I began writing this entry on Mother’s Day eve, but it’s took me a couple of days to edit the many theological tangents I found myself coughing up along the way. As I’ve mentioned previously, I’m slowly (painfully so) writing a book, and sometimes I struggle to tease out all the information swirling around in my mind into these short, digestible bits.
But, here goes…
In honor of Mother’s Day, I want to talk about Jesus’ mom. Mary, The “Virgin”.
According to Marilyn Frye,
“The word ‘virgin’ did not originally mean a woman whose vagina was untouched by any penis, but a free woman, one not betrothed, not bound to, not possessed by any man. It meant a female who is sexually and hence socially her own person. In any version of patriarchy, there are no Virgins in this sense.”
The story about Jesus’ conception, which we find in the canonical gospels, seems to suggest that Mary was a sexual virgin, and I am not interested in disputing that necessarily. However, I do want to encourage a serious consideration of how the alternative definition of the word might enliven this story in a way that opens it up to a more modern spiritual audience.
According to the gospel of Luke, this is how things went down:
26 God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a city in Galilee. 27 The angel went to a virgin promised in marriage to a descendant of David named Joseph. The virgin’s name was Mary.28 When the angel entered her home, he greeted her and said, “You are favored by the Lord! The Lord is with you.”29 She was startled by what the angel said and tried to figure out what this greeting meant.
30 The angel told her,
“Don’t be afraid, Mary. You have found favor with God.
31 You will become pregnant, give birth to a son,
and name him Jesus.
32 He will be a great man
and will be called the Son of the Most High.
The Lord God will give him
the throne of his ancestor David.
33 Your son will be king of Jacob’s people forever,
and his kingdom will never end.”
34 Mary asked the angel, “How can this be? I’m a virgin.”
35 The angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come to you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the holy child developing inside you will be called the Son of God….
38 Mary answered, “I am the Lord’s servant. Let everything you’ve said happen to me.”
Again, I’m not here to dispute nor dissect Mary’s sexual virginity, and to my modern eye it seems like the story is pretty clear about it. I have my own opinions about whether to read ancient sacred texts as symbolic or literal accounts, which can be boiled down to “both, and”, but that’s a personal choice I won’t attempt to make for anyone else. What I will try to persuade you to consider, however, is how Mary also fits Marilyn Frye’s description of a virgin as a “free woman… not possessed by any man”.
If you understand the deeply patriarchal religious and social systems Mary lived within, this story is already remarkable simply because an angel of God visits a woman with no man present to mediate this interaction. Furthermore, Mary conducts herself during this encounter in a way that would suggest she is an impressively self-possessed woman, as she responds to this incredible encounter with her own spiritual convictions.
This is no small act of courage either. Because of Mary’s historical and cultural circumstances, it was entirely possible – even likely – that the men (& women) in her life would have rejected and criminalized her as soon as it became clear that she was pregnant. By saying “yes” to this divine responsibility of mothering the Son of God, she was willing to risk becoming a social pariah, endure estrangement from her family and community, and potentially incur criminal charges.
The woman that can look a messenger of God in the face and say “let it be” to this kind of fate is a woman possessed by nothing other than the Spirit that allows her to see and hear God in the first place. She’s a virgin – as Marilyn Frye defines it – because she transcends every version of patriarchy.
I don’t know about you, but the picture that was painted for me about Jesus’ mother was quite different than this one I’m presenting here now. Somewhere in my upbringing, I inherited a kind of cultural conditioning about women that caused me to understand Mary as an embodiment of meek, quiet, unquestioning servitude. Frankly, as far as I was concerned, she seemed a little bit like a victim of all these male players in her story – i.e. God chooses this fate for her, Gabriel “announces” it to her, Joseph waivers about whether or not to quietly end their engagement, and then Jesus happens to her.No irreverence intended, but Lord knows if I was Jesus’ mother I would be living on a steady drip of Xanax for all of my days.
But, Mary. Well, I have a feeling she did much more than just “endure” her fate. There is this account in the gospel of John, for example:
1 On the third day a wedding took place at Cana in Galilee. Jesus’ mother was there, 2 and Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. 3 When the wine was gone, Jesus’ mother said to him, “They have no more wine.”
4 “Woman, why do you involve me?” Jesus replied. “My hour has not yet come.”
5 His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”
Here you have the mother of God, carrying around her sincere faith in her own son, and gently nudging him along towards his path… as mother’s do. “You can do it, darling”, is something I know every loving mother has felt and said to their child thousands of times. Mothers often believe in their children’s potential long before they themselves do, and this account of Mary’s faithful encouragement of her child really strikes a deep chord with me.
On the surface this may sound awfully presumptuous, but I look to Mary’s example when I think about how I want to mother my own daughter. If Mary spent all of her days as a mother believing what the angel of God told her about her son, I imagine she would have had three things in her mind at all times:
- The human child – because babies’ human qualities force us to pay the most immediate attention; keeping them healthy and alive is an all consuming job for many years.
- The divine child – surely she would be looking for the divine qualities she believed her son possessed from the moment she felt him stir in her womb. She would have held this knowledge about him in her heart, and both nurtured and honored the things that emerged from him in accordance with her knowledge.
- How on earth these two aspects of her son could co-exist in human form, and how she might need to be involved in helping him to reconcile this.
As a practicing psychotherapist, I find it impossible to believe that Mary wouldn’t have had a significant impact on Jesus’ concept of himself. Even though he was God incarnate, he was also human, and every human being I have ever met has talked to me about the impact their mothers have had on their relationship with themselves. I don’t think God does things without understanding the consequences, and I believe that it must have been extremely important for Jesus’ mother (and maybe his father too) to know their son’s identity, and help to nurture him accordingly.
If this is true, then Jesus would have been raised by a woman who looked at him with a recognition of both his divinity and his humanity every time her gaze met his. Can you imagine being raised under that kind of gaze? I once heard the Dalai Lama speak about his own mother, and how her love for the human he was, as well as her reverence for spiritual being he was becoming influenced his development more than anything else. Apparently, having parents – chiefly, a mother, who believes in you is powerful stuff.
And so who did Mary’s son become in light of this kind of affirmation from his Mother?
Now, here’s where I may have to get super tangental about the person of Jesus for several paragraphs, but it’s worth the quick dive into those waters – so hang with me here.
Jesus, believing in both his humanity and his divinity, reportedly experienced a deep intimacy with God, and also demonstrated a courageous kind of love for his fellow human beings. His entire ministry was a demonstration of this love – love for God above the superfluous rules and regulations the religious authorities were fond of imposing, and love for people beyond the conventional stereotypes and judgments of his time. He didn’t preach from a pulpit, but got down in the dirt and grime of messy human life, and offered people practical help (food, safety, community, physical healings), and preached the most hopeful messages about the character and nature of God. (i.e. “God is like a loving father, God is like a good shepherd, God is like a generous land owner, etc”).
To his disciples, his message was even more wildly hopeful.
“Very truly I tell you, whoever believes [like] me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these…” — John 14:12
His populous message of individual empowerment and social interest made many of the powerful and influential people in his culture so angry with him too. The “powers-that-be” of his particular time and place felt so undermined by his ministry, that they were often described as being enraged to a actual murderous level, and eventually condemned him as a heretic.
“Who gives you this authority?!” they would shout. Jesus’ answer every time: “God”.
“I and the Father are One [in essence and nature].” – – John 10:30
I think it’s important to understand that this wasn’t an unconsciously arrogant response on his part either; he knew he was on borrowed time by giving this answer, and expected to be killed for his boldness and spoke plainly about this to his disciples:
“He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again.” – – Mark 8:31
Jesus seemed to be crystal clear that his inevitable death and resurrection was a necessary condition for his “students” to finally understand this critical bit about their own identity too:
“Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you”. – John 14: 18-20
Although this is a bit cryptic and maybe poorly translated, I believe that Jesus was continually inviting his disciples to understand their shared communion with God. I also think that they needed this big death and resurrection event to shake up their schematic understanding of God. It’s important to understand that before Jesus’ life and ministry, the Hebrew people believed that no one could experience the direct presence of God except for the highest, holiest priest, and only on the highest, holiest day in the highest, holiest of circumstances in the highest, holiest part of the temple.
Jesus’ whole life was a big confrontation of this assumption, and he offered a direct invitation to anyone – prostitutes, thieves, murderers, women (insert eye roll from me) – that chose to, could experience God (the Holy Spirit) “living in their own hearts”. Now, I think that phrase gets over-used, and therefore a little watered down, but no one alive during the time of Jesus’ life would have missed the meaning, nor misunderstood the huge theological shift he was determined – and destined – to initiate on that corner of the earth.
Okay, my tangent about the person and ministry of Jesus is complete.. for now.
Back to Mary and Jesus’ relationship. To summarize:
- She believed he was fully human and fully divine.
- He believed this too.
- He proclaimed – with the authority of one who is fully human and fully divine – that all human beings could also claim this divine inheritance.
Now let me be clear, I don’t think I’m raising the next Messiah, but I do think that the symbolic and/or historical figures of both Mary and Jesus teach us that we have an obligation to respond to both the divinity and the humanity that co-exist within our children – and ourselves too – and then ultimately learn how to nurture a relationship between these two aspects of our being.
… And I simply assume it’s going to be easier for my daughter to make this connection within herself if I help her believe in it.Looking at the example set by Mary, it would appear that one of the best ways for me to help my daughter believe in her own inner spiritual capacity, would be by believing in it for her first.
Of course, it will look and feel much different than it did for Mary because whether she is symbolic or real, she was working with the kind of ‘absolutes’ that both symbolism and literalism make possible. I don’t work in absolutes because I am not a symbol, and I am not the literal vessel for a singular divine being either. Nonetheless, when I think about Mary, I can’t help but be reflective about what it would feel like to be raised by a mother who tries to nurture a connection to both your humanity and your divinity.
Happy Mother’s Day to the most remarkable lady in the game. Mary, you are my symbolic model for how to stand alongside the development of a creature that belongs partly to me and partly to God.