Feast Day of St. Mary the Virgin
It is astounding the distortion that surrounds the figure of Jesus’ mother. She has, through the centuries, been touted as a model of submissive subservience. She has been worshipped as a pure and perfect sinless maiden. Sexless, devoid of all negative emotion – the mythology that surrounds her is so daunting that even feminists exploring with new eyes the women who figure in the stories of our faith tradition have done little to reclaim her.
It astounds me that Mary’s story could be taken and twisted like it has been. How do we read passive submission in a young woman’s willingness to defy the moral code of an entire culture? She was pregnant out of wedlock; she could have been stoned to death.
And how do we get unquestioning compliance from the glorious rebel cry that is the Magnificat? “My spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely from now on all generations will call me blessed . . . .” “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.” If that isn’t tooting your own horn and thumbing your nose at an oppressive regime, I don’t know what is.
We need the real Mary. We need her guts, her willingness to turn aside from everything her family had planned for her. She struck out on her own, trusting herself entirely to God’s plan. Not knowing what was in store if she said “yes,” to God, the best she could have hoped for was being set aside by Joseph to live a life in which she was shunned by her community. She could expect to be sequestered in her family’s compound, left to raise a fatherless child, judged as crazy and gullible – if she was allowed to live at all. But, knowing this, she put all her faith in God’s scheme, and, miraculously, things worked out. We, too, need to put all our faith in God, for in doing so we birth salvation.
We need the Mary who could engage in conversation with an angel. In my experience, when we listen too much to the voices of the world – to our societal values and dictates, to the rules and prejudices of our communities, and to the deep-seated expectations of our families – we turn deaf ears to the angels who plague us. Like Moses going to investigate a bush that burned without being consumed, Mary allowed herself to countenance that she was being approached by something Holy. She took the message in. She listened, and she responded. What messengers come to us in our own lives? What angels standing at our elbows bring preposterous, holy requests?
We need the Mary who went on to live a multidimensional life: being a wife and raising children in the home of her spouse, a man who also listened well to God. We need to envision her having bad days and screaming at the kids, being terrified and mortified, feeling powerless and enraged. And then we need to envision her moments of wild, exuberant joy, how she had sex, how she hummed as she baked bread early in the morning, how she laughed with her girlfriends and cousins – and how she raised Jesus and his siblings in a boisterous Jewish household, teaching Jesus what she could about love, about promises, about being comfortable in talking to God, child to parent.
We need the Mary whose heart was lacerated by the horrible public torture and death of her eldest child. Our own loved ones suffer greatly and die, and we are powerless to prevent it. We need to imagine Mary shouting at God, “You gave him to me only to kill him? What kind of a God are you? How is this bringing down the powerful and lifting up the lowly? Where is your justice? You are a joke of a God!”
And we need the Mary who came to understand God’s answer to this prayer, the Mary who was with the apostles in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost. Understanding that she came through the trials intact, that she was a wise woman and a blessing to the budding Christian community to the end of her days, helps us understand the nature of fear, doubt and faith, of our own humanity, and of the blessings we ourselves can offer to one another out of the full breadth of our humanness.
On this day dedicated to her, let’s imagine the real Mary. And let’s celebrate her as the incredible human being she must have been.
Laurie Gudim is a religious iconographer and liturgical artist, a writer and lay preacher living in Fort Collins, CO. See her work online at Everyday Mysteries With others she manages a website for the Diocese of Colorado highlighting congregations’ creative ministries: Fresh Expressions Colorado