Thursday, December 28, 2017

Marian musings


The wonderful Christmas story, which continues to touch, and often to inspire, generations represents the confluence of two significant streams of thought. Jewish scriptures, theology, and beliefs comprise one of these streams. The authors of Matthew and Luke both quote the Jewish Scriptures to prove that Jesus was a descendant of King David, destined to reign forever. However, some of their quotes are so strained as to be almost incomprehensible, e.g., Matthew’s use of the Jewish scriptures to argue that the Messiah would be born in Nazareth. The second stream came from the secular cultures surrounding Jewish communities. These secular cultures generally believed that great men – generals, rulers, and prophets – were born of a woman impregnated by a god.

Out of the confluence of those two streams, Mary’s identity and role within Christianity underwent dramatic changes during Christianity’s two-thousand-year history.

Originally, as scholars learned from close study of the oldest portions of the New Testament, Mary was regarded simply as Jesus’ mother. When post-resurrection Christians began to understand Jesus as God’s only begotten son, the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke emerged to support claims of Jesus’ divinity, borrowing their conceptual framework from secular culture. The circumlocution “overshadowed” connotes God having intercourse with Mary, producing a son, Jesus, who was both divine and human. In the twenty-first century, we know that biology and spirituality may offer complementary explanations; we do not need to reject one explanation in favor of the other. If for no other reason, Jesus required a biological father from to whom to receive the X chromosome.

Mary’s virginity – itself a tricky translation problem because the Hebrew word may mean either a young woman or a virgin – was important only because it points to Jesus’ divine paternity. Over time, with increasing emphasis on Jesus’ divinity and diminishing emphasis on his humanity, Christians came to believe that Mary’s virginity was perpetual. What man could ever be worthy to enter into conjugal relations with the mother of God? Fortunately, the Greek word for brother also denotes cousins, so New Testament references to Jesus’ brothers became references to his cousins.

Additional reflection and Christian promulgation of the doctrine of original sin led to belief in Mary’s Immaculate Conception, a feast first celebrated at Lyon in 1140 and established as the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church in 1859.[1] A woman worthy of being the mother of God could not be tainted by sin. And if Mary was without sin, then she should not suffer death, the penalty for sin. Thus, the Roman Catholic Church in 1950 declared that Mary had been bodily assumed into heaven. Most recently, support has grown for the idea that Mary, along with Jesus, was co-redemptrix of the world. Pope John Paul II found this idea attractive but did not make it the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church.

Devotion to Mary found itself torn between two competing forces. On the one hand, devotion to Mary began as a counterbalance to increasing emphasis on Jesus’ divinity. The human Mary was more merciful and believed to have considerable influence with her son. In many ways, Mary became the human face of God. On the other hand, the exaltation of Mary brought a vital and missing feminine aspect to the Trinity (the Spirit as the feminine aspect of God was ignored or worse by male theologians).

The Protestant Reformation dethroned Mary as Queen of Heaven and relegated her to the margins of Christian theology and life.

Anglicans, consistently attempting to straddle the middle ground between Roman Catholics and Protestants have incorporated Marian feast days into their liturgical calendar but allow individuals to make of Mary what they will.

For me, Marian feast days afford an opportunity to highlight the importance of understanding God in feminine as well as masculine images; in truth, God is the one of whom it is impossible to say anything without committing idolatry (the via negativa). However, as in other religions, widespread human yearning to adore something greater than the self is the catalyst for speaking of God in concrete terms and images, e.g., as seen in the evolution of Mahayana Buddhism out of Theravadan Buddhism.

Similarly, the Christmas story affords an opportunity to emphasize Mary, the Jewish peasant girl who gave birth to Jesus. The biblical story of her devotion and obedience, whether factual or strictly mythical, remains a powerful spiritual and moral exemplar.

In the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), Mary says, “Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed.” However one understands Mary’s identity, we rightly join with the generations who have preceded us in calling her blessed.



[1] Margaret Starbird, The Woman with the Alabaster Jar: Mary Magdalen and the Holy Grail (Rochester, VT: Bear & Co., 1993), Kindle Loc. 2463-68.

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