(From Personal Reflections of Annunciation Sunday)
Another Advent season has begun. The time when we are to prepare for the birth of Jesus, and yet another Sunday where the point of the Annunciation to Mary of Nazareth by the angel Gabriel was missed. Within the Protestant tradition we have a tendency to short shift Mary and her role, we reduce her to nothing more than the test tube or incubator for Jesus, but her role was far more active than that.
Just think about this young girl barely into her menstruation, barely a teenager. Having sat there while her father cut a business deal with Joseph to purchase her (where the idea of Bride Price comes from). Having witnessed the brutality of the Roman Empire, the occupiers of her people. Where girls her age (or any age) were nothing more than property to the soldiers. Not full citizens, they could take and rape them with immunity. If pregnancy happened, even just the losing of their hymen, made them unclean and a shame for their families.
Families that then had choices to either redeem fully their honour through stoning (honour killing) or to put the issue away quietly just outside the city gates where the lepers, beggars, and sex trade workers existed… a fate that would rapidly end in death by violence, exposure, or sexually transmitted disease. The problem was more compounded once the bride price or the deal had been made, because now it dishonoured two families. This was the struggle Joseph worked through in the Gospel of Matthew before the Angel Gabriel visited him in a vision.
But we come back to Mary as the Angel Gabriel comes to her (with no back story on how many girls heard this same offer before Mary and said no because they understood the horror of the stigma they were taking upon themselves). Mary stands there, knowing she was no longer her father’s property, but not completely Joseph’s yet (the contract made, but not yet consummated). Mary a young girl who probably bore witness to the execution of other girls dishonoured by the Romans (neigh raped) or disfigured or cast out… the struggles of the widow, the divorcee, the adulteress in this patriarchal culture that reduced the usefulness of a woman to nothing more than her ability to produce male heirs to her male masters.
A young girl who had never been treated as an equal. A young girl who had never had her opinion asked for, or even if it mattered. Yet here was God sending his messenger directly to her, not to Joseph or her Father, but directly to the non-citizen in both nations she existed in (Rome and Israel). And it was in this shocking, counter culture movement of empowerment, where Mary said the yes that began the shaking of the normative oppression. The yes that began the transformation of 51% of humanity from the shadows to equals (and still is continuing). The yes that a young woman for the first time firmly took her life and her life’s call as her own. Blessed among women, Mary was blessed among humanity. A simple step of faith to prove what humanity views as impossible is simply how it is to be.
But we do what her culture did; we tend to relegate Mary to nothing more than a voiceless incubator.
Yet, the story of God and Mary is one of voice and empowerment of the complete image of God.
Mary of Nazareth, Virgin Mary, and Our Lady are some of the simpler titles given to young Mary, at first look she can be almost a throw away character within the story of Christ. Yet she is the most venerated saint (at least 23 feast/celebration days within the church calendar, when Vatican II was convened many wanted a stronger Marian doctrine that would see her ascend to co-redeemer with Christ. She is not just an incubator for the saviour of the world; she is an ongoing voice for those without voice within the world.
Many claimed to have been visited by Our Lady, in such broad visitations as Fatima, Lourdes, & Rwanda. These are but a few, each time she would come to share the mystery of Christ’s love opened within their context. The church would investigate to validate, yet there are many more visitations that the church will not acknowledge as true. Mary is also the subject of a novel that is used within spiritual formation circles of seminary in Canada. Dianne Schomperlane’s Our Lady of the Lost and Found (2003) opens up the story of a Mary in need of a vacation, and takes time to visit with someone out of the blue to take a rest from the constant petitioning, and need to act as a voice.
This is where the gap exists within Marian theology, for the Protestant (including Evangelical, Mainline, and Pentecostal with their derivatives) tend to not spend much time on the character of the mother of Christ Jesus, the one that said yes to God as recorded in the Gospel of Luke 1:26-38. While within the Roman Catholic tradition one can get caught up more in the debate over the condition of Mary’s hymen pre & post birth of Christ, and whether or not Mary herself was conceived without sin, than what the story of Mary matters. This leaves our brothers and sisters in the Easter Rites (Orthodox, Coptic, etc.) that tend towards the more mystical where Mary is revered as Christakos or even more clearly, Theokotos. Each of these is simply a piece of the puzzle.
Why does Mary matter? 2,000 years of story, mythology, veneration, and being cast aside, yet still she is there. The underlying question for the disciple today needs to be built upon some foundations:
- What is the Biblical background of Mary? (Both canonical and extra-canonical).
- What is the Marian doctrine emerging within church silos and ecumenically?
- What are the rampant theories of Mary existing today and yesterday?
- What are apparitions and its purpose?
The source to answer these questions will be a critical analysis of the theory, doctrine, theology and source material available in regards to Mary of Nazareth.
Building upon these foundational questions the emergent source for this work is to simply answer the question is Marian theology a theology of liberation?
By exploring the diversity of materials available upon Mary of Nazareth, what emerges is that the story of this peasant girl may be an allegory for every believer. McBrien’s Report on the Church: Catholicism after Vatican II (1992) opens up the idea that the Second Vatican Council 1962-65 and the major drive of this was a proposed theological thrust for everything being a serving church which grows into other beliefs about the Vatican II that while modernizing the Roman Catholic Church, the Holy Spirit was not only blowing through this church but Christendom as a whole.
O’Malley What happened at Vatican II (2008) was the 21st ecumenical council produced 16 documents that affirmed the congregation and the priest were co-workers in the liturgy (Lumen Gentium – the people of God), affirmation of visions of Mary, the Immaculate Conception from the Protoevangelion of James that told of Mary being born without sin and one of only two times that a statement was made by the Holy Father ex-Cathedra in 1854. Yet the council stopped short of ascending Mary to a co-redeemer status. Yet this proved just how valued this child who became the Mother of God is valued not only within the Mass, Liturgy or church year but also within the service work of the church.
John Shelby Spong, former Episcopal Bishop of Newark who moves within the Progressive Christian circles presents his own thoughts on how the Marian story needs to adapt to maintain relevance today. In his 2001 work A New Christianity for a New World: why traditional faith is dying and how a new faith is being born he points out that the divine nature of Christ is tied to the miraculous and literal means of the Mary conception and nativity stories Spong traces the story of Mary from what is believed the earliest Gospel source in Mark 3:20-35 & 6:1-6 where Mary leads the family to confront Jesus who has become an embarrassment to them, which with the more recent gospel stories changes to a more inclusive and celebratory relationship. This text also goes on to explore some fundamental challenges Spong saw with the Mary story. The ideal of a post partum virgin because the hymen had to be preserved which became more important with the dawning of the Enlightenment and the realization that women’s wombs were not just incubators for male sperm, hence women could be a source for original sin as well. This sin challenge meant that not only did Mary need to remain a perpetual virgin, but she herself could not be soiled with sin and hence the Immaculate Conception that almost 100 years after this statement was made, then another ex-Cathedra proclamation in 1950 where Mary was now assumed bodily into Heaven.
Spong’s exploration of Mary did not stop with his 2001 text, it continued in 2011 with Reclaiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World where he postulates on the outside of years Jesus lived 6 BCE to 32 CE, most probably 4 BCE to 30 CE which lends credence to the value that Mary was between 13-15 years at time of conception, and 37-39 at time of Jesus’ crucifixion. The reality of the crucifixion with the style of teaching Jesus’ chose was a daily reality for a Jew raised Roman occupation and within a small community where he was known as an illegitimate child. This was not the messiah many could cling to, yet the Annunciation text in Gospel of Matthew 1:18-21 to Joseph allows Jesus to be affixed to an earthly father within the line of David that Paul puts forward in Romans 1:3 that gives rise to these later Nativity stories.
Marcus Borg of the Jesus Seminar supports Spong’s postulating that the Nativity story are not literal, nor historical, or even central to the earliest Christian Movement. What is known for truth is that Jesus was a devout, and socialized and born Jewish with four known brothers and an unknown number of sisters. This culminates for Borg that the birth narratives are symbolic stories created by early Christians to add importance to the story of Christ.
John Dominic Crossan of the Jesus Seminar supports this theory in his work The Birth of Christianity: Discovering what happened in the years immediately after the execution of Jesus (1998) where he notes that historians are mute on the annunciation of Mary text because it is not a historical story, but a transcendental story.
A side note on the Marian history would not be full without a trip to former Anglican Priest, ex-Reporter, current author, Tom Harpur’s twin works The Pagan Christ: Recovering the Lost Light (2004) and its sequel, Water into Wine: the Empowering Vision of the Gospels (2007) that removes all history and essentially relegates the Gospel to nothing more than plagiarized Sumerian/Egyptian mythology with Hebrew names instead of the deities. Even though this may seem a harsh reflection there is some useful things to explore. Harpur equates the Magnificat in Luke as an expansion and reminder upon Hannah’s song within 1 Samuel 2. Yet he follows this up in his sequel by pointing out that the Temple account in Mark when Jesus was 12 years old contradicts the annunciation narratives of Matthew and Luke. These works may seem out of place, but it shows even those attempting to leave the faith still have to wrestle through the reality of not only the Christ, but also His mother.
Bart D. Ehrman, a leading New Testament scholar whose studies have led him from Disciple of Christ to Agnostic puts forward thoughts on Mary in his Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scriptures and the Faiths we never knew (2003) for it is within this work that we are walked through the story of Anna and Joachim, Mary’s parents within the Proto-Gospel of James from the Middle Ages that creates the Immaculate Conception of Mary in a parallel to Hannah’s story in 1 Samuel 1-2. It is within this proto-gospel that Mary manages to conceive and birth with never breaking her hymen ensuring not only a virgin mother, but a perpetual virgin.
This is only a beginning as there are many other resources about Mary to explore. This includes narratives around her apparitions, the writings of the most devoted Marian Pope, John Paul II, and more writings from progressive Christians. The Literary Review will also explore other texts around her devotion, prayers, rosary, biblical, extra-biblical to name but a few during this journey of research.
January 2013 will be used to complete the Literature review.
February 2013 is when there will be times of sharing findings within various groups to get feedback; it will also be a time to begin to shape the book to come out of these works centred on the five questions.
March 2013 is to take the research notes and structure of the book to merge the two in to a highly readable and informative guide to answer the core question of what is the liberation theology of Mary?
Christakos – Christ-bearer.
Ex-Cathedra – A Papal statement supported by the doctrine of infallibility.
Liberation Theology – A 20th century theology that focuses on the freedom from oppression.
Lumen Gentium – People of God
Pope – the Bishop of Rome, leader of the Roman Catholic Church.
Rosary – The form of meditative prayer used by Roman Catholics. A combination of Hail Mary’s, Lord’s Prayer, and The Apostle Creed is used as a mantra to clear the mind so the prayer can focus upon the Mysteries of the Life of Christ.
Theokotos – God-bearer
Borg, M.J. (1994). Meeting Jesus again for the First Time: Historical Jesus and the Heart of Contemporary Faith, Waterville, Maine: Thorndike Press.
Crossan, J.D. (1998). The Birth of Christianity: discovering what happened in the years immediately after the execution of Jesus, San Francisco: Harper Collins.
Ehrman, B.D. (2003). Lost Christianities: The Battles for the scriptures and the faiths we never knew. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Harpur, T. (2004). The Pagan Christ: Recovering the Lost Light, Toronto, ON: Thomas Allen.
Harpur, T. (2007). Water into Wine: the Empowering Vision of the Gospels, Toronto, ON: Thomas Allen.
McBrien, R.P. (1992). Report on the church: Catholicism after Vatican II. San Francisco, CA: Harper Collins.
O’Malley, J.W. (2008). What happen at Vatican II. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University.
Schoemperlane, D. (2003). Our Lady of the Lost and Found. Toronto, ON: Harper Collins Canada.
Spong, J.S. (2001). A New Christianity for a new World: why traditional faith is dying and how a new faith is being born, San Francisco, CA: Harper Collins.
Spong, J.S. (2011). Reclaiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World, San Francisco, CA: Harper One.
Sweeney, J.M. (2006). Strange Heaven: the Virgin Mary as woman, mother, disciple, advocate. Brewster, MA: Paraclete.
 Sweeney, J.M. (2006). Strange Heaven: the Virgin Mary as woman, mother, disciple, advocate. Brewster, MA: Paraclete, p.137-38.
 O’Malley, J.W. (2008). What happen at Vatican II. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University, p. 188.
 Schoemperlane, D. (2003). Our Lady of the Lost and Found. Toronto, ON: Harper Collins Canada.
 McBrien, R.P. (1992). Report on the church: Catholicism after Vatican II. San Francisco, CA: Harper Collins, p. Xiii.
 Ibid p. 139.
 O’Malley p. 4
 Ibid p. 23
Ibid p. 52
 Ibid p. 188
 Ex-Cathedra is when a Pope uses there infallibility upon a doctrine.
 Ibid p.188
 Ibid p. 188
 Spong, J.S. (2001). A New Christianity for a new World: why traditional faith is dying and how a new faith is being born, San Francisco, CA: Harper Collins, p.2.
 Ibid p. 91
 Ibid p. 112
 Ibid p. 119
 Ibid p.111
 Ibid p.112
 Spong, J.S. (2011). Reclaiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World, San Francisco, CA: Harper One p.212.
 Ibid p. 213
 Ibid p. 324
 Ibid p. 211
 Borg, M.J. (1994). Meeting Jesus again for the First Time: Historical Jesus and the Heart of Contemporary Faith, Waterville, Maine: Thorndike Press p. 54-55.
 Ibid p. 52
 Ibid p. 59
 Ibid p. 56
 Crossan, J.D. (1998). The Birth of Christianity: discovering what happened in the years immediately after the execution of Jesus, San Francisco: Harper Collins p. 28.
 Harpur, T. (2004). The Pagan Christ: Recovering the Lost Light, Toronto, ON: Thomas Allen p.5
 Ibid p. 5. Harpur leans on Timothy Freke’s writings that Horus was the Egyptian Christ, and Isis was the Egyptian Mary, 1000 years before the Gospel story.
 Harpur, T. (2004). The Pagan Christ: Recovering the Lost Light, Toronto, ON: Thomas Allen.
Harpur, T. (2007). Water into Wine: the Empowering Vision of the Gospels, Toronto, ON: Thomas Allen.
 Harpur (2004) p.125.
 Harpur (2007) p. 40.
 Ehrman, B.D. (2003). Lost Christianities: The Battles for the scriptures and the faiths we never knew. New York, NY: Oxford University Press p. 207-209
 Ibid p. 209