Mary Reconsidered

annunciationToday is the feast of the Annunciation — March 25, nine months before Christmas.  It is the day when we celebrate the story of the Angel Gabriel’s appearance to Mary, a teenaged girl, engaged to be married.  The story tells us that Mary had a vision in which she was invited to become the mother of Jesus, and somehow, she was able to say “Yes” to this invitation.   And having done so, was “overshadowed” by the power of the Holy Spirit and conceived a son.

For most Christians, for most of Christian history, this story has placed Mary in a most exalted position in the life of the church.   Most of the world’s Christians today are either Roman Catholic or Orthodox, and both of these traditions have long held Mary in high esteem, as do some strands of the Anglican/Episcopal tradition.  Protestantism felt that people had gone a bit overboard where Mary was concerned, and so her devotion was mostly eliminated from the Protestant tradition.  But globally, this position is a minority perspective.

Much of the Christian veneration of Mary has tended, in my view, to miss the point.  Great focus was placed on her “perpetual virginity”, particularly in the Roman tradition, and much ink has been spilt over the question of how she could have become pregnant without the participation of a male human.  Despite the assertion of multiple gospels that Jesus had brothers and sisters, theologians managed to explain their presence in ways that prevented Mary from being their mother (again, the preoccupation with her virginity).   In the process, Mary became a woman removed from the life of the women of her time or any time.   She became rather precious, and was advertised to Christian women as a model to be emulated:  a pure, passive, life-carrying vessel.  Indeed, the Roman tradition went so far as to proclaim the doctrine of the immaculate conception, which sought to exempt Mary from the usual human failings that fall under the general category of “sin” (a doctrine, incidentally, that the Orthodox Christian tradition has not accepted).

This great perfumed cloud of the Marian tradition has obscured what to me is a far more powerful story.   But just as the gospel stories about Mary’s conception of Jesus required a bit of imagination, this alternative story requires some, as well.

I imagine Mary as a young girl, as she surely was, in a culture where young women were married far earlier than our current Western standards would consider appropriate.  Her family had arranged for her to be married to someone whose family they knew, named Joseph.   It’s likely that she knew him in some way, but also quite possible that she didn’t love him — love was not necessarily a part of the marriage equation in Mary’s time, though it was to be hoped that when a match was made by the families involved, the two might grow to love each other.  Perhaps there was a different young man, someone her family regarded as unsuitable, who loved her and whom she loved.  And they did what young people did and do, still.  Only Mary became pregnant — and her world turned upside down.   For this, she could be cast out of her family.  For this, her arranged marriage — her safety net — would be called off.   For this, she could be killed.   She found herself in the most vulnerable position a woman of her time could inhabit.  It must have been terrifying.

But into the midst of this terror comes the voice of God, whispering to her something quite different than her culture and her religion would have led her to expect:  “Blessed are you, Mary. And blessed is the child you carry.”   How is this possible, she must have wondered.  I have sinned, I am condemned, I am the very definition of shame.  This is what my culture and my religion tell me.  “No, Mary.  You are still my child.  My power will overshadow you, as it has from the first moment of your existence.   My Spirit is with you.  The child within you is holy — and he will show the world that those whom the world casts out and condemns are loved by me, for all are loved by me.  Do not be afraid; have courage.”  And she said, “Yes.  May it be this way with me, as you have said.  I will trust in your love, and I will trust that from what seems like a disaster will come forth something beautiful.”  Joseph, too, heard this voice, and he said, “Yes,” and delivered Mary from that place of dangerous vulnerability.  And that, perhaps, is when they began to love each other.

There are those who will undoubtedly object that I have made this up — it is not, after all, the story of the church.  And I’m fine with that.  I have allowed my imagination to “play” with the traditional story of Mary, and allowed it to lead me to, what for me, is a more powerful narrative.  My personal comfort in doing so is rooted in a deep conviction that the traditional story is also made up, or mostly so.  Many years passed after the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus before people became interested in stories of his birth, and when the traditional story reached the form we have it in now, it was not understood to be a factual account.  Rather, like most biblical stories, it was told to bring out an inner truth about the relationship between Jesus, God, and Mary.

The inner truth that I think the story of Mary points us toward is that Jesus, who for us is the Word of God made manifest in a human life, who for us is the most sublime, most profound revelation of God, is someone who comes from the margins.   Whether by the Holy Spirit or a youthful indiscretion, Mary was pregnant without benefit of marriage, and she was in danger.  She and her baby were saved because of a delicate choreography that involved a great act of courage both on her part and on Joseph’s part.   They both had to step outside the norms, expectations, and rules of their culture, and that involved great risk.  And, through it all, they held on to the conviction that God was with them.

It is the same pattern that we see lived out in the life of the adult Jesus, as he devotes so much of his life to affirming people on the margins.   Time and again, he tells those who are culturally defined as outcast or unclean or condemned that they are loved, that they are blessed, that God is with them.  He becomes the incarnation of the Word that Mary and Joseph heard whispered in their restless sleep:  “You are all my children.  My power overshadows you, as it has from the first moment of your existence.  My Spirit is with you.  You are loved.”   When we consider the story of Mary, how could Jesus have been anyone else?  She undoubtedly whispered this Word into the ears of her son from the moment he was born.

As we celebrate Mary, we celebrate her as a courageous woman who trusted that God was for her more than she feared that her culture was against her.  We celebrate a woman who trusted that beautiful things can emerge from what the world sees as disastrous.   Before Jesus changed the world, Mary had to believe the world could be changed.  Without Mary, there is no Jesus.  She is not simply a vessel who passively allowed God to use her.  She is a courageous young woman whose strength of soul and spirit must have been profound.

And so she is an example for us:  of courage, of trust, of strength, an icon of the way in which the divine and the human work in and within each other to allow God to be seen in a human life.  Mary is the one in whom God begins to overturn the ways of the world to reveal that the deepest truth is not found among the mighty and powerful, but among the humble and vulnerable.  And she reminds us that this is still the way of God:  that if we wish to discover the deepest truth about God, about our world, about ourselves, we must go to those at the edges, walk among the most vulnerable, and hear the whispering Word.  Luke expresses this beautifully in the hymn to Mary that he places, rather boldly, in Mary’s own mouth (Luke 1:46-55) — and which, by the way, works just as well with my imagining of Mary’s story as it does with the gospel story:

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; *
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.

From this day all generations will call me blessed: * the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his Name. 

He has mercy on those who fear him *
in every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm, *
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, *
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things, *
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel, *
for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
The promise he made to our fathers, *
to Abraham and his children for ever.

Peter & Mary & You & I

iconofmarymagdaleneA careful (or even not so careful) reading of the New Testament reveals something interesting about the ability of the people around Jesus to receive the truth of who he is and what he represents:  the women get it and the men do not.

Over and over again, the 12 men who are the chosen and called as “official” followers of Jesus demonstrate their inability or unwillingness to accept who Jesus is or what he has to say.  We frequently see them scratching their heads about his teaching or missing the point entirely.  We find them jockeying for position and arguing over who will be the greatest among them.  We find them falling asleep at the moment when Jesus needs their companionship the most.  We find them panicking in the midst of storms.  Peter, who can be considered the representative of them all, is even called “Satan” by Jesus at one point, because he refuses to accept what is about to happen to Jesus.   That same Peter, an icon for all the male apostles, even denies his relationship with Jesus to save himself — and all his brothers run away in terror from the sight of the crucifixion (except, according to John, the “disciple whom Jesus loved”).

The women, by contrast, largely don’t seem to have these problems.   Represented chiefly by Mary Magdalene, the women (a surprising number of whom are named Mary) seem to companion Jesus in a much different way.  In moments where they are absent (as in the Garden of Gethsemane), that absence is likely the result of their not being welcomed by their male counterparts, rather than of a desire to stay away.  We see the female followers of Jesus anointing him and shedding tears over him — a much different response to his talk of his own forthcoming death than the refusal of Peter to face that reality.   In John’s Gospel, Martha and Mary are quite convinced that Jesus could have prevented the death of their brother, and speak confidently of resurrection in the way the male disciples do not.  The ultimate homage paid to these women in the gospels is the fact that Mary Magdalene (and sometimes other Marys, depending on the gospel) is the first witness to the Risen Christ.   The reality of the Resurrection is a reality the women are prepared to embrace more than the men, it seems.   It fits with the generally greater receptivity of the women compared to the men, and so they receive the good news of Easter first.

What I find most interesting about this difference is that the men represent authority and privileged status.  It is they, ultimately, who are entrusted with the formal leadership of the church, and in a heavily patriarchal culture, it is they who are allowed to have authority, whereas the women are relegated to an inferior position by their society.  As a result, the men are far more invested in the world as it was structured, because that world served their interests.  They are more wedded to culturally determined patterns of relationship, because those patterns of relationship reenforce their positions.  In other words, the fact that the social structure is set up to benefit men and preserve their power makes it harder for the male disciples to receive the fact that, in Jesus, that structure is being overturned and the patterns of relationship that come with it are being undone.

But the women are not nearly as invested in this social structure.  They have, for the whole of their lives, experienced that structure as one that put them in an inferior position, that prevented them from having any official power or even many rights, that defined them as weaker and denied them any formal authority.  They see their world from its margins, and the message that this structure is being overturned and old patterns are being undone is much more readily good news for them than it is for their male counterparts.  These women are willing to approach the tomb, even as the thought of doing so unsettles them.   They are willing to look at death head on — and thus they receive the news first that Jesus has undone even death.  They are prepared to welcome all this undoing and overturning, whereas the men need to be convinced and reassured, because all of this seems to them far more threatening.

As we consider these differences between the first male and female followers of Jesus, we might ask ourselves what all this means for us.   It seems clear to me that, for us, this is perhaps not so much about men and women (though, to the degree that males are privileged in a culture, it still is), but about where we are in relation to our investment in structures and patterns that need undoing.  The more we benefit from the ways of the world, the less likely we are to welcome the way in which the reign of God seeks to undo them.  The less we benefit from them, the more the reign of God appears as good news to us.  As we contemplate the forthcoming celebration of Easter, we might ask ourselves how ready we are to welcome the Risen Christ — and the undoing and overturning he represents.

Divine Vulnerability

241In his book, Immortal Diamond, Richard Rohr writes,

It is almost impossible to fall in love with majesty, power, or perfection.  These make us both fearful and codependent, but seldom truly loving.  On some level, love can happen only between equals, and vulnerability levels the playing field.  What Christians believe is that God somehow became our equal when he became the human “Jesus,” a name that is, without doubt, the vulnerable name for God.

— Immortal Diamond,  p.  171

I love this idea — that, for Christians, “Jesus” is the vulnerable name for God.  It is the idea that makes all of our incarnational theology, and the mystery of the cross, sensible:  that in Jesus, God comes toward us in a vulnerable act of self-disclosure, and the supreme moment of vulnerability is the crucifixion, the moment in which Jesus is made our victim, only to appear as the Risen One who overturns and subverts all of humanity’s victimizing ways.

Rohr, it seems to me, is picking up on something that should have been obvious to Christians, but has largely been obscured by our tradition over the centuries, and that is the notion that in Jesus, God seeks to be known to us as an equal.  This truly is the self-emptying that is sung about in the Letter to the Philippians (Chapter 2):

Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross.

Perhaps this is, indeed, the true sacrifice of Christ:  not his death on the cross, but his willingness to sacrifice majesty, power, and perfection in order to expose God’s love for us from within.  John’s Gospel points us toward the equality of relationship that is created between us and God in Jesus when it has Jesus saying,

I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.

In Jesus, God seeks to make us God’s friends, and true friendship is not about power or perfection, it is not about judgment, it is not about reminding another about how very much more you are compared to them.   True friendship is about two people placing themselves deliberately on a level playing field, so that each may safely disclose to the other in a way that creates an intimacy of the heart.  These are the friendships we seek to cultivate, these are the friends that we cannot wait to spend time with.

It has been hard for Christians to imagine God as our friend, despite the mystery of Jesus.  It did not take us long to put Jesus on a pedestal that made him unreachable, a pedestal that God has occupied for a long time.   We can barely imagine speaking about occupying any sort of level playing field with God.  And this is because we tend of focus on God’s majesty, power, and perfection.  We have created a distance between God and ourselves, and failed to truly understand the way in which Jesus bridges this distance, seeking to restore intimacy between God and ourselves.

St. Gregory of Nyssa, in his book “The Life of Moses”, writes,

[W]e regard falling from God’s friendship as the only thing dreadful and we consider becoming God’s friend the only thing worthy of honor and desire…..

And the only way we ever fall from God’s friendship is when we decline to return it when it is offered.

So the central task of the spiritual life seems clear:  to get over our fear of God, and allow ourselves to fall in love with our Divine Friend, allowing God to open God’s self to us, as we open ourselves to God in return.   This is ready and waiting to happen at the depths of our being, if only we would be willing to go there and discover it.