by Daniel Harrell
Resident theologian Kyle Roberts, in his recent book on Mary, writes about his mom receiving a Nativity scene from the Dominican Republic, wrapped tightly for Christmas. She opened the present and out popped baby Jesus and Mary, a few shepherds and three wise men—but alas, no Joseph. A few layers of wrapping paper later led to a gruesome but bloodless discovery: Joseph was there, but had been decapitated in transit.
It’s been that sort of year for men. For women and girls it’s been that sort of a millennia and more. Time Magazine named the #Metoo movement its Person of the Year. Women have endured sexual harassment and violence for centuries, fearful of retaliation or of losing work or being abandoned or feeling threatened in places they’d presumed they were protected. Mennonite Minister Meghan Larissa Good notes how in virtually every time and place throughout human history, a woman has had a better chance of being abused by her husband than of learning how to read. Open your Bible and for at least the first two-thirds, Scripture reinforces the sense that there is no safe place to be female. Judah’s daughter-in-law is forced to play the prostitute to gain what is rightfully hers. In Judges, a father sacrifices a daughter to keep a rash vow in God’s name. A master slices up a concubine to make a macabre point. King David forcibly has his way with another man’s wife, then kills the husband to cover it up. Basic bodily functions render women unclean and unfit for worship, and on and on.
Until we get to Christmas. Here, God Almighty, in a conspiracy of hope, taps two overlooked and underestimated women for a redemption project: one a child bride who can be killed if her virginity is even called into question, the other an elderly wife who lives as a pariah because she has failed at her one essential purpose: providing an heir for her husband. God’s redemption ends up a revolution: everything gets overturned by grace. The Lord favors the unfavored. The Lord chooses the unchosen and remembers the forgotten. Those who glut themselves on prestige and riches, on privilege and supremacy and position all get dragged down. God speaks through the mouths of the silenced. He performs through those deprived of power. He abides in those robbed of standing and worth. God tells truth through those least expected to know it. The Lord moves out of the temple, out of the palace and the corner office and every high place, descending down the back stairway into women’s kitchens, factory floors, laborer’s fields and shepherd’s caves. For now, Mary and Elizabeth comprehend the great things God is doing, but in time, even those who oppose will see the revolution in its rightful light. As Mary declares, “all generations will call me blessed.”
Millions call her blessed countless times every day, especially if you’re Catholic: “Hail Mary full of grace, the Lord is with thee, blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.” Mary is the devoted mother and first disciple, filled with self-surrendering love, an exemplar of faith and hope, steadfast as to the mighty salvation made manifest inside her. Mary followed her son from his mysterious conception through his nativity and childhood, into his young manhood and baffling destiny to proclaim and advance the kingdom of God. She did not always understand his words or his actions, whether at age twelve in the temple, or at the wedding in Cana or in the scandal of Calvary. Yet her conviction stayed true, her heart always open to God’s merciful will, even at that divinely appointed hour was hope was at its darkest. She collapsed to her knees in grief at the foot of the cross, but then knelt in prayer in that upper room at Pentecost, waiting fervently on the Spirit of her risen Son to rain down. It is her high fidelity, and its fulfillment, that inspires those holding their rosaries to ask longingly and constantly, Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.
Hers is faith at its most honest, a mother’s love fierce yet forgiving, focused and refusing to idealize so to hold tight what is genuine and beautiful. An angel of the Lord appeared to her in her poverty and delivered mixed news: she had found favor with God but would be overshadowed by the Holy Spirit. She would give birth to royalty, the Son of God destined for the falling and rising of many, a sign from above to be opposed and a sword would pierce her own soul too. Yet Mary rejoiced at the news, the good and the bad, knowing how each is always so entangled with the other; how wheat and weeds must grow together until harvest.
Such is the hard will of God, to which Mary yields. Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word. She praised God for the great things he had done, even as she and her people were beat down and bankrupted by political oppression. My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. She courageously belts out a proud-scattering, throne-crushing song we call the Magnificat, one that mixes in an Old Testament song Hannah sang at the birth of her son Samuel, the prophet. Mary extols the salvation growing strong in her womb. She is both first disciple and a prophet, and typical of Biblical prophets, she confuses her verb tenses: She sings in the past tense rather than the future: “The Mighty One has brought down the powerful, lifted up the lowly, filled the hungry, sent the rich away empty.” Jesus is yet to be born and already Mary declares victory!
Granted, victory hardly looked like a win. Mary’s own life went from triumphant singing to scandalous hand-wringing. Her husband Joseph considered divorcing her since everybody knew the baby wasn’t his (and nobody was going to believe God did it). Caesar’s coerced relocation induced Mary to give birth in a feed trough. As for her celebrated Son, Jesus failed to topple tyrants and exalt the humble in any observable way. Instead the tyrants toppled him with savage humiliation. In the last pages of Scripture you’d expect to find a risen Christ finally victorious in heaven—a ferocious Lion of Judah and King of the Jungle—you see instead a vulnerable lamb having been butchered. A Lion conquers by inflicting death, but the Lamb of God conquered by dying. And this conquest, though predestined, remains pending. Suffering and evil and injustice persist. Wheat and weeds grow together until harvest. Swords pierce our own hearts too. Along with so many, Mary weeps as she waits.
Among popular Catholic portrayals of Mary is one called Mater Dolorosa, Latin for Our Lady of Sorrows. The devotion requires you say 49 Hail Marys, seven for each of her seven sorrows. Some of you may remember me describing a spiritual retreat I took last year at a remote monastery near Los Angeles called Mater Dolorosa. It was classically Catholic, complete with an ornate chapel in which hung a huge, bloodied crucifix that glared at you squirming in the pew. The monastery also featured an elaborate Stations of the Cross with melodramatic, graven images of Jesus meant to make you feel guilty at every step, along with statues of Mary crying everywhere, hopelessly praying for sinners, her heart ever wounded and forlorn.
As a hardcore Protestant, Reformation fanatic and starch-collared congregationalist, sentimental depictions of Jesus and Mary designed to extract emotion only inflamed my inner John Calvin. Clearly I have issues. Can it not be enough to abide in the beauty of creation itself, a Bible in your hand and a simple prayer on your lips? Faith alone in Christ alone was how I learned it. Why all the trinkets and beads and scripted supplications, all the endless gesticulations, the cumbersome rituals and strange doctrines? Why pray to saints or to Mary with Jesus on call, and why does she have to be sad all the time?
And yet, there are moments of misery and confusion, times when life and faith make no sense, when our hearts cower in dark corners, when we need another to pray for us, our mothers to give comfort and care. The need is instinctual, and as Mother of God, Mary provides for all. She is both blessed and gives birth to the blessing, whom she nurtures and feeds, follows and mourns, in whom she finds hope and her own redemption, full of grace and easy access. When the Father says no, you go ask your mother.
Not me, however. As one weaned on fairly patriarchal versions of faith, I spent most of my retreat day at the margins of Mater Dolorosa, stiffly resisting every mention of Mary, like a teenager too big to be hugged anymore. Then again, to avoid something is to attend to it; you think about it even as you resist it.
At Christmas, God invests his spirit in the wrong gender, in the too young and the too old, in the worried and weak, in the poor and unpopular, in the shy and uncertain, in the vulnerable and dependent. In Christ, God turns miserably human, and in doing so overturns every assumption. Power does not emanate from the center of things, but moves in from the margins. You assume you don’t measure up to what the world regards as successful and accomplished? You assume you reside outside the boundaries of proper company, unnoticed and unwelcome? Perfect! That’s where Jesus resides—with the refugee and the elderly, with the young and the impoverished and the outsider, in the troubled and harassed, with the belittled and bullied, in the suffering and lost, alongside the pent up pastor too, whose rigid, over-reasoned faith closed him off from the very love he preached.
I circled the boundary lines of Mater Dolorosa, keeping my distance, but soon, despite my resistance, my circles became spirals, pulling me closer and closer toward that grace I pushed against. I stepped into a contrived Garden of Gethsemane, fake olive trees and all, and found myself face to face with another overwrought bronze statue of Jesus, this one a life-sized Savior, bewailing God to figure out some other way instead of a cross. Yet like his mother before him, Jesus yielded to a greater salvation. “Not my will but thine be done. Be it unto me according to thy word.”
I stepped closer, checking first to make sure nobody saw me. I then slipped my hand into the hard bronze hand of Jesus outstretched, and experienced what Catholics would call a mystical moment; my own heart connected to truth both glorious and terrible, symbolized for Christians tonight in a baby born to be broken, his body and blood shed for sinners. Stepping away, I bumped into yet another image of sad Mary ever-crying, Our Lady of Sorrows weeping for me—only now with what I decided were tears of joy instead.
The Spanish mystic Teresa of Avila once observed, “The closer one approaches to God, the simpler everything becomes.” I think this is true. We make life so difficult and we worry so much. We clutch our money and things because we’re so scared that too much won’t be enough. We withhold love and nurse offenses, both real and imagined. We complicate relationships and refuse to forgive because life is already unfair—besides, who’s going to take care of me? We justify our bad choices and the pain we cause others; edging ourselves away from the ways of the Lord—stiffly resisting God’s mercy, out on the margins, just out of reach—where Jesus finds us every Christmas and draws us back, closer and closer, into dimly lit rooms swarming with sinners holding candles, where we behold a simple woman and child so full of grace, on whom we stake all our hope and our lives both now and at the hour of our death, Amen.