Most nights around 7:00, I can be found lying on the bottom bunk next to my daughter, fairy lights overhead with my older son in the top bunk, attempting to start settling down. Some nights are smoother than others, but we have a routine. Before we dive back into whatever story we’re reading, we pause to give thanks to God and offer a prayer. We change it up: sometimes they like to do a “rose and a thorn:” one happy thing and one frustrating or sad thing from their day; sometimes we simply say things that we are grateful for that day. We switch up our prayers too: from the Our Father to the Memorarae. But my daughter’s version of the Hail Mary is my favorite:
“Hail Mary, full of grace,
The Lord is with me.
Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of Bible Jesus.”
Tiny changes to this well-worn prayer, but significant too!
In the years after my children were born, it slowly became clear to me how often women are pigeonholed and defined solely by their motherhood despite the myriad of other identities we all carry. So, when I was invited to preach on the Immaculate Conception, I admit that my knee-jerk reaction was not immediately jubilation about this particular feast. For one thing, not all women are called to be mothers and not all mothers physically conceive or birth their own babies. And really, haven’t we heard enough about Mary’s motherhood--what more could I possibly say? And why are we so obsessed with her (and her mother’s) bodies--conceptions, virginity, births--anyway?
And we miss tremendous depth when we give into the temptation to reduce Mary to her role as the mother of Jesus, the handmaid of the Lord, the courageous, yes, but also obedient and above all, nurturing Madonna in Renaissance paintings.
We miss something when we focus on Mary’s purity--to the point that we insist even her own mother must have conceived her without sin to preserve her perfection.
But there is a side of motherhood missing from our beautiful icons and Marian art: the raw, messy, and embodied aspect of conception, birth and childrearing. It might be pure and holy in an existential sense, but it is certainly not without blemish or stain.
Kaitlin Hardy Shetler, a poet and advocate in the Church of Christ, shared these themes in her poem last Advent called “Sometimes I Wonder:” She writes:
sometimes I wonder
if Mary breastfed Jesus.
if she cried out when he bit her
or if she sobbed when he would not latch.
and sometimes I wonder
if this is all too vulgar
to ask in a church
full of men
without milk stains on their shirts
or coconut oil on their breasts
preaching from pulpits off limits to the Mother of God.
When we celebrate the Nativity of Jesus or even Mary’s own birth, do we pause to hold space for the breathing through contractions, for the sometimes long and arduous recovery of a body from giving birth, for the often continued sacrifice of one’s own body to feed and nourish a nursing infant?
“Take and eat. This is my body broken for you.”
The irony of course, is that even as we remember and give thanks for Christ’s broken body on the cross and in the Eucharist, women’s bodies continue to be broken open around the world through domestic violence, misogyny, and systematic patriarchy. From the broken body at the center of our faith poured forth unimagined possibility and promise from God: indeed our very hope for the world. How are we acting on that promise and hope to heal so many broken bodies in our midst?
Are we speaking out against structural racism which is disproportionately harming black and brown bodies, especially black women?
Are we taking steps to keep the vulnerable safe during this time of COVID and reaching out to those who put their bodies on the line everyday such as teachers and health care workers?
Are we acting to protect the poor, whose bodies suffer hunger, lack of health care or housing, and clean water around the globe?
Are we seeking out those whom our own Church has broken through sexual abuse to repair the damage done to so many individuals and communities?
What is clear is that to be a Catholic is to proclaim that bodies matter. We are not simply concerned for the state of a soul, but for the whole person, even as the world tells that women’s bodies in particular, are fragile and disposable. Yet, a first-century pregnant teenager teaches us otherwise. As Virgil Elizondo writes, “what the world ridicules and condemns, God keeps holy.”
We aren’t just talking about the most pure and sinless bodies either. Our obsession with Mary’s purity undercuts something else we know about God: there is no distinction between pure and impure. Jesus did not teach nor save only those who had already saved themselves. He went after the lost sheep, the tax collectors, the prostitutes, refusing to accept the Pharisee’s insistence on holy over here on one side and everyone else on the other. Jesus himself, in his very body, destroyed the wall between sacred and profane: he was human AND divine, reminding us that God really is found in the mess of our human experience. There are no others: no one is left out. There is no us and them: only and us and us and us.
This, then, is the heart of our faith. Every part of us and of the world, especially the ridiculed and condemned parts, is holy and loved by God. God nurtures and delights in us, mess and all so how can we do otherwise to one another? Because God first chose ALL of us, we can indeed say
“Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is most assuredly with everyone, even me.”
Blessed art you among women and blessed is the fruit of bible Jesus--that Jesus who refused to allow a broken body to be the end of story and insisted we are all invited, even at our most impure and
Angela Howard McParland
Angela Howard McParland
Angie McParland is a Kentucky native who has called New England home for over a decade. She earned a B.A. in English and Religion from Centre College and and served for a year with Americorps*VISTA before earning a Master of Divinity at Vanderbilt Divinity School as well as a certificate in Religion, Gender, and Sexuality in 2007. She has worked in ministry for more than fifteen years in parish and campus settings from Nashville to Boston. She moved to Providence, RI in 2007 where she served in campus ministry at Brown University and Rhode Island School of Design until 2017. Following her time at Brown, Angie served as the Catholic Chaplain at Bentley University as well as a Pastoral Associate in parish life in the Diocese of Providence. She was a member of Call to Action’s 2019 Re/Gen cohort of young adults working for reform within the Church and is active in interfaith social justice efforts locally around issues of poverty, gun violence, and anti-racism. She currently serves as Campus Minister and Religion teacher at La Salle Academy in Providence where she lives with her husband and three young children.
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