Mary had a baby (My Lord) Mary had a baby (Oh My Lord) Mary had a baby (My Lord) The people keep coming but the train has gone
Yesterday I was listening to Odetta sing “Mary Had a Baby” and its stark beauty made me cry. The song is usually sung A cappella and it’s about thirty words long. At another time its repetitiveness would have bored me, but that was before I’d spent hours comforting my infant children while exhausted, humming and rocking before the sun rose. I also wouldn’t have noticed then that the melody is shaped like a rocking chair and that even though its category is “spiritual”, its utility is as a lullaby.
There is no first-hand account of the song’s composer but I know who wrote it. Any mother could tell you it was improvised by a woman at 3a.m. singing to her infant. Because it’s a spiritual I also know as she rocked, that mother imagined putting her body between the baby wrapped in her arms and a mean world that had no room for him. As she did this, she imagined the stable where far away and thousands of years before Jesus’ mother had done the same thing. This intimacy with and resemblance she bore to the mother of God gave her courage and joy.
Before the Sermon on the Mount, before loaves and fishes or the calming of the storm, there was a time that is not recorded in scripture when heaven was only Mary comforting God in her arms at 3am, rocking and singing.
I used to laugh at the statue of Mary’s mother St. Ann (don’t bother looking Ann up in the Bible because she’s not there) being paraded around in Hoboken on her feast day through the streets with a marching band and fireworks. That’s because my eyes were fixed on the statue all covered with gold jewelry and fifty dollar bills and the Knights of Columbus’ silly hats. Now that I’m a mother I don’t laugh anymore because I see the women who carry Ann and the women who watch from their stoops as she passes. They’re mostly grandmothers and great-grandmothers with lined faces and comfortable shoes. They dab away tears with tissues clenched in knuckles made knobby from chopping cabbage, washing pots and children who they monitor daily for tightening shoes, dirty hands and lost buttons. These are the details of love that only God and they know about.
Jesus said the Kingdom of Heaven is like the yeast that a woman put into flour (Matthew 13:33). He also said it’s like a woman who sweeps her house in search of a lost coin (Luke 15:8-10). Both parables invite us to think of God as a housewife, a mother, busy and unnoticed, about the particular business of home. Her love is the yeast in our bread and She recovers the Kingdom from where we thoughtlessly lost it under the couch. Again.
What does this mean? I don’t know, other than this love expressed by women and reverenced and in Mary is mundane and redemptive. Some place in it is where holiness resides and where the kingdom of heaven is unfolding in the world.
And for sure, whatever Christmas is it isn’t shiny or plastic. It’s hidden in the laundry. It’s rising in the flour. It’s God rocking in the darkness, humming about Mary’s baby.
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