Fourth Sunday of Advent
There is an image of Mother Mary, created by Ben Wildflower, depicted with her fist raised and her foot on a skull. She is crushing a dead snake under her feet, and her face is stern. Her garb is simple, and a halo of stars encircles her head. The whole image is composed of black and white.
Around this image are inscribed words from the Magnificat: Fill the hungry. Lift the lowly. Cast down the mighty. Send the rich away.
This is no Madonna and child. There is no demureness or timidity to this Mary. She is not looking up to the heavens but is clearly focusing her gaze downward onto more earthly matters. The Queen of Heaven is not happy with the state of things, and in this image, she embodies her song with a deep power and conviction.
There is another image of Mary, created by Br. Mickey McGrath, OSFS, depicted during Mary’s visit to Elizabeth a few months later. The two women are Black and dressed in African garb. Their faces are caught in a moment of delight. Their halos form a heart, which comes to a point in the wombs of the two women.
Behind them, a windsock flutters in the wind. In letters like ribbons flapping you can read words spoken by Jane de Chantel, “This is the place of our delight and rest.”
I invite you to ponder these two images with me.
- What do you see?
- What do you feel in your body?
- How are these images different from the image of Mary that typically comes into your mind?
- In what ways are they similar?
In my experience growing up in the Church, Mary was a minor, forgettable figure. We would pull her out after Thanksgiving to sit in the Nativity scene, staring lovingly at the Christ-child for months on end. Then, we would box her up to lay forgotten in some dusty corner until next year. She might get a quick cameo at Easter—usually just to faint at the sight of her crucified son.
And that was it.
I confess, as a teenager, I would often skip over the boring parts of the Bible (e.g. anything that looked even remotely like a genealogy or a poem/song/psalm). Consequently, I don’t remember encountering the Magnificat until later in life. Suddenly, Mary jumped off the page and out of that dusty box—she came alive! This Mary—who talked of justice for the poor and abundance for all—this Mary was unforgettable! This Mary was the kind of woman who could give birth to a revolution!
But even this thought reveals a troubling truth about myself: this Mary is the same Mary as the one depicted in those classical portrait of the Madonna and child. Why am I so quick to dismiss their demureness, timidity, and meekness as a lack of life and vigor? The Madonna birthed the same revolution as her badass comrade and experienced the same exuberance and joy as the African mother. Why do I judge the Madonna so harshly, while lifting these more contemporary images?
The images of Mary I grew up with were not wrong—I was simply too caught up in my own constructs of power to recognize that God doesn’t play by my rules, or even the rules of our society. So often, I want a God who is a conquering King. Behold he comes! Riding on a cloud! Instead, I am often given a God who came into this world riding not on clouds, but in the womb of a fourteen year-old girl. Jesus did not come to conquer, but to be crucified.
As my dear friend Shannon Schaefer pointed out to me, Mary’s humility and meekness was prophesying the humility and meekness of the Christ-child she bore. Mary points to the kind of power which Jesus is bringing into fullness. By consenting to receive the Christ within her own body, Mary exposes the foundations of empire, hegemony, patriarchy, classism, and oppressor-supremacy for what they truly are: lies about who is strong and who is weak.
In the Eucharist, we receive the body of Christ into our own bodies. Like Mary, we are called to bring this Christ into the world and to expose those same systems of power as false. Whether you go about it with your fist in the air, with arms extended for an embrace, or with humble hands folded in prayer is up to you.
“What good is it to me that Mary gave birth to the Son of God fourteen hundred years ago, and I do not also give birth to the Son of God in my own time and in my own culture? We are all meant to be mothers of God. God is always needing to be born.” – Meister Eckhart