Teach us how to see (on Mary at the feet of Christ)

Readings: Amos 8:1-12, Psalm 52, Colossians 1:15-28, Luke 10:38-42

The musical Sunday in the Park with George, concerns the life of the artist George Seurat and his great-grandson, also named George, also an artist. In one song, a muse of the artist reflects back to George the impact he had on her. She sings that he taught her how to see – to notice every tree, every shade and colour, the light and the life. 

It is a strange experience to walk out into the world after spending a couple of hours in an art gallery. A process of adjustment where one’s eyes – having been fed by a dazzling array of colour and line – reacquaint themselves with the world as it appears. However one doesn’t settle back into the exact same way of seeing as before entering the gallery. New shades of green are noticed in every tree, new details in the landscape, in the face of your companion, new wonder at the detail and diversity of the crowds shuffling by. One has been taught – often without realising – how to see, how to look at the world and take notice of its beauty and wonder, its colour and light. It also teaches us to see the gaps – to be struck and disturbed by the way the world falls short of the artist’s vision: to notice the absence of trees where development has triumphed, to notice the sorrow in faces struggling to make connection, to notice the lack of awe in all of us who toil and struggle in an exacting world.

Rowan Williams’ characterises discipleship as a “state of awareness” which is inseparable from a “sort of expectancy” that something will burst through from Jesus to us and “uncover a new light on the landscape.” And so here we find Mary, sitting at the feet of her Messiah. She has chosen the path and place of a disciple - attentive to Jesus, an expectant attention, postured to learn how to be “a place in the world where the act of God can come alive.”

When Martha tries to pull her sister away from this expectant attention, away from her gaze, away from the face of Christ, Jesus responds:

“Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

There is need of only one thing… that is our path as disciples, to fix our gaze upon the Son and so learn how to see the world. Now let it be said, Martha, like all of us, is shaped by the expectations of her society – which both placed her value and limits in serving hurriedly in backrooms. So before we pile on Martha, as if the decision to ‘be hospitable’ were entirely her own, we must come under judgment and ask: are we cultivating an environment in our own homes and churches where all in our midst can shift their attention - where all can lay down the worries of the day, the scripts of our society and economy, and seek first God’s kingdom and righteousness.

Nonetheless, in this moment, driven by some holy audacity, Mary has turned her attention to Christ, she gazes upon her Messiah and by doing so what does she see? 

… the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.  

She beholds the heart of creation, she encounters the Wisdom and Word of God, she sees the fullness of God, she glimpses into the depths of the Triune mystery. She sees the reconciliation of the cosmos, she sees the light of the world, the living waters of the peaceable kingdom, the end and beginning of all things. It would be, of course, anachronistic to claim that Mary would articulate it in this way, in that moment - yet she would have had her own words for it - for she saw the only thing we are in need of, and that good portion will not be taken from her. 

Mary stands in as symbol of all who sit at the feet of the Lord, all who follow as his disciples - all who seek to look to Christ for the one thing needed. All of us are invited to see much more than appears - all of us are encouraged to wait expectantly for something to burst forth from our Messiah, shedding new light on the landscape. And so we all look to Christ to see into the depths of reality, to glimpse the light and life of the world, to experience the fullness of God dwelling in man, to see the Lord of time who bridges the past into the now and makes possible our future, to see the one who at the consummation of the age will bring all out of their graves and wipe away all the tears of old as we enter the new heaven and new earth. By being present (attentive and expectant) in our relationship with Christ, we find ourselves where he is: in the depths of the non-intermittent, dependable, loving relationship of the Triune God; “the heart of discipleship is bound up with the life of the Trinity” (Williams). 

But we also find ourselves where Jesus is in another way. By looking to the face of Christ we are also taught to become aware of where and who he is with. The attentiveness we pay to Jesus, like Mary sitting at his feet, is not just a kind of aesthetic attitude while the important work takes place in the backrooms. Like walking out of a gallery we will be moved to find ourselves in the corners and circles of the world where Christ is pleased to be Emmanuel. Looking to Jesus teaches us to see him in our world today - sitting on street corners asking for change, stranded on Manus waiting on mercy, frightened in a youth detention centre isolated and abused. 

And this is why it can be dangerous to look upon the face of Christ - as it was dangerous, if not deadly, to look upon the face of God in the Old Testament - to look at the fullness of life exposes dramatically the aspects of our own life that deal in death - it exposes to the holiness of God the unholiness of our all too muddied lives. 

Amos, in characteristically Amos fashion, has strong words for those who wish to look away from God and God’s righteousness. He lambasts those who look for the changing of the days when it will no longer be Sabbath and they can go back to economically exploiting the poor to build up their own treasure troves. (Amos speaks of the consequences of this misdirected gaze - the people will look hither and thither for God’s word but will be unable to find it. Perhaps it will only come when they stop looking in the places they might expect and instead turn and look at the very people they have been gleefully and remorselessly exploiting). For those who have shifted their view from Christ so they may engage in death-dealing practices, looking back to Christ might not be the serene, peaceful gaze that Mary experiences in her sister’s house - it might be a blinding light that snatches us from our tents, the leaves us cowering in fear, that shakes our foundations and casts us out of the security of our personal little cities  We are, as has so been so eloquently stated, both Saint and Sinner - we are, in a similar vein - righteous and unrighteous (this is why we must be careful thinking of these as distinct groups that we can so easily categorise: the line runs right through us!) And so when we pay attention to Christ, when we look to God, it is not only so we may see that we have been made right before God by Christ; receiving a spirit of adoption - it is also to expose our unrighteousness - it is to expose that which we think and feel and do even though we wish we did not - it is to expose that which falls short of the great commandments, falls short of a grateful response to the grace we have received - “how futile those parts of ourselves that sought refuge in wealth” “how detestable those choices we made that sought our prosperity in others misery”. As Barth says of Saul’s Damascus experience: “when the destructive holiness of God had become vividly real to him, the mercy of God embraced him in its power.” Though we are snatched from our tents, though we are confronted in our ungodliness, we are not cast off, but redeemed, rectified, and reconciled, so that we may dwell in the new heaven and the new earth with God as our light, illuminating the face of the lamb. 

It is a scary thing sometimes, to look to Christ, there are probably many sensible reasons to find distraction - but there is one sure reason to find our way back to the feet of our Messiah, one sure reason to turn our eyes to Jesus - there is need of only one thing - when we look to Christ we see the truth: we see the face of the one who delights in us, who loves us eternally. And by seeing this we will find ourselves in the depths of the non-intermittent, dependable, loving relationship of the Triune God - and from that place we are taught to see the world the way God sees it, and place ourselves within it as those who are joyfully participating in God’s work to make right all that is wrong.