6. Mary in Culture

Mary in Culture

Part 1 - Mary's social setting  Download PDF

Part 2 - Mediterranean values  Download PDF

Part 3 - Kinship  Download PDF

Part 4 - Devotion  Download PDF

Part 5 - Cultural perspectives  Download PDF

Part 6 - Popular devotion  Download PDF

Part 7 - Art and literature  Download PDF

Part 8 - Apparitions 1  Download PDF

Part 9 - Apparitions 2  Download PDF

Part 1 - Mary’s Social Setting  

I recently had a letter asking me about the relationship of Jesus and Mary within the socio-historical setting of their own world, first century Judaism.  It made me think of the reality of Mary’s cultural world and the powerful question of Edward Schillebeeckx, What have we done to Miryam of Nazareth?  One of the newer approaches to the Scriptures is that of Social Science and scholars such as John Pilch and Bruce Malina.  They too have reflected on Mary through Mediterranean eyes so as to account for the status and roles ascribed to her.  Regardless of our ignorance of the actual figure of Mary of Nazareth, the fact that Jesus had a mother would have sufficed to account for the Mediterranean generated attitude toward that relatively unknown personage.

Nearly everything claimed for Mary over the past two thousand years is simply not found in the New Testament.  Nothing is found about her parents, Mary’s birth, childhood, marriage, life in the holy family, her role.  We have to go to the apocryphal account in the Protoevangelium of James (145 CE) for that, a gospel not accepted by the early church, and an imaginative development of the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke.  What is abundantly clear is that while the New Testament has little to say about Mary, what it does mention serves to explain who Jesus might be.

Mediterranean Background and Values  
What is obvious through history is that devotion to and understanding of Mary are rooted in and derived from the Mediterranean cultural region.  What is typical of this region is kinship as the focal social institution and concern for honour and shame within a gender based division of labour.  This is so alien to the values of individualistic and gender equality societies.    As most of our thinking about Mary arises out of the infancy accounts let’s begin there. Note that their focus is on Jesus, not on Mary.  Let’s not forget that key interpretative feature that all of these texts are affected by the fact that Jesus was crucified and raised from the dead and all the gospels are written in light of that event.

In antiquity, the description and assessment of the birth and childhood of notable personages inevitably derive from the adult status and roles held by that person.  If Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah to come, raised from the dead by the God of Israel, then obviously his birth and childhood would be just as the Synoptic Gospels described it.   Certain characteristics were read back to the very moment of the birth of great persons.  What is said about Jesus’ mother underscores the qualities of Jesus as person, and are ‘preflection’ of Jesus as Risen Messiah.

How this works can be seen from the later text in Acts where, after the Resurrection and in light of the Spirit, ‘young men shall see visions and old men dream dreams’ (Acts 217), we see in Matthew’s infancy God communicating with old men (magi) or Luke’s aged Zechariah.  The pouring out of the Spirit on a young woman (Acts 1:17 continues to include sons and daughters) who has a procreation related vision (the Annunciation), is a typical feature of biblical literature’s birth announcements. 

God does communicate with women about their reproductive functions and subsequent gender based roles, so often beautifully caught in words such as “And God remembered Sarah… Rebekah… Rachel… Ruth… Hannah….”   The author of life remembers the daughters of God and they conceive.

Thanks to her vision Mary considers her son as special since she can take a trip alone from Nazareth to a city of Judah (Lk 1:39).  The fetus is already powerful, capable of warding off evil and even recognised by another fetus, Zechariah’s son to be.  The events preceding these conceptions and the subsequent womb behaviour, simply points to another typical feature.  God knows prophets before they are born, consecrating and calling them from their mother’s wombs (Jer 1:5 and Isa 49:1). Paul believed the same (Gal 1:15-16).  AS might be expected, having been filled with the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth proclaims Mary blessed because of her reproductive role: ‘blessed is the fruit of your womb.’

Since all children were swaddled, so Jesus was too;   for Luke this was a sign for the shepherds (Lk 2:12).  The practice of swaddling underlines the authoritarian quality of Mediterranean society, a restrictive practice that went on until the 17t century.  Wrapping with bands of cloth was to ensure that limbs grew straight and went on for the first 8-9 months of life.   They also represented limitations placed on the immature or inexperienced.

In the Gospels we find Jesus properly talking down to his mother (Lk 2:49 and Jn 2:1-4), and even distancing himself from her and her Mediterranean claims on him: “Here are my mother and my brothers!” (Mk 3:31-35); “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it” (Lk 11:28). 

Also we have no record of Mary at the foot of the cross in the three Synoptic Gospels, not even in Luke, her great champion.  While we turn to John for that, we find in John nothing of Jesus’ birthplace nor the name of Jesus’ mother.  Without the Synoptic Gospels tradition, chances are Mary of Nazareth would not be known or remembered at all, but ‘the mother of Jesus’ would have substituted for her.

In short, regardless of the extent of our ignorance of the actual figure of Mary of Nazareth, the fact that Jesus had a mother would alone have sufficed to account for the Mediterranean generated attitude toward that relatively unknown personage.  Today there is abundant evidence that it did suffice.

Source - Malina, B. (1990). Mother and Son.  Biblical Theology Bulletin, 20, 54-64.  Published in the Marist Messenger, 31 March 2016.

Part 2 - Mediterranean Values 

Mary and Mediterranean Values  
With the Emperor Constantine’s adoption of Christianity as a legal Roman religion in 313AD, Christians felt an urgent need to clarify their ideas about Jesus as Messiah.  As Mediterranean males (the ones who did the theologizing) they were naturally concerned that the mother of Jesus was part of the project.  Mariology developed from a Mediterranean male application of the principle that if something was fitting and proper to happen, then it did happen.

How to speak of a human Messiah with a mother, not dropped from heaven?  It was proper and fitting to call Jesus God, therefore it is proper and fitting to call Mary the Mother of God, which she must have been and therefore was Mother of God (Council of Ephesus 431).  But what good is her being Mother of God if she is dead and buried?  So it is proper and fitting for Mary to have been raised after her death; therefore she must have been raised after her death, and in fact she was raised after her death.  But it is equally proper that she be taken to heaven after her death and being raised; therefore she was taken up to heaven and is in heaven right now. 

Once this principle of, if it is proper and fitting, it must have been and therefore it was, became accepted, it produced a large number of facts that allowed Marian devotees to seek out parallels in Jesus’ life and status for the life and status of Mary.  If Jesus was poor and suffered, so too did Mary.  If Jesus healed, so too did Mary.  If Jesus was Lord, then Mary must have been a Lady of sorts.  If Jesus is King, so Mary is Queen.  In practice as we have seen in earlier articles, Jesus and Mary formed the male and female dimensions of the one God.

The Mediterranean Mindset  
This was anti-introspective.  Instead of judging people individually and psychologically, both elites and non-elites used stereotypical descriptions and explanations.  So what stereotypical descriptions were fitting for Mary?  How did she serve as a cipher for the feminine, specifically as virgin and mother?  Mary was given a significant symbolic role to serve part of the prevailing religious system. On the basis of their cultural experience of the feminine, of virgins and mothers, Mediterranean theologians described the mother of Jesus in a way they felt necessary to fit into their system.  Religion in their world was not a free standing institution; there was no separation of religion and politics or religion and kinship. 

Doctrinal positions copied political ones  
To say Jesus is God-man is within a context that saw the emperor as God’s single, human focus in the world, imbuing the role of emperor with divine attributes; after all, emperors are appointed by God, are they not?  To say that Mary is the mother of God is to say that she has the same role toward Jesus as the emperor’s mother or empress has toward the emperor.  Much early art illustrates this. To say Mary is queen is to raise the social level of queen to the supernatural, with subjects owing due respect.  The same as saying Jesus is king. 

Cultural Idealisation  
To say Mary is a lady is to raise the social level of the well born aristocratic females of the Middle Ages to the supernatural requiring respect of subjects.  With the rise of new religious orders, largely from aristocratic families, Mary was called the Bride of Christ, a Western male perspective on women’s religious orders that extolled the role of aristocratic virgins and projecting their role into the realm of the supernatural.  Titles, experiences, and roles for Mary can serve the interests of those adopting the titles.  Mary can be presented as the ideal mother, idealising motherhood, yet Paul VI points out the extended role that women perform in society (Marialis Cultus #34).

The New Testament says little if anything about how Mary thought and felt.  The Mediterranean male ideal drew on her ‘fiat’ and made her wonderful because she acted just like any male would want of a female, i.e. with full obedience to her church and her husband.  Mary then devotes herself to her natural role of mother, with all the virtues natural to feminine nature (at least to the Mediterranean mind set):  gentleness, docility, forbearance, submissiveness, humility, modesty, silence, obedience, long-suffering compliance, charity, prudence, compassion, purity, praise, docility.  And of such is the controllable wife or daughter. 

None of this is in the New Testament but is a commentator’s idea of some ideal mother with attributes most often denied to normal womankind.  One might also sense the origins of the litanies that preceded the Litany of Loreto, approved by Sixtus V in 1587, with the suppression of all earlier litanies.

Two Biblical-cultural Scenes 
1. The sphere of childrearing is nearly exclusively female.  Boys stay with their mothers until it is time to move into the male world.  Note how in Luke 2:48 it is Jesus’ mother who deals with him when he pays no attention to the caravan’s departure and goes missing for three days. 

2.When the father is no longer the subsistence provider for the family, de facto authority is now concentrated in the hands of the mother.  In Mark 3:31-35 the family of Jesus comes with his mother to carry out the important task of taking Jesus home because ‘they thought him out of his mind’ (Mark 3:21).

Source - Malina, B. (1990). Mother and Son.  Biblical Theology Bulletin, Vol. 20, 54-64.  Published in the Marist Messenger, 30 April 2016.

Part 3 - Kinship  

To find out what any text in Scripture means, it is obvious that the social system behind the text is of prime importance.  The world of the first century Eastern Mediterranean had its own social system and its highest values were kinship and concern for honour and shame within a gender-based division of labour.  The infancy gospel accounts provide the roots of our thinking about Mary, but these focus on Jesus, not Mary.

It is a given that all the Gospels are written from the far side of the lens of the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus (the opposite direction to the way we read them as birth to death and resurrection).  In antiquity, the description and assessment of the birth and childhood of notable persons inevitably derived from the adult status and roles held by that person. 

Jesus as the Messiah, raised from the dead by the God of Israel, would obviously have a birth and childhood as the Gospels describe.  The idea that personality can change was completely alien to Greek and Latin biography; a life account of the time was of persons consistent throughout their times.  Titles such as ‘great’, ‘Son of the Most High’, ‘holy’, ‘Son of God’ (Lk1:15) and ‘save his people’, ‘God with us’(Mt 1:21, 23) attain their full meaning as titles of the Risen Christ and are read back on the child to be born, “pre-flections” we might call them.   

Certain characteristics were had from the very moment of birth and remained throughout life.  After the moment in which Mary said her yes to God’s angel to be the mother of Jesus, aware that the son she conceives was special, she takes a trip alone from Nazareth to a city of Judah.  The fetus is capable of warding off evil and protecting the mother, and even being recognised by another fetus, Zechariah’s and Elizabeth’s son to be.  Another typical feature is that God knows the prophets even before they are born, consecrates them and calls them from their mother’s wombs.  Elizabeth proclaims Mary blessed because of her reproductive role: ‘blessed is the fruit of your womb.” 

Typically, throughout the Bible when God communicates with women it is about their reproductive functions and subsequent gender based roles.  God as the author of life is deeply involved in that life; when a child is born, “God remembered/made her conceive…”

In the Gospels we find Jesus challenging his mother and even distancing himself from her and her Mediterranean claims on him: “Here are my mother and brothers!” (Mark 3:31-35); “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it” (Luke 11:28).  Also the Synoptic tradition knows nothing about Mary at the foot of the cross, while John mentions the presence of the unnamed beloved disciple and the mother of Jesus there (John 19:25-27). 

Who they are is not clear for the Gospel of John seems to know nothing of Jesus’ Davidic pedigree or birthplace (John 7:40-44).  There is no indication that the author knew the name of Jesus’ mother even though he places her at Cana and Calvary.  Is it done deliberately to emphasise her symbolic role at the expense of her real role?  Without the Synoptic tradition, chances are ‘Mary of Nazareth’ would not be remembered at all.

Regardless of the extent of our ignorance of the actual figure of Mary of Nazareth, the fact that Jesus had a mother would alone have been sufficient for the Mediterranean world to generate an attitude towards that relatively unknown personage, the mother of the Lord. 

Mediterranean Kinship Units  
For Mediterranean people the one great goal in life is the maintenance and strengthening of the kinship group and its honour.  Actions that strengthen in-group cohesion are honourable, otherwise they are not.  The underlying Mediterranean value is kinship or family loyalty. The social value of group attachment is at stake.  Jesus attempts to loosen family bonds when they proved contrary to the spirit of a renewed Israel (Mt 10:34-36; Lk 12:51-53; Mk 10:29-30). 

The mother-son bond is a distinctive by-product of Mediterranean child-rearing practice.  One can sense the tension in the Lukan account of the finding of the child in the Temple (Lk 2:41-52) as well as in the one moment when Mary appears with the family during Jesus public ministry.  The passages in Mark 3:23-35 are named ‘A House Divided’ and ‘Jesus’ True Relatives’ – and that says a lot!

If the infancy accounts and even the gospel story itself indicate anything, Jesus’ birth was surrounded with many problems and questions, indecision, confusion and dysfunctions yet duly miraculous.  Conditions in the story and the culture point to parents and families that tend to promote confusion – for Joseph and his own family; Mary and her family.  Mediterraneans are taught to keep all family secrets within the family.  Honour must be protected at all costs.  But persons have their feelings, especially of hurt, but are quick to learn to repress and deny those feelings.  Mary paid a heavy price in her culture for her yes to God.

Source - Malina, B. (1990). Mother and Son.  Biblical Theology Bulletin, Vol. 20:2, 54-64.  Published in the Marist Messenger, 31 May 2016.

Part 4 - Devotion 

Mary and Latin  
In 1974 Paul VI published his Apostolic Exhortation, Marialis Cultus: Devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary.  Along with this, the National Conference of American Bishops affirmed “the permanent importance of authentic devotion to the Blessed Virgin” (Behold Your Mother: Woman of Faith #99).  Both documents were prompted by the diminishing of popular devotion to the Blessed Virgin that followed the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council.

One explanation for this decline in enthusiasm for popular devotions was the introduction of the local language into the liturgy.  Prior to Vatican II when Latin was the only language used in the liturgy, popular devotions in many countries were an outlet for legitimate expressions of piety peculiar to particular cultures in their various national languages.  The introduction of these various national languages in the liturgy lessened the need for other devotions in the vernacular.

Other Factors  
Of course, there were other sociological and anthropological factors involved.  One was the level of secular and religious education among the laity has increased dramatically.  The need for education of the laity was addressed by St John Paul II as one of the greatest needs of the Church.  Devotions of significance, for European immigrants to many countries, would gradually lose their significance for successive generations of their children.  The contemporary challenge is to contribute to the development of ‘authentic’ Marian devotion as urged by the two documents mentioned, to incarnate the church and a devotion that is ‘of permanent importance’ in a world that is distinctively new.

To incarnate European-inspired devotion to Mary, the Mediterranean maiden, in distinctively new countries, is a cross cultural task of mammoth proportions, for it involves the challenge to understand two (and in our own country more than two) contrasting cultures: that of the Mediterranean world and that of our own shores.  Marian devotion will have to be both faithful to its Mediterranean roots and relevant to its new cultural context.  In exploring this topic we will look at three areas: 1. Mary, the Mediterranean maiden, 2. Marian Devotion for believers, 3. Marian Devotion and Spirituality.

Mary the Mediterranean Maiden  
Our Biblical ancestors, including Mary, lived in a Mediterranean world whose culture shaped their total life experience including their experience of God.  We live in a totally different world and culture which also shapes our life experience including our experience of God.  Several primary value orientations guided all Mediterranean persons including Mary. 

A]. Being describes an orientation towards human activity marked by spontaneity in response to life experiences.  This is the exact opposite to the take-charge outlook.  It is manifest in Mary’s response to the message of the angel: “Behold I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be done to me according to your word.”  Mary yields willingly to accept life as is very normal for Mediterraneans.

At Cana where Mary invites Jesus to intervene in a moment of need, then gives instructions to the servants, and apparently ‘takes charge’ of the situation, her behaviour rather indicates that she and Jesus are somehow related to this couple and family.  It would be very shameful for a non-relative to interfere in the affairs of a non-related family.  Even here Mary responds spontaneously as a female relative is expected to respond: with a concern for the honour of the family lest it be shamed by a sudden shortage of wine at a celebration.

B]. Group focus rather than focus on individual persons expects individuals always to subordinate personal wishes and desires to the group.  While listening to Jesus teach, the crowd notes the approach of visitors and advises Jesus: “Your mother and brothers wish to see you.”  They fully expect Jesus to halt his personal teaching agenda and to defer to his family, his ‘main’ group, even above the needs of the crowd, also an important group for Jesus.  His mother and brothers expect that too.  Imagine the shock of Jesus’ reply.  He appears to have gone right on teaching and ignoring his family’s request.

Two cultural aspects should be noted.  The behaviour of all Mediterranean family members is expected to contribute rather than detract from family honour.  On the other hand, the rude outburst of an adolescent son towards his mother (see the Child Lost in the Temple) which demonstrate his growing manliness are supposed to disappear in adulthood and be replaced by a less strained relationship.  Notice that Mary comes with a group just as she stands at the foot of the cross with another group (the women and the Beloved Disciple).  Just before he dies, Jesus makes sure that Mary will not be left alone but will have some adult male to look after her as the culture requires.

While the annunciation is a personal experience for Mary and is presumed to have taken place in a home, recall that the home is the domain of all the women.  Woman and children of the extended family are all in and around the home.  It is rare and open to suspicion of shameful behaviour in the Middle East if a woman ever appears anywhere alone rather than in the company of other women and children of the extended family.

Source - Pilch, J. J. (1990). Mediterranean devotion and wellness spirituality: Bridging and American Cultures.  Biblical Theology Bulletin 20:2, 70-95.  

Published in the Marist Messenger, 1 August 2016.

Part 5 - Cultural Perspectives  

Cultural Orientations  
Mediterranean culture has strong affinity to the present moment, what we see in Jesus’ advice, “Don’t worry about what you will eat or drink” (Lk 12:29).  The cultural obligation of the farmer with the bumper crop was to distribute it rather than store it up (Lk 12:15-21).  When Mary learns from the angel about the pregnancy of Elizabeth she responds ‘in haste’ to visit her, a spontaneous and immediate reaction, one proper to the present moment.  We saw this earlier when Jesus, instead of travelling home with father, kin, or acquaintances, elected to accept the challenge of the present moment to sit among the stimulating teachers in the Temple and engage them in discussion, totally oblivious of other duties.

Peasants in Mediterranean culture were at the mercy of nature.  When strong winds overtook the group in the boat, the disciples panic. 

The expectation was that humans were subject to nature and must suffer it.  Anyone who had control over nature was extraordinary.  At the annunciation, the simple biological facts of conception so familiar to us today were totally unknown by everyone in the Mediterranean world.  Instead, a few dominant beliefs were held.  Spirits of all kinds affected human life; we see this in the many gospel accounts of demon possession.  Mary would have no difficulty in understanding her pregnancy as a result of Spirit intervention. 

Also significant in the culture was a resignation to life as something completely beyond human control; this is what may be described as human beings are subject to nature.  Mary’s response: “let it be done to me according to your will” reflects both a choice made in trust to the God she believed in as well as resignation to God’s will.  Conception and birth were seen as in the realm of nature which is completely beyond any human control.  Human beings are simply subject to it, and certainly not in charge of it.

Human nature was considered in Mediterranean culture to be a mixture of good and evil, a vision that Mary shared, of the desirable and the undesirable.  Surely at the human level she must have wondered at the behaviour and words of her son at the finding of the adolescent Jesus in the Temple.  Like all other Mediterranean persons, Mary, the mother of Jesus, guided her life by these same values.  The results are authentic but at times disappointing for some from a Western culture but it is unfair to the Gospel picture to impose our Western cultural values on a Mediterranean mindset.

Cultural conflict  
Mary is repeatedly proposed as a model for Christians to imitate in documents such as Behold Your Mother, Redemptoris Mater, and Partners in Ministry.  Here is an extract from John Paul II’s Redemptoris Mater #46, with a cultural analyst’s evaluation in italics:

‘Women, by looking at Mary, find in her the secret of living their femininity with dignity and achieving their own true advancement. In the light of Mary, the church sees in the face of women the reflection of beauty which mirrors the loftiest sentiments of which the human heart is capable: the self-offering totality of love [cf. group preference over individual needs]; the strength that is capable of bearing the greatest sorrows [cf. submission to nature; spontaneous response to human experience];  limitless fidelity and tireless devotion to work [cf. focus on the present moment, no view of the future]; the ability to combine penetrating intuition with words of support and encouragement [cf. intuition + words = submission to nature, no control over life].

The paragraph captures and expresses the primary values held and exemplified by Mary the Mediterranean maiden, values that should be cherished and reflected in the behaviour of all Mediterranean women.  The document proposes the values for all women to imitate: submitting personal desires to the needs and desires of the group, accepting without question or resistance the reversals of life, single-minded devotion to the present; etc.

The question raised by such exhortations and many others is ‘how can women from a culture other than a Mediterranean culture imitate these values?  How can a culture whose primary values are doing, respect for individualism, and control over nature, relate to the values held and practised by Mary in her cultural world?

“Despite certain pietistic attitudes that sometimes placed Mary on a pedestal wholly above the human condition, women now see her as a person who achieved the wholeness they seek through prayer [cf. spontaneous response to human experience, someone else is in charge], human work [cf. doing or submission to human existence?], suffering [cf. submission to human existence; the world as a mixture of good and evil], and victory over injustice.”] Partners in Ministry.

Two understandings of work  
Human work in Mediterranean interpretation would be: work is for women and slaves, certainly not for men for whom leisure is the chief value.  The world of Paul and Corinthians is a clear illustration.  Women seek wholeness through work in such a society.  In mainstream Western society, work would be interpreted as the human value described as ‘doing’, a woman’s ability to be independent, to make a plan, gather the resources, and then strive to fulfill the designated plan.  Clearly, two different understandings and two different interpretations! 

Why include suffering?  It is a nuisance and often unavoidable, for which there are few remedies to alleviate and even remove it.  A culture convinced that nature is to be mastered has difficulty imagining or cherishing something that might be called ‘redemptive suffering’.  The first order for the Western mindset is to master nature and with it suffering.  Human effort would be placed on equal footing with prayer in our culture with God being invoked to insure or facilitate the success of the effort.

To propose Mary as a paradigm of passivity and submission to male authority, a woman valued chiefly for her virginity and motherhood, a woman confined to domestic and family roles, is as unfair to her as presenting her as so uniquely exalted and gifted, because of her privileges of grace, that she is beyond emulation. 

Both approaches can reflect devotional representations that run far from that proposed by St. Therese of Liseaux: “For a sermon on the Blessed Virgin to please me…I must see her real life…They show her to us as un-approachable, but they should present her as imitable, bringing out her virtues, saying that she lived by faith just like ourselves, giving proofs of this from the Gospels.

Source - Pilch, J. J. (1990). Mediterranean devotion and wellness spirituality: Bridging and American Cultures.  Biblical Theology Bulletin 20:2, 70-95.   

Published in the Marist Messenger, 1 September 2016.

Part 6 - Popular Devotion  

Authentic devotion to Mary should at the very least be based on a respectful understanding of her within her native Mediterranean culture and the roles she played within that culture.  Often the values held in different cultures are quite opposite.  How can authentic Marian devotion be adapted or newly developed in a radically different culture?  The question is important given the decreased interest in popular devotions.  Vatican II never suppressed popular devotions.  Paul VI encouraged them.  But both sources encouraged the provision of theological underpinnings and urged that they be coordinated with the Liturgy.  Nor should they take place during the liturgical celebration of the Eucharist.

It is possible to uncover the religious dimension that lies at the heart of popular culture, even when its practices are peculiar to one or another social group.  This religious piety or spirituality can be gradually purified and deepened in the ongoing process of evangelisation and religious formation.  With spiritual maturity believers can draw greater benefit from the very same sources of grace available in the Liturgy.

A Personal Experience  
I accompanied the late Fr. Humphrey O’Leary CSSR, to the Redemptorist shrine of Our Lady of Perpetual Help.  Waves of people in their thousands visited weekly, on Wednesday nights, clergy and religious, families, the workers, and even street workers, throughout the night.  While devotion to the Mother of God brought them there it was the procession in the aisle that brought them up to her Son in the Eucharist as they went up and places their hand reverently on the tabernacle.  Also present were priests available for the Sacrament of Reconciliation. 

It was a wonderful blending of piety and Sacraments!  Authentic popular devotion is spontaneous; holistic (touches all aspects of human experience.  It supplements formal liturgical prayer; it combines the sacred and profane; it is rooted in the strong conviction of the need for conversion.  These are positive qualities of popular devotion, including devotion to Mary.

Cultural Clashes  
Western culture tends towards ‘doing’, facing challenges, planning.  Preference for activity tends sometimes to put prayer in second place.  God is called on only in emergencies.  If Mary is seen as doing God’s will by passive consent then our culture sees God’s will is done when human beings do their 100%.  The West has spawned individualistic culture, not to be totally condemned, but its excesses are to be avoided.  The future is such a concern that people can effectively fail to experience or appreciate the present and are totally confused about the past.  Sometimes tradition – and the bearers of it are neglected. 

Nature is there to be mastered and shaped and understood rather than viewed with awe as God’s handiwork. The experience of God in such a culture is significantly different from that of Mary, the Mediterranean maiden.

Wellness Spirituality  
What is shared is a common starting point: the experience of God.   How might Mary serve as a model for the world we live in?  Change is a central feature of our culture and it definitely characterises popular devotions and spiritualities as well.  Individuals are free to change on their own terms and at their own pace.  The image of Mary as a disciple of Jesus proposed by Paul VI in 1974 and developed in its biblical dimensions by scholars such as Francis Moloney SDB (Mary Woman and Mother) and Bert Buby SM (Mary of Galilee: Mary in the New Testament) is one commendable approach.  To live as a disciple of Jesus within our own cultural background is as obvious for our world as it was for Mary’s.

Images other than discipleship are also possible.  Yet no matter what image of Mary is chosen for one’s spirituality or popular devotion, it is important to respect the cultural distinctiveness of Mary before attempting to universalize her virtues for worldwide imitation and to resist enculturating her in a given culture so deeply that she is no longer the Mediterranean maiden. 

I  remember well presenting Mary in the context of a day in the life of a peasant woman of Nazareth, its field work of up to five hours, caring for her own small garden, looking after a few animals, preparing food for the winter, the reality was a ten hour work day.  One of the school group attending was a hard working cleaning woman who remarked, “I have always thought of Mary as the lovely lady dressed in blue, with lily white hands.  Now I see her life was very like mine, and I feel much closer to her!”  My response was to be moved to say, “And I am sure she feels much closer to you, too!”

Paul VI - Marialis Cultus  
In his great document on the renewal of devotion to Mary, the pope stated the following:  “The Virgin Mary has always been presented to the faithful by the Church as an example to be imitated not precisely in the type of life she led, and much less for the socio-cultural background in which she lived and which today scarcely exists anywhere.   She is held up as an example to the faithful for the way in which in her own particular life she fully and responsibly accepted the will of God, because she heard the word of God and acted on it, and because charity and a spirit of service were the driving force of her actions.  She is worthy of imitation because she was the first and most perfect of Christ’s disciples.  All this has a permanent and universal exemplary value.”  (Marialis Cultus #35).

Reference - Pilch, J. J. (1990). Mediterranean devotion and wellness spirituality: Bridging and American Cultures.  Biblical Theology Bulletin 20:2, 70-95.

Published in the Marist Messenger, 30 September 2016.

Part 7 - Art and Literature  

Devotion to Mary developed in the Mediterranean world.  Its source lay in the gospels we have plus gospels we do not use (apocryphal) as well as other writings.  Mary was presented both in art and literature in terms of the cultural perceptions of females in that world, as maid and mother.  Males were ascribed market places and council halls and law courts, places where large numbers assembled for discussion and action, as their domain for times of war and peace.  “Women were defined as best suited to the indoor life which never strays from the house, within which the middle door was taken by the maidens as their boundary, and the outer door by those who have reached full womanhood” (Philo).

Drawing Water at the Well  
The work of women was oriented to the sphere of the house and places where household affairs take them, such as hearths, wells and ovens.  Writers and artists sensitive to these cultural norms portray the Annunciation to Mary in space appropriate to females.  The Annunciation to Mary in Luke 1:26-38 did not locate the scene, except to say that it happened in ‘a city of Galilee named Nazareth.’  The earliest legendary expansion of the story created a lasting tradition that Mary was drawing water at a well when Gabriel spoke to her.

“And she took the pitcher and went forth to draw water, and behold, a voice said: ‘Hail, thou art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee, blessed art thou] among women’.  And she looked around on the right and on the left to see whence the voice came.  And trembling she went to her house and put down the pitcher and took the purple and sat down on her seat and drew out the thread.” (Protoevangelium of James, 11.1).

The legendary expansion echoes biblical stories of patriarchs meeting their future wives at wells: Isaac’s agent meets Rebekah (Gen 24:11-21), Jacob and Rachel (Gen 29:1-13), and Moses and Zipporah (Exodus 2:15-22).  The tradition dominated Eastern churches and there are many artistic representations of the Annunciation at the well, representing the cultural sense of the proper space of females and their proper tasks.

Weaving at Home  
Besides the well, both writers and artists depict the Annunciation as occurring in Mary’s house as she spun thread.  The scene is appropriate, female pace (house) and proper female labour (cloth production).  This is in the second part of the extract from the Protoevangelium above.  The legend only develops an earlier part when a young maiden, Mary, was selected to spin and weave a cloth for the Temple to cover the Holy of Holies:

“Then they brought them (seven maidens of the tribe of David) into the temple of the Lord, and the priest said: “Cast me lots, who shall weave the golden thread, who the blue, who the scarlet, who the fine linen, and who the true purple.”  And to Mary fell the lot of the true purple and scarlet.  And she took them and worked them in her house.”  (Protoevangelium of James, 10:2).

Thus the earliest legends about Mary’s annunciation reflect Mediterranean cultural perceptions of females, what space and labours are appropriate to them, wells – food preparation and homes – clothing production.

Symbolic Spaces  
The later church transformed the simple maiden of Galilee according to the prevailing ideas of the nobility of the Mediterranean world.  Mary was no longer doing female tasks in the traditional female spaces, but acting like a cloistered nun with a vow of virginity and doing things nuns did.  Cloisters served to protect female virtue by walling out worldliness and defending total dedication to God.  Mary is not only cloistered but symbolically becomes a walled garden.  “A garden locked is my sister, my bride, a garden locked, a fountain sealed…” (Song of Songs 4:12).  Even when the scene of the annunciation occurs indoors, often there are flowers strewn on the floor to reflect the sense of a walled garden.

What should a noble virgin of that time do in her cloister?  What nuns customarily were expected to do: read the Scriptures, sing the hours, and pray.  One medieval writer said this of Mary:

“The Blessed Virgin established this rule, that in the morning she prayed until the third hour, from the third to the ninth hour she was busy spinning, and from the ninth hour she again prayed continually until the appearance of the angel from whose hand she received her food.  She improved so constantly in her study of the works of God that she became first in the vigils, the best informed in the law of God, the most humble in humility, the best read in the verses of David, the most gracious in charity, the purest in purity, the most perfect in all virtues.” (Pseudo-Bonaventure.  Meditations on the Life of Christ).

One can only wonder “What have they done to Miriam of Nazareth?

Reference - Neyrey, J. H. (1990). Maid and Mother in Art and Literature. Biblical Theology Bulletin Vol. 20:2.

Published in the Marist Messenger, 1 November 2016.

Part 8 - Apparitions 1  

Apparitions within Culture  
The phenomenon of Marian apparitions or visions is a culturally specific feature understandable to Mediterranean’s or those in contact with Mediterranean cultural scripts.  In visionary form, the mother of Jesus has been part and parcel of Mediterranean living from time immemorial.  At times such visions lasted only a few minutes, at others they were intermittent over a period of days, weeks or even years.  Throughout European Christendom, particularly in rural areas, such visions, especially of Mary, have occurred from at least the fifth century to the present.  Historically and traditionally, visions and appearances have been effective ways to consecrate a place as holy-to set up a shrine.  They are likewise efficient ways for towns or regions to obtain the latest word from heaven on how to avoid collective disasters, whether plague, or drought, or economic disasters.  They also help localities manage in times of warfare.

“The hunger for direct messages from heaven in visionary form has not been appeased, and the continuing faith with which such manifestations are treated still forms one of the most precise images of the Catholic Church’s anxiety to renew intimacy with the Godhead” (Marina Warner).   After the councils of the 4th and 5th centuries the subjects of the Holy Roman Empire knew that Jesus of Nazareth is in fact God and his mother, Mary of Nazareth, is in fact the Mother of God.  Every Mediterranean knows that a son can refuse his mother nothing, hence it was quite logical for Mediterraneans to approach their deity by means of his mother.  Mary then took on the common role of patron, functioning as Mediterranean maternal patron mediating access to her son.

Common Patterns of Apparitions  
There is a distinction between visions and apparitions; visions take place in the mind of a person; apparitions are external events with often a large number of seers or witnesses.  Visions tend to point to a holy person; apparitions to a holy place.  At the outset there is always some crisis experience that calls for a private experience of God.  Examples are the experience of Juan Diego and Our Lady of Guadalupe; troops and Our Lady of the Rosary at the Battle of Vienna; children and Our Lady of Fatima.  A private ecstatic experience then leads to a communal experience that is enmeshed with some sacred object (e.g. Juan Diego’s cloak; the rosary; first Saturdays).

A second step involved the need to assert Roman focused Christianity against heretics (in Mexico, of Rome and the local bishops over Royalists; of Europe over the Turks; of Western Christianity over atheistic Communism).  The vision experience and sacred object then is related to some site (the shrine church now in suburban Mexico City; a votive church in Rome; a shrine at Fatima).

The third step is the use of a religious practice as a battle standard:  a war banner, the standard of Our Lady of los Remedios of Cortes against the Royalists; Christianity against the Turks, as private ecstatic experience becomes a communal experience as a whole people is blessed.  The apparition becomes related to the nation (patroness of Mexico and later of the Americas; protectress of Europe; patroness of Europe against godless Communism).  A social cause is then tied in (Indian rights; Mary spoke in the native language rather than Spanish; European unity; Capitalism or Socialism).  Thanks to the apparition people find themselves now filled with power and moral authority within their world setting.

Past and Future  
To find out the social matrix of Marian visions in Mediterranean Europe or annexed areas, all one has to do is figure out the opponents of the church at the time.  As a rule visions and apparitions of Mary (and others) proliferate during periods of crisis.  The newest role for such visions and appearances may well be found in those distressed by changes in Church policy, a slackening of Church discipline, and a softened attitude towards Communism.  Problems in Church policy and discipline may well be the fuel for some time to come.

Source - Malina, B. J. (1990). From Isis to Medjugorje: Why apparitions? Biblical Theology Bulletin, 20:2.

Warner, M. (9176). Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary. Oxford University Press: Oxford.

Published in the Marist Messenger, 1 December 2016.

Part 9 - Apparitions 2  

We need to examine the question of apparitions, or more precisely, the attitude we take to them.  Some have been recognised by the Church and have become very important places of pilgrimage.  Others have become sites for the celebration of significant events attributed to Mary.  Popular piety regards these sanctuaries as places where people love to pray, where the Gospel is preached to great crowds, where the sick are comforted, and many conversions take place.  On the other hand, the question of Marian apparitions presents itself with a new urgency in our day with several sites awaiting the Church’s definitive and official judgment.

What is the meaning of Marian apparitions?  
We do not attribute the same significance to recognised apparitions such as Lourdes and Fatima as we do to ‘presumed’ apparitions not recognised by the Church.  Between 1928 and 1971 there were no fewer than 210 apparitions, none of which were recognised by the Church.  Extreme prudence is required in light of mysterious or marvellous phenomena and the proliferation of signs and secrets from one apparition to another.  Benedict XIV (1740-1758) made the position very clear, "It is necessary to know that the approval given by the Church… is nothing other than giving permission, after careful examination, to make known a particular revelation for the instruction and welfare of the faithful.  Even if approved, one should not, and cannot assign universal consent."

Nothing is to be imposed’ they are a sign and not a proof, and can help some people in their faith.  They are neither indispensable nor central to adhering to the faith.  As Christians, no one is dispensed from following the Gospel, but neither is anyone obliged to believe in Lourdes, Fatima, or Medjuggore.  Apparitions must lead back to the Gospel, the unique and indispensable source of all preaching on Mary, of all Marian spirituality, and of the teaching of tradition.  Today’s fascination with Marian apparitions should stimulate us to look for a solid foundation from which to nourish our faith.

Major documents from the Magisterium, Vatican II, Paul VI, and John Paul II have chosen to base their reflections on the Bible.  The path then is laid out for us to rediscover Mary by starting with the Gospel – the path followed since the beginning of reflection on Mary.   Rather than basing everything on the ‘marvellous’, we must return to the Gospel and put all of our strength into the mission of evangelising.

At Lourdes in 1986 the Archbishop of Tours spoke these words, "I would like to share a conviction.  The best antidote for this appetite for the marvellous and for revelation is the direct and effective participation in the mission of the Church.  A Christian who studies the teaching of the Church…will not be encumbered with new revelations; the Gospel and the Creed are enough."

Some Salutary Lessons from Apparitions  
Some apparitions have an appeal that links powerfully into the Scriptures.  A favourite if mine is Guadalupe, and here is why. It all began in Genesis 10 with the table of the nations, all descended through the three sons of Noah.  When Columbus bumped into the Americas (and, incidentally, his flagship was named the Santa Maria) he never imagined that his new undertaking would affect the world of the Bible, in addition to the political, economic, cultural and ethical factors.  Those people he ‘found’ were not Asian, raising the question of literal interpreters, whether they could be considered part of the truly human family, unless the Bible was mistaken. 

In 1531 an unexpected factor emerged to help solve the problem.  The issue concerned the strange beings with coppery skin, half-naked, who communicated in an incomprehensible language, and lived in a primitive state.  Did these people have authentic human souls?  Were they also deserving of Christ’s redemption?  Meanwhile in the slopes of Tepeyac, near Mexico City, the Indian Juan Diego received a vision of a lady, the virgin of Guadalupe who left her image as an Indian, with dark skin, large eyes, and endowed with native features, imprinted in a mantle. 

Unashamedly, the Mother of God acknowledged as her children those whom the European community had difficulty accepting as their brothers and sisters.  Six years later Paul III wrote a solemn letter, Sublimis Deus, giving the definitive opinion of the Church, "the Indians to be real human beings and capable of receiving the Catholic faith…not to be enslaved nor induced to embrace the Catholic faith by means other than the proclamation of the divine word and a holy life."

So it was that Our Lady of Guadalupe opened the ‘list of nations’ to the Americas and like her Son showed her concern for the poor and exploited on the face of the earth.  This has been forcefully placed before us by Pope Francis, but there is a second message coming from him, that of better dialogue between Christian denominations as well as between great world religions, notably Islam. 

And that takes me to less well known apparition, Our Lady of Zeitoun, also known simply as El-Zeitoun, Zeitun or rarely Our Lady of Light, was a mass Marian apparition that occurred in Cairo, Egypt, over a period of 2–3 years beginning on April 2, 1968. 

The first apparition at Zeitoun was recorded on the evening of April 2, 1968 when a Muslim bus mechanic named Farouk Mohammed Atwa, who worked across the street from the church of Saint Mary in Zeitoun, thought he saw a woman attempting suicide by jumping from the structure. Two other men also noticed a white figure on the top of the church and the sighting was reported to the police. A crowd gathered on the site and the police attempted to disperse it. According to the police, the sighting was just a reflection of the light from the street lamps.  However, the crowds reportedly viewed the sighting as a clear apparition of Saint Mary, and so, the attempts by the police to disperse the crowd were unsuccessful. The event itself ended after a few minutes. 

One week later on April 9 the phenomenon reoccurred, again lasting for only a few minutes. After that time apparitions became more frequent, sometimes two-three times a week, for several years, ending in 1971. Many healings and miracles were reported during the time of the apparitions. 

Published in the Marist Messenger, 1 October 2013.