Friday, February 11, 2011

Blessed Virgin Mary (Part Two)

By my senior year of college, I was caught up in investigating the doctrinal claims of any of the “historic Churches”. For the most part, I can’t relate what I investigated chronologically because it was done in bits and pieces. Whether it meant google searches, scouring blogs, or simply walking up and down the aisles of books dedicated to Christian history and doctrine in the basement of the Rock (Brown’s library), I found my mind turning to these questions whenever possible.

In my mind, the “big two” Marian questions were always the Immaculate Conception and the bodily assumption of Mary to heaven. I was weary of Pentecostalism’s very recent emergence, but weren’t these dogmas defined quite recently as well? Indeed, the Immaculate Conception (which means that Mary, by the grace of God, was conceived without the stain of original sin) was defined as dogma in 1854 and the assumption of Mary into heaven was only defined as dogma in 1950! Why did the Catholics have to go on trying to make everything more complicated!?

You can see why my interest tended towards Anglicanism more (the Eastern Orthodox also believe all sorts of “weird” stuff about Mary). But, to be fair, I had to look at more of what Catholics believed about Mary. Here’s some of what I found:

Mary as the New Eve

In the Epistle to the Romans, Paul draws a connection between Christ and Adam and describes Christ as a sort of “new Adam”. “For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” (Romans 5:19) But how could Mary be a new Eve!

As I was prone to point out during my girls-have-cooties-but-are-still-worth-annoying-and-competing-with elementary school days, Eve was the first one to eat the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. But in Romans we hear about sin entering the world through Adam. While Eve had her part to play, Adam is set up as the prototype of disobedience. In this case Paul wants to point out how sin entered into the human race through Adam, although it is true that Eve’s disobedience paved the way for Adam’s disobedience—which then became the paradigm for the disobedience that we’ve all been born into (original sin).

Fast forward. The Word of God is about to become a man. How do men come into the world? Well, they’re born. And being born is always a risky proposition. While abortion may not have been as pervasive in the ancient world as it is now, it wasn’t invented yesterday. And infanticide was hardly rare in the ancient world. Even after birth, humans are always vulnerable. Our physical, psychological, emotional, and spiritual development are still in many ways influenced by our mothers (and fathers) well after our birth. God has always exhibited the utmost concern for human freedom (exhibit A: the Garden of Eden), so forcing a woman to properly take care of Christ would be absolutely out of the question.

And what happened? God selected, with the utmost care, a specific woman named Mary. She was “most highly favored”, in Greek, Kecharitomene  (perfect passive participle) so “you who have been graced”. With complete attention to free will, God asked Mary to play a key role in the plan of salvation. Without knowing fully what that entailed, Mary gave an unconditional, “yes”.

Her obedience paved the way for Christ’s prayers in the Garden of Gethsemane (cross-reference Garden of Eden) where Christ offered perfect obedience (Not my will but Yours be done) and offered up obedience by choosing to offer Himself on a tree of death. Her “yes” replaced Eve’s “no” and thus paved the way for Jesus’ life-giving “yes” to the Father.  Christ is the prototype of obedience, the new Adam, but Mary had an integral role to play.

Mary as the Ark of the New Covenant

According to Hebrews 9:4, the Ark of the Covenant contained a golden urn holding manna, Aaron’s rod that budded, and the tablets of the covenant. What was in Mary when she was pregnant with Jesus? She held within her the bread of life (see John 6 for heavy connection between Jesus and manna), a new High Priest (according to the order of Melchizidek), the Vine (we are the branches), and the Word made flesh, God’s new covenant promised to Israel.

Also if you go and read 1 Samuel 6 and the story of Mary’s visitation to Elizabeth in Luke 1, there are an amazing number of parallels. From the language used to describe people’s joy before the ark to the very length of stay in someone else's house (Obed-edom and Elizabeth’s house—both for 3 months), there are enough similarities to quite reasonably believe that the Biblical author may quite purposefully be evoking a typology. I found this document extremely helpful in concisely describing the depth of Biblical typology found in the identification of Mary as the Ark of the New Covenant.

Mary as Queen of Heaven

The key to understanding this title is how queenship worked in the Davidic kingdom. In our western tradition influenced by Christianity and monogamous marriage, we understand a queen to be the spouse of a king, who may share in her power due to her marriage or may have come into her power by her own right of succession. (Queen Elizabeth II for example) Is this what it meant to be a queen in Israel and what Catholics mean when they call Mary Queen of Heaven?

No. There are no queens listed as ruling over Israel or Judah by their own right. (one did for several years, but this is portrayed as an improper succession; see 2 Kings 11) And most if not all of the kings had multiple wives. Did Solomon have hundreds of queens? Is any woman ever described as a queen? Well, if we look at 1 Kings 2:19, we see that Solomon had a throne brought in for his mother and placed it just to the right of his throne! In context, we also see that Bathsheba is interceding to the king for someone else’s request.

I remember this concept clicking for me because I had been looking over passages from Kings in my Hebrew class last year, and had already noted that part of the standard information often given about a king included not only his age when he became king and length of reign but also the name of his mother. Why? Because who their mother was mattered. In a world that usually only saw it as necessary to include male names in genealogies, attention was still paid to kings’ mothers because of the special intercessory role they often played. If you look through 1 and 2 Kings, you see that queen mothers were actually quite standard.

Also, there is this passage in Revelation 12 that refers to a woman (in heaven and wearing a crown) who gave birth to a male Son “who is to rule all nations…” and the dragon doesn’t want this to happen. What do we make of this? I’ll agree this isn’t necessarily as straightforward as it might seem. Pretty much nothing in the book of Revelation is. Still, if there’s a possibility that this person is Mary (and that seems not only possible but quite probable), then we certainly can’t say it’s wrong to call her a queen (she is after all wearing a crown). We should also note that the chapter divisions in our Bibles weren’t part of the original authorship and that 11:19 notes the presence of the Ark of the Covenant in heaven—and about to be opened! So why did it all of a sudden shift to talk about a woman giving birth??? ;)

A lot of Protestants argue that the woman in this case is entirely referring to the Church. And that does make more sense out of 12:6, where the woman is forced to flee into the wilderness for 1260 days after her child is snatched up to heaven.

Wait! What if they’re both true!!!

Mary as Exemplar (and Mother) of the Church

To be honest, I just forgot what Scripture passages I found helpful in acknowledging this fact because I just got so excited about realizing it all over again. Once the puzzle pieces come together, it all seems to make so much sense. While I understand most people will remain unconvinced, I hope this at least renders Catholic beliefs a little more intelligible.

In the Liturgy of the Hours, Catholics (and other Christians) across the world pray, chant, whisper, or sing the “Canticle of Mary” near the end of their evening prayers every single day. Mary was asked to invite Jesus in to her heart, her life, and her body, the same request Christ makes of us today. She asked how this could happen since she was a virgin, but amazingly didn’t ask all sorts of other questions. (exs. Will you protect me if people try to stone me? Will Joseph divorce me? Will I ever have a normal life again?) Instead, in an act of complete faith she surrendered her will entirely to God. Not only did she do this, but she began to praise God:

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
My spirit rejoices in God my Savior
For he has looked with favor on his lowly servant

From this day all generations will call me blessed:
The Almighty has done great things for me,
And holy is his Name.

He has mercy on those who fear him
In every generation.

He has shown the strength of his arm,
He has scattered the proud in their conceit.

He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
And has lifted up the lowly.

He has filled the hungry with good things,
And the rich he has sent away empty.

He has come to the help of his servant Israel
For he has remembered his promise of mercy,
The promise he made to our fathers,
To Abraham and his children for ever. (Luke 1:46-55)

Like Mary, we can only respond to Jesus’ call because of grace. Like Mary, we are called to respond in faith to God’s call on our lives. Like Mary we are called to invite Jesus into ourselves, holding nothing back. Like Mary, we are called to take part in Christ’s sufferings. (“and a soul will pierce through your own soul also” Luke 2:35) The Church prays in Mary’s words precisely because she offers such an excellent example of a free response to God’s grace.

And what is wrong with saying that inasmuch as I am united with Christ, His mother becomes my mother? If I object saying that I’m only united with Christ’s divine nature, then I’ve separated Christ’s divine and human natures (another early heresy).

The Gospel of John describes how when Jesus was on the cross, he saw his mother and the beloved disciple standing at the foot of the cross. Jesus told Mary “Woman, behold your son!” and to the beloved disciple He said, “Behold your mother!” (John 19:26-27) Was this just a simple bit of historical information relevant to only those two individuals that the Gospel writer figured he’d include just because he could? We know better than that. Everything in the Gospel of John is chosen for a reason. As the last Gospel to be written, it overflows with theological reflection in everything from layout to word choice. Might it be permissible to posit that we are all called to be a “beloved disciple”? If so, might it be possible that we are all called to stand, with the mother of God, before Christ crucified? And might we too be called to view her as our mother?

It grates against our idea of God to talk about Him having a mother, and even more so to speak of us somehow sharing a mother with Him. I know. When I think of the difficulty of the incarnation I think of the entirely genuine and sincere pain on a Muslim friend in Oman’s face as he balked at the gritty details the incarnation entails. It messes with everything. And I totally understand where he’s coming from. Christianity was always messy, though. It has to be because we believe that God is love. All of us Christians should be challenged to not just believe in, but wrestle with, and ultimately revel in the shocking reality of God’s Incarnation.

I still haven’t returned to addressing the Marian dogmas that initially bothered me the most. I’m pretty sure there are statistics that say that a small minority of people actually read blog posts this long in their entirety, though, so I thank you for staying with me thus far and I’ll try to continue the story later on. Until then, God bless. 

Blessed Virgin Mary Part I
Blessed Virgin Mary Part III
Blessed Virgin Mary Part IV

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