By Joyce Hollyday
A frigid wind sent snow dancing and swirling through the streets of Washington, DC, that Christmas Eve. Shopping carts and paper bags loaded with years’ worth of collected string, cans, broken umbrellas, and other street items had been dragged in out of the cold and were parked in the foyer of the church that served as an overnight shelter. The women who owned them were finishing a dinner of soup and bread, made special by dozens of sugar cookies that had been baked and decorated by the church’s children.
When the bowls and coffee cups were washed and stacked away in the cupboards, a lone voice in a corner of the parish hall began singing “Joy to the World,” slightly off-key. Before long, other voices joined in. The circle of women made their way through “O Come, All Ye Faithful” and “Silent Night.” Most of them hadn’t sung carols in years. Some cried, their memories awakened to better days when they spent holidays with family and friends.
As the singing faded away, we pulled sleeping mats into every available space on the floor and the women prepared to settle in for the night. I turned out the lights and took a chair in a corner next to Doris, whose asthma forced her to sleep sitting up. Her head slumped forward as she nodded off. The sound of her rattling, labored breathing was the only break in the quiet of the evening for a long time.
But sometime after midnight, a disturbance erupted in a far corner. It began in whispers but soon escalated into a shouting match. Sheila accused Mary of stealing her coat while she was asleep. The coat in question was ragged and faded, likely cast off by someone with the means to get something warmer and new, but it was all that Sheila owned.
Mary called Sheila a liar. She followed this charge with several other names, amounting to a long string of very creative synonyms for “prostitute.” Sheila told Mary she was a “no-good good-for-nothing.”“Oh yeah?” Mary shot back. “I’m better than you’ll ever be. I’m an aristocrat of the highest order—with the Rothschilds on my mother’s side and the Three Wise Men on my father’s.”
End of discussion. Sheila couldn’t top that.
Things quieted down again quickly, and both women rejoined the others in sleep. I smiled to myself, impressed with Mary’s effort to connect herself with one of the world’s wealthiest families—and with the generous gift-bearers at Jesus’s birth. As I pondered her words, the claims of another Mary came to mind, found in the song known as the Magnificat, recorded in the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke:
“My soul magnifies you, O God, and my spirit rejoices in my Savior,
for you have looked with favor on the lowliness of your servant.
You have scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
You have brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.
You have filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
In some sense, in an obscure corner of a DC women’s shelter, the rich were put down from their thrones that Christmas Eve. A claim of royalty, of power, of “somebodyness,” issued forth out of homelessness and brokenness and powerlessness.
It’s the sort of radical social upheaval that young Mary, pregnant with child and with hope, understood when she ran to find solace in the arms of her also miraculously pregnant elderly cousin, Elizabeth. Elizabeth’s child “leaped in her womb” at Mary’s greeting, and Mary, still trembling with the news that she would give birth to the Son of God, sang the words above in response.
Long before Jesus preached the compassion and justice that got him into trouble with the authorities and led to his death, his mother understood that change was coming. The starving and the sick, the persecuted and the poor, the lepers and the lame, were going to rise up and say to the kings, ‘Move over. Your turn is up. This is our throne now.’ Everything was going to be turned upside down.
The revolution was launched with God’s choice of Mary. A young woman living in a patriarchal society run by powerful men, a Jew in a land under Roman military occupation, a peasant on the run who had to give birth in a barn—this one, occupying a place of paramount social insignificance, unworthy by every measure in the world’s eyes—was anointed by God to bear the precious gift.
It’s still going on. The question for us is, which side are we on as it all comes tumbling down?