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Madonna Alley

Finding hope, and solidarity with abused women, in Mary’s social justice anthem.

The property we move to when the baby is 18 months old borders a grassy, city-owned alley. It is a secret garden, a lost green plot turned into a tiny community park. Eight properties back onto this narrow stretch of land. Neighbors take turns mowing the grass, half-heartedly tending the gardens, letting their dogs run in tight ovals. An oversized peach tree, which the squirrels strip of fruit, leans over into our yard. Goldenrod crowds the corners.

When I take the baby to the green alley for the first time, he walks around picking grandfather dandelions and saying “flow-a.” Between two rose bushes and above the pervasive mint stands a cement Madonna statuette, her skin whitish grey and her powder blue robe peeling. We are not Catholic and I have not yet introduced him to the mother of Jesus. Still, the baby comes over and says, “Mama!” He repeats it with increasing tenderness. He has granted this title to many women: Aunt Jemima, Goodnight Moon’s old lady, and any advertisement with a brunette. Across the fence we can hear my husband pushing the lawn mower. “Up,” the baby says, and I plunk him on my shoulders and step up on the cinder block beside the Madonna, to wave at Daddy behind his noisy machine.

Willing to be held

I was not raised in a church of statues or gardens. We had stained glass but it was story-less, geometric and non-representational. The closest we got to iconography were the quilted banners that hung seasonally from the elevated pulpit. Part of the Reformed tradition, we were iconoclastic and anti-Romantic. The pulpit was lifted high to represent the sovereignty of The Word above all other representations of God.

One pastor recently explained to me that the sermon needs to be the longest part of the Sunday worship service because The Word is central. But isn’t the sermon, like our music and visual expressions of faith, another human attempt to interpret and delve a little deeper into the metaphors we use to understand the Divine? Furthermore, is the world not also a Word?

Sometimes we talk about how the only tool we have for understanding God is metaphor. As an English major and writer, I love this. The writers of our ancient texts grasped at metaphors and imagery to represent that which we cannot see and cannot fully grasp. They tried to hold the unholdable through word pictures. God is a lion, a lamb, a sun, a friend, a lover, a king, a vine, a potter, a loaf of bread. And the creative Creator, who walked in the garden with Eve and Adam and dwelt in the confines of the tabernacle and grew till snug and tight within a peasant’s womb, allows God’s self to be held within the humble flesh of words. God is willing to be held, chooses to be held, intends to be held, longs to be held, loves to be held.

(credit: unsplash)

God is not retained within the pulpit or the garden or the statue or the quilted banner, but often we can find God in these places. Perhaps these can all be a metaphor. Many of us connect deeply with God through beauty. Through nature and imagery, through things and beings we can see and touch. And while I have remained in the Sola Scriptura tradition, I find myself drawn to concrete representations of the divine, both those manufactured by the human hand and the natural.

In the Mary Garden, the nature-made and human-made collide. A symbolic statue surrounded by overgrown plant life, a gift in a shared space. Like the Divine Child surrounded by animals and sleeping on straw, or the Eucharistic Lamb of God celebrated in elements taken from vines and crops, faith often manifests in flora and fauna. God is at home in the cultivated vegetation, in husbandry, in wildlife. Christ loves to dwell among growing things.

He who has ears to hear

The first people to discover Christ’s resurrection, as one of my friends points out, were two women named Mary and a few other female disciples. They testified to the good news, and weren’t believed. We might assume that we would have listened to those female witnesses of the resurrection. Yet many evangelical Christians, the same ones who hold so dearly to the theology of the virgin birth, are resistant to believe survivors of abuse now, particularly when their stories involve leaders in the church. 

Four years ago, when Lori Anne Thompson came forward and accused the late renowned evangelist Ravi Zacharias of spiritual and sexual abuse, she faced a deluge of accusations around the falsehood of her story. It took three years but by 2021, multiple independent sources confirmed that Zacharias had sexually abused her and other women, using ministry funds to coerce his victims and cover-up his crimes. In too many cases, when spiritual leaders are accused of misconduct, fans rush to defend them: “People just want to bring down his ministry”; “This is an unfounded attack on his character.” When these leaders are found guilty, the comments change to negate the severity of the accusation: “Even King David committed adultery”; “He’s only human.”

I wonder if they would have believed the bizarre and impossible story of an unmarried peasant girl living in Nazareth. I wonder if I would have. No wonder God alerted shepherds of little status, living amongst animals and sleeping on the grass, to attend the birth of God’s son. No wonder God revealed this mystery of the incarnation to foreign magicians reading prophecy from the words of the stars. Who else would have listened? Perhaps the people who intently watched the Word of the natural world were the ones God knew would be attentive. 

The Magnificat

In the powerful song Mary sings shortly after she finds out she will grow the Christ child within her body, she speaks of how the powerful will be brought down and the humble will be raised up. Often called The Magnificat, this social justice anthem resonates with marginalized people on so many levels. Here we have a young, poor woman of colour chosen to cultivate the Messiah. It wasn’t until I recently taught a class about the unfolding story of scripture that I recognized the Magnificat as part of a rich tradition of songs sung by Biblical female prophets: Miriam, Deborah, Hannah and Mary. Their often forgotten redemption songs weave a continuous theme of upheaval, restoration and justice. They use art to be heard, to be believed.

I don’t remember hearing Mary’s song growing up. The Magnificat, like so many things we feared as “too Catholic,” was forgotten in my circles. We held Mary up for her sexual purity, her belief and her obedience. But none of these are attributes she highlights about herself. “For behold,” she sings, “from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.” It’s difficult to grasp the richness of the word blessed today when it is hashtagged and painted in scrolling letters on suburban living room walls. We’ve domesticated it, equated it with privilege and nice things rather than its subversive Biblical usage. But it is Mary’s blessedness she says she shall be known for throughout history, a trait which puts her, four chapters later in Luke’s Beatitudes, in the familiar company of the poor in spirit, the mourners, the meek, the hungry for righteousness. These are people, along with an unmarried peasant girl, not typically recognized for their blessedness, or, for that matter, recognized at all. This poetic word, makarizō, is also used to give honour to persecuted prophets, and to people who have endured great difficulties. Luke’s usage of makarizō is a word of recognition, of acknowledgement, of respect.

Recently, I overheard a woman talking to her husband about how difficult it is to raise good boys today. “But we’re nice people,” he said, “so our boys will treat women well.”

Has being nice ever been enough to overturn societal norms? How many people consider themselves good people yet deny women the right to take up space, to speak without being interrupted, to be believed? Scripture gives us the Magnificat, a song of the oppressed, a call not just of future hope but also a call to advocate for justice. I want to raise a son who hears the words of women, who knows Mama’s song. I want to be among the ones who see with joy and awe the Word held snug in the arms of a young woman of no status, and recognize her to be blessed. 


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