Comfort and Upheaval: Thoughts on Mary During Advent

Mary and the Child Jesus are depicted in this painting “Madonna and Child.”(CNS/Art Resource/Metropolitan Museum of Art)
This Advent, I am remembering how I came to love (really love) Our Lady. I am remembering an Advent about five years ago when a very pregnant me sat across a gargantuan desk from a stern-faced doctor tossing phrases around like “never be able to carry to term” and “lungs will not function” like he was ordering a meal from a drive-thru window. I remember the anger — the deep and desperate anger — that coursed through me as I tried to understand why God would allow such a thing to happen. I remember feeling like I couldn’t pray. Me — the third-year seminarian who had been trained to pray with individuals and communities in pain. I remember the first time I asked Mary to intercede for me … clutching the medal of Our Lady of Guadalupe that hung from my neck, my face leaning against the cold bus window in complete defeat as hot tears surged down my face. I remember asking her to put the ache that pulsed through every part of me — the aftershocks of a mother’s heart rent with grief — into words. I remember the peace that washed over me and how the snarls of anger and hurt came undone. I remember holding our firstborn (big and healthy and two weeks late). This is how I learned to trust Mary — as a friend, a mother, a partner in prayer. But I have also learned that her motherly love doesn’t always come to us as comfort. Sometimes we require upheaval and disquiet.

The Magnificat (Mary’s prayer of thanksgiving after the Annunciation in Luke’s Gospel) is meant to unsettle. Mary — a teenage girl living in relative poverty in Roman-occupied Nazareth — “proclaims the greatness of the Lord.” She identifies herself as a “lowly servant” of God (in Greek, the word is more like “slave woman”). She announces God’s solidarity with the poor, the humble, and the hungry. She declares a complete and utter reversal of the established social order in which the proud are scattered, the mighty are toppled, and the rich are sent away empty. If these words fail to make us feel uneasy, we aren’t paying them enough attention. As people living the midst of first world prosperity, Our Lady’s words are a call to remember the perils of pride … of imagining ourselves so strong, so capable, so wise that we forget our dependence on God and our dependence on one another. She rebukes the powerful who wield their might not to lift others out of poverty, hopelessness, and violence but to further their own interests and intimidate others by force. She confronts those who claim more than their fair share of resources while millions cry out in hunger. She is a holy force with which to be reckoned.

This Advent, I am remembering Mary. I am thankful for the comfort and motherly affection she has showered on me. I am thankful for the gentle and powerful way she teaches me to listen to Jesus. I am also thankful for her words, which make me uncomfortable and demand that I be willing to forsake privilege for justice and love. I am still learning. I have a long way to go. But it is the strong, prophetic voice of Mary that led me to the Church. It is her voice that calls to me this Advent reminding me that approaching Jesus — in the manger, at the altar, in prayer — is about peace and transformation. Comfort and upheaval.