E-Letter 183

Posted by on Dec 18, 2014 in Devotions | 0 comments

Inching my way slowly down the merge lane in rush hour traffic on the Downtown Connector, I spied a familiar rundown building where, years ago, I heard with the ears of my heart the prayer the dying grown-up Baby of Bethlehem whispered to his mother who stood at the foot of his cross. This reflection first appeared in a book of devotional readings published by the West Virginia Institute for Spirituality, and I share it with you because yesterday, in the swirl of noise, fumes, and traffic congestion, I experienced the gift of Advent –  a moment of  pure transcendence –  as I recalled the grief of memories which, for centuries, have bonded women together in a sorority of loss. (Mt. 2:16-18)  

Every day Christ is crucified, for we are crucified to the world, and Christ

is crucified in us.

– St. Jerome (347-420)

For many years, the tradition capping the church’s Christmas Eve service was the singing of Ave Maria by a soloist from the city’s prestigious Robert Shaw Singers.  Anticipation would erupt in joy at the stroke of midnight as the makeshift sanctuary filled with the throaty prayer offered to the Mother of the blue-cold Baby of Bethlehem.  For a moment the gray homeless shelter smelling of dirty socks and cheap men’s cologne would feel holy, sacred. But this year the soloist called in sick at the last minute, and the shelter chaplain began a frantic search for a replacement among the medically-fragile men living at the facility.

“I can help you,” I told him, “there’s a guy here who said he made his living as an opera singer.” This newly admitted guest, I discovered earlier that day, had been the head of the music faculty at a prestigious, historically-Black college in his “BA Life” – his Before Addiction Life.  Like many poor Blacks coming of age in the 60’s in the rural South, he shared a story: he was drafted straight out of high school and served two tours of duty in Vietnam where he learned the soul-numbing amnesia of drugs and alcohol. After returning home, he was able to function for many years, but eventually his battlefield demons returned, and he lost his voice, his position, his home, his family, his friends and his partner of many years. He came to the church shelter sick, destitute, frightened, and utterly alone.

There was standing-room only in the darkened sanctuary that Christmas Eve, and I felt all eyes on my back as I lit the Christ Candle and shared its flame with worshipers. Quietly, tentatively, a thin tenor voice broke the silence of this sharing with the haunting words, Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum, Benedicta tu in mulieribus,et benedictus fructus ventris tui, Iesus. In the glow of the Christ Candle stood a frail, slender Black man in platform heels and a tight, leopard print dress with a feathery black boa scarf slung around his shoulders calling attention to his upswept hairdo and exquisitely made-up face. For a moment, at the stroke of midnight, this makeshift sanctuary was filled with the hoarse, whispery, cracked, throaty prayer offered to the Mother of the blue-cold Baby of Bethlehem…and it was heavenly!

Our soloist slipped out the darkened sanctuary unnoticed, and for days I frantically called the other shelters and social agencies serving the homeless asking about his whereabouts. Finally, Epiphany Sunday an Atlanta police officer called and asked me to come to an abandoned building to identify the body of a man dressed in women’s clothes who had overdosed on heroin.  I jumped in my car praying that it might be otherwise, but when I crossed the warehouse threshold, I knew…because I heard in the ears of my heart the throaty prayer that Jesus whispered in his mother’s ear as he hung from the cross:
Ave Maria! Ave Maria! Maiden mild! Thou canst hear though from the wild,
Thou canst save amid despair.
Safe may we sleep beneath thy care,
Though banish’d, outcast and reviled –
Maiden! Mother, hear a suppliant child!
Ave Maria!