Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Mary: Virgin, Mother, Cyborg

I grew up in a church that makes a point every Christmas and and every Easter to not celebrate these days as anything special. After all, we "celebrate Easter every Sunday." And Christmas "isn't really Jesus's birthday." Etc.

So it goes without saying that we don't do a lot of reflection on Mary. Maybe, we might talk about Mary on "Ladies' Day," as an example of how we should accept God's will for our lives, or we might hear something about Mary as Jesus' mother in a Mother's Day sermon, or something. But Mary, Mother of God? Not a phrase I heard growing up. Theotokos? I didn't know that word till after I started my Master's degree in theology. Praying to Mary? Blasphemy!

Now that I'm married to the Rector of an Anglo-Catholic parish in the Episcopal Church, I've a front row seat for observing what Marian devotion means to people, and a couple weekends ago my spouse led a series of Advent meditations centered around The Feast of the Conception, on which Mary's--not Jesus'--conception is remembered. And since one of the privileges of being a clergy spouse is getting to read, comment, edit and critique your spouse's sermons etc., I have learned a lot about Marian devotion. I mean, a whole lot. My hubby is one smart dude.

So, for the first time ever, really, I'm sorting out what Mary, mother of Jesus, means to me, as a Christian and a theologian and a woman and a mother.

Maybe it's odd, but I've never felt particularly drawn to Mary. Or maybe it's completely predictable, given that I occupy a more "masculine" (quotes intended) space within my church; Mary has become such an archetypal "feminine" figure in many ways. This remains the basic obstacle for me, theologically, in embracing Mary as an important figure in my own spirituality. Even though I now am able to embrace my identity as a mother, and as a woman in many other modes as well, I resist the facile essentialist assumption that because of my gender, I need Mary. On the other hand, of course, there's a need to remember that not all the important agents in the gospel narrative were male--because just as it isn't necessary for women to identify with other women, it shouldn't be necessary to make them identify with men by default either, simply because we've ignored the presence and importance of women in the narrative.

But how we remember Mary--who we imagine her to be--makes a difference.

It won't surprise too many of you, probably, that I'm not a huge fan of the phrase "Blessed Virgin." There are a lot of reasons for this. I grew up understanding that while, of course, Jesus' birth was miraculous, Mary did not remain a perpetual virgin, because, according to the biblical text, Jesus had brothers and sisters. (I've often wondered what it must have been like to be Jesus' sibling...I've imagined it being less than awesome, frankly, because how could you compete with the perfect? Not really a set up for domestic harmony, here.) But this is not really the substance of my objection. Rather, it's that the notion that Mary, in order to be holy, must necessarily have remained virginal her entire life. The virgin birth is about Jesus--a signal that this child is divine and unique. When this narrative is interpreted through later, problematic notions of original sin and sexuality, the virgin birth becomes about Mary instead..and then, by extension, about all women, feeding the problematic cult of purity that makes women sexual objects (the good ones, untouched/untouchable, the bad ones, well, you know). How can we celebrate the goodness of creation, the goodness of our own human bodies, if we continue to assume that to be sexual is to be impure and unholy?

There is of course a logic in making the theological connection of Jesus' miraculous birth back to Mary. Mary is singled out, chosen, called by God to an extraordinary and difficult undertaking. All parenting qualifies for "extraordinary and difficult," in its own way, but Mary is called upon to accept the additional burdens of suspicion and disbelief and insecurity, in a culture where women were not economically independent and where her social status and existential security depended on a man who was going to have to get over the fact of this pregnancy. Surely this was not arbitrary--Mary didn't happen to win (or lose?) the Heavenly Coin Toss and get picked to bear the Savior of the world. Certainly the witness of the church through the ages has been that Mary was an appropriate person for this extraordinary task--a task that would require much more out of her than quiet submission to the will of the divine other.

But this is not signaled for me in the insistence on her virginity. Talking about Mary as blessed virgin makes passive receptivity of divine prerogative and untouchable purity specific female virtues--both of which remove our focus from the actual agency of Mary and of women. And this is, I think, an even more pervasive and difficult problem than the problem of the purity myth and virginity.

But "mother of God," I can work with. Even better, "Maria Lactans"--see image, right. Yes: you're seeing what you think you're seeing. Mary, Mother of God, is squirting milk into Bernard of Clairvaux's mouth. Talk about a recovery of embodiment!

It is possible, as well, to move from "mother of God" into a focus on mothering--a move from status to action, from object to agent. Imagine what it must have been like to have accepted the task of being one of the primary moral and spiritual influences in the formation of Jesus as a human being. All parenting is active and fraught, but, wow.

But the same important caveat must be repeated: women are not universal, essential mothers, in nature if not in fact. This is not how we should view Mary as Mother of God; and, of course, she is not only for women.

So I've been seeking another way to imagine Mary. A way to talk about her that avoids maternal essentialism, that avoids masculine/feminine complementarianism, that avoids elevating passivity over moral agency.

And it struck me that I might think of the Annunciation as a foreshadowing of the Garden of Gethsemane. Like Jesus, Mary is confronted with a divine will for her life that differs from her own expectations, and must respond.

But my read of the moment in Gethsemane is not one in which, in order to follow God's will, Jesus must negate his own. I grew up with that old hymn with the four verses that starts, "all of self and none of Thee" and moves through "some of self and some of Thee" to "none of self, all of Thee." It's a mindset that assumes an ontology of fullness and rigid boundaries--if we invite God in, we must give ourselves up. This sort of negation, it seems to me, is problematic, in that it implies that God requires the rejection rather than the acceptance of ourselves, if we are to be holy images of God. But my "cyborg" read of the moment in Gethsemane is not one in which Jesus must negate who he is in order to embrace the call of God, but one in which the boundaries between human and divine will are being actively negotiated, and end in a hybrid collaboration that models our own possible collaborations with the divine.

So--applying this to Mary, I now hear her back and forth with the angel, that direct messenger of the divine will, a bit differently. "How can this be?" she asks--a healthy pushback against the temptation to simply let oneself be overwhelmed by the force of a divine pronouncement. The possibility of divine coercion fades a bit, here, and so also the necessity of valorization of female receptivity and submission. "Let it be to me as you have said," she replies--and this now sounds to me like, "okay, I can work with you on this."

This is a Mary I can work with.

1 comment:

nathansethjones said...

Thanks for writing this, JTB. I really enjoyed reading it.