“DID YOU KNOW WHAT YOU WERE GETTING INTO?” (Lk 1:26-38): 20 December 2007 (Thursday)
In June of the year 1985, a mysterious photograph appeared on the cover ofNational Geographic (above left). It was a close-up of a young Afghan refugee girl, probably around fourteen years old. The picture was taken by an American photographer named Steve McCurry in a school in a refugee camp in Pakistan sometime before Christmas the previous year.
The photographer Steve McCurry didn’t get the chance to ask for the girl’s name. But to the millions of readers of National Geographic, she became known simply as the “Afghan Girl.” Pretty, poor, probably as young as Mary when she was visited by the angel Gabriel to be told the news that changed her life and ours. More than anything else, her eyes caught your attention. This photograph of this face with these eyes was featured on the cover of National Geographic and moved millions of readers in 1985 to send help for the refugee camps.
Seventeen years later, Steve McCurry decided to look for the girl. This was not going to be an easy task because since the time photograph was taken, millions of refugees had come and gone in the many different refugee camps in Pakistan. Steve consulted a sculptor to help him imagine how Afghan Girl would look now, after 17 years. He also sought the advice of scientists who informed him that the iris of the eyes would provide more accurate identification than fingerprints.
Steve McCurry flew to Pakistan, and after a number of misleads and detours, he found a man who claimed that he recognized the face in the picture. Yes, the girl was still alive. She was no longer in any of the refugee camps in Pakistan since she had returned to the mountainous Tora Bora of Afghanistan. The man promised Steve that he would bring the mysterious woman back to Pakistan.
After three days, the man appeared with a woman who was about 30 years old (above right). Steve immediately had an opthalmologist check her eyes and compare them to the eyes in the photograph. The eyes matched! Steve finally came face-to-face once again with the girl he had photographed 17 years ago.
Your heart sinks when you compare the two photographs. The woman’s eyes have remained as intense and as unforgettable. But they are now eyes that seem to have many more tragedies to tell, and they look like they have run dry–as if they have run out of tears. Her lips droop as if from lack of smiling. And her face now seems etched with all the pain and violence she has endured in her life. The two photographs are the “Before” and “After” of her life.
Steve learned that her real name is Sharbat Gula. Steve is the only person who has ever taken her picture. She has no idea that millions have seen her face all over the world. After the photograph was taken, when the war in Afghanistan stopped for a while in the mid-80’s, she returned to her hometown in Tora Bora, but she continued to lead a miserable life. She got married when she was 16 years old. Her wedding day was the one and only happy day in her entire life.
It just struck me that the two photographs could very well be those of Mary. The first one could well be a picture of her when the angel appeared to her, and when she, no more than a young girl, accepted God’s invitation. The second photograph could well be a picture of Mary many years later.
I know, Mary is usually portrayed as a beautiful woman even in her adulthood–sometimes even as a beauty queen or Barbie doll. But I don’t think that’s doing justice to the life she led and the hardships she endured as the mother of the Messiah. Like the photograph of the older Afghan woman, the years and the tears must have been marked in Mary’s face by the time she stood under the cross.
So looking at the two photographs, this is my question for Mary: “Did you know what you were saying when you said ‘yes’ to the angel? Did you know what you were getting into?”
Luke’s account of the Annunciation portrays Mary as calmly accepting her new mission, but it also hinted that she was troubled and afraid. I’m not sure if she completely understood what she was getting into, but she probably understood that what she was being asked to do was important and–at the same time, costly. She probably knew that it was going to be disruptive enough to turn her life upside down. “Just think how Joseph will take all this. And what the neighbors will say.”
But Joseph’s understanding–which she obtained–and the neighbor’s–which she did not–were but the tip of the iceberg. The heart of her suffering was her repeated incapacity to understand the great incomprehensible mystery of her son, which slowly unfolded in her life: why, for example, he said the things he said and why he did the things he did, all of which caused himself and his mother such deep pain.
Mary probably didn’t know exactly what she was getting into at the Annunciation. But that is precisely why her response was so generous and so valuable. Without completely understanding her mission, she trusted God and she accepted her mission. Maybe it’s not important that we understand completely when we first say ‘yes’ to God. Maybe it’s simply impossible to do so. It seems that we begin to understand only when we take the first steps of the journey, as in the case of Mary. What’s important is that as we come to understand, we, like her, continue to trust and accept.
My theory is that contrary to our usual images of Mary, her great suffering probably marked her face the way Sharbat Gula’s suffering has disfigured hers. But we can be sure that Mary’s suffering has also shaped her soul the way our suffering–and the way we bear it–transforms ours. That’s why in my opinion, the two photographs above cannot provide a complete picture of the Afghan girl’s life. There should be a third photograph, and this is the photograph of her soul. And in the case of Mary, we can be sure that this third photograph is a luminously beautiful one.