Last year we moved away from an affluent suburb to the City of Hartford. Our neighborhood is (admittedly) still fairly affluent, but it is a little more diverse, and the issues of city life surround us. As a result of the move my daughter entered 2nd grade at a Catholic school. One afternoon a few weeks into the school year, I found my daughter had a robin’s egg blue scarf draped over her head. She looked at me and squealed “I’m Mary!”. I realized that I was getting an ecumenical education at home.
Mary gives a lot of Protestants the heebie jeebies. For those of us who were raised with a more fundamentalist theology, what we were taught of Catholics was that they were gravely misguided because of their prayers to Mary and saints. While I didn’t have a full understanding of the concept of intercessory prayer, I agreed that it didn’t seem right to me. So Mary gave me the heebie jeebies too.
As a result of our collective heebie jeebies, our conversation about Mary has been limited to only two main points: She bore Jesus in a Manger and she mourned Jesus after his death. In our defense, there isn’t that much more of her in the gospels.
The first time I spent much of time thinking about Mary was the advent season during my pregnancy. My husband and I were invited to light the pink Joy candle. The two of us, a couple in a season of waiting for our own baby to be born. The expectation that Mary must have felt resonated with me as I experienced pregnancy. I also realized for the first time how afraid she must have been. A first pregnancy is scary; physically and emotionally. A great responsibility has been given, and we have no real idea what it will be like until it happens. If I was afraid during my completely unremarkable pregnancy, what must Mary have been going through? Unmarried, betrothed to a man and impregnated by the Holy Spirit. That’s a lot.
During my pregnancy I had an experience that allowed me to relate to Mary’s position as an unmarried mother-to-be. I was standing in line at a local coffee shop. I remember that I was wearing a red t shirt and capri pants, with one of those little drawstring backpacks slung onto my back. In front of me was a sizable group of black girls from the nearby high school, buying after school treats. In back of me was a middle-aged white woman. I turned to the side and the woman behind me noticed my giant belly. I heard her “tsk tsk” in disgust and say an audible “Oh my God” or something like that. I stiffened up as I realized that she thought I was a part of the group of high school girls. A young, black, unwed mother, not even out of high school. In actuality I was 27, married, and ivy league grad and a young lawyer. But she didn’t know that. She just saw a pregnant girl who should not be pregnant. Someone lowly. A moment later I turned around to look directly at her. It was a woman from my church. The very church where I lit that Joy candle a few months earlier. That moment was my first taste of black motherhood.
I think Black mothers have a lot we can learn from Mary. Her Magnificat is a Freedom Song. It is a prayer over rejoicing and cultural pride from a young, single expectant mother from a poor society and an oppressed people. Mary did not always understand her son Jesus and his revolutionary ways. She spent time pondering about his fate, and frankly worried about the radical nature of his politics and teachings. She was a mother who saw her son executed in a violent manner by the hands of an oppressive government. Mary, I believe, would have understood the plight of Black mothers very well.
In a recent social media discussion, someone pointed to the mothers of the Black Lives Matter movement as prophetic voices in our time. The mothers of Trayvon, Tamir, Michael and others are voices crying out into the 21st century wilderness that the injustices in our society are not a part of what God’s realm will look like. Through these mothers of the movement and through Mary, I understand the tremendous gravity of the incarnation better than I ever did before. Jesus, fully God and fully human was Mary’s son. She carried him, birthed him, raised him in a world full of marginalization and uncertainty and finally watched his violent execution. For Christians, belief in Christ is truly a matter of faith. Christology is based on the proclamation of scripture, the preaching of the Church and the experience of the worshipers. For me, my grasp of the nature of Christ it is through Mary’s motherhood.