Today the church celebrates the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. And while I have by chance a day off work (hooray!), and a desire to do something more fulfilling and spiritually nourishing than play on the Sims all day until 6pm Mass, I have a few thoughts which have struck me today.
Many people, whether or not they’re very religous at all, tend to associate Our Lady with the birth of Jesus – her radical, trusting, (fool-hardy?) fiat to the angel when she was invited to be the mother of the Son of God, and then her leading role in the Nativity story, and maybe little more. The Bible shows her as a woman much like us, struggling to be faithful to God in life and someone both women and men can honour and emulate. And the reason she is so honoured and we can try to be like her is that she said “yes” to God, and took the risk of being faithful in the midst of daily life. So in celebrating Mary, can we reclaim the remarkable, perhaps feisty and vivacious woman, who was confronted with quite extraordinary events and remained faithful to God through them all?
But we should think about her son who is, after all, the reason we remember her at all. She knew Him as her baby; we can imagine she taught Him to walk; He no doubt spoke with her accent; maybe He looked very much like her. She fed Him, was woken at night by Him, taught Him to pray, told him off when He was naughty (Son of God or not, all toddlers are troublesome. Cecil Frances Alexander didn’t know what she was talking about) and generally saw the human side of Him. There were those times when she was aware of something different about Him. In contrast, 2,000 years on, sometimes I wonder if we are in danger of thinking of Him as more divine than human. Perhaps the Constantinian emphasis of the kingly qualities of Jesus, as divine-emperor (which obviously suited Constantine and his successors politically), has made him unapproachable for many and I suggest this affects how we understand Mary, whose role changed to fill the gap left by the loss of understanding of Jesus’ humanity. She is the mediatrix between humans and her son – we approach His Mother, beseeching her to bend her son’s ear on our behalf. If we reclaim a fuller understanding of Jesus’s humanity as well as His divinity, we gain a better perspective on Mary, His Mother.
At the Annunciation, and then in delivering the Magnificat, Mary gave her un-coerced “yes” to the monumental enterprise proposed to her by God. Her active consent was responsibly given: the outcome of dialogue with God’s angelic messenger. I think this shows her a more self-determined woman than the Church has allowed. It is radically different from the view of Mary which sees her expressing passive, humble obedience and then enjoins that attitude on all women. I understand her words “let it be unto me according to thy word” as excited anticipation of what wonders God is going to do through and with her, despite natural hesitation at the personal cost. It is not simply meek acceptance.
The gospels give us tantalising vignettes of this remarkable woman. She was wife to Joseph and mother to Jesus. But Mary appears to glimpse that the child she knew so well was also God incarnate. She kept the events of his birth and childhood in her heart and pondered them, as she no doubt did other things during his life, becoming for us a model of reflective prayer. Thus she was able to trust Jesus to respond to the wine shortage at Cana; she might not have expected a miracle but she clearly expected him to do something.
Mary sought the company of others, in her network of friends and relatives. We read in St Luke that she stayed with Elizabeth for three months; her extended family was at the Passover in Jerusalem when they lost Jesus and found him in the Temple; we hear of her with (her?!) other children, the other women around Jesus, and disciples. Her example reminds us that we need one another and need to seek out one another for strength and support, fun and recreation, praise and prayer.
Then Mary, who stuck by her son throughout his life even when he appeared to rebuff her, watched him die an agonising death. In today’s terms, she might understand the plight of women whose children are tortured and killed for political reasons, of women sold into prostitution or trafficked by criminals. She was probably in late 40s or early 50s by the time of the crucial events in the life of her son – something, incidentally, that art tends not to portray: even pictures of her Assumption tend to show a figure akin to the young virgin with her child, a lifetime earlier. Rediscovering Mary as the older woman who was respected by the early church, having been there at its birth praying with the men (remarkable in itself) might be a perspective to balance the not-always-helpful focus on her virginity and motherhood as the definition of her example to women.
So, how can we honour Mary today and what can we learn from her? One suggestion might be to understand more of her in her context of first-century Palestine. To understand Mary as a remarkable, faithful woman in her own culture, with its particular religious, political and economic contexts, is to open the door to understanding our potential to be faithful and prophetic in our own contexts.
It also frees her from the saccharine docility that makes her too-good-to-be-true, and restores her as a woman of flesh and blood, and allows us to read intelligently into the New Testament’s silences, for example the indications in Acts 1 that she was active in the early church life. It’s not unreasonable to suggest that presenting Mary just as a mild, self-effacing woman, may say more about the ideal first-century Jewish woman than the woman we glimpse in the New Testament.
The Holy Spirit came on Mary once for the purposes of the conception of Jesus; she was a virgin at the time but her virginity is not what makes her the model of submission or a model for us centuries later. Instead what is significant is her “yes”, her outspoken openness to God when His messenger appeared in the midst of daily life (what was she actually doing in the moment when the angel appeared? I have always wondered…). It is far more helpful to know that God can come to us in the midst of ordinary routine and invite us to be participants in the work of salvation; that we do not have to be consciously at prayer or devoted to a full time religious life; that women as well as men can hear God and respond. Like Mary, we meet God in daily life.
So, it is entirely possible to celebrate and honour Our Lady without being catholic (Roman or otherwise), without subscribing to the dogma of the Assumption, which we celebrate today. Indeed, while I deeply honour her, especially today, and love her always, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t think about this particular dogma a bit.
Some think the adoption of the Assumption as dogma, was something of a response to a loss of confidence after WWII – a way for a battered humanity to feel good about itself, because one of its members was assumed bodily into Heaven. Instead – sometimes, I wonder if it does not reinforce the otherness of Mary, as someone who is not entirely like us. Already the immaculately-conceived, perpetual virgin, Mother of God, she was spared whatever awaits us after death, too. Of course, someone might write in answer the obvious answer (which I myself would give), that the reasons for her Assumption lie in her life totally devoted to God and others; in her radical opposition to anything that is sin – but I can’t help feeling that is nonetheless scant comfort to people who are, for instance, caught up in human trafficking or domestic violence who are all too aware of feelings of shame because it suggests that there is no entrance to heaven for them. The Assumption is I think one of those tricky dogmata not because it is theologically unsound, but because it shapes the image of Our Lady into someone approaching an unattainable “other”, rather than a woman like them, or us, and anyone else caught up in situations beyond their control.
If Christ is known as fully God and fully man, Mary can be restored as fully human, the woman who said a willing “yes” to God, the mother of Jesus who was a faithful and central member of the early church and is a model of human discipleship for us, before we ever consider her place now in Heaven to where we pray she prays for us. In her own society, Mary was every inch the liberated but godly woman. If we follow her example in going beyond the restrictions of her society’s role for women, we – men and women – will find ourselves challenging injustice, especially against women. Trafficking, forced marriages, female genital mutilation, dowry deaths, discrimination in all its forms including inadequate education and healthcare for women in many nations, should all the concern of the Church if we take Mary as our example, because in her we see God’s honouring of a very humble woman’s body and soul. To digress a moment for illustration, it is good news that all countries now send female athletes to the Olympic Games, and that in Rio, women are competing in every sport. But don’t forget the things that haven’t changed. Even the BBC have aired slow motion montages of female athletes with close ups of their backsides to music of the kind (I imagine) heard in ‘70s porn films. And we’ve not even finished the beach volleyball yet. It happens too during the Commonwealth Games and when, during the football/soccer world cup, the camera operators chose to focus on particular women in the stadium crowds (and particular parts of particular women); and during coverage of the women’s Six Nations rugby tournament; and every time school exams are released and newspapers and TV reports are full of nubile girls jumping around, and so on, and so on, ad nauseum. That should simply not be in a world that respects women, as God respected Mary.
But anyway – until all that stops, we should be following Mary’s example of commitment to God, in singing of God turning the world upside down, and then acting as God called her to do, to turn the values of the world upside down; to offer ourselves in the service of God. For that, as well as the fact of what she experienced at the very end of her earthly life, we honour her today. May we follow her example in bringing life and light to God’s world.