Today is Annunciation, the day on the Christian calendar that marks the announcement by the angel Gabriel that Mary would conceive and become the mother of Jesus aka Son of God. This past Sunday, I visited Montebello, CA to speak about Mary. Montebello, according to my father-in-law, is a former outpost of the Los Angeles Sefardic Jewish community known for their butchers and florists.
Today, it is primarily a Latino community of remarkably spotless, serpentine streets. Tucked into a stretch of N. Garfield Avenue is the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary Convent. As I pull into the lush grounds canopied by jacaranda trees, a giddy feeling rose from my toes.
I love nuns.
When I try to capture the memory of my first interaction with nuns, the only thought that comes to me is a play I was in when I was 12 called “Child’s Play” where I played a nun with a flask of brandy, a comic relief in a kind of murder mystery play. Actually, nuns were something of camp entirely, as I associated post-Vatican II habit-wearing women to images of Whoopi Goldberg or Mother Superior from the Sound of Music. Nuns were entirely foreign to me, a legend that existed in another time, another place, outside of here and now.
My love of nuns came when I began studying Jewish spiritual direction. A nun from the Sisters of St. Joseph became my spiritual director and taught me the profundity of sitting in silence. She became a refuge for me for a few years when I found the world of rabbinical school confusing and competitive. When I shared with her that the rabbinical student’s cognate of the medical student studying pathology and becoming a hypochondriac was that the rabbinical student studied God and became an atheist, she responded with an enthusiastic “Yes, yes, YES!!!”
As I slam my car door in the convent parking lot, I notice that this place is beyond neat for a parking lot. The signage isn’t great, and I am unsure where to go. A woman dressed like Aphrodite emerges from a Honda, her skirt billowing in the wind. “This way” she guides…
As we enter the “convention hall” the room is filled with what looks like a collection of prototypes for the modern day nun. Their hair is uniformly cropped in a kind of mullet, dyed in Ms. Clairol #9 or salt and pepper. They dress as if Santa only delivers boxes from Talbots under their Christmas trees. In short, they age like women used to age, before botox and retinol, and look like women in their 60s used to look, before 60 became the new 40.
I reach for a cup of tea and am beat to the teakettle by a woman with a fast tea-trigger finger. “Oh, did you want this, too?” she half-apologetically asks. I feel a bit out maneuvered. “Hi, I’m Sister Kate” she introduces herself. “And who are you?”
Floundering for a moment, I feel too shy to share with her that I am a guest speaker today, invited to speak about the Jewish perspective on Mary. Before Sister Kate, whom I assess has been a nun for about the span of my entire life, I feel like a fraud. What could I possibly share with her about her mentor, role model, Saint, and, oh, yeah, also Mother of the Son of God?
The room shifts and people take their seat. I am invited up to sit next to the moderator. One person speaks about the ways teens perceive Mary today. And then I find the microphone being passed to me.
I look out upon faithful eyes. They are waiting for me to open my mouth. There is a profound stillness in the room. I feel in awe of their attentiveness. Not a cell phone stirs, not an IM sneaked.
“When I think about Mary, I can’t help but see her through the lens of Miriam, Moses’s sister. And it seems that rabbinic literature has made this association as well, as whenever the mother of the Christian Savior is mentioned, which doesn’t happen too often, they refer to her as “Miriam.” And who is Mary/Miriam? For the rabbis, there is not much beyond a prurient interest in her identity. And so, I turn to the Christian book of Luke to understand her. Standing at the precipice of Annunciation, the day when Mary was informed that she would birth God’s child, I grow humbly aware of who Mary is. She’s a Jewish teen-ager from a poor family living in Roman occupied Judea, the present day version of a Jewish girl living in Iran. That this minority of minorities should become the creator of the savior of all humankind is kind of a big deal. But, why I ask, of all of the oppressed young Jewish girls, did God choose her?
It’s here that I look at Miriam, who, similarly, was a teen girl living as a minority of minorities. Miriam was known for a few things in the Bible – saving her brother from the Pharaoh’s edict to kill all Jewish baby boys and then ensuring that he made it to Pharaoh’s daughter to be adopted into the family. The midrash tells us she also made sure that Yochevet, Moses’ mother, was his wet nurse. The midrash also tells us that it was Miriam who was ostensibly responsible for Moses’ parents “getting it on” enough for Moses to be born at a time when it was dangerous to have a Jewish baby boy. So, in a big way, Miriam is responsible for the birth of the redeemer of our people. Without Miriam, there would be no Moses, and without Moses, there would be no Israelite Nation.
So, for Jews, Miriam was our feminine deity of salvation. But with one remarkable difference that, in the end, was her fatal flaw – she had a BIG mouth. The Book of Numbers reminds us of Miriam’s big mouth and the trouble it caused her and Israel. In a way, it had ill effect on Moses, and when Miriam dies, his inability to follow God’s instructions on how to find water for the kvetching Israelites led to Moses’ exile from Israel and death on Mount Nebo. In a way, his sister’s influence became his fatal flaw as well.
Fast forward a few thousand years, and here she is, Miriam 2.0, Mary Mother of God. What is the quality, I ask myself, that merits this Miriam such an exalted place in the canon?
I take a moment to listen for an answer in the silence.
The nuns offer silence in return.
“Her reticence,” I whisper.
“When Gabriel came to her with the news that she was to become the Virgin Mother, hers is not a response of Word but of Faith. This Jewish girl knew when to shut up.”
The nuns break out in uproarious laughter.
As the wave dies down, I continue and talk about Robert Graham’s statue of Mary at Our Mother of Angels Cathedral in downtown LA, focusing on his embodiment of reticence and how it fills the body with supple ripeness, and I think silently to myself: I want to be more like Mary.
And with that --.
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