5. Mary for now

Mary for now

Part 1 - Mary the refugee  Download PDF

Part 2 - Mary disciple in the ministry of Jesus  Download PDF

Part 3 - The swirling current of Mariology  Download PDF 

Part 4 - Journey towards birth  Download PDF 

Part 5 - The Annunciation: A call to vocation  Download PDF 

Part 6 - The Visitation: A new world vision  Download PDF 

Part 1 - Mary the refugee

The Flight into Egypt: A real woman lies at the heart of all the Church celebrates about Mary. As I look back on this recent series of articles, I am struck by how human the life of Mary really was, how much she shared the experiences of so many of humanity: the process of giving birth, the terror of being driven out as a refugee and seeking sanctuary in a foreign land, the anxiety of losing her teenage Son, the pain of the loss of her loved husband, the sadness of having to let her child go as he set out on his life mission, and his tragic and premature death as a rejected criminal. Today’s reflection takes us to the heart of what so many are experiencing in our world today: persecution, displacement and exile. To deny this whole area of her life prompts the question of the theologian, Edward Schillebeeckx, What have we done to Miryam of Nazareth?” 

The Flight into Egypt and the Crucifixion  
Two episodes in the Gospel accounts of Mary’s life make us recoil from the reality of what they suggest: the Flight into Egypt and the Crucifixion. We can seek refuge in allegory and symbolism, considering every possibility but that mother and child, with Joseph, are caught up in this drama as real human beings who love and suffer and plead with God not to let this happen, to take this cup of suffering away. This is a trio blessed by God, not cursed or punished. Nor are thousands of refugees today, including those from Iraq, to whom Pope Francis spoke: “The church suffers with you and is proud of you, proud to have children like you”.

The Reality of Pain  
If we would learn from Mary, we must let our minds travel with her into Egypt and to the foot of the cross, and allow the raw pain of her experience to strip our prayer of sentimentality and escapism. Yet what a modern luxury it is when, instead of taking a contemplative stance in quiet reflection on Mary’s journey in the real world, we reduce the refugee mother in torment, to a disquieting flicker on the television screen. Rachel’s grief at the loss of her children echoes in our day. There can be no prayer whose peace is not disrupted by comfortless Rachel; no church walls thick enough or devotions pious enough, to shut out our awareness of Rachel’s children being no more.

In a Wednesday address to pilgrims (3 September 2014), Pope Francis gave a similar message: he told the pilgrims that the church is a mother who knows how to help her children most in need, “pick up the child who falls, heal the sick, seek the lost, wake up the sleeping, and also defend her defenceless and persecuted children.”

We struggle to tell the truth of this situation because we have words that speak of the hell of the wicked and the heaven of the good, but we have no words that tell of the hell of the innocents. This is what Mary and Rachel and their children endure today in a million different ways, as the imagination of power finds ever new ways to exercise its demonic will over the powerless.

Power, Politics, and Pence: We could name the imagination of power as Herod, Hitler, Stalin, ISIS, but it also is the capitalism condemned in Evangelii Gaudium, the murderer and rapist, all who tear apart the fragile hopes that knit society together. It is governments who do not care for the poorest members of that society. Community evil and the evil individuals create a sense of everybody’s problem but nobody’s fault. This is the evil that Mary and Joseph experienced when they were forced to flee from Herod.

Motif for Today  
There are many incidents in Jesus’ life that stretch the contemporary imagination almost to breaking point, but the flight into Egypt is not one of them. If there is a single Christian motif that is appropriate to our age, then surely it is the image of the terrified family fleeing before Herod’s army. It is lived out in Africa, the Middle East, Iraq and Syria in our day.

And Western nations refuse hospitality to these refugees. There is no room at the inn of those nations who said “Never again,” to war, and condemn the genocide so prevalent. Rachel weeps and refuses to be comforted by pious platitudes. She knows better. We have not learned from Rachel’s grief. There are so many holy families trapped face to face with Herod inside their national boundaries, while Western leaders meet in conference centres and discuss strategies for reducing immigration and protecting their own prosperity. It was once wisely said that these realities are not to make us feel guilt but to feel compassion. Guilt can be negative but compassion stirs us to action.

The flight into Egypt finds space on our Christmas cards but it does not connect with the realities of the lives of most of us. It is decorative rather than scandalous, stripped of its power to judge, and therefore stripped ultimately of its power to call us out of our selfishness into loving vulnerability. Mary and her child are refused entry at our borders because they are outsiders and immigrants. They are outsiders to our world because they represent Immanuel, God with us, but God is the Outsider, the Other, and we learn to welcome him only when we recognise him in those unlike us, the stranger, the alien, and to the extent we barricade such people out of our lives, we barricade God out too.

When Mary fled into Egypt, she experienced the darkest side of history, the very opposite to the world of her Magnificat.

Two thousand years on and we still wonder when Mary’s hopes will be fulfilled, that the hungry will be filled with good things, the rich sent away empty, the proud and arrogant pulled down from their thrones, and the world will recognise and live by the promised mercy and compassion of our God. Children still die and go without food while our Herods play their power games. Yet we have to hope and nurture the Christ among us; despair is the greatest enemy of all. There is a place for holy rage that is conceived in hope and not in despair; holy rage is the birthing pain of the living commitment we need to change the world. It is the numbness of indifference that should terrify us, not the passion of hope.

A Physical and Spiritual Journey  
The reality of physical hardship and persecution lies at the heart of the Flight into Egypt. Yet it is also a story of faith. When we read of Mary’s struggle we read not of her defeat but of her perseverance and faithfulness. We cannot enter into her world unless we allow her spirituality to infuse her story. We cannot understand her physical journey unless we also understand it as a spiritual journey. We have seen the ecstasy of the Annunciation, joy in the presence of Elizabeth, celebration of God’s love in her Magnificat prayer which gives Mary’s vision of a world of justice and peace; now we have the reality of her situation, the journey into darkness and fear, a journey to the heart of a world of injustice, the kingdom of the prince of this world.

It would be a very small God who could be trusted only when the going was good and life was easy. Mary was discovering the enormity and mystery of God’s love. God chose her not because she was submissive and meek and obedient. God chose her because she was a woman of extraordinary determination and perseverance, a woman of loving resistance and struggle. Her Son would learn by her example, as we are called to.

Source - Beattie, T. (1995). Rediscovering Mary: Insights from the Gospels. Triumph Books: Liguori, MO.

Published in the Marist Messenger, 30 November 2014.

Part 2 - Mary as Disciple in the Ministry of Jesus  

Readings - Mark 3:31-35; Luke 11:27-28. 

Love for God’s Kingdom: Jesus began his public ministry with the proclamation that the reign of God had broken into human history. Those who heard his message and followed him as his disciples were ordinary people called from ordinary lives to learn a new way of living. Mary had been called long before but she, too, had to learn new ways of relating to her Son in his new role as proclaimer of God’s Kingdom.

It is too easy to interpret the two passages above (Jesus’ True Family; True Blessedness) as failings on Mary’s part in her relationship with her Son, that she is being put aside, having fulfilled her function and that she had no special status among the disciples. This is a disturbing interpretation of God’s dealings with her, of a woman who voluntarily agreed to be a central participant in the Incarnation, in the most intimate way being caught up into and transformed by the mystery of the Word made flesh. Mary remained faithful to her calling through the most trying of circumstances to bring him to birth, to protect him, to provide a home where he could learn, and by her love and example be the key to the mission and life of her Son. This truth is evident in Luke where the Magnificat prayer of Mary becomes the programme of action for her Son.   

Distorted Texts  
What does it say about our idea of God, and of women in the eyes of God, if we believe that after all this, Jesus pushed Mary aside and refused her any special place in his life? Patriarchy gives an image of a god who uses women for their bodies and then discards them, treating them as something less than full partners in the building up of the dream of God for humanity, the Kingdom of God, and its instrument, the Church.  There has to be a deeper and more loving understanding of God’s dealings with Mary.

Certainly, the physical bond between Mary and Jesus has decreased; the womb that bore him and the breasts that he suckled are no longer significant. What matters was that her faith had endured, that she was able to move beside her Son in his public ministry in an altogether new role in the wider community of disciples, as their example and inspiration. Mary was to become the Mother of the infant Church, a wider role that required a mothering person, a person whose whole orientation and concern was for the common good, for the nurturing of relationships and ideas that would foster the sense of community that was such a mark of the early Church.

A Changing Relationship  
When a mother-child relationship develops in a healthy and creative way, there will be a shift as the two grow away from dependence to facing the world shoulder to shoulder, and the love between the two becomes an example and inspiration to others. So it was with Mary and Jesus. That early love remained as strong as ever but was expressed differently as it became inclusive rather than exclusive, open to a world of strangers. It became a love that did not set boundaries nor impose restrictions, but strengthened and encouraged others to do what must be done for God’s Kingdom.

Mark says that Jesus’ relatives ‘went out to seize him, for they said, “He is out of his mind”’; the text suggests his mother was with them although it is hard to believe she would have shared their doubts. In a culture based on honour-shame as predominant values, one can understand concern for the family name was dominant among relatives. But Mary had enough experience of the God of surprises to know that responding to God’s call meant behaving in ways that the world might find bizarre or anti-social. We need to reinterpret Mary’s presence among Jesus’ concerned relatives over the family name. Her Son had taken a radically different path from what was expected of him by the family traditionalists. How often mothers find themselves in a role of mediating between such family branches and offspring who opt for different lifestyles and values.

Mary’s Son would certainly have appeared unusual to his extended family; she shared the vision that inspired him and was instrumental in forming that vision. Before long rumours were circulating about his behaviour – associating with sinners, accusations of blasphemy. Mary suffered with her Son and for him. For thirty years she had loved him and learned with him and from him. Now at this new moment (the text on Jesus’ True Relatives Mk 3:31-35; Mat 12:46-50; Lk 8:19-23) a powerful contrast is set in place. In the community of equals that was the fledgling Church, nobody had preferential treatment. Mary (and by implication, the other relatives) had no special rights because of blood ties with Jesus. Her place in that community was not defined by her role as woman and mother.

In one of the few passages in the Bible, inclusive language is used: all were mothers, sisters and brothers (Mk 3:35).

At this point in the gospel gender is rendered irrelevant with regard to discipleship. Mary is not demoted in this passage. A powerful contrast is set up between insiders (disciples) and outsiders (those who do not believe and accept Jesus). The Lukan account of the event best catches the meaning – in response to the information that his mother and relatives were outside, wishing to see him, Jesus replies by asserting that his mother and relatives are those who hear the word of God and do it (Lk 8:21). This describes the earlier response of Mary at the Annunciation and the text that follows, the beautiful parable of the Sower which describes the good soil that yields a hundredfold, supremely exemplified in Mary.

Augustine’s great line, that it was a greater thing for Mary to have been Jesus’ disciple than his mother seems startling at first sight.  But when we are urged to follow Mary, we do that as disciples of her Son, taking our place among the sisters and brothers and mothers of Christ. I remember asking a Markan scholar why ‘fathers’ were not in the text; it was something that even he had not noticed. I suspect it was because only God is given the term, Abba or Father.  But the Church has redefined our use of the term and we have to make space for both physical and spiritual fatherhood. All groups share in the call to discipleship that is given not through gender but through faith.

A Gospel Caution  
It is important to remember that the gospels reflect different times and communities.  Mark’s negative view may well reflect the situation of his community, where Gospel commitment required heavy sacrifice in the family realm and betrayal by family members of Christians to Roman authorities was a reality. But Mark, whose community may well have not known the mother of Jesus, is only one element in the total picture. This is true of the developing portrait of Mary, aptly described as moving from Mark’s faint outline, through Matthew’s slightly stronger sketch, into the vivid painting or full-bodied sculpture of Luke and John. What is fascinating about Mary and her role in the story of our salvation is the significant development in appreciation of her by the communities that gave us the Gospels.  

Source - Beattie, T. (1995). Rediscovering Mary: Insights from the Gospels. Triumph Books: Liguori, MO.

Published in the Marist Messenger, 1 March 2015.

Part 3 - The Swirling Current of Mariology

A Twentieth Century Issue  
On 25 August 1997 Newsweek had as its cover, The Meaning of Mary: A Struggle Over her Role Grows Within the Church.   At the heart of it was the question as to whether John Paul II would proclaim Mary as Co-Redeemer.  A large box of signatures arrived at the Vatican, 49,383 from nearly every continent, asking the pope to exercise the power of infallibility to proclaim a new dogma, that Mary is “Co-Redemptrix, Mediatrix of All Graces and Advocate for the People of God.”  Over the previous four years an average 100,000 requests a month supported the proposed dogma, Catholics petitioning the pope to make an infallible pronouncement.

If the move had succeeded we would have seen three extraordinary doctrines: 1) that Mary participates in the redemption achieved by her Son, 2) that all graces that flow from the suffering and death of Jesus Christ are granted only through Mary’s intercession with her Son, and 3) that all prayers and petitions of the faithful on earth must also flow through Mary who brings them to the attention of Jesus.  It all seems to contradict the basic New Testament line in 1 Timothy 2:5 – There is one God and one mediator between God and humanity, Christ Jesus.

Resulting Reactions  
“A Marian de-emphasis of Jesus and re-emphasis of the dogmatic authority of the pope.  A further nail in the coffin of ecumenism”; these were issues raised from outside Catholicism, yet were the very concerns expressed in Paul VI’s great document, Marialis Cultus (1974).  From within the Catholic Church a commission of 23 Mariologists, specialists in the theology of Mary and the scholars most likely to support the initiative, voted by 23-0 against promulgating the new dogma.  Their grounds were: it was contrary to the teaching of Vatican II, unclear in its wording, and insensitive to the ecumenical difficulties it would cause.

And Yet…  
Mary continues to be no ordinary religious figure.  Over two millennia the most beautiful churches in the world have been named for her: Chartres and Notre Dame in France, St. Mary Major in Rome.  Poets such as Dante, Hopkins, Eliot and Auden have found inspiration in her.  Musicians such as Schubert gave us his Ave Maria.  And the Annunciation, the angel announcing to a startled teenage virgin that she would be with child, is probably the most painted scene in Western art.  The twentieth century was the century of Mary with visions on every continent, 400 reports of visionaries, more than the three previous centuries.  There was more interest in Mary than there ever was before, not all driven by apparitions.

Feminism played its part, too, as the Mary who had previously been seen as the oppressive figure of clerical patriarchy was now celebrated as a ‘free woman’ who chose to say yes to God at the Annunciation where Eve said no in Eden, and Mary thus made salvation possible.  Liberation theology found in the humble figure of Mary an apt symbol of God’s ‘preferential option for the poor’.

The Journey to Now  
The secret of Mary’s mysterious power may be just this: having no history of her own, she entices every new generation to draw her portrait.  In a past article we saw how the gospels offer scraps to build on, yet from these Mary grew in stature, from the Madonna who gives life to the Pieta who receives the dead.   With the rise of early hermits and monasteries she follows the privileged road to Christian holiness as the perpetual virgin and model of chastity and self-denial.  In 431 the Council of Ephesus issued the first dogmatic statement that Mary was to be honoured as Theotokos, God bearer or Mother of God.  The mystery of the meaning of Mary, her relationship to the Bible from Genesis to the Apocalypse was well caught by the author of Mary through the Centuries, Jaroslav Pelikan, “Concerning no other human being, none of the prophets or apostles or saints, has there been even a small fraction of the profound theological reverence that has been called forth by the person of the Blessed Virgin Mary.”

In the Middle Ages the influence of Mary broke loose.  To the poor, hers was the merciful face of a maternal God.  Aquinas argued against Mary being born without original sin, but in the nineteenth century Pius IX proclaimed the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. The heavenly patroness became the worried mother warning of war, rightly as it turned out, if humanity did not repent and reform.  Religious orders that bore her name rose and flourished.  Shrines such as Guadalupe, Montserrat, Czestochowa became centres of national and religious identity.  Came the middle of the twentieth century, the Assumption was proclaimed.  

A Mirror to the Age  
At the Vatican Council in the 60’s the bishops fought fiercely over what to teach about Mary.  A minority wanted yet another declaration of her exceptional role in salvation with terms such as Co-Redemptrix and Mediatrix being used.  Others saw such a path as a dangerous deviation towards Mariolatry.  A religious artist, Sr. Corita Kent put it all rather well when she said, “The nice thing about Mary is that her son turned out so well.”  Clearly, the face that Mary wears is that of a mirror to the age.  We saw that towards the end of the millennium she was an apocalyptic figure prophesying doom.  Mother Angelica of the Eternal Word TV Network maintained: “If the Holy Father would define this dogma it would save the world from great catastrophes and loosen God’s mercy upon this world.”

Against this stance we have the internationally respected French theologian, Rene Laurentin, who opposed the proposed dogma as un-Scriptural and an affront to the uniqueness of Christ’s redemptive death.  John Paul II had as his motto, Totus tuus, ‘all yours’ – a reference to Mary.  He believed that Mary saved him from a bullet in 1981, on the feast of Our Lady of Fatima.  Yet from our perspective today we know he never went to the extreme and made a dogma out of terms he regularly used himself such as Mediatrix, Advocate, and on rare occasions, Co-Redemptrix.  He did go so far as to assert that Mary was the first to experience the Risen Christ at Easter, something that was not in Scripture but it was, he said, ‘only fitting.’

Emerging from the Assumption, a rich vein to be explored in an age when the culture of death is far too present, Mary already has what any Christian can hope for, a reunion with her Son in the Glory of the Father by the power of the Holy Spirit.  What more could any mother want?  

Source: Newsweek August 25th 1997.   Published in the Marist Messenger, 30 June 2015.

Part 4 - Journey Towards Birth

Reading - Luke 2:1-5.  

Victims of Bureaucracy  
Having reflected on both the Annunciation and Visitation, it is time to move towards Bethlehem.  In her Magnificat, Mary speaks of God’s kingdom overthrowing that of the rich and powerful: He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly (Lk 1:52). Now the powers of the world set their face against Mary and her unborn child, a pattern that will dominate the gospel, but not only the gospel but also our own political reality. Good and evil, love and tyranny, these are issues played out behind the cloak of anonymity and impersonality. The pattern is repeated in our own day with families evicted from their homes, the poor and unemployed at the far end of bureaucratic efficiency. And there is little evident connection between the bureaucrat doing a job and the families and unemployed.

Nobody set out to ‘get’ Mary and make Jesus’ birth as difficult as possible. Those who enforced the census and made pregnant women travel long distances without security or provision for the birth of a child may have felt pity, but what could they do?  They had a job to do, a census to be taken, State needs to be met.  When the structures of bureaucracy take precedence over all else, we invert the godly order of our world; human beings are put in the service of institutions, as created to serve the idols of technology and market forces.  A person too poor and impotent to work the system becomes its victim.  We could well ask ourselves what are the major values of our own society, especially in an election year.  

Lives in Light and Darkness  
Mary’s experience of God teaches us that the purpose of God is mysterious and the following of God requires a faith that does not demand worldly approval or visible signs of affirmation.  We follow God in darkness, knowing that God is the meaning and end of our journey.  Along the way there will be times of peace and times of struggle.  Mary found favour with God, blessed among women and full of grace.  The child she was carrying was God’s Son.  Surely, she was entitled to a quiet confinement and a gentle birth?  Instead, her faith was stretched to the utmost in the situation in which she found herself.  The journey to Bethlehem witnesses to the tenacity of her faith.  An example to us when we find our own dreams and visions trapped in a quagmire of bureaucracy and political obstruction, or when an action we believe is right produces greater trouble than when we started.  

Go to Joseph  
Joseph struggled alongside Mary on the journey to Bethlehem, sharing her helplessness in the face of Roman occupation.  If Mary represents the autonomy of woman before God in the event of Jesus’ conception, what does Joseph represent?  God asked Joseph to agree to something supremely difficult for a man shaped in a patriarchal culture: to marry a woman who was pregnant with someone else’s child.  Joseph loved Mary enough to bend the rules of patriarchy, even though the law demanded of him to expose her supposed adultery.  God asked more of him, to break the rules altogether and to assume responsibility for Mary’s child.   

In a touching moment in the film, The Nativity Story, Mary looks lovingly at her weary and sleeping husband, after a perilous river crossing during the journey to Bethlehem, and says to her unborn child: “My son, you will have a good and decent man to raise you.”  Having accepted Mary and her baby and having braved the gossip surrounding her pregnancy, Joseph found himself stripped of the traditional role as provider and protector.  At the end of Mary’s pregnancy, Joseph was unable to meet her basic physical needs for rest and comfortable birthing place.  His masculinity symbolised nothing.  He struggled alongside his wife and shared her powerlessness.  Deprived of their social roles, their sense of belonging and all outward signs of status and identity, the couple on the road to Bethlehem represent the little people of this world, the people who are forever migrants and refugees because they are small cogs in the vast impersonal machines of power.

An Oppressive State  
The needs of such people, like those of Mary and Joseph and their unborn child, pale into insignificance beside the demands of the State.  It would have mattered nothing to the powers that be if this pregnant woman had died in childbirth as so many did in the first century.  The lives of the poor are regarded as cheap.  But stripped of all comfort and protection, Mary was not alone; friends and travelling companions walk with her throughout her life.  God was with her in Joseph’s companionship on the road to Bethlehem.  When we look for God’s presence in our lives, we must look not for signs but for people.  God’s love rarely comes to us as an abstract mystical force.  It is almost always incarnate, channelled only in community.   

At those moments when we feel ourselves absolutely alone in the core of our existence, at the moment of birth and death or in the depths of terror and pain, we experience God as Absence, as the One who forsakes us.  As long as there is some conscious part of our being that can reach out to another, as long as we are aware of another person’s concern, we sense the presence of God.  Ubicaritas et amor, Deus ibi est, ‘Where there is charity and love, God is there’.  Mary and Joseph made God present to one another on the road to Bethlehem, and together they prayed for the child who was coming to birth who would make God present to all humankind.

For everybody who has undertaken difficult journeys, every married couple that have looked to one another for encouragement and support in challenging circumstances, these infancy narratives written 80 years after the events they try to describe, still have powerful symbolism and impact. They can be a source for popular reflection and meditation, for both the Mary of the dogmas and the ordinary woman of her time who went through the process of living in very trying circumstances. The gospels have very few references to her.  But more important than these is her whole life with Joseph and Jesus, her relatives and the community of the followers of her Son, in a time of intense social upheaval, marked by the struggle of the poor and oppressed for freedom and justice. Most of it is not written and we have to use our imagination.   

References - Beattie, T. (1995). Rediscovering Mary: Insights from the Gospels. Triumph Books: Liguori, MO.  

Balasuriya, T.  (1990).  Mary and Human Liberation in Logos vol.29. Centre for Society and Religion, Columbo: Sri Lanka.

Published in the Marist Messenger, 31 October 2014.

Part 5 - The Annunciation: A Call to Vocation  

It is easy to imagine Mary as a young woman, soon to be married to Joseph, dreaming of a loving marriage, a family, a home in the village among the people she knew.  There, she would lead a quiet life far from the gaze of the Roman occupation, protected from the bustle of the city and the thirsty desert of the south.  She would live in obedience and gentleness according to the traditions of her people.  When Mary’s dreams were interrupted, when that great silence took form for an instant and became comprehensible, she was afraid but receptive to the angel’s message.  Her response shows that she knew God had come not to fulfil but to subvert the normal course of events.  She challenged the angel: How can this come about since I am a virgin?  Mary knew intuitively that the angel’s message meant a new direction in her life.  

Invitation and Response  
The Church has always insisted on Mary’s freedom to choose.  She was not a helpless instrument in salvation history.  She was always free to say no.  Christianity originates in a story of mutual loving and endeavor between a woman and God.  The Annunciation was a free invitation to a woman to participate in God’s salvific action.  Mary could not have known what lay before her, yet she sensed it was dangerous.  The very fact that she agreed to conceive outside marriage meant that she risked death by stoning.  She must have considered saying no, choosing instead to remain on the path of relative security that stretched ahead of her, marrying Joseph and enjoying the quiet of a life patterned on that of generations of wives and mothers.  If she said yes, she would embark on a path that was terrifying in its unknowability, shrouded as it was in the whirlwind of God’s presence.

To step on a path of such great risk would be to break the quiet patterns of life forever, to exchange the familiar for the unknown, the predictable for the ever-new and surprising, the concrete realities of life for the Word calling her into a whirlwind.  It would entail becoming a wayfarer, a person of the wilderness.  There was no threat or fear of punishment in God’s invitation.  If she chose the quiet life, she would be left in peace.  The decision was hers and hers alone.  God waited while Mary thought it over.  The history of the world hung in the balance as a young girl considered the options before her.  Then she said, “ I am the handmaid of the Lord, let what you have said be done to me.” And she stepped into the whirlwind.

Do Not Be Afraid  
There is awesome power in the Annunciation, but the word of God addressed to Mary is a word of healing and redemption.  It is a word of calm – do not be afraid – spoken into a disordered and frightening world.  But it is also a strange word, an unfamiliar voice breaking into history, and like Mary we are puzzled by its strangeness.  Why do we have Matthew and Luke’s account of the conception of Jesus?  Mark begins with the baptism, and John with the Prologue.  What does the Virgin Birth tell us about the Kingdom of God?

We live in a world that seems governed by laws of violence and competition. Chaos pervades the relationship between men and women.  Even though Genesis tells us, ‘In the image of God, male and female, God created them,’ there is a struggle between the primal holistic vision of loving mutuality between the sexes and harmony in the natural world, and the oppressive and difficult realities of life.  We face an apparent contradiction between belief in the created goodness of God and the unjust structures of created order that the Bible explains in terms of sin, fall, and redemption.

Redemptive Relationship  
Jesus dealt with women on a basis that completely lacked any trace of fear or hatred.  Sadly this was not lived through in many of his followers who were poisoned by their contemporary culture.  Patriarchy obliterated the early Christian vision of wholeness.  Yet the Gospels keep alive within the heart of the Church another vision. In the Virgin Birth God realizes the promise of the beginning; speech is restored to the woman, and man is excluded from the event.  Even the task of naming the child, a task sacred to the father, is given to Mary (Luke 1:31; in contrast to Matthew 1:21).

At the Annunciation Mary is not subordinate but stands as a free agent in the presence of God, without any need of a man to make her complete – or to ask permission of.  But the Annunciation means more than the restoration of woman to spiritual wholeness.  It also means the end of the God of patriarchy, the end of the God in whose names wars are waged and the poor are oppressed and human claims to power over one another are lent divine authority.  The God of the Annunciation is a God who submits to the human will made manifest in the will of one who has no power and no authority in this world.

Born of a woman  
This is a God who asks to be born of a woman.  God sought the permission of a representative of the human race before coming to dwell among us – to do otherwise would have been to override human freedom.  But the one appointed to speak on behalf of all people, the one who represents human freedom before God, was a young Jewish girl, who in her femaleness, her youth, and her Jewishness was as far removed from the powers of this world as it is possible to be.  She was not even a Jerusalem Jew, but a Nazarene, among the lowest of the low in the social hierarchy of the day.

To insist on Mary’s virginity is to defend the co-equality of all people in the Kingdom of God.  It is to defend the preferential option for the poor, which God exercised in choosing Mary.  The new man is born out of the will of God and of a virgin.  Only in this way can a world of loving mutuality be restored by a man who was perfect and without sin, including the Original Sin of patriarchal inheritance.  The conception of Jesus is a moment of radical break when all that was good and true in the human condition was given a place in God’s earthly kingdom, including Mary’s womanliness and her Jewishness. 

Much of the Old Testament depicts a patriarchal God, but there are many beautiful images of the motherly love of God: Job 38:29; Hosea 11:4.  God hears the cry of barren Sara and Hannah, blesses the love between Ruth and her mother-in-law, Naomi, and intervenes to save the falsely accused Susanna.  The power of motherly love permeates the Bible.  Mary, the Mother of God and archetype of the Church, is also the daughter of Zion.  She contains within her body the reconciliation of all the rivalries and divisions of history.

By reflecting on the Annunciation we see the shape of the Kingdom of God.  The Church, despite all its own failings, continues to affirm that on a quiet night in Nazareth, a Jewish girl and the God of all creation met and a new world was born.  Like Mary, we may be afraid of the implications of saying yes to God’s Kingdom.  To break free of old prejudices is not easy.  Global structures of oppression, willful blindness to the poor, the choice of a comfortable apostolate, gender attitudes of superiority or inferiority, connivance in corrupt government, we need to remind ourselves that the Kingdom of God is not only a spiritual Kingdom – it is a political one also.  It is not a Kingdom of individuals but a Kingdom of community.  Like Mary, we may be deeply disturbed by the choices we are asked to make, the unknown path, and the road into newness.  Sometimes we need the courage to do the unexpected.   

Source - Beattie, T. (1995). Rediscovering Mary: Insights from the Gospels. Triumph Books: Liguori, MO.

Published in the Marist Messenger, 30 August 2014.

Part 6 - The Visitation: A New World Vision  

Readings: Luke 1:39-56 and 1 Samuel 1:1-2:10.

When Mary sings the Magnificat, she recalls the words of Hannah, the mother of Samuel, so as we read the passage we are in the company of three women (Hannah, Mary and Elizabeth). Hannah was one of the two wives of Elkanah.  His other wife, Penninah, had children, but Hannah had none, and for this reason Elkanah gave Penninah preferential treatment, even though he loved Hannah more.  Elkanah had trouble understanding Hannah’s longing for children, because he thought his love ought to be more than enough for her.  Eli, the priest, seeing how fervently Hannah prayed in the temple, accused her of being drunk.  Eventually Hannah promised a costly deal.  If God would give her a son, she would dedicate him to God.  Hannah’s hymn in the temple at the dedication of her son, Samuel, inspired the Magnificat.  Rewarding her faithfulness, God blessed Hannah with several more children.  

Why did Mary evoke Hannah, whose unseen presence lies behind the great hymn of thanksgiving that is the Magnificat?  Hannah’s life manifests the suffering of women who are victims in a world where mutuality has given way to dominance and servility.  African women sometimes speak of the discord, jealousy, and rivalry inherent in societies where there are several wives and a woman’s value lies in childbearing.  Hannah lives in such a world; her spirituality is misinterpreted and condemned.  Perhaps Mary found herself a figure of gossip in Nazareth, blamed for being pregnant outside of marriage.  It would be easy for her to identify with Hannah’s lonely struggle.  

Hannah’s world still survives, and the message of the Magnificat, rejoicing in God’s Kingdom made present to Mary in the dazzling light of her encounter with God, is for us still a light on the horizon, already but not yet.  But from Hannah’s story we can sense some points about the world to come.  From the Old Testament, the book of the desert, we learn about barrenness and fertility, of barren women made fertile by God, such as Sarah, Hannah, and Elizabeth.  For a small people, outnumbered by their enemies, living in a physical landscape of the wilderness, fruitfulness was a sign of God’s blessing.  The fertile woman, like the fertile land, signaled God’s loving care for his people and his pledge for the future.  

A Stewardship Truth  
In both songs God’s presence is not so much in the physical function of childbearing, but in the creation of a world of justice and the ending of tyranny.  As mothers they reinterpret the world, seeing in their own experience an affront to the arrogant and powerful and a vindication of the oppressed, those whom Hannah symbolized as ‘the barren woman’ of her song. A good community is one that mothers its people, teaching them to live together in harmony, nurturing the young and protecting the weak and old.  If we understand stewardship as mothering the world rather than governing it, we will understand the role God assigned to Adam and Eve.

If that is what mothering is, what does barrenness mean?  Hannah knew what it was to be regarded as worthless in the eyes of society.  The barren woman is the person no longer valued as a productive member of society, barren because she longs to give of herself, her life and her love and vitality, but nobody wants what she has to offer.  In our modern economy driven world, we are less and less able to speak of compassion, faith, and love, because the markets only allow us a political language of greed and self-interest.  In the motherly community each one is known by name, treasured for their unique gifts, nurtured in their weakness and encouraged in their strength.  But in the barren society, people become numbers, the mass media a substitute for creativity, and the moral weakness of the rich is used as a tool of oppression in the war against the powerless.

Elizabeth was the last barren woman mentioned in the Bible to experience God’s presence in the physical manifestation of pregnancy.  Her child would announce that the kingdom of God was at hand, and in that Kingdom, with their personhood restored, women would become co-workers on an equal footing with men, not just in terms of their childbearing potential but as people of faith and vision.  Of the women who come to Jesus for healing, we are not told of any who were barren.  We know nothing of the maternal status of Martha and Mary, or Mary Magdalene.  Jesus loves women not as bearers of children but as people of worth and dignity in their own right.  Christ invites us all to become human beings who nurture one another, giving new life to the poor and unprotected in a brutal world.  This is the only kind of fertility of enduring value in the Kingdom of God.

In Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, we see that pregnant women are chosen by God as the special bearers of his word.  Hannah, the barren wife, was fertile and creative in the eyes of God.  He gave her a new song to sing, a prophecy that would endure until her distant sister Mary took up her song and fulfilled it.  God struck dumb the male priest, Zechariah, and restored the power of speech to pregnant women.  The barren Hannah, the elderly Elizabeth, and the Virgin Mary stand before us, round-bellied and joyful, affirming the restoration of all women in every stage and condition of life to their rightful place in the human community.

The Visitation is often portrayed in a way that reinforces a certain dreary image of women as submissive and dutiful caregivers, with the young Mary ignoring her own discomfort to go and help her older cousin.  Instead, imagine Mary setting out with wings on her heels to seek the companionship of the one person in all the world who would understand the uniqueness of her situation, and who would share in the delight of her pregnancy.  In going to stay with Elizabeth, she found refuge away from the gossipers of Nazareth in the presence of a woman who was in every sense her soul mate.  In Mary and Elizabeth we see the power of a friendship that was not a duty or a burden but a joyful expression of mutually affirming love.

The disciples of Jesus, then and now, were often locked in competition with one another for first place.  There was no such rivalry between Mary and Elizabeth.  Elizabeth recognized immediately the primacy of Mary’s calling, and her greeting to Mary was a radiant expression of generosity toward the younger woman.  John the Baptist would inherit his mother’s humility, saying of Jesus, “I am not fit to kneel and undo the strap of his sandals.”  God condemns hierarchies based on power, race, and gender, but there is a ranking of vocations and society would collapse without it.  But Elizabeth and John teach us how to be gracious in second place, how to respond to greatness in others.

Mary and Elizabeth’s relationship is in direct contrast to that of Hannah and Penninah.  In Hannah and Penninah, we see the bitterness and hurt, the jealousy and resentment that breed in an unjust environment.  People need to feel valued and loved to be able to give themselves freely to others.  Mary and Elizabeth, in the perfect assurance of God’s love for them, experienced a transformed and transforming friendship.  In them, we see what women mean to one another in the redeemed community.  Between them, these two had been given the power to change the world.

Source - Beattie, T. (1995). Rediscovering Mary: Insights from the Gospels. Triumph Books: Liguori, MO.

Published in the Marist Messenger, 31 July 2014.