Today is the third Sunday in Advent. Now the nights are long, and snow covers the ground and bends down the trees. The cold has settled in. These are the conditions that are celebrated in carols and text at Christmastide. They are also the imagined context for Mary’s long journey of pregnancy, and , with Joseph, to Bethlehem.
A few years ago we attended an Advent service at a small Congregational Church in a farming community near us. It is a marvelous church, with a community of devoted parishioners who are warm and welcoming. Being a farming community, it is not unusual to see folks, clearly fresh from the milking parlor, sitting in the sanctuary as they await the service.
On that Sunday morning the youngish, somewhat impish, minister began his sermon, “Hail Mary! Full of Grace!” There followed a lengthy, stunned silence. Then peals of laughter. The minister continued, “I bet those words have not been spoken in this church for at least two hundred years.”
His point is well taken: Mary has largely disappeared from Christmas. Yet Advent is ALL about Mary. Last week we attended two concerts of early music, both of which drew heavily from traditions that venerate Mary. Anonymous Four devoted their concert to these songs. The first verse of one, Salve Virgo Virginum, was translated:
Hail, virgin of virgins, mother of the Father,
hail light of lights, ray of brightness.
Hail, lily of the valley, drop of the true due;
our hope is in thee.
(From program notes.)
The Vermont Choral Union sang Altissima luce grande splendore, one verse of which was translated:
Hail Mary, full of grace,
you are the path leading us to life;
out of darkness and sorrow, you brought
the people of the earth, who were in distress,
And from Laude novella sia cantata:
Innocent virgin maid
Spring’s first flower, a new rose,
the whole world calls upon you
the day you were born was blessed.
(From program notes.)
We remember that like so many cultural heroes, and the Earth herself, Mary is sin danger. Mary has conceived outside of wedlock, a profoundly shameful, potentially fatal act. Yet, in a powerful reversal, we are told her birth is a blessed day. She is Nature adorned, the one who will lead us out of darkness. Mary is the vessel through which the Creator will enter the world, as each enter the world, through her?
According to the OED, the word Advent derives from the French term for arrival. Yet, the season of Advent is a time of waiting. We await the joys of Christmas Day and the celebratory time that immediately follows. As winter settles in, we begin the long vigil that culminates in the rebirth of the Earth in Springtide. In times of darkness and sorrow, we hope for the return of light and joy; during pregnancy we anticipate the arrival of the newborn. When the long hoped for day of arrival comes, Advent is over, and our attention shifts to the new.
I often find myself thinking about the joys and hardships faced by my women ancestors. My father’s mother birthed eleven children; from what I gleaned from conversations with my dad, most of these children were born in difficult to reach cabins. There were good reasons for that: it was not easy being Native in Indiana at the turn of the last century. I wonder whether she longed for the days when we lived in small communities, in relative peace with the land and other tribes.
I think about her raising those many children alone, after her beguiling musician husband left, he perhaps lonely for his beloved Black Hills. I wonder at her courage in bringing a new generation into the world, in the face of great hardship, sorrow, and uncertainty, I am moved by her perseverance and grateful to her for opening the future for me, an act of resistance, hope, and, perhaps, desperation. I ponder: did she eagerly await each child, or did the interior world of pregnancy disappear behind the demands of sheer survival?
Surely, she, like all women, was the embodiment of Mary, and Mother Earth.
@kanerahtenhawi posted this very Native view of women on Twitter:
Creation starts in the womb of the earth and in the womb of a woman
—the land and the uterus are awesome.
As we settle more deeply into winter and the Advent season, may we remember the sacredness of women and the Earth. May we give thanks to our mothers, and Mother Earth, for our lives, as well as for the lives of our children, the Ancestors, and those yet to come.
Hail Mary, Mother of God!