A non-passive madonna

I love art galleries – wandering in the muted light and stillness, amazed by the liveliness or colour or beauty of an artist’s imagination.

My favourite places are the small gems – the Fitzwilliam in Cambridge, the Frick in NY, or the glory of the Frank Lloyd Wright room at the Met. Or places like the Boston gallery, where the building sings of creativity as much as the artworks.

In the less popular rooms of many galleries are the medieval religious works, with static haloed figures or obscenely ornate crucifixes.


But sometimes I stand in wonder in front of the Christmas nativity scenes – Mary holding her baby,  dressed in 14th century robes surrounded by saints or gazing with love at her child who will be the Saviour of the world.

The painting by Venetian artist Vivarini shows us such a Mary, gazing down with a background of sumptuous gold (real gold!)



And Lorenzetti shows us an enigmatic Mary locking us with her eyes. She is remotely beautiful, and yet seems protective of her baby boy.IMG_0858

Mary often looks passive and serious, but the Bible tells us she ‘pondered all these things in her heart’ (Luke 2:19) – the angel’s visit, the birth, the shepherds, the star.

Of course she did! A teenage girl whose life has been turned upside down by the visitation of an angel. And she is thoughtful because somehow she understands both the love and sorrow that Jesus will bring her.


Foreshadowed in the gifts of the wise men is Jesus’ kingship (gold) but also his suffering and death (the offering spice of frankincense and the burial perfume of myrhh)

I love the painting by Philippe de Champaigne (though it’s not medieval).

IMG_0853It shows the visit of Elizabeth to her younger cousin, Mary. They are both wrapped in the happiness of pregnancy as they are also wrapped in their capes. They embrace in a moment of feminine mutual support. The men (presumably their husbands) are in the background, out of the main action.

And I love that Mary is tall and proud, and her clothes are bold red and blue.

Mary is not a passive pushover. Her song in Luke Chapter 1 (still sung in many traditional churches as the Magnificat) is a bold declaration that God’s rule will bring justice for the poor and hungry, and salvation for his people.

So this Christmas, I ponder again like Mary, the mystery of a virgin birth, a humble teenage girl and a song of justice and freedom that rings true today just as it did in Palestine over 2,000 years ago.

Have a happy and holy and just Christmas.

And here is Mary’s song:

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favour on his humble servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed,
the Almighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his Name.
He has mercy on those who fear Him
in every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm,
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel
for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
the promise he made to our fathers,
to Abraham and his children for ever.



The power of a touch

“Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a
listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all
of which have the potential to turn a life around.” Leo F. Buscaglia

Touching is out of fashion. It is seen as predatory. No-one seems to know what is acceptable so there is a blanket ban.

And I understand. I’ve had lots of times when men (especially older men) have felt it’s OK to kiss or touch me and it has felt creepy.

Friends of mine who are in the last phase of becoming foster parents have been told that they should not cuddle any child in their care in bed. And we can see why the rule has come about. But it means they have decided they can’t cuddle their own children in bed because they don’t want to make anyone feel left out. The weekend ritual of hugs in mum and dad’s bed is abandoned.

Teachers and carers are also scared to touch.

Can’t we redeem tender touch as a wonderfully positive experience? There is a big difference between inappropriate touching and touching that is caring and comforting. And by rejecting the latter because of some destructive actions, we are missing out.

Sometimes touch ‘speaks’ human kindness more than any words. Tender touch creates emotional empathy and closeness. Studies show that those who are physically touched on a regular basis experience higher levels of the hormone oxytocin. According to the National Institutes of Health, oxytocin lowers stress hormone levels and, by doing so, plays a part in lowering blood pressure, maintaining good moods and increasing pain tolerances. Maybe doctors should prescribe hugs instead of pills.

Old people suffer from touch deprivation. They may be ‘handled’ by carers – prodded, propped and wiped – but touches of affection are rare. Hugs, holding hands and back rubs have the potential to ease their minds and make them feel less isolated.

Disabled people need touch. They may not be confident about expressing affection with words and we may feel awkward, but stroking, hand-holding, dancing can all decrease stress and increase our physical health too.

Children, especially hurting, vulnerable or angry children need touch. It is such an obvious point – baby massages, tickles, strokes, cuddles all mean love.

Researchers in Sweden have identified c-tactile (CT) afferents which apparently register more than just the physical / sensory aspect of touch – they register the emotion as well. Our forearms and back are especially sensitive to CT and they are 2 places where it is natural to give a caring caress. It seems God made us for intimacy on all levels.

Sometimes touch is a little flirtatious and that can be OK too. If it’s healthy and mutual it can be fun. If the person receiving the attention thinks it’s unwanted or is uncomfortable then the behaviour should stop, but it does not necessarily mean that it is predatory behaviour.

Does that make me sound somehow accepting of harassment? No. But I hope we can all use common sense when we decide what is good or evil.

I need touch and here are some of my favourite touching moments:

* a little child’s hand nestles into mine when we cross the road or he is balancing along a wall

* my grown children give me a generous long hug

* my husband gently kisses the back of my neck

* family ‘group hugs’ (it’s a line from Aladdin)

* the sensuous relaxation of a head massage when I have my hair cut

* holding my mum’s elbow to give a little bit of extra support tells her she is loved

* kissing away children’s tears, tasting the saltiness and feeling the heaving heart grow quiet.

They are all touch moments that make me smile and let me know I am connected to the people in my world.


So this Christmas caress, stroke, dance, hold hands, wrestle and enjoy an oxytocin moment!

Happy Christmas.









Decisions to enjoy

Sometimes we seem to have far too many decisions to make and it can be confusing, unsettling. We long for black and white choices.

My mum, in her late 80s, ponders how she will give money to charities at Christmas time. But what decisions does she make among many good causes?

My niece and her husband are trying to make wise decisions about study and work – balancing the need for an income to provide for their young family, and their desire to prepare for church ministry.

And of course at Christmas, there are numerous opportunities to upset the relatives if we make the wrong decisions.

But actually, we are blessed to have choices.

For many hundreds of years, ordinary women and men didn’t have time for anything other than supporting their families, couldn’t have freedom to travel, could not choose to be single or who to marry, and did not have spare money to spend or give away.

I have been thinking of Joseph’s choice to love and protect Mary when he found out that she was pregnant. He could have cast her aside or he could have quietly broken off his commitment (as he was tempted to do) but he chose to stand by Mary and protected his family even though that meant exile.

God trusted Joseph to make the generous, kind and Godly decision. He asks us to make such decisions too, so that we counter the world’s selfishness with consistent generosity.

Philanthropist Deanne Weir puts it this way, “Pick something that interests you, take the time to get informed. Then just give what’s reasonable to you.”

So this Christmas, enjoy pondering how to give in a good way, just like my mum.

The writer of Hebrews reminds us,

“Do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.” Hebrews 13:16

Have a wonderful Christmas doing good and sharing generously.