The end of a year is a natural time to look back and count your blessings, right? Except sometimes I think that I’m not sure what is a blessing and what isn’t. Sometimes I read these end-of-year letters that people send round and when they say, “God has blessed us in 2015” what they really mean is, “No-one had to go to hospital, the kids are doing well in school and we’re a year closer to paying off the mortgage.”
When Gabriel appeared to Mary he met her with the words, “Greetings, you who are highly favoured! The Lord is with you.” In other words, he proclaims Mary to be blessed, but her response is to be ‘greatly troubled’. When I was at university I had to read Fear and Trembling by the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard makes the observation that after this meeting, Gabriel did not then pop next door to the neighbours and say, “Do not despise Mary, something extraordinary is happening to her.” Instead Mary had to bear the stigma of pregnancy outside of marriage, and all the shame and misunderstanding that went with it. “Greetings, you who are highly favoured…” said the angel, and then he left. That is why Kierkegaard writes, ‘And is it not also true here that the one whom God blesses he curses in the same breath?’ Mary knew what was going on. Greatly troubled. She understood.
God is gracious to us in our needs and in our wants. Being well-fed and at peace is something to be thankful for, but do we understand that true blessing comes with pain, because true blessing is always about being used by God, furthering the Kingdom and becoming more like Christ? These things carry with them a sharp edge and a responsibility. This is what was in my mind when I wrote ‘Gifts’, a story that appears in The Listening Book. It is also, no doubt, what was in C.S. Lewis’s mind when he wrote the following: ‘We are not necessarily doubting that God will do the best for us; we are wondering how painful the best will turn out to be.’
Here’s to a blessed 2016.