Thursday, December 10, 2009

A "Mary" Christmas

A “Mary” Christmas

Rev. Jane Page

December 13, 2009

I was raised a Southern Baptist. We did not pay much attention to Mary. Oh, we pulled her out of the closet at Christmas time – like I suppose I’m doing now. But then we stuffed her back in there for another year. To me – she was Jesus’ mother – not a saint – and certainly not “The Mother of God” or “Queen of Heaven.” I would never have considered praying to her or calling on her in any way. But as I grew older and learned about other denominations and religions, I became more intrigued with the way others worshiped. And I found the adoration of Mary to be rather – interesting. Not bad or good – just interesting. That’s the term my Mama uses when someone asks her about her my brother and me. She says – “My children are …interesting.”

So this morning, I’m going to share some ideas about Mary and Mariology that I find interesting – and then explore what we might gain from the story of Mary to help us in our own lives.

First, I find it interesting that there is very little about Mary in the Bible. The very earliest writings in the New Testament were written by Paul or Pauline students. And although I have disagreements with Paul on many issues, I do consider these writings to be the most historically accurate – because they were written in the early to mid 50’s and by someone who at least had contact with Jesus’ disciples. And I find it interesting that Paul – who was a primary founder of the RELIGION of Christianity- never mentions Mary by name. And in only one verse does he even refer to Jesus having a mother --- when he notes that Jesus was “born of woman.”

Most biblical information about Mary comes from the gospels (that’s Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John).

Now all of these gospels were written long after Jesus’ death. Isn’t it interesting that none of his story was written down by historians when he was doing his thing in life and in death?—because there were certainly historians during that time period writing about other events in this region. Nevertheless, some of these early Christians eventually began to write down stories about Jesus. Now since all of these gospels were written much later and based on stories passed down or written to match earlier prophesies – most of what we know about Mary should probably be put in the category of myth or legend – but it’s still interesting. Scholars believe that the author of the gospel of Mark probably wrote his little book sometime after 70 AD, because of his reference to the destruction of the temple. Some believe it could have been written as early as 62 AD. But in any case, it was the earliest.

The first time Mary comes up in Mark – it’s not by name – and actually, she’s ignored by Jesus in this passage. This is a very interesting passage though – because in this passage, Jesus’ family is concerned because they think he’s gone mad and they want to intercede. Listen to these passages from Mark 3: 20-35. Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat. When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, "He is out of his mind." ...There came then his brethren and his mother, and, standing without, sent unto him, calling him. And the multitude sat about him, and they said unto him, Behold, thy mother and thy brethren without seek for thee. And he answered them, saying, Who is my mother, or my brethren? And he looked round about on them which sat about him, and said, Behold my mother and my brethren! For whosoever shall do the will of God, the same is my brother, and my sister, and mother.

So Mary was not lifted up by Jesus in that passage – but ignored, and it sheds a different light on WHO family is to Jesus—(at least as the story is told by the author of Mark).

The only place Mark mentions Mary by name is in a passage in which Jesus is being put down by others in Nazareth. Mark 6:3 reads: Isn't this the carpenter? Isn't this Mary's son and the brother of James, Joseph,] Judas and Simon? Aren't his sisters here with us?"

The bulk of Marion knowledge based on the Bible – comes from Matthew and Luke. And for both, the story of Jesus’ birth is primary. Now when you read these stories, you see some similarities – but lots of differences in how these events occurred. When we do the nativity drama here on Christmas Eve – we draw from both – but mainly from Luke. When you read these – especially with a commentary that connects with the Old Testament, you can see how these writers weaved their stories to match various prophesies. And that’s why they are so unusual – having Joseph and Mary travel different places in the process – so that every prophecy could be covered. For example, if one prophet says the Messiah will come out of Bethlehem and another says he will come out of Egypt – what do you do? (Especially if the one you believe is the Messiah was from Nazareth.) Well, you have some event that causes Mary and Joseph first to go to Bethlehem for Jesus’ birth and then to flee to Egypt – then come out of there also.

Now Matthew is the one who is overly intent on covering all these prophesies – therefore—he has more events like the killing of the innocents, the wise men coming from the East, and the family fleeing to Egypt. And he constantly refers back to prophesy to reinforce that Jesus is the Messiah. He even throws one in to back up why Jesus ended up growing up in Nazareth. Matthew 2:23 reads: (He) came and settled in a town called Nazareth in order to fulfill what was said by the prophets: "He will be called a Nazarene." No such prophecy can be found in the Old Testament – and scholars can’t find it in any written prophesies of old regarding the Messiah being a Nazarene. The defenders chalk it up to oral tradition.

WE usually read the Christmas story from Luke – because it’s written as a beautiful story. Indeed, Mary comes to life in Luke. She doesn’t even speak in Matthew. Catholic tradition has it that Luke’s source was Mary herself – and that he even painted pictures of her. This was one skillful doctor. In fact the Catholic Church venerates him as the patron saint of physicians, surgeons, students, butchers, and artists.

Now the SECOND thing I find very interesting about Mary is that much of Mariology came from texts that were deemed apocryphal by the Church – like the Book of James and the Gospel according to Pseudo-Matthew. The book of James is an Eastern text that heavily influenced the cult of the Virgin in the west. Now there are lots of very interesting stories in these texts about Mary’s parents, Anne and Joachim, and her how Mary was conceived without original sin. That’s the actual Immaculate Conception. It’s not the conception of Jesus. It’s the conception of Mary. It also provides additional stories of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus. Now interestingly enough, all of these were later published BY the church supposedly by St. Jerome who admits that the books are dubious, but backtracks to say he is publishing them to “unmask the deceit of heresy.” In any case, the three teachings of the church which generally come from these texts are these. (1) Immaculate Conception; (2) Perpetual Virginity (It wasn't enough for Mary to be a virgin at Jesus' birth; she had to STAY a virgin. So all those brothers and sisters mentioned in the Bible must have actually been cousins -- or perhaps Joseph's children by a previous marriage -- but oh, no -- many say that Joseph was a perpetual virgin as well); and (3) Bodily Assumption (you can't just let someone like Mary decay or something).

Third, I find it interesting that icons, statues, and pictures of Mary have become so very important to various groups. The Church heavily promotes prayer – yet acknowledges that prayerful contemplation can be difficult for many folks. And indeed, just as some who meditate need something external (perhaps a Buddha statue) to focus on, the church also recognized the importance of external stimuli to prayer. One scholar noted: the sacred drama of the mass excites the senses, with its spectacular display and pageantry, its music and perfumes, even the taste of the Eucharist on the tongue…. So pictures, relics, and sanctuaries are all component parts of the same language of prayer that communicates heaven to earthlings and makes addressing a saint much easier.” (Warner, Marina. Alone of All Her Sex, Vintage Books, 1976).

The earliest representations of Mary that we have are on the catacomb walls. I didn’t bring pictures of those because they are pretty difficult to see. But I did bring several other reproductions of reproductions of what are traditionally thought by the Church to be first century depictions.

I'm going to show you a few of the MANY that are attributed to that prolific artist St. Luke. Each of these has some fabulous story that goes with it about how originals of these works were kept in various places and how miracles took place when people would come to view them.

Here is the Hodgetria – or “She who shows the way” with Mary pointing to Jesus.

I really was drawn to the ones where Jesus seems to be paying attention to Mary – like this one sometimes called “The Tender Mercy.” I don’t know what that says about me and my parental needs.

And here are others in a similar vane:

(Sorry, I couldn’t share them all in this online document)

In this slide, Mary is shown in her primary role as intercessor.

This is the famous Black Madonna from Poland with many interesting tales of miracles associated with it. Although it’s been painted over many times –and with materials that make it impossible to recover what was originally there – it still holds primary historical importance as an original artifact, because tradition says that St. Luke (yes, Luke again) painted the picture on a table top that was in Mary’s house.

The title “Queen of Heaven” was used in antiquity by many religions. In particular, it was used by the prophet Jeremiah, probably in reference to Asherah, a goddess worshiped in ancient Israel and Judah. But Mary replaced those queens in Christianity and is often depicted in a queenly manner. These ideas along with other teachings like the assumption were reinforced as formal church dogma in 1950 when Pope Pius XII basically said – I’ve said it’s true – therefore it’s true. And although Vatican II seemed to back off a little with some of the heavy emphasis on Mary, the current Pope, Benedict XVI, declared in 2006 that “Mary's acceptance of the divine will is the ultimate reason, she is Queen of Heaven. Because of her humble and unconditional acceptance of God's will "God exalted her over all other creatures, and Christ crowned her Queen of heaven and earth."

Virgin Orans depicts Mary in the Orante position. The Orante is a figure with open arms, a symbol of the soul at peace in paradise. You’ll see the Christ Child in Mary’s womb. I’ve read that these icons are favorites among those who actively oppose legalized abortions.

Now of course Mary has continued to be an object of visual art through the centuries, but she changed some, depending on the location of the artist.

(Examples shown from Europe, Africa, and Asia)

Then there are wonderful depictions of Mary in statues and sculptures. The two I’ve brought to share today are by Michelangelo.

The first is his Madonna and Child and the second is Michelangelo’s Pieta, which depicts Mary with Jesus’ body after it has been taken down from the cross. I actually got to see this sculpture when my parents took me to the World’s Fair in New York in 1964. It was on exhibit at the Vatican’s pavilion. I’ll never forget it – because all I knew was that I was standing in line to see a sculpture by Michelangelo of Mary and Jesus. So I was expecting a Madonna and child. As a 13 year old, this was very difficult for me to view – and brought home the human aspects and heartbreak of the story of Mary and her son. This sculpture was vandalized in 1972 by a mentally disturbed man, but has been preserved – and is now behind bullet proof glass at St. Peter’s cathedral.

Now the fourth thing that I find interesting is that people devoted to Mary today find her in so many INTERESTING places. And I don’t mean to be disrespectful in showing you these – but I think it’s interesting that if you are focusing on some figure – you will find it. Here are some modern-day Mary sightings.

(Note: Just Google Mary Sightings)

And finally, I find it interesting that I find Mary interesting. In many ways, she represents everything that I’m not! I had thought about doing this sermon on Mary – in a dramatic portrayal of the blessed Virgin. But when I suggested that to the program committee, some of them had a huge laugh! I don’t understand why – since they have seen me portray such figures as Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Dewey, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and of course – Jezebel. But I agree that you can only suspend reality – so far. And Mary would be a stretch for me. Besides, I have some real problems with Mary.

Now it’s not just because most of Mariology is totally unbelievable to me. I gain much inspiration from religious stories that I don’t believe literally. But the messages that Mary brings makes a feminist like me squirm with frustration.

First of all – the whole thing about the virtuousness of “immaculate conception" and "continual virginity” bothers me tremendously. It’s that whole "sex is dirty" mindset – and child birth is dirty. Some state that Mary really didn’t need purifying because she remained intact.

And then I’m bothered by Mary’s permanent role as an intercessor who needs to pray to her own son or to God the father – the males who can really help you. The church has made sure everyone understands that Mary is no goddess—she’s a go-between that keeps the peace, as many mothers have been relegated to doing for years. And even though stories, art, and music about Mary are beautiful (and in some ways I love them) – I worry that these beautiful depictions of Mary have condemned women (especially in the Catholic Church) to permanent inferiority.


There IS something about Mary.

And I do find something quite holy about one who conceives, gives birth to and nurtures the divine. That part of the Mary story is one that is very meaningful to me – and I think it can be meaningful to us all – because I believe that we can all accept that privilege and blessing. Some of us may do this by the love and care we give to others who are special to us. Some may conceive of something divine through their work or through their play. We can give birth to something divine in our involvement in the community and with projects that we know can make a difference. And we can nurture the divine in our connections with nature. By focusing on that goodness within us and within the world, we can be as Mary – full of grace. And we may find peace and joy in the acceptance of that call. But we all know that in following this call to connect in love, we also risk great heartbreak. Sometimes the joy in connection with the Divine is bittersweet and hard. Yet, it is deep and profound. And there may be peace in knowing that you have answered that call to make the world a little bit better, by planting that garden, caring for that sick person, tutoring that child, writing a note of encouragement to someone who is discouraged, or rocking a baby.

I found a song when I was preparing for this sermon that presents Mary in this light – as one who has accepted that blessing and privilege – yet it is difficult, so she calls on the Breath of Heaven. That almost has a Buddha nature to it, doesn’t it? This song was written by Amy Grant and Chris Eaton. And I found the melody, the words and the emotions – more than interesting! I share with you now – “Breath of Heaven, Mary’s song.”


I have traveled many moonless nights,

Cold and weary with a babe inside.

And I wonder what I’ve done.

Holy Father, You have come

And chosen me now to carry Your Son.

I am waiting in a silent pray’r.

I am frightened by the load I bear.

In a world as cold as stone,

Must I walk this path alone?

Be with me now, be with me now.

Breath of heaven, hold me together.

Be forever near me, breath of heaven.

Breath of heaven, lighten my darkness.

Pour over me Your holiness, for You are holy,

Breath of heaven.

Do you wonder as You watch my face,

If a wiser one should have had my place?

But I offer all I am

For the mercy of your plan.

Help me be strong, help me be…. help me.

Breath of heaven, hold me together.

Be forever near me, breath of heaven.

Breath of heaven, lighten my darkness.

Pour over me Your holiness, for You are holy.

Breath of heaven, hold me together.

Be forever near me, breath of heaven.

Breath of heaven, lighten my darkness,

Pour over me Your holiness, for You are holy,

Breath of heaven, breath of heaven, breath of heaven.