Do you know what your name means? My name is Vicky (or Victoria if I’m in trouble) and it simply means ‘victory’. Funnily enough my sister’s name means ‘victory to the people’. I’m not sure if our names were chosen for their meanings, or just because our parents liked them, but I’ve always enjoyed their similar meanings. When I was expecting each of our two children, my husband and I loved writing lists of favourite names and whittling them down, seeing which meanings we resonated with, and which names stirred up good - or unfortunate - memories.
The meanings of our names can be powerful, influential even. Biblical names are usually carefully chosen; they are going to be significant in our Advent series as we use the First Nations Version of the New Testament. The translators followed Native naming traditions, and used the meanings of names for persons and places. So in the story of Jesus’ birth we have Jesus himself called Creator Sets Free, Joseph called He Gives Sons, and Mary called Bitter Tears.
I wonder how that name Bitter Tears strikes you? I’ve never felt that Mary was a woman of bitterness as I’ve read the stories of Jesus’ life (it seems the name Mary derives from the ancient Hebrew name Miriam, which may mean either beloved or bitter). Yet tears are always bitter in their saltiness aren’t they? I am drawn to think about the tears Mary may have shed in her lifetime.
As we look ahead down the years through Mary’s eyes, as she watched her son performing miracles, tipping tables in the temple, challenging the powerful and lifting up the marginalised, I wonder when the tears came? What did that blessing mean when she heard he had been arrested? As she watched his trial, for surely she would have been there, horrified and grief-stricken when the crowd shouted “Crucify him!”? As she watched her son die? And then a little later, what did it mean when he was resurrected, and ascended to heaven? How did that blessing hold her in the years after all this had happened? Dallas Willard says “First, we must accept the circumstances we constantly find ourselves in as the place of God’s kingdom and blessing. God has yet to bless anyone except where they actually are” (excerpt from “The Divine Conspiracy). I suspect Mary knew this profoundly and painfully.
There’s a bit of a clichéd hashtag on social media which you might have come across, or even used yourself (I’m sure I have) - #blessed. It’s used when we say how proud we are of our kids’ achievements, or when we get the job of our dreams, or have an incredible family holiday. It is, I am almost certain, never used when our child is in trouble, or our marriage disintegrates, or we’re made redundant. It’s probably not used much in the ordinary in-between times, when it’s fish fingers for tea again, or we are picking a clean pair of socks out of the drawer, or maybe sniffing yesterday’s socks and wondering if they’ll do. Yet what if there is genuine, not-just-looking-on-the-bright-side, blessing in the ordinary? Can we find blessed life even amidst the everyday small griefs? What if even for Bitter Tears, there really is blessed life in the long years of watching your son pour abundant life into the world, and then suffer and die and apparently leave?
Maybe it’s not all that complicated in the end. Not easy, but not complicated. This Advent season I’m thinking about the name Emmanuel, God with us. The Ignatian tradition of Christianity embraces the concept that God is present in all things, and this echoes in the name Emmanuel. Mary was named as blessed for the ordinary and faithful life she led, and the blessing came through her too – the blessing of Emmanuel, God with us all in all things.
Emmanuel himself with us, when we are folding the laundry and washing the car.
Emmanuel, when we argue with our spouse and don’t know how to make it right.
Emmanuel, when there’s not enough money to pay the electric bill.
Emmanuel, when we are helped to make ends meet for another month.
Emmanuel, when we are sick and frightened.
Emmanuel, when we are holding the frail hands of a beloved one.
Emmanuel, when we wake up tomorrow, get out of bed and notice the rain has finally stopped.
May you find Emmanuel in your ordinary life, even when life become extraordinary in unwelcome ways for a season; may you find blessing in the dark and know you are not alone there.