However, one great exception to the dearth of good music from the Catholic tradition is “Ave Maria.” I love it, and make it a point to pull out some recordings each Christmas for my December life soundtrack. My personal favorite is Chris Cornell’s version. One, it’s in English so I know what’s being said, and two, I’ve always loved Cornell’s raw, primal voice. Somehow, it sounds more like a prayer that way.
But I haven’t always known about “Ave Maria.” We never sang it in my church. Because, well, it’s distinctly Catholic in its veneration of Mary. Now we get to the crux of this post. Protestant churches (at least mine, anyway) do Mary an injustice. In my grandparents’ generation it was not uncommon for leaders in the church to teach against the "evils" of Catholicism. Even dating a Catholic was considered taboo; it was utterly unheard of. As a result, anything that smacked remotely of Catholicism was eschewed, including doing anything that would could be seen as praising Mary.
Protestants went to the other extreme and Mary was often mentioned only in passing each Christmas, a silent figure in the nativity scene. Jesus was the reason for the season; Mary, ignored. Certainly Mary is not Jesus. She’s not holy the way Jesus is holy, and we shouldn’t pray to her for intercession; that’s unnecessary. But it doesn’t mean we should forget how amazing Mary really was.
Scholars believe Mary was probably about 16 years old when she was chosen by God to carry Jesus. Imagine you are a 16 year old girl living in a patriarchal society, wherein being female makes you vulnerable to begin with and pregnancy outside of marriage would make you a pariah, and probably condemn you to a life of poverty. You’ve been a nice girl all your life and now you’re engaged to a nice carpenter. But suddenly you find yourself in the position of having to try to explain to him that you haven’t cheated on him, but you’re pregnant. You can guess how well that conversation would go over. Indeed, the Bible tells us Joseph was going to quietly divorce her until an angel intervened.
The Bible is filled with people who are reluctant to do God’s work. They try to bargain with God or make excuses; they ignore God or try to fudge the rules. Moses says he cannot approach Pharoah because he’s not a good speaker. Jonah flees from God’s order to preach to Ninevah. The Israelites, in disobedience and lacking faith in God, try to hoard manna. Yet, when Gabriel spoke with Mary, her reply was, “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.” If only we were all so willingly obedient. As Christmas approaches, let us be humbled by an illiterate teenage girl whose example of faith and obedience is one we should remember year round. Ave Maria indeed.