Do you remember being in high school and being introduced to English literature, to Shakespeare and others classic writers and poets? Do you remember that? And do you remember being bored out of you mind and saying to yourself, “I don’t know how any of this is supposed to help me in life?” Most of us got through it to get a passing grade. It was more like a hoop we were expected to jump through. In grade 10, we had to plough through Arthur Miller’s classic, Death of a Salesman. I secretly called it Death of a Grade 10 Student. Yet, 40 years later, for some unknown reason, a line from the play has remained with me. It does not even come from the mouth of the main character, Willy Loman, but from a lesser character who says, “When a deposit bottle is broken, you don’t get your nickel back.” Now, why would I remember that 40 years after the fact? It seems so mundane and obviously uninspiring.
I suppose good prose, good poetry, good music lyrics—like Scripture itself—has the ability to name something in you. But you only get it when you are ready to receive it, and that might be 40 years down the road. “When a deposit bottle is broken, you don’t get your nickel back” means that redemption has its limits. If the bottle is still intact, you get your nickel back. But, if the bottle is broken, you’re out of luck; you get nothing. Isn’t it interesting how the secular world has taken over spiritual words like “redemption” or the word “retreat”? Companies do not send their employees on workshops; they send them on retreats. Where you recycle your empty bottles is called a “redemption center” straight out of theology. With each empty bottle we bring to the redemption center we get a dime, but only if the bottle is intact and not broken. That is the limit of secular redemption—some things are redeemable and some things are not. In the spiritual life, all things are redeemable. Broken or not, all things are redeemable.
We are told, in today’s gospel, Mary treasured the words of the shepherds and pondered them in her heart. I sometimes wonder what Mary pondered in her heart. In my wilder imaginings, I think Mary pondered Paul’s words to the Galatians, even though the words were written decades after the birth of Jesus. Paul says that in the fullness of time God sent his Son to be born of a woman. Why? In order to redeem us. Perhaps what Mary pondered was that everything and everyone–broken or whole–is redeemable. The title of one of Fr. Richard Rohr’s books is: Everything Belongs. When we begin to see that everything belongs, it usually starts with letting go of dichotomies. In other words, we start to see the world as a whole and let go of dualistic thinking. This letting go is not easy even for the most open-minded among us. St. Paul struggled and overcame the dualistic mind within himself. In that same letter to the Galatians, that we heard from today, Paul writes that there is no Jew or Greek, no freeman or slave, and no man or woman. I live in a world where those categories still exist and probably always will. There are people who are Jews, but they are not Greeks. I am a freeman but, unfortunately, slaves still exist. I am a man not a woman. Paul believes that, too. Paul also believes in something deeper, something more unifying, something more common to all human life.
Underneath all the categories we use to describe ourselves there is a fundamental unity to all life. There is a still point where we are all the same, a point where differences make no difference. Everyone and everything belong. When we ponder that, we begin to love people in an entirely new and freeing way. The categories are not as important as the underlying unity that holds everything together.
The name of Mary’s baby is Jesus, which means “God saves.” Perhaps one of the things Jesus saves us from is our dualistic thinking, where our ego has to have all the dust settled, and we become the self-appointed judges of what’s right or wrong, what’s good or bad, what’s moral or immoral, and what’s holy or sinful. In that kind of a world, some things and some people are like broken bottles where we don’t get our dime back. We’ve deemed them as unredeemable. In that moment we stop loving as God loves, and we stop pondering as Mary pondered.
The year 2020 was inconvenient to all of us while downright painful and even death-dealing to others. It was a year we would all like to say “good-bye” to and never see again. Yet, the invitation of Mary is not to quickly dismiss the bad and hold to only the good. Rather, it is to patiently hold everything as God does, the good and the bad. In God’s hands everything belongs, everything is redeemable.
Fr. Phil Mulligan