Running late, I was at the usher's mercy. The Feast of the Annunciation, the day we celebrate the angel Gabriel's announcement to Mary that she would be the mother of God and bear Christ in the world, had things a little more crowded. I would typically try to get a spot in the back of the church, where I could spread out a bit and remain anonymous. The usher had different plans and marched me past several rows of empty seats, to a set of chairs toward the front of the worship space. I tried to casually mention that I am a "back-bencher" and that these out of the way seats were perfect, but he either didn't hear me or thought better. I'm usually a pretty friendly person, but this day, I just didn't feel like rubbing elbows with strangers. The idea of sitting cramped between people made me want to cut and run. Too late. I was committed, caught in a flow that suddenly seemed beyond my control.
Hail Mary full of Grace, the Lord is with thee.
I'm not sure when the Holy Spirit knocked me over. My experience is that these moments sneak up and sucker punch you when you're looking the other way. Normally, I would be obsessed with the empty seat where I was supposed to sit; the one that looked like a tiny sliver barely peeking out. But today, I was transfixed by the older woman in the chair next to me. She wore a threadbare, floor-length puffer coat and what looked like a gele head-scarf covering her hair and portions of her mahogany skin. She glowed.
Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus.
We sat in a place of coronation. Kings and queens for 700 years received the scepter of human power in this holy space. But my awe wasn't focused on the kingdoms of man and rulers of dust. Her plaintive whispers of prayer in a tongue I didn't recognize formed the harmony beneath the words and songs wafting all around. I didn't know the language, but I understood. We sat in a place of coronation in more ways than one.
Holy Mary mother of God,
Formality. Tradition. Stiff upper lip. She tossed the rigidity of centuries aside as she crossed into the stone aisle and gave motion to prayer. She stood in a ready position as her arms moved in a sweeping, circular motion, gathering up all around into her purpose. Around and around they floated in the air, and then each arm moved gently in tandem upward as if handing the cares and concerns of the world to God. She knelt on the cold pavement with one arm stretched toward heaven. I saw a tear stream down her face. I felt that somehow I was a part of her prayer...her worship...her life in God. Kadesh. Kadesh. Kadesh. The body of Christ birthed in the world again and again and again. My heart was full to overflowing.
pray for us sinners now and in the hour of our death.
I wanted to speak with her and learn her story. I longed to tell her how her presence touched my life. When the service ended and the organ began playing, I looked away for a moment. When I turned to speak, she was gone. I looked around, but couldn't see her. I moved quickly toward the center of the church, maneuvering my way through the throng of worshippers and tourists. Nothing. I started walking fast, almost a jog to catch up with her. I spilled with everyone else into the Abbey courtyard and the streets of Westminster. I continued my search, but she was gone.
The Abbey bells pealed, filling the world with sounds of end and beginning. I saw a mother and a baby in a stroller. The baby cried as the mother pushed forward.
Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her. - Luke 1:38
Peace. Presence. Purpose. We usually find these in unexpected places and people. It's rarely convenient or comfortable and too often we're looking the other way. It seems to be God's way. God give me the courage and faithfulness of Mary's "Yes!"
New life is all around.
My soul magnifies the Lord
And my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.