At this time of year, we focus on Jesus’ birth, on the event of God becoming incarnate and enfleshed as a tiny baby. One of the main characters in this story is of course Mary, whom we read about and sing about, but who usually doesn’t get that much of our attention. But Anabaptist Mennonite interest in Mary seems to be increasing, if the conference I attended last March at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary is any indication (it was called “My Spirit Rejoices in God, my Saviour: Mary in Anabaptist Dress,” and you may have read this article about it in the Canadian Mennonite). In my studies, I’ve come across some valuable insights about Mary as a role model, but also some of the dangers or the ways in which the story of Mary can be misused. I want to share a few of these thoughts with you, at this time of year when Mary’s name is on our lips.
I find the biblical account of Mary’s story remarkable and inspiring – here’s a young woman (a youth, really – she was probably only about fourteen) who is approached by God to do something very important and difficult, and she courageously says yes, despite the risks. We often hear about how strong a faith this “yes” reflects on Mary’s part. And, given what lay ahead for her first-born son, we can imagine that Mary’s life was not easy, as the sculpture above depicts (it’s from here). She must have been a strong person to be able to live through such painful events and maintain her faith in God, as we hope she did.
That’s the thing, though, isn’t it – there’s so much about Mary that we don’t know, because the Bible doesn’t really talk about her all that much. She appears in the Christmas stories and a handful of other places; she ponders things in her heart, and stands at the foot of the cross in John 19, and we know she was in the upper room at Pentecost (Acts 1 and 2), but that’s not much to go on. In the Roman Catholic tradition, though, there are a lot more stories about Mary, which have become official doctrines of faith over the years. Mariology is actually a branch of Catholic theology. It includes the beliefs that Mary herself was conceived without inheriting original sin, that she gave birth to Jesus without pain and without losing her virginity, and that she didn’t die, but was “assumed” into heaven, where she is now Queen. To those of us who haven’t grown up hearing these stories, they sound strange and yet strangely familiar; a few of them seem like variations on events in Jesus’ life, as theologian Douglas Farrow writes in this book, p. 131, which is why some affirm that Mary and Christ are King and Queen of Heaven, spouses and counterparts.
I’m not sure, though, whether these elaborate, miraculous stories about Mary are all that helpful. According to theologian Elisabeth Schuessler Fiorenza, this emphasis on various miracles related to Mary, mostly centred around her “perpetual” or permanent virginity and idealized motherhood, makes her an impossible role model for real women, who just can’t simultaneously be virgins and mothers (see this book, p. 174). The assumption behind the idea of Mary’s virginal motherhood is that ordinary women’s bodies – especially their sexuality – are somehow impure, even within marriage and family life. At various points in history, Mary has also been used to encourage women and the poor to be submissive and unquestioningly obedient to the dominant and wealthy. This Mary becomes a kind of superhuman being, a quasi-goddess on the side of the powerful, on the side of the kings and queens of Europe during the time of the conquest and colonization of the Americas, for example. The problem is that this image of Mary starts to lose much of its resemblance to the biblical Mary – and therefore to the biblical Jesus and his radical way of life as well.
Schuessler Fiorenza’s concern is that the biblical story of Mary (or Miriam, in Hebrew) is a painful and scandalous one, and that a focus on miraculous legends about Mary tries to cover up and sanitize these aspects of her story. She speaks about “Mary, the ‘single’ mother,” a poor Jewish girl from Nazareth, “living in occupied territory and struggling against victimization and for survival and dignity” (pp. 186-7). Mary’s experience was definitely not rosy and ideal. Her famous Magnificat, the song she sings in Luke 1, is full of revolutionary images of God’s justice, and the raising up of the lowly, like herself. This is Mary who risked her life to carry Jesus, since she could have been killed for having a child that was not Joseph’s. This Mary was forced to travel during the late stages of her pregnancy because of the census, and had to give birth to Jesus in a filthy barn. This isn’t a submissive Mary who blesses the elite – this is a Mary who dared to sing her song of revolution in an occupied country, Mary the refugee to Egypt, fleeing those armies and rulers who would try to kill Jesus throughout his life, and succeed in the end – at least temporarily. This Mary isn’t perfect, nor is she a supernatural version of everything women are supposed to represent, but she’s an ordinary woman of profound faith and courage. This Mary, I think, can be a radical and inspiring example to all the followers of her son, men and women alike. This Mary, I suspect, was also such an example to her son, who seems to have followed in her footsteps, down a similarly courageous path.
So on that note, a Merry Christmas to you. May it be a revolutionary and scandalous season, like that very first Christmas long ago.