Today, throughout the Roman Catholic Church, The Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary is celebrated. The idea of Mary being taken up, body and soul, to heaven is based on a book written by an unknown fifth century author who relates the story that the Apostles witnessed Mary’s death and entombment. Later, on a request by the ever-doubting Saint Thomas, the tomb was opened and found to be empty. The Apostles concluded that she had been taken up into heaven. The story has persisted to this day. The Catholic Encyclopedia says of the “day, year or manner of Mary’s death, we know nothing certain.” Because of my father’s Catholic family I still remember the discussion that followed when in 1950 Pope Pious XII declared as a dogma of the Catholic Church that, free from original sin, Mary was assumed into heaven. Vatican II affirmed that and declared that in heavenly glory she is “exalted by the Lord as Queen over all things”.
As you might imagine, the Protestant view has been quite different.
Mary, Jesus’ mother, was a pure woman who found favor with God and was blessed because of it. She is not someone to whom to pray nor or we to expect miracles from her. She isn’t endowed with the power to forgive sin or to answer prayer. She doesn’t serve as a willing ally in our attempts to lobby Jesus. As to her being ever virgin, Protestants embrace the Biblical view that Jesus had at least James as a brother. As to her sinlessness, Protestants don’t see Mary as an exception to the Biblical rule that all have sinned and fallen short of the Glory of God. Most importantly, she is not a redemptress.
Fully half of the two billion two hundred million Christians in the world are Roman Catholic and less than a fourth that number are considered Protestant.
Anglicans, by the way, are switch hitters in this discussion, some more Roman in their proclivities and others more Protestant with regard to Mary. Seeing ourselves as radical reformers, Quakers don’t do anything with Mary [FULL STOP] – except when we find ourselves, like today, reading our Bibles and there she is – an enigma of the first order and if not an embarrassment to her family, a pregnant teenager desperately in need of a life coach or a mentor to help her through the rough days that undoubtedly lay ahead. As much as we would like to and we try, we can’t dismiss the fact that for over a billion Christians Mary is the subject of adoration and veneration? What does the treatment of Mary by this largest and oldest expression of the faith in which we share have to say to us? Those who look with askance at the whole spectacle?
Luke 1:39In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
46And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, 47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 54He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” 56And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.
What did you make of that leap of John the Baptizer in his mother Elizabeth’s womb that Luke describes. Have you ever even taken note of it? Maybe you should. This desert dwelling, camel haired, locust eater, responded en utero to the gentle arrival of feminine spirit when Mary came to visit. Was it this sensitivity which stayed with John and matured into the profound discernment that knew when to step aside, out of the way, and into history? Would that we could find enough feminine spirit moving in our lives that something leaps in me, and in you, when the yet unborn Christ child comes to visit. In the meeting of Mary and Elizabeth, Elizabeth speaks for John and Mary speaks for Jesus. Elizabeth bows and defers to Mary, the very first point where the meter of scripture in this passage becomes asymmetrical. John is the forerunner. Mary responds with her prayer.
Called “The Magnificat” (1:46-55), this song sung by Mary is based on Hannah’s song. And the story of Mary and Jesus is a filling in and fleshing out of the Hannah/Samuel story just as the Elizabeth and Zechariah story is a filling in and fleshing out the Abraham and Sarah story. This song of praise summarizes the themes of the whole Old Testament. In our world, we tend to think that if something new is going to come into the world, then you have to get rid of what’s old. That can certainly be true of possessions but here; we’ve got to think differently, to do something original. Mary is the vessel for the newest thing ever, and yet she’s nothing but the incarnation of this ancient tradition. One of the things which precedes Mary’s articulation of this hymn is simply her own growing up that brings scriptural images and language to her tongue as she attempts to express what has invaded her life. Thomas Dehaney Benard, around the turn of the twentieth century, wrote: “Do we not all know how sentences from the Bible or the liturgy glide into our prayers and offer their unsought aid to express kindred feelings of our own? So here the words, as well as the thoughts, are those of a high-souled Hebrew maiden of devout and meditative habit, whose mind has taken the tone of the Scriptures in which she has been nurtured. We feel the breath of the prophets; we catch the echoes of the psalms; we recognize most distinctly the vivid reminiscences of the song of Hannah.”
He’s explaining how the Lukan Mary spontaneously irrupts with this glorious avalanche of themes that summarize the whole Hebrew experience. And it causes us to ask: What is your experience? Do sentences from the Bible and worship slip into your prayers? Is Dehaney speaking of something that’s no longer true when he says, “The mind has taken the tone of the Scriptures in which she has been nurtured.” What is the corollary for that in our world? Today, what would we irrupt with? Would we irrupt with something on the order of the Magnificat? Or with some TV commercial? What is forming us? What is forming our spirituality?
The fact that Mary’s prayer is similar, if not modelled on Hannah’s prayer in 1st Samuel raised for Peter Wood, a Methodist minister from South Africa an interesting question. Why is it that women who are touched by God have their prayers reveranced by a patriarchal religion that viewed women as property and not people? Why would these words find a place in the hearts of the men who made the decisions of what to include and what to exclude in their Sacred Texts? It is his suggestion that it was because the Holy Spirit is female energy, a nurturing fruiting energy that even hardened religious men find indispensable on their journey to wholeness.
In Hebrew the word for Spirit is in the feminine case. We, in our technical, pragmatic and superficial culture, are forced by this to do some double thinking with regard to Luke’s story of Mary’s pregnancy. So long as we think about God and the Spirit in strictly masculine ways we have no trouble, but, this idea of a feminine Spirit threatens our notion of how things work. This spirit that overpowered Mary was a feminine Spirit. And this was no forced encounter, it was a loving and fruitful embrace.
Men are acculturated to take charge. To lead, to decide, to dominate. Peter Wood remarked that he kept hearing of, and being invited to something called “mighty men conferences”. This men’s ministry which challenges men in South Africa to become “mighty men of God” most recently drew together some 300,000 men. Peter said that he was sure that the intention of developing a wholesome masculine spirituality is important in a world where so many men seem to have lost their way and their sense of identity. Then he added “I never accept the invitations.” “What concerns me” he said “is that very few of the men who go off to the mighty men conferences seem to return having made that essential journey which Richard Rohr calls “From Wild man to Wise man”. Mighty men, in fact, seem to return more determined than ever to dominate and govern their families in ways that sees no decrease in the South African statistics of domestic violence and the abuse of women and children.” Could it be that the fruiting of God’s work in human life can not be understood apart from the fecundity of the womb? Is that what Catholic dogma, in its imperfect way, is trying to tell us in its embrace of Mary and this story of her assumption? It is Peter’s perspective that it is the eternal feminine that brings the truly redemptive processes for humankind to birth. Whether you speak of economics, politics or ecology, it is the nurturing, holding energy of the feminine spirit of God that is at work in what is holding and healing our lives on the planet. Now he doesn’t deny the need for testosterone. He is, however, convinced that we are most likely to build something whole and lasting when we “enwomb” it rather than “impale” it.
Indelible in my mind are the words I heard repeated by family and friends who gathered for my great grandmother’s Rosary. “Hail Mary, full of grace! The Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed in the fruit of they womb, Jesus.” And here it is, we find it, staring at us in the Bible, the touchstone, the primary authority for most Protestantism, offering Mary scriptural credentials. In all of the New Testament only John the Baptist receives more praise than Mary. Yet she functions less in our theology than Old Testament prophets and remarkable Old Testament women like Miriam and Deborah. Mary challenges our rationalism. Our tough mindedness causes us to choose our historical religion to be myth free. Our scholarship advises us that the birth narratives in Luke and Matthew are second-generation legend; certainly the tradition of the virgin birth is ‘late’. But weren’t the Magi intellectuals? Didn’t they approach the mother and child with their guards down, fully expecting to believe? The great reformers didn’t give much theological attention to Mary. Yet, who better than she illustrates that each and every one of us is indeed a spiritual virgin and potential recipient of God’s purpose and calling? Most certainly, when something like new life is growing within us, we can’t remain merely passive. Have not we too been engraced by Christ’s spirit so as to be fruitful?