By Ann Fontaine
Today, March 25 is the celebration of the Annunciation. It is the day when the church remembers Gabriel’s visit to Mary and reveals to her that she will be the mother of Jesus who will become the Christ. The power of the Holy Spirit will fill her and cause her to conceive. The annunciation is one of the most popular topics of art, especially in Medieval and Renaissance art – often depicting her as conceiving through her ear. The mystery of it has confounded many – with some turning to worship Mary as Theotokos, the God Bearer, and others turning away in disgust at such blatant mythology.
My early life in the Episcopal Church was one that rejected any sort of talk of Mary as anything other than the mother of Jesus. Mary, meek and mild, was as far as our minister (never call him a priest) would go. I was thoroughly steeped in anti-Mary thinking. However, our neighborhood was near a Roman Catholic grade school and many of my playmates were Catholic. They would write JMJ at the top of their schoolwork, which until corrected by one boy, I thought were the initials of a girlfriend. The effect of my church’s and my playmates’ very different beliefs about Mary left me with a sense that there was something forbidden about Mary.
When I returned to the church in my 30s, I found that the creed was problematic for me. I could not really say the part “conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary” without mentally crossing my fingers. I just did not believe it. However, I began to accept the creed as a statement across time and in community. I decided I could say it because we said “we” and I thought someone in the community and in the history of the church believed it. I was stuck at that point of my journey with Mary when I became friends with a person who prayed regularly to Mary and found that a much more satisfying connection with God than all the male imagery. Her passion for God and her deep prayer life affected me. I began to explore the place of Mary in my life.
The first book I read was Herbert O’Driscoll’s Portrait of a Woman: meditations on the Mother of Our Lord. The next one was Ann Johnson’s Miryam of Nazareth: woman of strength and wisdom. Suddenly, I was confronted by a powerful woman who lived fully into her faith and answered God’s call by choice. I had never considered any image other than “meek and mild.” I learned that her name, Mary – Miryam – has a root meaning of rebellion. Johnson’s research revealed itself in her poetry, each poem written in the form she calls a Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55). I was amazed that I had missed this Mary in my education and formation in the church.
The current stage of my life with Mary began when I was teaching a class on the creeds. We were using Joan Chittister’s In Search of Belief as a basis for the study. I was facilitating the discussion and reading along with the class when we came to the chapter on “virgin birth.” Rather than explore the modern science or pre-scientific ideas about conception, Chittister spoke about the amazing story the creed tells about who are worthy to bear Christ into the world.
As I understand what she is saying, the fact that Mary was a young woman, a virgin when God called her to bear Jesus shows us the nature of God’s relationship to us. In Mary’s day she was seen as property. She was vulnerable in a culture that did not value women and especially not girls. Their value came from their connection to a man, first to their fathers and then to their husbands and their ability to bear sons. Today young girls are still at risk in many countries to be sold or bartered away. Even in the United States they are easily dismissed as less than anyone else. Although changes have been made – movies, popular music and media off all sorts views females as objects and not agents of their own lives.
This is why the creed’s affirmation of Mary is so amazing. God chooses the least in the social hierarchy to be the one to bear God into the world. It is a statement by the church of the worth of the individual in the face of cultures who say “not worthy.”
As to Mary as a vehicle for our prayers, I love having Our Lady of Guadalupe and other images of her around. I currently experience Mary as a companion rather than an object of worship. I see her as priest, the first person to offer the broken body of Christ up to the world. I understand the need for a feminine face of the Holy and how that emerges no matter the suppression of that aspect of God. The book of Proverbs speaks of Wisdom who companioned God from the beginning of creation. The feminine face of God who created both female and male in the image of God, continues to surface in our worship and in our dreams and even in humor:
Michelangelo was up on the scaffolding in the Sistine, a little bored, a little tired. He looks down, sees an old lady kneeling in prayer, and decides to have some fun. His voice echoes through the Sistine. "This is Jesus. How may I help you?"
The woman showed no sign of hearing him.
He said again, "This is Jesus; how may I help you?"
Still no response
So he tried one more time. "This is Jesus. How may I help you?"
The woman looked up at heaven and said,
"Shut up—Can’t you see I'm talking to your mama!
I am not quite sure where my journey with Mary will end. I still have more questions than answers. Recently I received this poem from a friend and it opens up all sorts of new thinking about Mary. Perhaps this is a good thing for the Feast of the Annunciation.
It seems I must have been more fertile than most
to have taken that wind-blown
thistledown softly-spoken word
into my body and grown big-bellied with it.
Nor was I the first: there had been
rumours of such goings-on before my turn
came - tales of swansdown. Mine
had no wings or feathers actually
but it was hopeless trying to convince them.
They like to think it was a mystical
encounter, although they must know
I am not of that fibre - and to say I was
'troubled' is laughable.
What I do remember is a great rejoicing,
my body's arch and flow, the awe,
and the ringing and singing in my ears -
and then the world stopped for a little while.
But still they will keep on about the Word,
which is their name for it, even though I've
told them that is definitely
not how I would put it.
I should have known they'd try to take
possession of my ecstasy and
swaddle it in their portentous terminology.
I should have kept it hidden in the dark
web of my veins...
Though this child grows in me -
not unwanted certainly, but
not intended on my part; the risk
did not concern me at the time, naturally.
I must be simple to have told them anything.
Just because I stressed the miracle of it
they've rumoured it about the place that I'm
immaculate - but then they always were afraid
of female sexuality.
I've pondered these things lately in my mind.
If they should canonise me
(setting me up as chaste and meek and mild)
God only knows what nonsense
they'll visit on the child.
Sylvia Kantaris From Dirty Washing, Bloodaxe 1989. ©Sylvia Kantaris Used by permission
The Rev. Ann Fontaine, Diocese of Wyoming, keeps what the tide brings in. She is the author of Streams of Mercy: a meditative commentary on the Bible.