminate our experience, to re-awaken in us a sense that we too might be part of a wider purpose. This is counter cultural. Our culture is mostly sceptical of there being any objective purpose in life that's given to us, whether by God or society. Instead, our culture of choice expects us to create our own purposes: short-term, expendable purposes; we're enticed by consumerism and social fluidity into a portfolio life which believes only in temporary, self-created purposes, relationships, goals—not given ones because, we're told, only what we create is real freedom…
But is it really freedom, to recognize no overall objective purpose? Or is it just emptiness? When for a few years I was a theatre Chaplain and had the opportunity to meet actors at the bar after performances, I discovered what a portfolio life can be like in extreme form. A life moving from one playhouse to another, different casts, different plays, different parts, each actor giving their all to each performance, but then constantly changing role. Superficially exhilarating. But also so hard for the actors to have any connecting sense of overall purpose in which they could find any settled personal identity. And perhaps as a consequence of this, many felt just stressed, fragmented, unable to sustain long relationships, empty. It's a picture of what social pressures generally can do to us all: a picture of how consumerism, rapid social change, religious decline, the power of passing fashion make it hard for us all to find our own identity, when we have no sense of overall purpose.
The point of the Gospel is that it doesn't have to be like this. Those two women had found something bigger and better. They make me think of other women too. I think of the three generations of Chinese women in Jung Chang's monumental history of C20th China Wild Swans: how they—through times of personal and political chaos, in another context of shifting values—still found a real, binding thread and purpose. Walking slowly on summer nights on the banks of the great Silk River the narrator described it as a pursuit of happiness through love: sustained love constantly given and received, often against all odds. It's no accident she grasps this by a river. The river externalize the sense that life really is a joined-up journey with a connecting thread from source to final destiny, rather than just disparate pools of self-created projects. Or I think of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese dissident leader, pursuing the sustained purpose of justice in her long personal and political struggle. Or even of our own Queen, and how her sense of long-term faithful purpose has provided stability. Just a few examples of how binding threads of objective spiritual purpose are there to be found. Sometimes they find us. That is what Mary celebrated in her song when she saw that she, and above all the child in her womb, would be part of the great unfolding purpose of the love and justice of the kingdom of God, 'from generation to generation'.
It's something which can run through any life, of course, not just in the lives of those who live on a world stage as great saints and prophets. An objective God-given overall spiritual purpose can be found by us all, in almost any role or job, or in no job. And not just in obviously caring professions. The purpose of sustaining faith, pursuing love, justice, mercy, can thread through any life; by parents building a family, businesspeople creating wealth to create jobs for others, council workers keeping essential services going, or just by good neighbours and citizens.
When it does, when spiritual purpose flows like a connecting river through the whole of our life, it will bind our life together, hold us together with a consistent shape and identity—whatever happens. It will be a much truer freedom than being constantly tossed into whatever shape either circumstance or our own passing whims dictate. It will bring us a truer fulfilment. Even happiness. Small wonder when, as so many from Aristotle to Jane Austen have realized, this is actually what we're made for. We're made to have an overall purpose through life, a telos, an end to strive for. That's why Mary's soul magnified the Lord. She'd found what she was made for!
And so, in faith, can we all…