Brief Notes On Marginalia

I must begin with a shoutout to Books with a Past, whose email newsletter alerted me to the existence of an entire website devoted to marginalia!

The article they linked to, Edgar Allan Poe on the Joy of Marginalia and What Handwriting Reveals about Character, quotes Poe arguing that marginalia is a uniquely free and authentic form of writing, on the grounds that, when writing in a book, unlike every other form of writing, you are writing only for yourself: in dialogue with the author and also with yourself, working out ideas and arguments. This made me wonder whether Gretchen MacCulloch, author of the (absolutely delightful) book Because Internet, would categorize marginalia as formal writing (like books), informal writing (like postcards), or something else entirely.

Perhaps the genre depends on whether the marginalia is pre- or post-printing press: while today’s marginalia are rarely seen by anyone but the author (though my favorite part of buying used books is seeing what the previous owner wrote in the margins!), at least some of the medieval marginalia by scribes and copyists often seems to be explicitly directed to subsequent readers, sometimes asking for prayers for the soul of copyist.

I learned to write in books shortly before I started my masters in theology. It was not my idea! But when I asked the advice of the women in my small email group what I should do to prepare, Ann O. gave me two pieces of advice: a) read “How to Read a Book” by Mortimer Adler, and b) learn to write in my books. I was horrified by both suggestions (after all, I’ve been reading books since I was five!), but I eventually agreed a) to read the book, and b) to try writing in it — figuring that since I was unenthusiastic about the book, it wouldn’t bother me as much to ruin that book!

Well, it didn’t take long before I got the point that writing in the margins is a way of arguing with the author, which made me much more enthusiastic about the whole thing. (And the book itself was not horrible, especially for someone coming to theology from a science background: it turns out you actually do need to read this stuff differently. Who knew?) I have also found it helpful over the years to diagram in my books, circling key concepts with annotated arrows explaining the relationships and so on. This is something you can’t (yet?) do on a Kindle, which is why if I want to really engage with a book, I need to own a hardcopy. (Although I think I’ve heard there are newer tablet programs that allow this sort of thing with PDFs…? If you’ve used such a thing successfully, I’d love to hear about it.)

I wonder if quote-tweets, in which one tweets a comment above someone else’s tweet, could be considered a form of marginalia, too. What do you think?

PS – it’s not too late to sign up for the free February series on Interfaith Perspectives on Economic Justice — let me know if you do!

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Free Interfaith Series on Economic Justice

The excellent Institute for Christian, Jewish, & Muslim Studies in Baltimore is offering a free online series on economic justice this February.

A four week series on Thursday evenings, this series will grapple with questions like “when is a society economically just” with perspectives from a Jewish, a Christian, and a Muslim scholar, each reflecting on economic justice from the perspective of their own religious tradition.

The first session will be an introduction and orientation to interreligious learning by the director of the Institute, who is also their Roman Catholic scholar. It always surprises me a bit that this sort of thing is necessary, because I’ve done a fair bit of ecumenical and interfaith learning and discussion, and it’s always been a positive experience for me. But there does seem to be a fair bit of suspicion, or perhaps simply nervousness, that studying with people from other traditions will somehow “dilute” one’s own religious identity.

For the record, I’ve had the exact opposite experience: there’s nothing that makes me realize just how Catholic I am than hearing people from other religious traditions describe their own spirituality, beliefs, and perspectives! And at the same time, what they contribute broadens my context and perspective, which gives me more to reflect on from my own perspective.

I will never forget the first time I attended a Christian-Jewish bible study offered by ICJS: as we were reading over a text from one of the gospels, a Jewish man in the room spoke up and said, “Jesus sounds just like Jeremiah!!” And suddenly I felt as if a whole new wing had opened up inside my head: I realized that Jesus had been raised in and was preaching to a Jewish community that knew the Law and the Prophets a whole lot better than I did, and that must have influenced how they heard him! It sounds obvious when I say it now, but even obvious things don’t necessarily occur to you if you’re never in a context that sparks the realization.

I’m very pleased that ICJS is beginning to offer courses like these online, to spread their reach beyond the Baltimore area, so that more people can benefit from their work.

And the topic! Economic justice is a topic that I feel is incredibly important, especially in our society today. I have basically no background in economic theology, so this will be a great introduction for me.

I will definitely be there! If you’ll be there too, let me know here or on Twitter, and maybe we can chat about the material during the week after each class. Sort of a virtual “hanging out in the parking lot after the class is over to keep talking”… but without the dark and the cold and the standing. 🙂

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Winter Solstice: Already and Not Yet

A lectionary reflection for the 21st day of December, in the 4th week of Advent

The first reading for today is from the Song of Songs (Sg 2:8-14). It contains a passage that must have been set to music that I know, because I can almost sing it to some phantom melody…

For lo, the winter is past,
The rains are over and done.
The flowers appear on the earth,
The time of singing has come.

Why do we hear this today? The winter solstice is the shortest day of the year; it’s the midpoint of winter, not the end of it. “Solstice” means “standing sun”: if you’ve been tracking the location of the sun in the sky at the same time every day, you’ve seen it move in one direction every day; but today is the midpoint, today it stands still, tomorrow it starts to move back, in the other direction, and the days will start to get longer.

The winter isn’t past. What’s going on?

There’s a churchy phrase we toss around sometimes: “already and not yet”. It expresses the tension, or the mystery, of how the Reign of God is already here… and not yet here. It was inaugurated when Christ died and was raised… and is not yet fulfilled until he comes again in glory, to judge the living and the dead.

On the winter solstice, the end of winter has been accomplished. We are no longer heading into winter; we’re on our way to spring. Winter is already over… and not yet over.

It’s like that third candle on the Advent wreath. On Gaudete Sunday we rejoice, because we are closer to the fulfillment of Advent by the feast of Christmas than we are to the beginning of Advent. In a way, we live all our lives in “pink candle time”, in the “already but not yet”.

On this winter solstice, on this Tuesday of the fourth week of the second Advent of the pandemic, may you rest in the sure knowledge that the winter is past, the flowers appear on the earth, the time of singing has come… already, surely, irreversibly, although not yet.

O Radiant Dawn,

splendor of eternal light, and sun of justice:

come and shine on those who dwell in darkness

and in the shadow of death.

Come and save us!

O Antiphon for December 21

A grateful tip of the hat to PrayAsYouGo. whose reflection for the day prompted this post. Their daily reflections are beautifully structured, short but deep.

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Held: Blessings for the Depths (…including one from me!)

An amazing book is coming out soon, and I’m honored and thrilled to be a contributor!

When I first read the call for submissions from enfleshed for a new book called “Held: Blessings for the Depths”, I knew immediately that I had to have a copy. The vision for the project fired my imagination:

We hope our book of blessings for the depths will feel like someone trustworthy is holding your hands and looking you in the eyes as you journey through mystery, unknowns, or discernment.

How lovely!

And anyone who’s familiar with my blog or twitter feed can probably understand why this next bit appealed to me:

Though some exceptions will be permitted, we are largely seeking submissions that de-center Christian language. While we hope to maintain a deep sense of spirituality throughout the entire publication, we encourage writers to do so with a minimal use of traditional God language, playing with more expansive and creative ways of pointing to the mystical and mysterious, the Divine, the Sacred, the ordinary magic of shared existence.

While I write as a Catholic, I’ve always actively welcomed non-Catholics, non-Christians, agnostics, atheists, those who are “spiritual but not religious.” I know there are many reasons why people may be uncomfortable with or alienated from Christian language and imagery. Even for those of us who are comfortable and familiar with such language, venturing beyond the comfortable and familiar can enliven our spirits and further open our hearts to the Divine.

And what is not to love about this??

Blessings will be interspersed with commissioned art, as well as interactive elements encouraging intimate engagement with the book. We hope this book will be the kind of item people form a relationship with – carrying it from place to place, passing it to a friend, writing in the margins, personalizing, and perhaps especially, a source of blessing during difficult times.

As I considered whether I might submit, I slowly realized that this might be the perfect match for a poem I had written years ago, a meditative piece about menstruation, originally titled “The Blessing.”

It was inspired by a half hour workshop on menstruation that I attended at a women’s expo that profoundly and forever transformed my relationship with my period. (I unfortunately don’t recall the name of the Black woman who led the workshop; I’d reference her here if I could, as a matter of citational justice.) The poem gave sound and structure to the insights I took home that day, and I said it over to myself whenever I got my period, as a spiritual practice, at various times during the days I was bleeding.

I am deeply grateful to the project editor at enfleshed who gently encouraged me to consider revising the piece to be gender inclusive. I had considered it before submitting, and decided against; I was attached to my original words, based on my personal experience as a cis woman. But, as a Roman Catholic woman, I know intimately the pain of praying with language that excludes me; and I realized I didn’t want to inflict that pain on anyone else. The editor kindly gave me a few days to work the revision, and I’m quite pleased with the resulting version that is inclusive of everyone who menstruates, no matter their gender identity. (It is coincidental, but quite fitting, that I am posting this piece during Trans Awareness Week.)

I’m also excited about the pricing model they’re using:

Suggested price per book – $15
Receive one book, support enfleshed gifting one book** – $30
Pay what you can – $0-14

**The values of enfleshed align with wealth redistribution. While correcting income inequalities requires serious and significant changes at the systemic level, and a major disruption of wealth hoarding among the top 10%, we also encourage those with “enough” and “more than enough” financial resources to look for opportunities (in things of pleasure and necessity, as well as supporting movements for change) to justly re-distribute resources

This is a model that I first encountered years ago (about the same time I wrote the poem, as a matter of fact), instantly loved, and have rarely seen since. It appeals to me because I know what it’s like not to be able to afford anything beyond the bare necessities. I find it especially apt for a resource like this, that helps people along a journey: knowing that I’m making the book available for someone who couldn’t afford it otherwise gives me a sense of spiritual connection, that my journey is a pilgrimage I’m sharing with that unknown person.

Whether or not you decide to buy a copy, I hope you will share my excitement at being a part of this splendid project!

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Mary as Viewpoint Character

Catholic devotion to Mary is often disturbing, if not actually scandalous, to most non-Catholic Christians in the West. Having grown up during the first decade after Vatican 2, when liturgy, calendar, and religious education were re-emphasizing the fundamentals that we share with all Christians, I find some of it disturbing, myself, as I’ve written elsewhere. As I engage with traditional practices of Marian prayer, then, I frequently find myself considering them in new ways, to find paths that will be more spiritually fruitful for me.

During my studies, I encountered a form of praying with a passage of the Bible in which the reader is invited to reflect on a passage by identifying with the character to they feel most drawn. It can be used alone, or as a nice technique for a Bible study: after taking some time in silence for everyone to reflect, it’s interesting to hear which characters other people chose, and why, and how they thought about the passage from that character’s perspective.

In a similar way, through the mysteries of the rosary, the church offers us Mary as the character from whose perspective we are invited to reflect on these events of salvation history.

A little background for my non-Catholic readers: when people talk about the rosary, they usually talk about the rosary beads, and the prayers that we say on each bead: the Lord’s Prayer, ten Hail Marys, the Glory Be, and so on.

However, these prayers are only the outward form of the rosary: in reality, the rosary is a meditative prayer. Reciting the prescribed prayers on the beads of each decade keeps the front of our brains busy, freeing up the back part of our brains to contemplate the scene from salvation history that is assigned to each decade. We call these assigned scenes “the mysteries of the rosary.” Likewise, when we talk about Mary in relation to the rosary, we often emphasize the words we recite, which ask her to pray for us.

But by framing these scenes from salvation history as “events in the life of Mary”, the Church implicitly invites us to reflect on them from Mary’s perspective. Mary becomes our viewpoint character, our guide to the familiar stories in the moment we are praying. We can focus closely on Mary’s internal life in these moments: how did she feel, what did she think, how did she react? Or take a broader view: where is she in the scene, who is she talking to, what is their interaction like? How would we feel, what would we say, if we occupied Mary’s place in the scene?

Although I’ve led here with an example from Bible study, the concept first occurred to me in relation to icons. As Glenn Peers explains in his excellent book Sacred Shock: Framing Visual Experience in Byzantium, it is not uncommon for a painted icon to include a small portrait of the donor who commissioned the icon, portrayed as kneeling humbly in prayer, or offering gifts: sometimes as part of the scene, sometimes as one of several framing elements. Peers describes these portraits as “pathetic figures,” not in the contemporary pejorative sense of the phrase but as a technical term, a figure who embodies and models the pathos, the feeling state, for the viewer meditating on the icon, and suggests an approach to its subject.

As we meditate, then, each mystery of the rosary becomes an icon in our mind’s eye. In some, Mary is one of the central characters; in some, peripheral; in others, her presence is only implied. As we prayerfully contemplate each image, Mary’s presence within it — and her encounter with the divine — silently suggests a direction for our own encounter with God in prayer.


Pray for us, O holy Mother of God,

That we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.

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Longing for Ordinary Time

I know, I know: “ordinary time” comes from the Latin ordinal, meaning counting time. The liturgical season of ordinary time doesn’t really have to do with ordinariness.

But here we are.

10 days since the violence at the Capitol.

10 months into the pandemic, with vaccines being administered ever-so-slowly and extra-infectious variants of the COVID virus in circulation.

Four years minus 3 days into the still-current administration, with threats of more violence and investigation revealing more troubling information about the events of Jan 6.

My soul longs for ordinary time.

Lord, have mercy.

Christ, have mercy.

Lord, have mercy.

May the souls of the faithful departed, and all our beloved dead, rejoice in the presence of God. Amen.

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Eucharist means Thanksgiving: a Lectionary Reflection for the morning after the night before

32nd Sunday of Ordinary Time

Wis 6:12-16, Ps 63, 1 Thes 4:13-18, Mt 25:1-13

It seemed as if the readings today had been specially crafted for the moment our country finds itself in today. Even the opening prayer:

Almighty and merciful God,
graciously keep from us all adversity,
so that, unhindered in mind and body alike,
we may pursue in freedom of heart
the things that are yours.

validated my sense that I have been so very hindered, in mind and body alike, by all the adversities of the last four years, of 2020 in particular, of this election in particular, of this week in particular. That my inability to attend mass, even by streaming, over the past several months has had to do with all the adversities and difficulties that I was facing, personally and communally. Even last Sunday, the Feast of All Saints, my favorite feast; the Sunday before the election, over which I had great anxiety, which I deeply wanted to bring to church and pray for our country in the sacrifice of the mass… I just couldn’t.

This morning? I woke up early, looking forward to mass. Eucharist means thanksgiving, and that’s what I wanted to offer.

The first reading felt written directly for our country on this day, after celebrating the Biden-Harris win last night: seek wisdom. Resplendent, unfading, and whoever for her sake keeps vigil shall quickly be free from care. Wisdom perfects prudence. Such a contrast to the increasingly negligent foolishness of the last four years; but it won’t come to us automatically with a new administration — we are called to seek wisdom.

And that psalm… oh, my. It was recited rather than sung because of the pandemic, but there’s a musical setting by Michael Joncas (composer of On Eagle’s Wings, that Biden quoted in his speech Saturday night) engraved in my heart that the words evoked, and I was singing its translation under my breath as the lector recited.

Oh God, you are my God, for whom I long
For you my soul is thirsting
my body cries for you
like a dry weary land without water

Today felt like the blessing of a first gentle rain, after a long dry weariness.

The passage from Thessalonians made me think of how it has been misinterpreted to support a Left Behind theology of the Rapture among certain American Christian groups. Learning that, in the world of the New Testament, the leaders of a city would go out beyond its walls to meet its visiting overlord, to welcome him and escort him back into to the city, provides context and emphasizes the point Paul is making to the church of Thessaly: when Christ returns in glory, our beloved dead will go out (up) to meet him, welcome him, and lead him back here.

The gospel further contrasts wisdom and foolishness, with the parable of the wise and foolish women of the household waiting to welcome the bridegroom. I’ve typically heard this preached from the perspective of prudence, as I did today. But prudence isn’t the same as wisdom, and the prudent women’s refusal to share doesn’t exactly strike me as a virtue, either.

Rather, I read this parable through the lens of “what do we put first?” The foolish women were foolish for abandoning their vigil for the person of the bridegroom to go get a thing, more oil for their lamps. What’s more important, our relationships or our stuff? Our welcoming presence when an absent loved one returns, or the traditional symbols of welcome in our hands?

In this pandemic year, when so many of us have been deprived of the loving presence of family and friends for months, it’s easier for us to keep those priorities straight: if you could be with your beloved family and friends for the holidays this year, would it even matter if there was turkey at Thanksgiving, or gifts around a Christmas tree?

Foolish women. The bridegroom wasn’t looking forward to the light of your lamps; he was looking for you.

As we begin to consider the priorities and policies for the next four years, and contacting our politicians to advocate for them, we are called to keep that in mind: people are more important than stuff. The Catholic preferential option for the poor, the oppressed, and the marginalized calls us to further seek wisdom by prioritizing the poor over the rich, the oppressed over the oppressors, the marginalized over the comfortable: centering their concerns, and including their representatives, and following their lead.

If that sounds like upside-down foolishness rather than worldly wisdom… well, that’s what Paul told us the gospel would sound like, isn’t it.

And yes, the cantor sang the song, during the distribution of communion. 😇


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For us men?

The Christological portion of the Nicene Creed, in Latin, contains the phrase et homo factus est. Both both the 1970 and the 2011 missals translated this phrase as and became man. In this post I argue that this is a poor translation.

The reason for translating homo as “man” rather than “human” comes from a Vatican document. The argument is that, in Latin, homo can mean both an individual human being, and the entire human race. Theologically, this works beautifully (in Latin) to describe the Incarnation, because it carries with it the connotation that Jesus not only became an individual human being, but took on the human condition and (in substitutionary atonement theory) the sins of the entire human race. So poetically this is an excellent text, in Latin.

The argument continues that, in [some dialects of] English, “man”, also, can mean both an individual human being, and the entire human race. “Human”, however, cannot carry both meanings. Thus, to retain the dual meaning carried by the Latin text, the English word “man” should be used.

I respect the argument that is made, and agree that it is valid insofar as it goes. The problem I have is that this theological consideration of the text is considered to outweigh the anthropological and pastoral problems with this translation. (Well, strictly speaking, the document in question does not acknowledge those problems, so I’m not sure it actually was considered to “outweigh” them or whether they were simply not weighed at all.)

The anthropological problem has to do with how human language shapes thought. In 21st century America, the primary definition of the word “man” is “male human being”. “Generic human being” is at best a secondary definition. Furthermore, there is experimental evidence indicating that people think of a male human being, not a generic human being, when supposedly-generic masculine language is used. (Thus on a purely technical level, the selected translation is, it seems to me, plainly flawed, because it chose an ambiguous English word when an unambiguous word was available.)

This is especially true in a church like the Roman Catholic church, where “man” often explicitly does mean “not woman”. One of the conditions for ordination is that you must be “a baptized man”. Christ came “for us men and for our salvation”, and “baptized men can be priests”. “Men” either means “human beings” or “male human beings”, depending on the context. Therefore, as a Catholic woman, it is not possible for me to assume that the supposedly-generic “man”, “men”, “he” always includes me: I have been explicitly, repeatedly, and vehemently instructed that it does not.

The pastoral problem is that, in a world and a church plagued by the sin of sexism, it is uncompassionate to prize a poetically apt expression of doctrine over the pastoral issue that many women will not be able to identify either with “us men” or with Christ when they pray this section of the creed. The whole point of this section, as written in the original Latin and Greek, is to emphasize that for people like me, Christ became someone like me. If the language doesn’t facilitate that identification for all Catholics, then the language is poorly translating the text.

Likewise, in a world and a church plagued by sexism, there is the potential of misleading English speakers who only know the English, and don’t know the Latin or Greek, into the mistaken belief that the theology expressed in the Nicene-Constantinople Creed emphasizes the maleness of Christ. It does not. The church fathers, had they wished to do so, could have written (vir, andros) rather than (homo, anthropos). Indeed, there was a controversy in the early church about whether Christ took on (assumed) the whole of human nature, including the nature of women, and it was definitively settled in the affirmative, because “that which is not assumed is not redeemed.”

It’s crucial to the sense of the Creed that Christ became human, not male. Translating the word as “man” potentially, and I believe _usually_, gives a mistaken impression of the underlying theology.

I did learn something new about this section of the Creed concerning the earlier phrase, “for us men” at the parish presentation introducing the 2011 missal. The way many, many Catholics have actually recited this phrase is “For us (pause), and for our salvation”, so as to avoid the exclusive language without messing with the rhythm. As far as I know, this was a spontaneous adaptation that arose all over the country. The proposed translation submitted to Rome used this language. It was rejected, and the word “men” reinserted, on the grounds that the “for us” phrase and the “and became” phrase needed to use the same language, to underscore the parallel.

That argument resonated strongly with me. Now I recite “For us humans… and became human.”

This post was originally a comment in response to a question on my 2011 post Incoming Missal.

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What are we deconstructing?

This question was asked of Kevin Miller during this evening’s session of the online Collaborators Conference, a mimetic theory/theology conference that is a successor of sorts to the Theology and Peace Conference I attended once or twice while in grad school. (Are any of my readers also attending? Let me know in the comments!) Here are a few of my scattered thoughts around and in response to that question.

What are we deconstructing, and what are we reconstructing, in this social and historical context? My first thought was “white supremacy”, from my perspective as a white American in 2020.

The trick to deconstructing and reconstructing, of course, as with revolution, is to avoid a superficial reordering of the same social structures that simply put someone else in charge. The opposite of dysfunction is still dysfunction.

White supremacy in the US defines and privileges white people over against non-white people. US society is white-normative: white people are considered “normal” people while non-white people are seen as Others, defective and even dangerous by virtue of their non-whiteness. This reminds me of dual-nature anthropology, that defines and privileges men over against non-men. In both cases, the Other is the pharmakos, the vulnerable semi-insider, the ideal scapegoat candidate.

I believe that in this moment, what we are deconstructing is white supremacy, particularly against Black and Native Americans whose specific egregious sufferings at the hands of white colonists were constitutive to the formation of this nation. I believe this because of the widespread, persistent #BlackLivesMatter protests that sprang up in multiple cities after the police killing of George Floyd and are still going on; and particularly because there are large numbers of white people at these protests, standing up for black lives, for black people, quite literally standing with the victims of racist police brutality and putting their bodies in the place of the victim, being beaten and tear-gassed and shot with rubber bullets and arrested.

Perhaps the opposite of over against is in solidarity with. Can we reconstruct our society on the basis of the solidarity between white people and non-white people that we see in these protests?

Perhaps we can deconstruct and reconstruct St Paul here:

If we are for God, who can we be against? For the Spirit of God has set us free.

riffing on John Foley, “If God is For Us”, Romans 8
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At the hour of our death

“At the hour of our death.” For Catholics, those words are instantly recognizable as the end of the Hail Mary. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death, amen.

Although we often pray the Hail Mary, it is something we particularly pray when someone is dying, or is in danger of death. We pray it when we hear a siren, for those who are in danger, and perhaps approaching the hour of their death. When my dear friend Mark was in his final hours, what I needed to do was pray the rosary. I didn’t even really understand why; only, “I am Catholic, and this is what we do.”

There’s another liturgical phrase that most Catholics recognize, although it has more variation in the exact wording: By sharing in his suffering and death, may we also come to share in his resurrection. It’s Jesus’ suffering and death that we’re talking about, of course. I was originally puzzled by the variant that said “by suffering a death like his,” because I took it literally: Jesus’s death was crucifixion, and that’s not how most of us die.

Eventually, I figured out that the crucifixion was only the means of his death, not the substance of it. Fundamentally, Jesus died because he was human. Through the Incarnation, he took on our humanity, our mortality. Humans die: it’s constitutive of the human condition. By one means or another, we all die. The words of the prayer have it backwards: Jesus suffered a death like ours.

And his mother was there.

Mary was there, at Calvary. She saw him nailed to the cross. She witnessed his suffering. She watched as he drew his last breath. She saw him die. Tradition has it that she cradled his dead body in her arms, grieving, after he was taken down from the cross, before he was placed in the tomb.

And that’s why. That’s why we pray to Mary when someone we love is dying, or has died, or when someone is in danger of death: because Jesus suffered a death like ours, and Mary was there.

Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners,

Now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

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