Mary Comforter of the Afflicted [biblical/traditional/art]

Mary of Nazareth, is the beating human heart, and the culmination of our focus in the Advent Season. She is remembered on the fourth Sunday of Advent as we, with her, are called by Gabriel to be open to the Spirit and bear Christ into the world in our own lives (Luke 1.26-38).

In our parishes we daily greet her and invoke her prayers as we say:

Hail Mary full of grace the Lord is with thee, blessed art though among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus. Holy Mary Mother of God pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.

Mary Comforter of the Afflicted and Mary Comforter of the Afflicted II
© Kehinde Wiley

The first part of this comes from the biblical passage in which Mary and Elizabeth, her cousin, meet (Luke 1.39-45). The second part came into its present form in the middle ages, when the world was assaulted by plague and death. It was felt that Mary, as part of the communion of saints, and close to her son, could pray for the faithful on earth. In this role she is known as ‘Mary, Comforter of the Afflicted.’

In his images, Mary Comforter of the Afflicted and Mary Comforter of the Afflicted II, the contemporary U.S. artist Kehinde Wiley reinterprets this tradition. Mary is depicted as black men who carry the dead bodies of their sons. Wiley describes his dialogue with the history of western art as an “intervention.” He intervenes by inserting black bodies into images where we have come only to expect white ones because “At its best, what art does is, it points to who we as human beings and what we as human beings value. And if Black Lives Matter, they deserve to be in paintings.” We might also note that he inserts male bodies where have come to expect a female one!

Wiley’s images offer a robust, visual Advent challenge as we live through COVID and as we address the realities of racism and the prejudice against LGBTQIA+ people in our communities and church. How are we offering comfort to the afflicted in the midst of our present pandemic? How are we intervening to lift real, suffering, marginalised people, that have been forced into ‘lowliness’ as the Spirit lifts Mary, this young, first century, Palestinian, woman of colour? How are, in co-operation with the Spirit incarnating God in Christ into our world, so that we will be found active in the justice-work of God’s reign when Christ comes again in glory?

Fr. Robert Thompson