Monday, May 12

Scriptural Ruminations on Mary

As many Bible scholars are well aware, the Scriptures contain very few references to Mary. The bulk of material related to Mary in the New Testament is found in Dr. Luke and Matthew’s infancy narratives, and in Matthew’s gospel, Joseph is the key actor. There are also a handful of references to Mary when she and Joseph take Jesus to Jerusalem, when we see her and her other children come to see Jesus, when she is standing at the cross, and when she is with the disciples in the upper room in Acts 1. Aside from this, there are no other implicit mentions of Mary, although some believe certain passages - such as Galatians 4:4 and in Revelation 12 - can be interpreted as referring to Mary, but much of what we have on Marian understanding comes from apocryphal traditions (Note: this article draws inspiration from Tissa Balasuriya's work, Mary and Human Liberation).

From these scant references, then, we can gather a number of things about Mary. When the angel Gabriel announced that she would give birth, it may have been difficult for Mary to come to terms with having a child who is the Messiah. She may have anticipated that he would have to suffer. It is also important to note that some feminists have seen this as an act of God relying on a female to carry out the plan of salvation, and that this important interaction between Creator and Creation ought to be appreciated and researched.

Following this, Mary then visits her cousin Elizabeth, who is supposed to have a child - who would be famously known as John the Baptist, mentioned in the New Testament documents and the writings of the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus. During her stay with Elizabeth, she prays the Magnificat. The implications of this prayer seem to be that of cultural revolution, political revolution and economic revolution. She is often seen as comforter of the disturbed, rather than disturber of the comforted. Mary is presented in the infancy narratives as a tough young woman who has to endure many sufferings and hardships. She may be shunned by some who see her as having an illegitimate child, she is turned away by the rich who own the inns of Bethlehem, and she must give birth in a hard place (the Infancy Gospel of Thomas and Justin Martyr allege that it was a cave).

The visit of the shepherds to see baby Jesus allow Mary to reflect and think on it. Dr. Luke’s gospel shows Mary to be a very deep, reflective and thoughtful young woman, and she is invested in the future of her child. Later, at the presentation of Jesus in the Temple, Mary and Joseph make the offering of the poor. The man Simeon tells Mary that a sword will pierce her heart – evidently referring to the death of Jesus, at least insofar as most interpret this statement. Knowing that she would suffer with Jesus through his life took a lot of courage and love as a mother.

Thinking further into her journey, the flight into Egypt would not have been an easy one. Retracing the steps of those who had left Egypt in the Exodus, Mary, Joseph and the young Jesus would have had to cross the scorching deserts, the harsh roads and likely faced political issue when there, as Joseph likely would have had to become a migrant worker, and Mary would have had to find constant news from Palestine to learn of the political situation back home. As an aside: Could Joseph have learned carpentry during his time in Egypt? Also, one may wonder, though unlikely – did Jesus or Joseph ever have to build crosses? Could Jesus have built his own cross?

Moving further into her life, we understand that the middle-aged Mary would have had to go through trials with Jesus as he grew up. As with any mother, she may have desired grandchildren, she may have desired to see him married, and have a long life, among other things. But he likely told her that he must be about his Father’s business. After reflecting, as she was known to do, she supported him in his ministry, and would have treasured up these things in her heart.

Mary followed Jesus throughout his public ministry, usually from a distance. She likely would have understood her son as going against social and religious values of the time. Mary also more than likely struggled with restraining herself from protecting Jesus when she saw Him going up against the Pharisees, Sadducees, and others, but realized that this division was part of his mission, and that this mission was of utmost importance.

As there are only a handful of references to Mary within the canonical gospels, it follows that there are only a handful of recorded conversations between Jesus and Mary. We see these when Joseph and Mary find Jesus in the temple, when Mary tells Jesus about the wine in Cana, the public ministry in which his family – out of concern – come to take him, and finally, and when Jesus addresses Mary whilst on the cross. Interestingly, the last recorded words of Mary in the gospels are "Do whatever he tells you." The Catholic Church places great emphasis on Mary's relationship with Jesus, and what a better summation of this than in her words. We can see these words conveying a message even to contemporary Christians 

Now, we may assume that Mary was present and with Christ throughout the trial (as seen in the stations of the cross as well as the Dolorous Passion of the Christ). Mary knew that Jesus had to suffer and die and she probably felt rather helpless in the desire to help her son but knowing that she could not help him. During the Passion of the Lord, Jesus had several women that were still with him. His mother Mary was still present, as was Mary Magdalene. Perhaps we may assume that Salome was also present, as she was involved in the tomb activities. 

Interestingly, women were the first witnesses of the Resurrection. In antiquity, the testimony of women was generally not accepted in court, so the idea that women were the first witnesses is interesting to note. These same women told the apostles that Jesus was resurrected. In the case of Mary, then, she is a witness to life beyond death. She bears witness as the theotokos to the presence and life of Jesus. This title of theotokos - God bearer - was in use in the early church as seen, for example, in the hymn Sub tuum praesidium (AD 250).

In order to have a truer understanding of Mary, we need to understand her relation to Jesus, how Mary and Jesus interacted, how she understood Him and how He understood her. Certainly, they grew together as mother and son in his three decades of life, which is cause for further considerations. The message of Jesus in this context is understood as being that of the kingdom of God. Christ taught (as seen in the canonical gospels, as well as the Gospel of Thomas) that the kingdom of heaven is both present and future. It is both within and without. It is spread across the world but also coming as an eschatological event. We also note that in terms of christology, Jesus did not use the theologically loaded phrases that we do today or that the councils or patristics developed.

We find a description of Jesus as a loving and strong man (hence why he is likened to the Lion and the Lamb in early Christian literature), one who had a deep concern for the poor, oppressed, needy, sick, marginalized, the hurt and others. As a result, Christ challenged the cultural, political and social norms of His time. Mary appears to have sided with Jesus, and having the backing of his mother more than likely provided much needed support. Jesus was very skilled and radical about his interpersonal relations. He crossed barriers - including social barriers. He spoke to Samaritans, he taught and accepted aid from women, he ate with tax collectors, he went against the authorities of his day, he forgave others and did not hold their wrongs against them, and this particular openness evidently landed Jesus in a heap of trouble.

In the early Christian Church (which was initially called "The Way"), Mary was likely seen as the mother of the Christian community. Women had very important roles in society at the time, but it is important to remember that Mary was in a sense the first believer due to her Annunciation (as seen when the an, she was also the woman who raised Jesus, and she was given into John's care by Jesus. Therefore, we may look at Mary as the mother of the early community, which makes sense. The fact that property was held in common as clearly seen in Acts and the Didache bears out the notion that the community needed a mother to guide them. It is also here noted that different theologians (such as feminists) have very different understandings and views of God.

In regard to the liberation of women and Mary, feminist theologians have done much work in this area. Indeed, she is seen as having participated in and engaged in the life of Christ fully and completely, which accords her a very high status. Another consideration mentioned here is Mary in relation to Genesis. Although some may look at Genesis 3:15 in a certain light, I would suggest that woman referred to is both Eve and Mary. Feminist theologians hope that Mary's life and work can and will provide men with an opportunity to enable better perceptions of women and the abilities of woman, that she may help us see both genders as creators, and that Mary will continue to help men detach from the ancient superiority of men. For example, historically, woman deacons (deaconesses) are mentioned in the New Testament as well as certain documents such as the Didascalia. However, the priesthood is not available for women because the clergy are those in charge and - feminists argue - men want the dominant power and therefore do not let women be ordained as priests.

The life, work and idea of Mary is carried into Third World countries. As such, the Marian spirituality is here identified as being specifically directed at the current issues going on in the world, particularly in the Third World countries, such as poverty, military and war, the death of women while giving birth, and a variety of other problems. Mary is seen as one who overcomes and ought to be mimicked. When we look at the answer Cain gave God in Genesis 4 - "Am I my brother's keeper?" - the implication is that we are indeed supposed to take care of one another. God created the world for us to inhabit and take care of, and our goods ought to be for everyone, including technologies that should be used to create jobs for people. 

But there are a number of problems in our world, such as famine, hunger, unemployment, the poor and others which degrades the human person. Mary's role is to help bring world justice and peace to all. There are a number strategies for transformation that we may apply, particularly on the basis of a Marian spirituality. For example, we can come together as a society that accepts both equality and plurality. Values were held in high regard by both Mary and Jesus, therefore, values need to be upheld. So prayer, coming together as a society and as a community and further reflection - just as Mary once did - is called for.

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