We talked about Mary in church today, as I am sure many did.
Growing up as a Baptist boy, I was not taught to hail Mary. In a theology that did not have much regard for women in general, Mary was little more than a holy container for the Christ-child. But if one of the points of the Incarnation is to humanize Jesus, it seems only right that we humanize his mother as well. Had she not welcomed Gabriel’s message, our Decembers might look quite different.
For many years now, part of my Advent soundtrack is Patty Griffin’s song “Mary,” part of which says,
Mary, you’re covered in roses,
you’re covered in ashes, you’re covered in rain
you’re covered in babies, you’re covered in slashes
you’re covered in wilderness, you’re covered in stains
you cast aside the sheet, you cast aside the shroud
of another man who served the world proud
you greet another son, you lose another one
on some sunny day and always stay—Mary
In our culture of extended adolescence, it is difficult to imagine a young teenage girl—maybe thirteen—engaging an angel with such clarity and courage. “Let it be just like you say,” she said. Being the founding member of the Unwed Mothers of Jesus could not have been the role she was expecting for her young life, and yet what mattered most was that she knew she belonged to God.
I was thirteen the summer that I first heard Paul McCartney sing,
when I find myself in times of trouble
Mother Mary comes to me
speaking words of wisdom, let it be
The gospel writers give us a picture of Mary and Jesus when he is twelve and in the Temple in Jerusalem, coming into his own, and then there is gospel radio silence for about eighteen years, when Jesus begins his intentional ministry. Patty Griffin articulates the moment:
Jesus says, Mother I couldn’t stay another day longer
flies right by and leaves a kiss upon her face
while the angels are singing his praises in a blaze of glory
Mary stays behind and starts cleaning up the place
Whatever Jesus did those eighteen years—and there are lots of ideas about that—he spent the time becoming his full self in one way or another. Again, some of the teaching in my Baptist upbringing led me to believe he always knew he was the Messiah somehow, but I think that begs the question of why he didn’t get to it sooner, particularly if he knew they were going to kill him, which I was taught as well. My music library reminded me of John Prine’s musings in “The Missing Years.” But whether he stayed in Nazareth and worked as a carpenter with his dad, went out with John the Baptist and the Essenes to learn his theology, or went to India, as some suggest, he took time to become the Jesus we know in the gospels.
I say all of that to contrast him with his mother, who was minding her business, getting ready for her wedding, and just living in a sleepy little village when Gabriel arrived with his life-changing pronouncement. She didn’t have time to grow into anything. Faster that she could become a wife, she became a mother—and she did so wholeheartedly. She felt called by God, not used.
Before you read this as intending to make some particular theological argument, read it again as someone who is thinking out loud. I’m not looking for a debate. I am three days away from turning sixty-two, just three years from living thirteen years five times over, and I still feel like I am becoming, or at least changing. I have not lived my life with a singular certainty of purpose like Mary did. I haven’t seen an angel either—except for Ginger. I am hopeful about my life and my work, even as I wrestle with my depression and my hearing loss. In my hour of both hope and darkness, she is standing right in front of me, speaking words of wisdom.
Your words have my attention. Thank you.
Thank you Milton! As a girl who grew up Baptist too I have found Mary over the years since to be an intriguing and inspiring character of strength and grace and inspiration. I share your respect for her as a Christian. As a mother I have developed a heart for her that is beyond words. So thank you for your offering. God bless you dearest Milton.
Very thought provoking.
Have you had an opportunity to watch the James Corden’s Carpool Karoke with Paul McCartney? If no, you will enjoy hearing him talk about the inspiration for this song. Have a tissue ready.
I love your transparency and the rhythms of your heart.
“You’ve only just begun…” Mary’s work is never done!
Bravo! Definitely one of my favorites from the many years of reading you.