When I was young, I listened to The Beatles. I believe this began after Ms. Dutton, my long-haired, swishy-skirted, dulcimer-playing elementary school music teacher, taught my class to sing “Penny Lane.” (If memory serves, she also taught us “Eleanor Rigby,” which seems like a bizarre choice for a group of 10-year-olds but may explain why for years I couldn’t see anyone eating alone in a restaurant without bursting into tears. All the lonely people.)
In any event, when I told my parents that I liked this British pop group from their own youth, they encouraged my interest. We had a record player (which was retro even back then – we did have cassette tapes, and some CDs.) I spent my junior high and high school years sitting at our kitchen table doing my homework while The Complete Beatles or Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band spun on the turntable. In this I was an outlier among my peers, most of whom were listening to late 80s and early 90s pop music: Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Bryan Adams. I think I got the better end of the bargain.
A Beatles song that never failed to inspire me was “Let It Be.” For an overly anxious teenager who believed perfection was the end goal, the song’s reassuring message seemed to be: Just relax; everything will be okay.
Over time, though, I soured a bit on “Let It Be.” The more life experiences I accumulated, the song’s message sounded less inspiring and closer to a potentially dangerous apathy. Even worse was that this seemed to be couched in quasi-religious terms: I assumed that “Mother Mary” was meant to be Mary, Mother of Jesus, crooning soothingly that, “There will be an answer…. Let it be.”
As I understand my Christian faith, we’re not supposed to fret about everyday issues like food and clothes (Matthew 6:34: “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.”) We’re not supposed to be ruled by fear; “Do not be afraid” is one of the most repeated statements in the Bible. On the other hand, we’re definitely not encouraged to take a kicked-back, chilled-out, hands-off attitude to life’s problems. A short list of areas which we are not supposed to just “let be” includes: loving our neighbors, loving our enemies, raising children, caring for widows and orphans and immigrants, visiting prisoners, studying scripture, praying, trying to follow Jesus’s example.
Speaking of Jesus, this Christmas holiday that we’re approaching celebrates how God put on human flesh (the literal meaning of “incarnate”) and entered our planet as a baby in order to begin a huge salvation plan that’s still ongoing. In three decades on Earth, Jesus taught crowds, healed the sick, fed the hungry, scolded the self-righteous, and even flipped some tables in the temple. The God I follow does not “let it be.”
So, although I often drink my tea and coffee from an oversized mug printed with “Let It Be” (an impulse buy from the T.J. Maxx checkout line years ago), I feel a little guilty about it. This mug, I think, does not adequately express my ideology. I’m tempted to add an asterisk with “some exceptions apply.”
But this year, I gained a new outlook on “Let It Be.”
This Advent season, I’m working my way through a new-to-me devotional: the excellent God With Us, edited by Greg Pennoyer and Gregory White. In his reflection for the first Thursday of Advent, Richard John Neuhaus writes:
To be anxious is to be human. The question is what we do with our anxieties. The decision is between hanging on to them or handing them over. After listening to the angel, Mary handed over herself, including her anxieties. ‘Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.’ That is Mary’s great fiat – ‘Let it be.’ It is not fatalism, but faith. Fatalism is resigning ourselves to the inevitable; faith is entrusting ourselves to the One who is eternally trustworthy[.] (Bold print mine.)
I let out an audible gasp after reading that paragraph. In all the times I’d read Luke 1:38 – Mary’s response to the angel’s announcement that she’s going to become Jesus’s mother – somehow I had never noticed that she actually utters the words: “Let it be.”
But as Neuhaus points out, Mary’s “Let it be” is hardly passive. Like so much else in the Bible, it’s an almost paradoxical both/and statement: Mary is submissive, but it’s an active submission. She’s agreeing to become pregnant with, give birth to, and parent God’s son, none of which is passive (as any mother will tell you.) And, as an unwed mother in 1st century Palestine, Mary’s agreement includes the real possibility of death by stoning. When Mary says, “Let it be,” what she’s really saying is, “I’m not sure I understand this crazy, scary plan, but I’m all in: Use me.”
Suddenly, my view of The Beatles’ song — and my coffee mug – was transformed.
“The Beatles are brilliant!” I thought (stating the obvious, but with new zeal.) “Amazing! They worked a Biblical reference into a pop song that everyone thinks is a call for Zenlike detachment but is really an anthem for active participation in plans that are bigger than us! From now on, I will drink from my mug with pride!”
I figured that I surely wasn’t the only one to discern the layers of meaning behind “Let It Be,” so I decided to confirm my theory with a little internet research.
And it turned out that I was wrong.
In interview after interview, Paul McCartney, who wrote “Let It Be,” recounts the story behind the song: At a time when he was troubled by many things (and doing too many drugs), he had a dream in which his mother, who’d died when he was an adolescent – and whose name was Mary – stood before him and said, “Let it be.”
So, my deep theological insight was deflated shortly after its revelation.
Except that Paul McCartney has also been quick to add that, although “Let It Be” was inspired by his dream about his mother, he wants people to feel free to interpret it however they want. That seems wise to me; the longer I’m alive, the more the world appears to be made of layers of meaning. Things are not always as they seem, or as they are intended.
A pop song may have spiritual undertones that were never meant to be there.
That life event that seems like a terrifying mistake may really be one small part of a massively awesome plan.
A pregnant teenager may turn out to be among the most brave and holy people in history.
A light shines in the darkness, and depending upon your Bible translation, the darkness either can’t understand it or can’t overcome it — which may mean the same thing after all.
And a baby born in a barn may grow up to save the world.