25 March 2019

Each page a victory At whose expense the victory ball? Every ten years a great man, Who paid the piper?

~ Bertolt Brecht, “A Worker Reads History” ~

Bertolt Brecht’s poem reminds us how we – ordinary people – are agents of history, make our own destiny. The Solemnity we celebrate today reminds us of this.

Though her unmarried state put her at serious risk – from social condemnation and ostracism, through possible divorce, even the possibility of being stoned to death – just over 2000 years ago, a young Palestinian Jewish woman agreed to have a son. Momentous as it was for Mary, it was a minor event (indeed it went unrecorded) in the history of the Roman Empire. We know the rest of that story. We are now part of his story (and her story).

On this day in 1807 the British parliament voted to abolish the slave trade throughout the British Empire. It didn’t end slavery as such, as the leading campaigner against slavery William Wilberforce had hoped. But by ending the trade it would ultimately destroy the system that relied upon it. A small victory, but significant for what followed –in 1832 slavery in its most commonly understood form was abolished in the British Empire, and within decades almost everywhere.

Moments that pass: blink and we sometimes miss them. Yet it is often in the small moment that we find the seed of the world-changing event. In her refusal to be intimidated by her culture, in her faith in God’s protection, Mary initiates a process that will become, in Jesus, the turning point of human history. Driven by his faith in the same Christ, Wilberforce and his fellow abolitionists become agents of a law that would give humanity a great leap forward towards what we now call human rights.

Brecht’s poem, quoted above, echoes these sacred and secular events, in reminding us how history is also made by the obscure, the forgotten, the weak: the worker who refuses to carry his Pass; the housekeeper who decides (against the law) to live in a ‘white’ residential area; the student who studies by candlelight in a shack so as to get into university to become a doctor; and – today – the voter who refuses to be intimidated and votes with her conscience.

 

Through

the example

of Mary,

Lord,

make us

ready

to hear

your call

to greatness.

Make us

agents of

our own

history.

Following the

example of

Wilberforce,

let us

take the

necessary

small steps

that in the end

change

our world.

Amen.

 

Catholic Parliamentary

Liaison Office

Jesuit Institute
South Africa

Reflection prepared by Anthony Egan SJ & Matthew Charlesworth SJ