A film I never tire of is Fiddler On The Roof, which is set in the oppressive Russia of 1905 in the village of Anatevka in what was then The Pale of Settlement, a region set up by Catherine the Great in 1791 in which permanent residency by Jews was allowed, but beyond which Jewish people were prohibited.
The Jewish people of Anatevka suffered ill treatment at the hand of the authorities and were finally forcibly evicted from the land in one of the terrible and violent pogroms of the early 20th century.
The main character in the film is Tevye, a devout Jew who believed that his daughters should be married within their faith, and that’s when things began to go wrong for him. I think of him often as I look on how our world is changing. Old certainties are no longer certain and it seems that people of faith are being asked to relinquish their strongly held views.
At one point, Tevye was having a debate with himself about one of his daughters who wanted to marry a Gentile. As he debated his beliefs and their relevance or otherwise to his known world we could overhear him saying, ‘...but on the other hand’. And he goes on, ‘And yet in the other hand...’ until he reaches the point where he cries out: ‘No! There is no other hand!’ How pertinent is that to our times!
However, as we approach Christmas and the associated celebrations of the birth of our Saviour, I think of something else he said. He views his hard life, and the suffering inflicted by those who despised the Jewish people, and said: ‘I know we’re your chosen people Lord, but there are times when I wish you had chosen someone else.’
It’s with this in mind that I have been thinking about Mary, the mother of Jesus. Can we even begin to imagine what it was like for a young girl who was chosen by God to be the mother of the Messiah? The shame and the scandal for her and her entire extended family?
And yet, young as Mary was, she responded in a way that you’d expect of a more mature and seasoned character: ‘Be it unto me according to your will.’ She never asked why, she didn’t complain. Obviously a remarkable person, and yet isn’t it strange how she is viewed by the two different Christian traditions, particularly here in Northern Ireland? Most Catholics honour Mary highly, refer to her as the Mother of God, the Queen of Heaven, some even pray to her; but in the Protestant tradition she is relegated to a back seat, sometimes even the butt of jokes and humiliation.
But given that the angel addressed her saying, ‘Blessed are you among women...’ it can’t be right not to afford her any respect.
Let me suggest that a middle path might be appropriate. For those who would idolise Mary it might be important to note that while she was ‘blessed’, she was ‘blessed among women,’ and for those who refuse to recognise that there is anything special about her, it’s worth noting that she was singled out by God for a great honour, and described as ‘blessed’. Isn’t it a shame we have allowed our cultural, religious and political differences to spill over into the personal family life of the one we all claim to worship?