The Scandalous Virgin

If we are to take seriously the bold concepts of incarnation and salvation, we must also accept the reality of the relationships God established in order to generate those concepts.

by Peter Fleming

The peculiar thing about Mary is not that she is so present in Catholicism but that she is so absent from Protestantism.

If we are to believe that Jesus the Christ existed – and his existence was seriously questioned even up to my university days in the 1980s – we have to come to terms with the simple fact that he had a mother. How we deal with that fact says a lot about our faith – in fact it could be argued that it is a litmus test of whether or not we have faith for real.

The problem is the very reality of the matter. If Jesus was a lunatic with delusions of grandeur – a man and no more – then we don’t have to worry about the matter at all. But the minute we accept that he was the corporeal representation of God, in history, with dust on his feet, fish oil under his fingernails and perhaps even some uncleaned wax in his ears, Mary becomes a measure of how we see God himself.

There are, to speak in polar terms, two opposed camps: Mary is the Queen of Heaven, fully accepted body and soul into paradise by a God who so loved her that he granted her the complete benefits of the resurrection before all other mortals, and granted to her the singular role of Mediatrix, the one through whom all salvation is mediated to humanity; or, Mary is a woman whose usefulness was over the moment she had given birth and whose importance is thereafter dismissed by the gospel writers, the disciples and even Jesus himself.

One can see immediately the implications for our vision of God: the one personal, grateful, loving; the other a mere user, and frankly, an abuser.

Lest it be said that the latter characterization too easily draws the argument to a close before it has even begun, let us remember that there is a definite danger in the former as well, and it is this: that by making Mary into the Mediator, we run the risk of making Jesus into some kind of diffident, begrudging saviour, only dishing out salvation because his mother asks him to.

This was certainly the characterisation presented by Dietrich Schernberg in A Beautiful Story of Mrs. Joan, the 16th century play which told in theatrical terms the legend of Pope Joan, the woman who supposedly disguised herself as a man, rose to the top of the Catholic hierarchy, and then died in childbirth during a public procession in Rome. In the play, Joan is plunged into Hell, and from there pleads to Mary, who, in scenes set in Heaven, implores her son on her knees before he finally grants Joan mercy:

“Most gracious Mary, Mother sweet,
Come, let me help you to your feet.
Kneel no longer and pray no more;
You have appeased my anger sore….”
“Salvator” (Jesus), in Ein schon Spiel von Frau Jutta, Dietrich Schernberg, 1565

Such a vision of God, and especially of Jesus, is in the 21st century as anathemic to Catholics as it is to Protestants, and yet there seems to be a recurring, almost cyclical need by some people to revert to a cold, unfeeling image of the Creator, and thence the need to insert a warmer, maternal personage in between us and him. In a way, in this representation by Schernberg – which itself may have been written to provoke important questions rather than merely reflect orthodoxy – we see the original impetus for the New Covenant revised for a generation which had forgotten the difference between Christianity and Judaism in the first place: mercy overcoming law.

But while we need not go the whole way down the path of the Mediatrix image, we should not dismiss outright the notion of intercession. If we ask fellow travellers here on earth to pray for our needs, surely a living  and breathing genuine faith would suggest to us the abundant opportunity afforded by asking for the “church triumphant” – the saints in heaven – to pray for us as well. If Mary be a saint at all – and I leave open that question only for the sake of argument just at this point – her intercessory power is at the very least the same as any friend’s here on earth.

The Mediatrix version of Mary’s role also, it could be argued, runs the risk of supplanting the role of the Holy Spirit. After all, it is the Holy Spirit who is described in the gospels as our “advocate” (John 14:15), and the Holy Spirit is feminine (“ruach’, the noun in Hebrew, is feminine).

The need for a feminine principle in theology is a common one in religions beyond Christianity; and the feminine is often associated with mercy, kindness and a tender watchfulness over our souls. With such a Mary, why a Holy Spirit?

However, the danger of the other view of Mary – the woman dismissed after her child-bearing function is over – is far, far greater. It posits a God who may love humanity in general, but is utterly careless of humans individually.

Consider what is being proposed. God chooses a woman “blessed” among all women, to whom he communicates in very direct, dramatic ways; she is chosen as the bearer of his own son; and then, after the son has matured, she is all but ignored.

Now, while many a feminist would wryly assert that such behaviour is not unknown amongst men, we must not forget that we are dealing with God who, while generally represented in male terms, nonetheless is both masculine and feminine (“In his image he created them, male and female” Genesis 1:27) and is also transcendent, and facile anti-male slurs cannot apply, if we really are talking about God and not just certain representations of him.

Because we so often hear their stories read in highly ritualised contexts, we often forget that these people were real, and not just names and symbols for use in theological arguments.

Certainly the New Testament paints a more real picture of an enduring relationship than the Protestant “dismissal” version.

In literary terms for a start, Mary is given opportunities not afforded many another characters in the New Testament; for example, where from Peter as a character in the gospels is there anything approaching “The Magnificat”? And while this is merely a literary event – although a great one – the profundity of Mary’s human experience is also rendered, as when we are told that she treasured the events of Jesus’ childhood in her heart (Luke 2:51).

Her requests are heeded by him at the wedding in Cana, even if the dialogue between them suggests a certain Messianic surliness on his part (John 2:1-11).

And when Jesus says that those who do the will of his father are his mother and sister and brothers (Luke 8:19-21), this is not a dismissal but merely the taking of an opportunity to make a point about the profound catholic nature of the new faith; it is just such uses of “the moment” which made Jesus the “teacher of authority” (Matthew 7:29) that he was.

And of course, Mary is even cared for by Jesus when he is on the cross (John 19: 26 -27); and she is present with the apostles in the upper room at Pentecost. (Acts 1:14, taken with Acts 2:1)

The New Testament, the source of authority for Protestant teaching, presents us with an authentic relationship between God and Mary, the kind one would expect of a personal God who wishes his family to call him “abba”, dad.

It is what we then do with our ruminations on the afterlife of the people in the texts which becomes paramount.

Do we envisage a God who would intimately get involved with humans, and with one human girl in particular, and then later pretend that she is nothing special to him, like some callow rake? Or do we envisage a personal, loving God who is capable of blending “favour” with a broader judgmental impartiality? Can a judge not have a love?

It is the more deistic versions of God which prefer him to be utterly impersonal, distant, indeed virtually autistic.

Real religions have always rendered him an emotional being, who can be angry and loving at once, and who likes to “touch” and to “breathe on” his creatures.

It seems that if we are to take seriously the bold concepts of incarnation and salvation, we must also accept the reality of the relationships God established in order to generate those concepts. It is difficult to imagine no special “day” in heaven when Mary arrived there, even if her meekness would not have wanted too much fuss.

Meanwhile on earth, she remains for many the scandalous virgin, unfit for Christian spiritual motherhood: too redolent for some of the remains of old pagan earth-mother worship, too theologically off-putting for others in the Queenly role that later hagiographers assigned her. But God was adamant about using family imagery to explain his new faith, and if we are all brothers and sisters, and if he is “dad”, then it becomes very hard to see him as a single-parent.

Peter Fleming graduated in Arts and Education from the University of Sydney; his studies focussing on Classical History, English Literature and American Music Theatre.  He is a graduate of the NIDA Playwrights Studio. He has taught in schools, universities and tertiary colleges, covering subjects such as Ancient History, Religion, English Literature, Theatre History and Arts Administration.  He also survived a year of teaching drama in North Carolina.




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