For The Someday Book

Posts Tagged ‘Mary

Today was miserably chilly and pouring rain all day. The thunderstorm blew in around 4:00 a.m., and we saw whitecaps on the Sea of Galilee when we looked out the window in the morning. I was surprised by my own reaction to the weather. I expected to feel disappointed that we could not see the sweeping vistas, or catch a glimpse of Mount Tabor, or take pictures of the ruins. That would normally be my response. On this journey, however, I feel like everything is such a gift. Every moment, every site, every experience is pure gift, so I am not complaining about what isn’t there. In addition, we have been hearing so much about the water crisis in the region that I have begun to celebrate every raindrop, like the locals do.

Gray skies looking down on modern Zippori.

In the morning, we drove through Cana and before visiting Sepphoris. In Cana and Nazareth, the holy sites are in the midst of thriving modern cities, but Sepphoris is only ruins of the ancient Roman city built in the first century. The modern Zippori is set down the hill. In Sepphoris, we saw amazing mosaics preserved for 2000 years, the Roman cardo (colonnaded street), a Crusader citadel, and a theater. We also got very wet.

A beautiful mosaic on the floor of a former Roman villa. She is called the precursor of the Mona Lisa.

The very wet Roman cardo. If you look closely, you can see the wheel ruts in the stones.

Our next stop was Nazareth, home to the Church of the Annunciation. The Church of the Annunciation is built atop the traditional (since Byzantine times) site of Mary’s grotto, the cave home in which she would have received the announcement from the angel Gabriel that she was about to bear God’s son, while yet a virgin. I have long struggled with this story, wrestling with a host of theological and sociological questions. I still have more questions than answers about Mary, her virginity, God’s paternity, and what the whole thing says about womanhood and women’s sexuality. I am uninspired by the angelic, weepy images of Mary I usually see. So I did not expect to like or connect with a church dedicated to enshrining that story as though it were historical fact, rather than faithful storytelling.

The Church of the Annunciation

The Mary I met at the Church of the Annunciation was a Mary I could understand and admire. Before we went inside the church to see Mary’s grotto, we toured the excavated cave area outside the church. We saw a typical cave home in Nazareth around the time of Jesus. It was tiny, but had several smaller spaces within it—an upper area for sleeping, a back area for the animals at night, and a front area for cooking.

A cave home in the town of Nazareth. (The pillars are not original, they were added for support.)

Peasant life in the first century would have been tough. Nazareth was a tiny town, no more than 400 residents. Mary’s daily life would have involved making trips to the town well (now a mosque, closed to non-Muslims) to tote water, cooking over an open fire, caring for animals, making clothing and raising children. Seeing that cave house, so primitive and humble, replaced my image of the watery-eyed waif in the blue gossamer gown with a hearty, muscular peasant woman who lived among the harsh realities of life and tried to make a way for herself and for her family.

Looking up into the dome of the Church of the Annunciation.

The current Church of the Annunciation was built in 1969, atop the ruins of a smaller Franciscan church, a Crusader church and a Byzantine church. The Roman Catholic church, in the building process, solicited donations of art (and money) from around the world. Countries around the globe sent their own artistic renderings of Mary to display at this holy site. Inside the sanctuary and all along the outside wall enclosing the church campus are beautiful, colorful portraits of Mary showing the traditions and devotions of her followers of every race and nation.

Mary from Brazil

I was moved by the ways Mary had travelled, and how her story had clearly moved the hearts of women and men around the world—not just in this era, but for centuries. In the mosaics and other artwork around the Church of the Assumption, Mary did not look at all like she does in European Renaissance art. She looked like members of every race and tribe on the planet. She looked Japanese, and African, and Filipino, and Portuguese, and Indian, and Mexican, and many, many more. I came to understand the cult of Mary in a new way. Jesus as Christ was too remote, to removed from humanity for us to relate to him. Mary is like us, human and fragile, yet faithful and strong. She is our best selves, the part of us that says “yes” to whatever God asks us, the part that ponders things in her heart, the part that preaches the justice of the Magnificat, the part that weeps at the violence of the world.

Our Lady of Guadalupe, from Mexico

Of all the images of Mary, the one that drew me into a place of prayer was the one from the United States. Others in our group did not care for her shiny face and harsh edges, and dubbed her “The Iron Maiden.” But I loved the Iron Maiden because she looked like no Mary I’d ever seen. She was powerful and radiant, moving out of the flat picture we want to paint of her. Her strength and determination and fierceness moved me to worship. My relationship with Mary will never be the same.

"The Iron Maiden." This picture does not do justice to the power of this portrait.

Advertisements

Sometimes, I need to take time early in the week to express my disagreements and resentments toward a passage of scripture. It is my hope that, by Sunday, these frustrations can be transformed into a helpful, insightful struggle to share with others, or at least be set aside to make way for the Gospel. This is definitely one of those venting kind of reflections.

The Visitation, Juan Correa De Vivar

I am trying to be loving toward Matthew and Joseph this year, but I have always felt resentful about this passage. We get so little in the Bible about women and their faithful leadership in answering God’s call. Luke gives us the very best in his story of Mary—her friendship with Elizabeth, the image of babes leaping in their wombs, the revolutionary Magnificat that turns social order on its head, the humble birth in a stable in the company of shepherds. (I read a great post this week about women shepherds that you should not miss—and make sure to read the first comment too.) In spite of the problems with equating women’s faithfulness with eschewing sexuality, Luke’s Mary is a powerful woman who negotiates her own faith and her own relationship with God.

Matthew’s Mary, on the other hand, is a nobody. She doesn’t act or speak at all, nor does God speak to her. Her betrothal to Joseph sounds like a traditional arranged marriage in which she did not exercise choice. Matthew’s “his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph” sounds like someone else did the engaging. Even her pregnancy happens in passive voice: “she was found to be with child,” as though someone else even did the finding for her. Ugh.

This year, the first line really irritated me: “Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.” The passage then goes on to tell about a discovered pregnancy, a plan for quiet dismissal, angel-filled dreams and a sexless marriage. No matter what you may say about the uniqueness of Jesus or virginity of Mary, no baby comes into this world solely through dreaming and angels and quiet calm. Babies come with sweat and blood and agony and mess, with crying and cringing and backaches and pain. No, St. Matthew, the birth of Jesus most certainly did NOT take place in that way. No matter how idyllic it was, Mary still carried that child, she labored and pushed and held that messy infant to her breast.

So my complaint here is clearly with Matthew, not with Joseph. Joseph behaves with complete decorum in the first half of the story. He discovers his fiancée is carrying someone else’s baby. He could have let pride and pain get the best of him, and sought revenge against her. His revelation of her pregnancy could have ruined her life and the life of her child, condemning them to a life of public disgrace and chronic poverty. Joseph is not so cruel or selfish, and makes plans to quietly release Mary and himself from the previous marriage contract. He wishes her no ill-will, and demonstrates nothing but kindness.

The Dream of St. Joseph, Rembrandt

In the dream from God, however, Joseph is asked to do better than kindness and an absence of ill will. Joseph is asked to love Mary and love her baby as though they were his own. God challenges Joseph to move beyond being a kind and decent person, and asks him to become an obedient servant to God’s will. Joseph rises to the challenge. He proceeds with the wedding, and raises the child as his own, participating in naming the child Jesus.

Kindness, niceness and decency are good things, but they are not all God asks of us. God asked Joseph to move beyond decency and into love, faithfulness and obedience. The kind of love God demands from Joseph is not rooted in feelings (which can be fickle) or sentimentality (which can be shallow). God is asking Joseph to care for this woman and her child, to share his money and his life with them, to make sacrifices for their security, to be there for them in good times and bad ones, to be unrelenting in his care and concern for their well-being. That is the kind of love God demands from Joseph.

When that child Jesus grows up, he repeatedly challenges his followers to love in the same way. Jesus is always telling us that the kind and decent thing is not enough—God wants us to love one another. To go the extra mile, to hand over our cloak as well as our coat, to tend to the poor and sick, to love even our enemies. We often look at those challenges from Jesus as though they were impossible, as though that kind of love is beyond our human reach. But Jesus knew better. He knew we humans had the capacity to live out that kind of faithful, obedient love—he had seen his father Joseph give that kind of love to him for his whole life. (Put Matthew’s Joseph together with Luke’s strong portrayal of Mary, and you get two amazingly faithful and courageous parents.)

No wonder Jesus called God “Abba, Father.” The love of that Heavenly Father and the love of his earthly father must have been forever linked in his mind and heart. May we also hear God’s challenge to love—and respond with faithfulness, courage and obedience in loving one another.

Having a Mary Heart in a Martha World: Finding Intimacy with God in the Busyness of Life by Joanna Weaver, Waterbrook Press, 2000, 242 pp.

I read this book at the choosing of our Women’s Fellowship group, who asked me to help lead them in a discussion of a chapter every month at their meeting. To be honest, it is not a book or genre I would have chosen for myself. On the bookstore shelf you would likely find it under “spirituality,” but it could also be “Christian self-help.” I feared it would be shallow, poorly written, conservative in its ideas about God and women’s roles, and so filled with advice it would make someone’s head spin.

I am pleased to report that it was not. While I would not give it five stars for any of those categories, Weaver’s style and theology were basic, clear and filled with warmth and love. Using the basic conflict between Mary and Martha’s roles (one in the living room, one in the kitchen), and the wisdom of Jesus to come to the living room for time apart with God, Weaver takes a close look at the hectic nature of women’s lives. She names the tensions we feel between faith, friendship and faith, and our need to get Martha’s tasks done while taking Mary’s time with God. She gives practical insight and advice about these matters of the heart.

I read this book in short doses, and in conversation with the ladies of the Women’s Fellowship, a dedicated group of women aged 75+. My experience of the book was shaped by that conversation, and by the wonderful discussions it sparked among us. (Including this one.) While, for most of them, the busy time of their lives is over, they still felt the same pressures of care-taking in different ways. The book opened us to moments of conversation about the expectations men have of women’s roles and service, the portrayal of women in the Bible, the historic exclusion of women from church leadership, the tension between grace and works, and more.

These women connected to Weaver, because she wrote with such a sense of honesty and openness. She freely disclosed her struggles with everything from a messy house to a vacant prayer life. The women’s hearts responded to her honesty, and they responded with an honesty of their own. The book’s tone launched a frankness that is rarely seen in my church conversations, and it was a real space for the Spirit to work.

I would not have chosen this book for myself, but I took great delight in reading it alongside these women. Weaver’s faithfulness and earnestness let the Spirit speak through her, even though my perspective may be a bit different. It might do the same for the women’s group at your church.

Our church’s Women’s Fellowship is a small band of 10-15 women ranging in age from 75 to 90. They meet once a month for a business meeting, program and refreshments. The Women’s Fellowship is the descendant of a once-thriving and prominent Women’s Guild, which attracted hundreds of women who had no other opportunity for leadership or employment and wielded enormous financial and influential power in the life of the church. The evolving nature of gender relationships, the inclusion of women as officers and leaders in the church, and the reality that most women now work full-time outside the home has diminished the need and authority of these kinds of women’s groups over the years. The Women’s Fellowship no longer wields such power, but they are still a mighty cool bunch of ladies who contribute a great deal to the ministry of the church.

I have been leading a book discussion with them every month for their program, and this month the chapter focused on the story of the woman with the alabaster jar, particularly the Johannine account which identifies her as Mary of Bethany. We had already giggled and tittered about the sexual nature of this encounter, and talked about the intimacy of that moment. We wondered together at the woman’s motivations, at her feelings for Jesus. Then I asked, “Well, what about Jesus? Why do you think he accepted such an intimate gesture, such a show of affection? Why did he just sit there and let her wash his feet with her hair?”

“Because he’s a man. They just expect you to serve them,” blurted an 80-something former farm girl, tough as nails and as loyal to her church as anyone can be. And the whole room erupted in the honest, raucous laughter of recognition—for a moment, until we realized she had just made a man-joke about the ego of Jesus Christ. The laughter reverted to nervous giggles followed by awkward silence, as they looked to their pastor to see how she would react.

I have to admit I didn’t know where to start. I wanted to affirm the truth-telling nature of her comment. It opened a powerful connection and shared experience in women’s lives, a feminist consciousness-raising moment. I wanted to name and unpack the reality she described, that men have been trained to expect women to serve and to sacrifice, and they tend to overlook and underappreciate the real cost of women’s gifts and service.

I also felt the need and desire to defend Jesus from being a typical man. I want him to be my feminist hero. I think there is some justification for this in the Gospel. Jesus did talk to women without prejudice, engaged them fully in his ministry, bent gender roles, spoke up in defense of women and adopted a posture of service and sacrifice that is not so different from women’s traditional roles.

I did both of those things, and the conversation progressed. But the original comment still pricks at me, because it reminded me of the uncomfortable reality that Jesus was still a first-century man. He may have been a good man, a forward-thinking, radically inclusive, woman-affirming man—but he was still a man. He probably did not overcome all the prejudices of his day around the expectations of women’s servitude.

It renewed my yearning for a female Messiah, a woman of spiritual and moral consequence, who breaks through gender stereotypes to establish a model of the faithful life as a woman. Jesus sets the model for what a God-dedicated life looks like for a man—serving others, humbling yourself, giving up home and family for the sake of spiritual pursuit, standing up to power and working for peace and justice. What does it look like for a woman to live that kind of life? Jesus’ model life was made possible by the women supporting him, providing food and shelter and clothing to him. I refuse to believe that supporting male spiritual leaders is as good as it gets for women, so what does it look like for a woman to live a model faithful life?

When society already demands humility and servitude and trains us up to practice compassion and reconciliation, what does spiritual leadership in those areas demand? It requires extra courage and fortitude for women to stand up to power and speak out against injustice, so perhaps that is where our spiritual leadership comes forward. But what about giving up home and family? Who’s going to feed the children if women start following Jesus’ model of leaving those tasks to someone else?

This yearning for a female Messiah is not new to me. I believe many women share the aching desire for role models, spiritual and otherwise, that show how to overcome the gender stereotypes of service and humility while continuing to be serving and humble, how to stand up to power and speak for justice while still practicing justice and care in our family relationships, how to lead and give and serve across the multiple, challenging roles and stereotypes women face. Mary of Bethany, Mary Magdalene, the Syro-Phoenician woman, Dorcas, Lydia—these are important examples, but their stories have been so filtered through gender stereotypes that it is impossible to look on their lives without filters.

Jesus is still a feminist hero. But sometimes I still want more.


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

Helpful Hint

If you only want to read regular posts, click the menu for Just Reflections. If you only want to read book reviews, click the menu for Just Book Reviews.

RevGalBlogPals

NetGalley

Member & Certified Reviewer

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 1,663 other followers

Advertisements
%d bloggers like this: