OTI Online
Winter 1994

Searching For Mary
by Elizabeth Larsen


When I was in junior high, the church my family attended was vandalized by a man with a severe mental illness. A magnificent building reminiscent in scale and mood of its ornate European predecessors, Minneapolis' Basilica of St. Mary looked the following Sunday like a freshly deserted battlefield: pews and tables were overturned, spewing hymnals, votive candles and broken glass across the altar. Flowers and plants, which the previous day had saluted a new bride and groom, were now gnarled lumps of dirt, leaves and wilted petals. But by far the most disturbing sight among the rubble was a statue of the Virgin Mary that had been bludgeoned with one of the imposingly grand gold candlesticks that normally lit the main altar. Like a rotted-out log, the statue lay on its side, a crack running through the center of its milky white face. After mass, women crowded around the statue, openly weeping. Some said prayers out loud, some cradled her broken body in their arms. Others frantically searched for pieces of her nose, now a series of unrecognizable mounds of sand scattered on the marble floor.

I hadn't given this event much thought until recently when I started reading about the current frenzy surrounding the Virgin Mary. Unlike the recent interest in Jesus, which is mainly an intellectual debate on his historical origins, adoration of his mother is happening in both the library and on the street. Men and women, both sick and healthy, rich and poor are joining together in a global grass roots revival dedicated to her glory. And while Christian churches still focus on the teachings of Jesus, their officials increasingly have to contend with the fact that by and large Mary is more popular with parishioners than her son.

Searching For Mary by Elizabeth Larsen

From Portugal to Maryland, millions trek each year to remote shrines built in her honor. Among the pilgrims is Pope John Paul II, whose every visit triggers a near stampede of worshipers following in his footsteps. While some shrines solemnly commemorate Mary-inspired miracles, others offer the feeling of a ringside seat to the greatest show on earth. Sightings of the Virgin have been reported all across Europe, Latin America and even in U.S. cities like Denver. In Santa Ana, California, another popular destination for American Mary followers, she reportedly told people to spread the word of her visits.

Mary is also a familiar face in former-Yugoslavia. Until war broke out in 1990, over ten million people flocked to the mountain village of Medjugorje, where nine years earlier, six young peasants claim, Mary began giving them daily messages. American interest in Medjugorje is so widespread that, according to Tune, "some 300 groups of... believers exist across the U.S., publishing at least 30 newsletters and holding a dozen conferences a year. There are 70 telephone hot lines that feature the Virgin's messages from Yugoslavia: in Alabama dial MOM-MARY"

Coexisting alongside these high-tech epiphanies is a growing group of theologians and scholars who argue that the Mary behind all this fervor is a false symbol created by a patriarchally-structured church and subsequently used as a weapon against women. The biblical descriptions of the woman who has inspired more adoration than any other female in the history of the world - chaste, long-suffering, all-forgiving, unfailingly maternal - these scholars argue, have little to nothing in common with the real Mary. Using close reading and historical data as a point of entry into the New Testament, these scholars have blown a breath of feminist air into Mariology - the church's teaching about Mary - igniting contentious debate within all sects of Christianity.

Ascertaining anything about the mother of Jesus is a tricky undertaking when you consider that there is almost no historical data about Mary in the gospel narratives (which tell the story of Jesus' life). Marina Warner, author of Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary, an exhaustive examination of the meaning behind the Virgin Mary's symbolic roles (i.e. virgin, queen, bride, mother, intercessor), claims that aside from the fact that her name probably was Mary, "the amount of historical information about the Virgin is negligible. Her birth, her death, her appearance, her age are never mentioned. During Christ's ministry she plays a small part, and when she does appear, the circumstances are perplexing and often slighting."

Far from the living relationship depicted in stained glass windows and other religious iconography, a reading of the Gospels shows Jesus addressing Mary in terse, even hostile terms. A prime example of this treatment occurs at the wedding in Cana (in the second chapter of John) where Jesus turns water into wine. Seeing that they had run out, Mary goes to her son to solve the problem. "O woman, what have you to do with me? My hour has not yet come," he responds. From the tone of this remark it is obvious that Jesus had some hostility towards his mother. But why?

While most Christian officials would vehemently argue otherwise, a growing number of theologians, among them John Shelby Spong, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark, New Jersey, believe that Mary was not a virgin, but rather a woman who was pregnant out of wedlock and then quickly married offto an elderly man with whom she had other children. If this hypothesis is correct, Jesus would have been an illegitimate child, a stigma even more damning then than it is today. Seen through this lens, the coolness in Jesus' words toward his mother are given a new relevance. In fact, Stephen Mitchell, author of The Gospel According to Jesus, speculates that the central Christian tenet of forgiveness stems from Jesus' struggle to forgive his mother.

But if Mary was a woman who was pregnant out of wedlock, where did the story of the virgin birth come from? German theologian Uta Ranke-Heinemann, author of Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven: Women, Sexuality and the Catholic Church, writes that her colleagues "are increasingly recognizing that 'virginity' is an intellectual model, appropriate to New Testament times, for the new beginning of history with Christ." And that by turning Mary's virginity into a literal symbol, "we are obscuring the actual, salvation-history sense of the Gospel and distorting it into unbelievable and unimportant miracles."

Bishop Spong shares Ranke-Heinemann s aversion to interpreting the Bible literally: "I don't think virgins give birth," Spong says. "Nor do I think that stars wander through the sky or that people get on camels and start following a star." Deciding that none of the literal details made much sense to him, and that they actually jeopardized the integrity of the stories, Spong dedicated years of work to reinterpreting the Bible in a way that made more sense to him. His book, Born of a Woman: A Bishop Rethinks the Birth of Jcsns, is his most recent contribution to that end.

Much of Spong's findings answer the question of why, if there's evidence of Mary's lack of virginity in the Bible, the images of her as a pure, chaste, ideal woman have persisted.

According to Spong, it's important to remember that the Bible was written over a period of time by different writers. The Christian Church achieved political and religious power, it needed to defend that power by claiming divine ordination. And that meant that both Jesus and his mother needed to be more like God and less like ordinary people.

"At rock bottom," Spong argues, "human beings believed that they had confronted the living God through the life of Jesus." The difference in the presentation of this miracle lies at the heart of the virginity myth: close readings of the Gospels show that the farther the writings took place from the date of Jesus' death, the more miraculous they got. According to Spong, "Paul, who was die first writer in the New Testament (writing between 47 and 62 A.D.), simply extols the birth of Jesus. Then when you get to Mark, which is the first Gospel (65 to 70 A.D.) people are beginning to ask, 'well if we have experienced God through Jesus, how did God get into him?' And Mark says, 'God came into him at the baptism.'"

In fact it's not until the later Gospels of Matthew and Luke (written in the ninth decade) that the moment of Jesus' divinity is taken back to the moment of conception. John, writing in the tenth decade, goes even one further and denies the virgin birth tradition in favor of the notion that Jesus was the preexistent divine son who lived in heaven with God since the moment of creation and simply became enfleshed when he decided it was time to do so.

Of course the existence of other children posed a problem for those defending Mary's divine purity. And like the progression of Jesus' conception, Mary's virginity underwent similar reworkings over time. According to Ranke-Heinemann, "After New Testament times, from the second century on, Jesus' brothers and sisters were first turned into stepbrothers and sisters from the first marriage of Joseph, now a widower." In about the year 400, Jerome did away with them altogether by making them into cousins and claiming that Joseph was also a virgin. Even to this day Pope John Paul II asserts that Mary was a perpetual virgin whose hymen remained intact even after she gave birth.

Even though these writers were using the concept of Mary's virginity to a new end, the moral superiority of virginity was not a uniquely Christian value that, in Ranke-Heinemann's words, "brought self-control and asceticism to a pagan world that delighted in pleasure and the body." Instead, she asserts, "the image of the Virgin Birth corresponds to the legends and metaphorical language of Antiquity which trace the descent of famous individuals back to the gods."

Likewise, many feminists are claiming that the figure of the Virgin Mary herself is but one incarnation in a line of goddesses that were worshipped in pre-patriarchal antiquity. According to UCLA archaeologist Marija Gimbutas, author of The Civilization of the Goddess, Mary is a demoted version of a self-fertilizing "Virgin Goddess." This hypothesis is born out by the number of other mother figures in other religions, and spiritual practices like Hinduism where the spirit of the divine mother is incarnated into human bodies who transport her message to others.

But whether or not Mary is a uniquely Christian queen or a reincarnation of the mother Goddess, it's important to remember that she was presented to the world through the words of men. According to Ranke-Heinemann, "As theology increasingly became the business of bachelors, sin was more and more placed within the realm of sex. With the growth of its sexual neurosis, with its commitment to making lay people into monks, Christianity distanced itself from its Jewish roots in the Old Testament and from Jewish life in general."

The tangled association of sex and guilt that women have struggled against for centuries is the legacy of celibates writing about sex in a way that reflected positively on their lifestyle choices. Spong sadly acknowledges that " the virgin birth tradition has been used by a church where only males exercised authority to define WOmen. When that ideal woman is referred to as a Virgin Mother," he continues, "it immediately means that every other woman has no chance to ever being ideal. If you want to be a virgin, then you have to do a nunnery and live your life in virgin purity. If you want to be a lower caste woman, you exercise the vocation of motherhood, which means that there has to be the potential to have a child every time you have a sexual liaison."

Spong finds the hostility to female sexuality at its most potent in the biblical treatment of the figure of Mary Magdalene, who he argues is not only the primary feminine figure in the Jesus movement but was also his wife: "She's listed first in every list of women and she's portrayed by John as the chief mourner at the tomb." Spong also points out that nowhere in the Bible is Mary Magdalene referred to as a prostitute, and that her reputation was trashed. Her threatening female sexuality was replaced by a chaste virgin.

The legacy of Mariology is painfully obvious: as popular as she is, the Virgin Mary is nothing more than an abstract symbol used, as Spong says, "as a weapon" - especially by Roman Catholics. Warner points out that in the countries where she has the most influence (especially in Latin America and southern Europe), women also have lower status. By denying Mary the right to sexual pleasure and other human experiences and emotions, the framers of the Bible have left modern women with a set of symbols that are all but impossible to relate to.

While Spong likens the popularity of teaching the revisionist version of the Virgin to "telling children that Santa Clause is a myth," he has also noticed that women in particular thirst for a more human version of Mary. Without it, he and others argue, the church will cease to have relevant meaning to modern society and eventually die.

Perhaps that's why Mary has been sighted so much these days. Is it just my wish that she's making herself seen so that people will begin to think about her in a real way, as a real person - as a woman? Maybe Mary wants to get off her pedestal. That way she won't crack when someone tries to push her off it.*


Elizabeth Larsen is Associate Editor of the Utne Reader. She has written for Ms., Sassy, Extra, and other publications.


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