“The angel Gabriel was sent from God to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, and the virgin’s name was Mary. And coming to her, the angel said, ‘Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you.’” (Luke 1:26-28)
December 21, 2014
Fourth Sunday of Advent
Fr. Robert deLeon, CSC
“I need pastoral care!” she screeched down the long hospital corridor. “I need INTENSIVE care!” she qualified with high-pitched urgency. Having just arrived at the hospital, I spun on my heels in the nearly deserted corridor at 5:15 AM to face not a wounded patient or panicked parent but a frazzled-looking overnight employee of the hospital’s Dunkin’ Donuts concession. It was Muriel. Again. Apparently she’d been waiting in ambush for me or another of the chaplains, keen on capturing our attention before patients, families and healthcare workers could preempt her.
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Pausing for her mid-corridor, she came to a skidding stop and, out of breath, continued her desperate plea. “I been behind that counter since 11 PM and I’ve had it! Had it! Just two of us working, and this is a big hospital, you know? Cafeteria food service closed and lots of hungry folks here, so everybody ends up at my counter. Everybody! You got your hungry doctors thinking themselves too important to be waitin’, nurses so tired they can barely stand up, a few oddball patients who can’t sleep, so they amble on down here lookin’ for some nightlife. ‘Course there’s always the drunks and druggies from the ER looking for a handout. I’ve had it! Just had it!”
We’ve been here before, Muriel and I. Her list of grievances never varies; in fact, it comprises her job description. As an overnight employee of the hospital’s Dunkin’ Donuts concession, weary hospital staff, insomniac patients and sometimes unsavory ER clientele populate her serving counter. It’s just what one ought rightly to expect in a huge urban medical center. And, in fact, most nights Muriel manages, but about every 2 weeks the demands of the job rise from her aching feet to crown her with a throbbing headache. That’s her cue to seek out one of us chaplains with her desperate plea—“I need pastoral care! I need INTENSIVE care!”
When it’s me she finds, I listen, then ask how I can help. “I need a blessing,” she says. One hand on her head, the other on her shoulder, I pray, “Loving God, please be Muriel’s peace this day. Help her to know that she brings healing and comfort to the sick and those caring for them. We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.” Then, tracing the Sign of the Cross on her forehead, she’s off, claiming I’ve cured her headache. For today at least. Until we do this again in 2 weeks.
Indeed, Muriel really does have a difficult job. Hired to be the nocturnal smiling face behind the Dunkin’ Donuts counter, I know from past conversations that she wants to be more than a coffee-pourer and donut-slinger. This young woman—faith-filled, church-going—wants to be part of the hospital’s healing mission. Praying to see the face of Christ in those who lean on her counter, sometimes she can. But those other times! Those ugly other times! It’s then she comes running for a blessing.
For me, Muriel has become the face of the many whose desperation I’ll never hear in a screechy-voiced shout down a corridor. She is the icon for all those hospital employees who, struggling to keep youthful idealism alive, wear the dull eyes and fixed expressions of wearying stress.
In the gospel passage we hear on this Fourth Sunday in Advent, St. Luke writes, “The angel Gabriel was sent from God to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, and the virgin’s name was Mary. And coming to her, the angel said, ‘Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you.’” (Luke 1:26-28)
This is the beginning of the Christmas story, the first proclamation from heaven and delivered by an archangel, that God wants to be with us in a new and more intimate way. Yes, God will become one of us in his Son, Jesus, born not once upon an ancient Christmas Day from the womb of a virgin named Mary, but born in every human heart that will receive him.
Hearts like Muriel’s. Hearts open wide to God’s blessed coming. Hearts that, while waiting for him, become stressed-out and clogged-up meeting the dizzying demands of humanity. But then, approaching me with a screech—“I need pastoral care! I need INTENSIVE care!”—I know she’s momentarily forgotten that God has already come to her. And that, though she be at wit’s end, her very pounding headache is proof that she’s spent herself serving him in the many human disguises he wears leaning over her Dunkin’Donuts counter demanding black coffee and a blueberry muffin.
But Muriel knows it’s God she’s serving even before a headache gets the best of her. That infernal throbbing signaling her clear need for a time-out, she pops a few extra-strength Tylenol capsules, then goes looking for a chaplain’s blessing. Any chaplain will do, any denomination at all, but on the morning she captures me, I pray, “Loving God, please be Muriel’s peace this day. Help her to know that she brings healing and comfort to the sick and those caring for them.”
Claiming instant relief from the headache—she insists prayer did it, not the Tylenol—she skittles away, back to her Dunkin’ Donuts counter, back to her demanding encounters with God in disguise—“Gimme a black coffee and blueberry muffin!”
For Muriel, faith-filled and church-going, knows the Archangel Gabriel delivered a heavenly message to her, too, when he said, “Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you!” Yep, with Jesus living in her heart, Muriel was surely full of grace, God ever with her.