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If there’s one thing you ought to know about me by now, it’s that I’m a Catholic. And if there’s one thing that you ought to know about Catholics, it’s that we love Mary. No, we do NOT worship her. We do NOT pray to her. We ask for her intercession because she is the one human being in all of history to have had an intimate relationship with God in all three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. No one knows God better. No one is closer to God.

When children fall and hurt themselves, they run to their mother. So do Catholics. Our “falls” might be physical, mental or spiritual. But when we hurt, we reach out to Mary for comfort. She is our advocate.

The quintessential Marian prayer is the “Hail Mary.” It is taken partly from the words of Mary’s cousin Elizabeth when she saw Mary coming to visit her and recognized what was happening to her — Mary was carrying the Savior in her womb. Here’s how it goes:

Hail Mary, full of grace!
The Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou among women
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for us sinners
now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

The Hail Mary is the most basic prayer needed to pray the rosary. There are a few others — the Our Father, the Glory Be, the Apostles’ Creed — but the Hail Mary is the foundation.

Why so much talk about Mary? Call it passing on the words of my people. My own relationship with Our Lady has brought peace to my life, and I think it could help you, too. The single thing necessary for building a relationship with Mary is simply the desire to do so. Just open the door. Talk to your Mother. What, you’re too busy? Don’t worry about it. Start with the Hail Mary. Let it lead you home. Mary can become your confidante and prayer partner. After all, Mother knows best.

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The quintessential prayer called “the Hail Mary” goes like this: “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death, amen.” But you probably already knew that. What you maybe didn’t know — what I didn’t know until recently, even though I’ve prayed that prayer about a million times in my life (lots of rosaries…lots and lots of rosaries) — is that it doesn’t really start out the way you think it does.

The words in the first half of the prayer come directly from the New Testament, from Mary’s cousin, Elizabeth, who greets Mary when Mary comes to visit her. Both are pregnant. In fact, Elizabeth’s baby (known in future as John the Baptist) “leaps in her womb” when Elizabeth catches sight of Mary. It’s all very sweet. As it’s a greeting, it’s natural to assume that by “hail,” Elizabeth means, “hello” — a sort of “hey there, girl! You are marvelous!” But guess what? “Hail” doesn’t mean that.

In this sense, “hail” means “rejoice”: As in, “You are marvelous! Smile! Be glad!” Certainly, Mary had much to rejoice about: She was carrying the savior of the world in her womb. On the other hand…she was an unmarried teenager who was widely thought to have cheated on her fiancée and gotten knocked up. So…not so much. What did it mean to her to have her cousin greet her this way?

And what would it mean if we greeted each other that way? “Rejoice, co-worker!” “Rejoice, postal carrier!” Such a greeting would garner some odd looks, to be sure. But wouldn’t it also serve as a nice reminder that, despite our burdens, we all have something to rejoice about?

Maybe that something is just the fact that we have a new day in front of us, ripe with possibilities. Or maybe we should rejoice because, well, here we are, in a great country, with a job, with a family, with whatever it is we have. And we all have something. Even when the world feels as if it’s turned against us, even when we are at our most bereft, we have the love of God. A God that does not, by the way, have to love us, but does so anyway. Hailing each other in this way would serve as a nice knock in the teeth to remember our blessings…things we so often classify as simply what is due us, and not so very special after all.

So my word of wisdom to you today is “hail.” Hail, dear readers. Rejoice in whatever it is that makes you you. Because you are marvelous, to God and to me.

 

 

I recently saw a bit from a late night talk show: An interviewer asked children why it was that women make less money than men for doing the same work. The boys’ answers were varied, but often supportive of women (especially their moms), but the girls — almost every one — went negative. Women were dumb or lazy. They hadn’t been taught things that men had been taught. They didn’t take their work seriously. They liked to shop too much.

Couple that with this figure: 91% of women don’t like their bodies and want to change them. What is wrong with us? Why don’t girls and women think themselves capable, beautiful or strong? Why are we convinced — apparently from an early age — that we are failures?

It is not Godly, this lack of self-esteem. We all start off the same way, as happy, little embryos. More male fetuses than female fail to make it to birth. More male infants die within the first year than do female babies. Women live longer, have higher tolerances to pain than men do. And yet we spend our lives thinking, by and large, that we are not good enough.

Why? Tradition? Culture? Law? All of these? Yes, and the Bible doesn’t help much either, written as it was for men by men, with its dearth of female heroines. It is the male bloodline that counts in the Bible. And yet, the most important figure in all of biblical literature — Jesus Christ — has a human mother…and no human father. Joseph, while mentioned, doesn’t have much dialogue in the New Testament. Neither does Mary, but at least she has some. And not one line of it is, “Do I look fat in this?”

Remember, too, that Mary is the only non-divine human being to be born without sin.

Remember, too, the women who remain at the foot of the cross. Only one man, in all of the gospels (his own) does the same.

Remember, too, that Jesus was often seen “in the company of women.” This, in a time when women were basically chattel. It is akin to being seen in the company of cows. But Jesus does it, time and again. He speaks to non-Jewish women, divorced women, prostitutes — acts so radical for their time, they make equal pay for equal work seem elementary.

Any faith practice that puts women down or places them as mere secondaries to men should be reexamined, as I hope Pope Francis will reexamine the Catholic Church, providing more opportunities for women to lead and be heard.

God created all of us. God stands with all of us. God loves us equally. Isn’t it time we did too?

No matter how great your sadness or how deep your sorrow, there’s one person to whom you can always turn: Mary. Oh, I know. I can hear you: “You Catholics and your Mary…it’s Mary this and Mary that! Why, it’s practically heretical.” Marian devotion may be peculiarly Catholic, but there’s nothing peculiar in recognizing Mary as a particularly appealing and deeply understanding role model.

First of all, she knows heartbreak better than a country music ballad. The terror of losing a child in a big city? Been there. The profound grief of watching your own flesh and blood, your beloved son, be tortured and murdered? Done that. I don’t mean to sound blasé. Mary knows the darkest and most painful parts of motherhood like no one else. I can’t think of a better resource for parents or those who mourn. However heavy your heart, her heart knows your sorrow. No one who ever lived has experienced more vividly than Mary the destruction of innocent life.

But Mary is more than just a grief counselor. She is a model of acceptance. Some find Mary’s humility and serenity mildly annoying or even mealy-mouthed. (I know; I’ve been guilty of it myself.) “Thy will be done.” Honestly, you have no more passion than that for captaining the ship of your life? But Mary’s “yes” turns out to be stronger than any “no” could ever be. She doesn’t just accept. She puts herself into God’s hands totally. That takes guts. Anyone who’s ever tripped over the words “thy will be done” in The Lord’s Prayer knows what I mean.

What’s more, acceptance can be a powerful thing. Like poor old Hamlet, we can try to bend the world to our own ends, only to find that “the rest is silence.” Only in acceptance can we find peace. Only in acceptance can we find the ability to go on after life’s greatest trials.

Though Mary’s role in the New Testament is underwritten at best, the fact is that she was present. Present for Jesus’ life and ministry, present for his death, present for the Pentecost and subsequent spread of Christianity. She might not have said much (that we know of), but she was there as witness and active participant. She went where the work took her — the work of God, that is — whether that was far from home (Egypt) or in her own neighborhood. We would do well to do as Mary did.

So think of Mary as a resource, in pain as well as in joy. (No one has ever described the keeping of happy memories better than in that little sentence: “She kept all of these things in her heart.”) Whatever you’re going through, Mary understands. Let her stand with you.

In our society there seems to be two distinct Christmases.

There is the Christmas filled with Santa Claus, gifts in brightly colored paper, twinkly lights and good cheer of all kinds. There is food in great abundance. People decorate big and bright. They make a big deal out of it from start to Alka Seltzer laden finish. This is the commercial Christmas. As card carrying Christians, when exposed to this monstrosity, we are virtually required to grow faint and go have a little lie down.

Then there is the Christian Christmas of the Nativity, candlelight and prayer. It’s quiet. It’s serene. I’ve actually had Christian friends tell me that they hate Christmas. If you’re a real Christian, apparently, Easter is IT. When confronted by cheer and bright lights, they bemoan the corrupting influence of “commercialism,” hold themselves apart and shuffle down the hall, heads bent, dark robes swaying. Okay, that’s a slight exaggeration, but they would if they could.

Not me. For me, Christmas is an adventure and it started the way that so many adventures do – with the birth of someone who was going to shake things up. In this case, the birth of Jesus. A birth is never a ho hum simple thing. Mary didn’t have an IV or an epidural. She most likely didn’t have a midwife. This wasn’t glitz and glamor but it was big and it was important.

This was life coming into the world in a big way and it deserved a big announcement. God sent an angel. This wasn’t a cute little cherubim with his chubby little cheeks. This was an ANGEL OF GOD. I once saw a pattern for an Advent banner that showed an angel and a shepherd with his sheep. The angel is the height and width of the banner. The tiny shepherd cowers at the angels feet. This is the Christmas angel described by Luke.

Luke 2:8-12
New International Version (NIV)
8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

This wasn’t a sedate night under the stars. This was a moment that would change the world. This was a big, Big Angel with big, Big News. Not all glitz and shopping, but not all quiet candlelight either.

What we need to recognize in our society is a third kind of Christmas, a Christmas with the might and power to take its place in the dark of night and the clamor of day. We need the Christmas with the impact of birth and the might of an Angel of God.

We need, in short, to put the Adventure back in.

–SueBE

Next Saturday, we celebrate the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, a holy day of observation. I’ve written about this day before, emphasizing that — despite its common use in pop culture — the day has nothing to do with Christ’s conception, but His mother Mary’s. She was conceived without sin, lacking the stain of Adam and Eve, pure.

We know Mary primarily as a woman of “yes.” It’s what she’s known for: Saying yes to bringing the Son of God into the world. We read about her from time to time in the New Testament, mostly in the early parts of the story, Jesus’ birth and formative years. She appears again at the foot of the cross. She is present after the Resurrection. Most of the time, she doesn’t speak. She chides her son only twice, once for running away, once to goad Him into action. The most telling line about her speaks to her introspection: “Mary kept all these words, pondering them in her heart.” (Luke 2:19)

It’s not a very complete picture. There’s quite a bit of information missing. This makes it difficult to know Mary better, something that women, especially, aspire to do, as she is one of the few role models we have in the Church. What I like about Mary is that she has the best qualities of any heroine: She is assertive and accepting. She says yes to God — a bold expression of unfathomable faith — and accepts that the road ahead will be difficult. Because how could it not be? She had to know, or at least to guess, that life for her beloved son would not be easy. She had to see the end coming.

I also like the use of the word “grace” when it comes to Mary. We speak of this grace in the “Hail Mary,” taken from Elizabeth’s greeting to her cousin in Luke Chapter 1. Grace can mean “elegance” or “beauty.” It can also mean “kindness” or “mercy.” I prefer to think of Mary as having the kind of grace referred to in the phrase “grace under pressure.” Her road was no walk in the park, either. Imagine explaining your pregnancy to your parents, to your fiancé. Imagine watching your child die a painful and ignominious death. These things require grace, along with a spine of steel and a faith that can not only move mountains, but make them dance. I long for this kind of grace.

Advent is a good time to think about Mary, to ponder her strength and sacrifice. God, capable of anything, instead of sending down His son fully formed, like Athena from the head of Zeus, decides to go the old-fashioned route, the humble route: His son comes as a baby, just like the rest of us. He is born of woman. And what a woman she must have been! I can only aspire to be like her, to ask her to shower a little of her grace on me. So that whatever God asks of me, I can answer as Mary did — yes. Always yes.

Have a Mary Little Christmas

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