Mary, the woman who is one of us

Mary crushing the serpent.

Mary crushing the serpent.

 The night before I flew to Miami for a month of service at Americans for Immigrant Justice, I walked the Villa Maria land. It is land the Sisters of the Humility of Mary have lived on for 150 years; land that I had come to know well over my summer working retreat. As I walked the path back from the pumpkin field, I came across a sizable dead garden snake. The snake’s head had been crushed, apparently run over by the wide wheel of a tractor.

Perhaps because I’d been permeated with Marian spirituality over the summer or perhaps because I’m a poet and relentlessly metaphorical in my thinking, the unexpected discovery immediately brought to mind images of Mary crushing a snake beneath her feet. This is a common image in Western art, inspired by interpretations of Genesis 3:15 which states that Eve will “strike at the head” of the serpent as well as Revelation 12 with its strange, compelling description of the woman clothed with the sun and her apocalyptic clash with the “ancient serpent.”

As I stood in the field pondering the sight of the crushed snake, I recalled the triumphant hymn we had sung recently for the Feast of the Assumption: “Hail, holy Queen enthroned above!”

Many of us are familiar with this presentation of Mary as holy Queen which de-emphasizes her humanity. She’s draped in yards of fabric, wearing a crown, with stars or a halo around her head. Triumphant over evil. Idealized. Holy. Seemingly perfect. Surrounded by angels. Her feet on clouds. The recipient of all kinds of titles in litanies from “singular vessel of devotion” to “mystical rose” to “gate of heaven.”

Mary of Nazareth (Keisha Castle-Hughes) as in the film "The Nativity Story" (New Line Cinema, 2006).

Mary of Nazareth (Keisha Castle-Hughes) in the film “The Nativity Story” (New Line Cinema, 2006).

In contrast to this powerful, heavenly, serpent-crushing de facto goddess, there is another Mary. In St. Joseph Sister Elizabeth Johnson’s Truly Our Sister: a Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints, we are presented with a real flesh-and-blood woman. In contrast to the white, Western Mary of art Johnson offers the historical, Jewish Miriam of Nazareth.   A female in a patriarchal system. Politically oppressed by Roman imperial forces.   Pregnant outside of marriage. Poor. A peasant. Displaced by threats of violence. A refugee.

To use a term of Peruvian liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez, OP, this Miriam of Nazareth was a no persona (non-person) in her society. In today’s language we would describe her as a woman touched by the intersections of multiple oppressions.

I thought of this Miriam of Nazareth often during the time I spent accompanying migrant children fleeing violence in Central America. After days spent in court documenting testimonies of migrant children I spent muggy Miami evenings on a porch swing watching heat lightning and reading Johnson’s depiction of Miriam of Nazareth. The resonance between Johnson’s portrait and the stories of migrant girls and boys was strong and compelling. Biblical scholars posit that Mary was likely fourteen or fifteen years old at the time of the Annunciation and the birth of Jesus – the age of many of the migrant girls in immigration proceedings.

Miriam of Nazareth in Palestine two millennia ago was vulnerable in a way that the serpent-crushing, untouchably-holy, heavenly-pedestaled Mary can never be. I admit I don’t like this vulnerable Mary as much. The pedestal Mary seems safer, cleaner, holier, and a whole lot less challenging. She remains firmly inside the sanctuary in marble statues and glowing stained glass windows, feet in the clouds, high above my head.

Yet maybe part of my own conversion is to embrace this Miriam of Nazareth who is “truly our sister” in our human limitations and vulnerabilities. The incredible vulnerabilities of the migrant girls who have witnessed murders of family and friends, quit school to escape persecution by gangs, left behind all that is familiar, survived sexualized violence in the journey, endured harassment and hunger in the hieleras, and now face an uncertain future as they await the decision of a judge.

Perhaps the image of Mary Triumphant is – as her presence in the Book of Revelation suggests – an ultimate, eschatological, future-oriented image. Perhaps the Marian image more needed for our times is closer to the one presented by Johnson – a grittier, human, feet-firmly-planted-on-the-ground Mary, who invites a deeper awareness of our own vulnerabilities as well as a deeper solidarity with those who are extraordinarily vulnerable.

When this Mary proclaims her song of praise (Luke 1:46-55) of a God who will “raise up the lowly,” “fill the hungry with good things,” and “scatter the proud-hearted,” it ceases to be simply a lyrical piece of liturgical poetry. The political implications are immediate and challenging. It raises all kinds of uncomfortable questions: Who among us in this time and place is lowly? Hungry? Who are the proud-hearted? Where are the places in my own heart that are proud? How do we act in the Spirit of this justice-seeking God here and now?

One of the migrant girls I accompanied in court was a Honduran teenager named Paula who wore – as I do – a medal of Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe around her neck. Under the bare feet of the Guadalupe of her medal – and mine – is a serpent, crushed by this powerful, loving mother. Paula gently fingered her medal as she told me her story of traveling through El Salvador and Mexico, crossing the border at Reynosa, being apprehended by the Border Patrol. Subconsciously, my hand went up to my own Guadalupe medal as I took notes of Paula’s testimony. It suddenly felt as though there were three women sitting together in that over-air-conditioned court room in downtown Miami: Paula, myself, and this mother that she and I – across difference of age, race, language, economic status – both claim.

Mary is supremely polyvalent – maybe even paradoxical. She is Johnson’s Miriam of Nazareth, the companion of Paula and so many girls and women like her who live extraordinarily vulnerable lives. At the same time, she is that triumphant Queen of Heaven, pointing to a future hope: the promise of the world prophesied in her Magnificat, of a future in which evil in all its forms will be vanquished. This now-and-future Mary at once invites us to struggle in concrete ways for the construction of the future and to rejoice in the glimpses of peace and justice which are granted to us in our efforts.

Robert Lenz's Madre de los Desaparecidos (Mother of the Disappeared)

Robert Lenz’s Madre de los Desaparecidos (Mother of the Disappeared)

 

About the author: Rhonda Miska is a former Jesuit Volunteer (Nicaragua, 2002-2004) and a graduate of the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry. Originally from Wisconsin, she spent the last nine years living in Central Virginia where her ministries included accompaniment of the Spanish-speaking immigrant community, Muslim-Christian dialogue, social justice education, direct outreach to people who are homeless, congregation-based community organizing, and coordination of a community with adults with intellectual disabilities. She is currently a Partner in Mission with the Sisters of the Humility of Mary at the Villa Maria Education and Spirituality Center in Villa Maria, Pennsylvania.

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in their own words – one immigrant mother and her children

Today, the Senate passed a bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform bill, 68-32.  In the coming days, in the headlines and on the news and in social media, there will be much spin and analysis about who voted for and against and why, what the political ramifications of it, and so on.  But I’m hoping to get to you before all that…to ask you to take a breath and read these words and remember what it this bill is about:  real people, real workers, real families.  As part of an effort in my local community to gather the testimonies of immigrants to share them with legislators, I’ve heard a lot of stories in the last few days.  So instead of using my monthly blog post to share my own words, I asked my friend “Guadalupe” if I could use her words, and the words of her children “Cecilia” and “Marcos.”  Please read prayerfully and thoughtfully, and know that these are only three of the millions of people in our nation whose lives would be changed with the passage of this bill. 

 

Guadalupe (undocumented mother and worker):

I have lived in this city for seven years with my family…my husband and I are immigrants from Latin America.  One of the reasons that we immigrated to this country was to keep my family together and to give my children a better life and education.  I know that many say that it is our fault, and we should face the consequences of our actions for infringing upon the law.  But if we think about it consciously, I believe each one of us would do whatever was necessary to keep our family together and to give our family a life that is more peaceful.  I feel we deserve to be treated with dignity because we are human beings, regardless of our skin color or the language we speak, as long as we are working to incorporate ourselves into society and learn the language.  Often we are afraid to express what we experience or feel because we think that no one will listen to us or we will experience some problem since we are undocumented.  So because of our fear we often don’t raise our voice and it is difficult for us to participate in activities like this of sharing our testimonies for fear of discrimination.  Keeping quiet is the best option that we’ve found even though it hurts to sometimes to see the injustices that exist.  Even so, in this beautiful country there are many kind and good people who help us to achieve our dreams, since many of us try to make ourselves and our lives better.  For example, in my case, two years ago I attained my GED with the help of some good American friends who generously shared their time and knowledge with me.  I understand how difficult it can be for others to approve a big immigration reform, but I appeal to the goodness of your heart, please no do not permit more families to be separated, help us to fulfill our dreams and in this way to be able to together move this great nation forward.  May God bless you!

 

Cecilia, age 11 (US citizen):

            I am going to tell you why I think immigrants shouldn’t be deported.  People say “No human is illegal” and I agree completely.  Immigrants come to this country to find education, a job, freedom, and fun activities. They don’t want to do wrong to this country. I am also part of the Hispanic community and it is a good community, we dance, play, sing, have fun, and help each other.  Families are being separated; parents are being separating from their children, friends are being separated and that is so sad…I was born in the USA. I hope my parents won’t get separated from my siblings and me, just because they are immigrants.

 

Marcos, age 12 (US citizen):

            I like America and that’s the truth, it is a wonderful place. There are a lot of kind people that help you. Plus people also are able to get a better education here than in other places in the world.  I see in the news that families get separated because of the same reason that they can’t be here. It is sad to see this happen because it makes me think that it might happen to me. I know that it is hard to be here illegal, but it is even harder when you get your family taken away.  When I go to school and I hear the pledge of allegiance, I listen to the last part where it says “liberty and justice for all.” I say to myself how I wish that were true.

 

What weight will America’s exceptionalism carry for future generations?

Today, the Catholic Church throughout the world is engaged in a fierce struggle to define what its long-term identity will be for outside observers. Here in the United States, this ecclesial tension has reached a tumultuous boiling point. Women religious, who were the main players in erecting the American church’s primary contributions to society at large (education, healthcare, charities), now face a predicament that embodies this ideological strife in very real and personal terms.

In the decades following the Second Vatican Council, few took the Council’s exhortation to read the “signs of the times” and to be the People of God more seriously than religious sisters did. Emerging from the cloisters of convents, casting off the obscuring garb of a bygone era, American women religious embarked on their mission to live the Gospel sincerely and radically – as the charisms of their respective orders intended. When accepting and confronting “the signs of the times” meant questioning long-established theological norms and doctrines these courageous women did not waver in their commitment to following Christ. Even as they critiqued and pondered the relevance of various pronouncements and regulations, they did so in the same spirit of justice, mercy, and peace that animated the whole duration of Jesus of Nazareth’s public ministry.

As U.S. women religious throughout the nation face the prospect of being “reformed,” (or rather, put in line with Vatican-thinking) many American Catholics consider the values that have impelled these sisters for centuries to be much more central to their faith than those espoused by members of the episcopacy and the bureaucratic apparatus of the Vatican. Nevertheless, the institutional church of Rome continues to do all in its power to create a Catholic Church that stresses unquestioning adherence to doctrine, a static uniformity of theological opinion, and, in our uniquely American context, a firm alliance with the political and cultural right – for the sake of pursuing its own agenda.
With the country approaching yet another presidential election, it becomes apparent that not only are domestic issues at stake, but rather, our fundamental identity as the Land of the Free is the equation voters will be given to evaluate as they cast their ballots in November.

The United States has always been a nation of immigrants. As the annals of history are examined, numerous circumstances can be found to attest to how our country would not exist without the phenomenon of immigration. Think of how our very founding was made possible, at the hands of British colonists who sought to live unencumbered lives characterized by liberty and freedom of expression. Or, on a more somber note, consider how many countless souls, mired in cloaks of uncertainty and robbed of their inherent, human dignity, were brought to these shores against their will. In a general sense, call to mind all those who have fled their native countries, seeking in America a beacon of hope, promise, and opportunity. These individuals comprise the foundation of what we know as the possibility of the American dream. In June of this year, the U.S. Supreme Court rendered a verdict in a case involving the state of Arizona’s law (S.B. 1070) that had been created to deal with the issue of undocumented immigrants crossing over its shared border with Mexico in great numbers. The Court ultimately invalidated most of the components of S.B. 1070 (which would have made it a criminal offense to hire, house, shelter, or transport undocumented persons). However, the most alarming provision in this legislation was curiously preserved by the Court. The “papers please” clause allows law enforcement officers to stop anybody who they reasonably suspect to be in the country illegally, demanding that they show documentation proving their citizenship. In almost all circumstances, such an action would be warranted solely based on the external, physical characteristics of the individual in question.
The right to vote is one of America’s most precious treasures. Yet, in many states nationwide, extremely onerous steps have been taken to curtail the ability of, or make it highly difficult, for certain segments of the population to exercise their most fundamental civic duty – undoubtedly, for purely political reasons. Since 2011, forty-four separate state legislatures have introduced some form of restrictive law that could potentially disenfranchise major swaths of the electorate as next month’s presidential contest approaches. In eight of these states (Texas, South Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, New Hampshire), possessing a current form of photo-identification has been written into law as a mandatory condition for exercising one’s right to vote. Such a provision may seem to be legitimately aimed at preventing abuses or fraud from taking place at the polls. However, a realistic portrait of those who would be negatively impacted by such infringements must be taken into account when analyzing the long-term durability of these collective pieces of legislation. By and large, those who are hit directly by these repercussions are usually persons living in situations of poverty, people of color, or the elderly and disabled. For these individuals, actually getting to a local department of motor vehicles service office may be no small feat. Some may not have their own means of transportation. Especially when these offices are situated in rural or remote locations it would be nearly impossible to travel there to obtain a valid ID. The troubling aspect to this scenario is that most of these mentioned individuals would traditionally be expected to cast their ballots for Democratic candidates. All of the states that have chosen to pass these types of laws contain legislatures that are controlled by the Republican Party.

With such a plethora of threats to the very core of who we are as a democracy, it’s hard to comprehend that there could be anything else that could spell further trouble for the ideals that distinguish us, uniquely, from other countries. Yet, another recent Supreme Court decision could potentially, irreparably, alter the very ethical and civic playing field that has been faithfully maintained in our country for nearly three-centuries. In a closely-watched 2010 ruling, in the case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the Court held that any monetary donation by an individual to a political campaign ought to be considered an exercise of “free speech” guaranteed under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Therefore, the Court reasoned that under this interpretation, it was unconstitutional to ban organizations or corporate entities from giving unlimited amounts of funds to various campaigns of their choosing. The consequence is that it has now become legally sanctioned for corporations, and a slew of newly crafted autonomous political entities, (“Super PACs” – Political Action Committees) to unleash as much money as they humanely can towards the candidates of their choice. In this circumstance, one’s vote theoretically no longer carries any value. No matter how many people might vote according to their heartfelt convictions, the outcome of an election could ultimately be determined by who was able to spend the most money on behalf of their candidate. Even former Republican presidential candidate, Senator John McCain, characterized this as the high Court’s “worst decision ever.”

As frustrated Catholics, whose voices have been noticeably ignored, and utterly silenced, by the powers at be amongst the institutional hierarchy of the church, perhaps a very clear path lies before us in these uncertain and disheartening times? All of these above-mentioned initiatives that hang in the balance as America contemplates another election offer a pressing array of questions to all of us as Catholics and citizens of this nation. Who are we as a nation? What sort of values and sense of ethics do we cherish? For what purpose do we exist as the global superpower we are today?

Affirmatively answering these questions is the task that has been entrusted to each one of us as Catholics who are concerned for the fate of our church, along with that of our country. Now, we may be called upon to exercise an unforeseen role in the immediate future. Partnering with Americans of all political allegiances, who are anxious about the civic direction in which our nation will move, it will be up to us to stimulate dialogue, and work through any means possible to instill social and conscious enlightenment. Let us not shirk from this new responsibility! Only if we truly believe, and work ardently for it, will we be able to keep alive the definition of America that has withstood the test of time for nearly three centuries, and offered hope to so many beleaguered souls, the world over.