Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
From time to time when I get dressed in the locker room at my gym, someone will watch me putting on my clergy collar and take an interest. “Are you a nun?” or “Are you a minister?” they’ll ask. Or: “I didn’t know you could be a lady priest! What church do you work at?” My favorite question, which I don’t get very often but I have gotten it more than once or twice is: “Do you guys have Mary?”
Yes, we have Mary.
I didn’t always have Mary. Or rather, I didn’t always get Mary. Almost thirty years ago, when I became a churchgoer, the only time I heard about Mary was when the priest would read the Advent bidding prayers every Sunday in Advent. In my mind I hear his voice, reading these words:
Finally, let us remember before God his pure and lowly Mother…
For a long time, I was Mary-curious. I didn’t really “get” Mary until the summer of my middler year, which I spent in the East End of London. It was in that internship that I learned about a certain flavor of Anglo-Catholicism, about ministry with women in prostitution, and about Mary. For me, the three were all rolled into one.
The Blessed Mother was much more evident in the East End churches I visited than in churches where I’d worshipped in Boston, New York, and Portland. She stood larger than life alongside Jesus behind high altars, or reigned on her own in “Lady Chapels” all over town. Plastic flowers and rosary beads lay at her feet wherever she stood and held out her arms in welcome. Arms of plastic, arms of stone, arms of porcelain. Several churches had more than one Mary. The ubiquity of Mary mitigated the kitsch factor that I had saw all around me. I began to suspect she was important even if she was not always beautiful.
I came to know Mary through another Mary I met in the East End. This Mary had been sleeping under some bushes in a churchyard a few blocks from where we were living. She was about sixteen, but her eyes made her look sixty. She carried her belongings in a dirty pillowcase, and she wasn’t allowed in any of the local housing options because she had lice. She was probably hiding from her pimp, her dealer, and the police. The priest I was shadowing over the summer as part of my internship, Father Brian, took her out for curry one afternoon and asked her what she needed. “Just a few bob” was the answer he expected and the answer he got. Five dollars. Maybe ten. Enough for the day’s heroin. He wanted to find her a bed, a family, a job, and a lifetime’s worth of square meals and solid friendship.
He gave her money and asked her to call him the next day so he could get together some resources for her. I listened from the next room as he made a dozen phone calls, eventually finding some leads for housing and even a little job for her. Then he waited all that day and the next day for her call. She never called. A few days later, I was out in the evening with volunteers from a street outreach to sex workers. We saw Mary, stoned and waiting for a john. She wobbled on legs as thin as two-by-fours.
The next day, I told Brian about seeing Mary. “Honestly,” I said, “I wonder whether she really wants help.”
“Some people are like that,” he said. It didn’t seem to faze him. I was busy thinking about how nice it would be to help someone who really wanted help and was able to benefit from it. How great it would be to feel as though I had been the one to make a difference in someone’s life. Lots of us have had that experience, right? We help and we help, we give and we give, but sometimes we pick our recipients carefully because we want to successfully save someone. Brian seemed not to care whether all of his efforts were actually ever going to get her off the street.
“She’s like the Blessed Mother,” he said. “The first Mary was a teenager with no education, nothing special about her, and yet God adores her, picks her out of a crowd. Out of nowhere. And she is Our Lady. Who’s to say this Mary isn’t beloved in exactly the same way? Or any of these girls? When I look at them, I see Our Lady.”
“She’s these girls,” Brian went on. “She’s the Queen of Heaven but she could be any one of them. Young. Poor. Living in a rough time. Mother of God.”
That night, back in our little room in Brian’s house, I opened my bible, and reread the verses that we heard this morning, both in the canticle and in the gospel.
Luke the Evangelist tells the story of the first Mary visiting her cousin Elizabeth who is, just as miraculously, also pregnant, carrying the boy who grows up to be John the Baptist. The two women are as happy to see each other as any two women sharing bonds of kinship and first-time expectant motherhood. Elizabeth feels her baby kick. Mary responds, as many a devout Jewish girl before her, by giving God the credit for the miracle of conception and motherhood.
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord. My spirit rejoices in God my savior, for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.
I thought about the lice-ridden, pole-skinny Mary I’d seen under the streetlight the night before, hollowed-out eyes trying to focus on one spot so she wouldn’t fall over. It was hard to imagine her expressing joyful expectancy about anything.
Luke’s Mary goes on to say
God has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.
At least according to Luke, the great champion of the poor, Mary’s pregnancy meant more than just the miracle of conception, immaculate or otherwise. It meant that God had intervened in the course of history and the baby she carried might turn everything upside down, confounding the world’s expectations of who was up and who was down.
Then I understood that for Brian, it was this Mary’s voice that he heard when he saw the other Mary. He heard Our Lady saying: “God has filled the hungry with good things.” His care for her was not so that he could have some personal satisfaction of being the one to turn her life around, but because what it meant to him to be a follower of Jesus was to do his best to see that the hungry were filled with good things. Never mind if the hungry kept turning tricks or shooting up or stealing silver from his church.
I understood, finally, that Brian wanted his Mary, the one sleeping under the bushes, to experience the same surprise as Luke’s Mary, surprise at being picked as a recipient of God’s extravagance. I understood, finally, that feeding people or giving them handouts was not “enabling,” or “avoiding root causes.” It was to surprise someone with the unlikelihood of attention and generosity.
Yes, we have Mary.
Who will we surprise, this week, with unlikely attention and generosity?
On this Fourth Sunday of Advent, Mary’s Sunday, let us remember before God his pure and lowly Mother, and that whole multitude which no one can number, whose hope was in the Word made flesh, and with whom, in Jesus, we are one for evermore.