“Behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS.”
St Luke 1:31
I first heard the story in Year 3 and have never quite forgotten it. I think I understand it much better than I used to, though deeper knowledge hasn’t undermined my appreciation of it, which is pre-philosophical and pre-theological.
One day, He was going on a tour of the Heavenly City (omnipresence isn’t everything, after all), much like the priest tours his parish or the mayor their city. Heaven is, after all, the one city where everything works. The hedges were trimmed, the lawns manicured, all the gold and ivory buildings (no elephants harmed, we can be sure) glowing and the city walls of twelve types of precious stone, polished and sparkling. The choirs were all practicing at their allotted times (some angels probably even watched their conductor), and had never sounded better.
But as He walked down the street, He noticed that there were some people wandering around, who had no business to be there at all. Some might have made it in on the day last before the Judgement – others perhaps not even then, if one stopped to think about it.
So He goes to the entrance to the City to have a quiet word with the man at the gate. I can see him there, our man – at his workstation with his civil-service-minion shiny off-the-peg suit and his Windows Immaculate computer (God doesn’t do Apple)…and his tiara, his fishing rod, and that bunch of keys.
“Well, Simon Peter, you’ve let me down (again) – and yourself too.”
“What have I done this time?” asks your man with a sigh.
“Haven’t you let in a lot of folks who have no business being here at all?”
There’s a short, awkward pause. “…have not…” mumbles the first Pope, defiantly.
“Well then who has?”
Another awkward silence. “You don’t want to know.”
“Yes I do.” (Omniscience isn’t everything either, apparently).
“Well…” says Simon Peter with a sigh, “I did tell them there was no way in just yet…and then didn’t I right away slam the gates on them?”
“So? Then what?”
“Then don’t they go round to the back gate and doesn’t your Mother let them in!”
Theologically-speaking, this (hardly amusing) story – the kind of thing that priests up and down the country, stuck for something more exciting with which to open a homily on a Marian feast day, trot out annually with weary enthusiasm – is not merely absurd but probably bordering on the heretical. But as a symbol, it summarises the function of Mary in our imagination: she represents the mother love of God; the generous and loving, life-giving power of God: the tenderness of God; the fertility of God; the nurturing power of God.
The image of Mary the Mother of Jesus distinguishes the Catholic religious sensibility from all others. She pushes the envelope of the imagination as far as it can be pushed by hinting that there is a maternal dimension to God as well as a paternal one; thus absorbing and purifying and transforming all the female deities who came before, in pagan times, such as Nut, Astarte and Venus.
The Egyptian goddess Nut protects the world with her body. A distant view of Mary’s role?
Does this mean Mary is a goddess too?
The answer (of course) is no…but also, almost, yes. Mary was a human person, not a divine one. We do not worship Mary (as much as some Protestants at their most ungenerous like to claim). Rather, through Our Lady, we worship the Mother Love of God. In the catholic heritage, her image, Mary-as-a-metaphor, has a similar but not identical function to that of the female deities of the pre-Christian pagan religions: she discloses to us that the Power Responsible has a tender, gentle, life-giving, nurturing side: God loves, in other words, like a mother as well as a father. Mary, daughter of Anne and Joachim, weaver of the Temple curtain (we are told), husband of Joseph, aunt of John the Baptist, cousin of Elizabeth, and the Mother of God, was a human being. And she did and does the work of God.
More prosaically-minded theologians, or theologically-minded feminists, might well claim (not without justification) that the Holy Spirit ought to represent the maternal and feminine in God. This by-no-means invalid argument, however, is an example of the either-or approach to metaphors taken by those who have lost all sense of the poetic nature of religion. God, and the Blessed Virgin, can be more than one thing at once.
This is a clumsy, social-science-y unpacking of a metaphor, which diminishes this beautiful symbol by reducing poetry to prose. I am not suggesting that catholic sensibilities, unsophisticated in the past (and sometimes barely more-so in the present), have interpreted it in this way. One doesn’t even have to disassemble a metaphor unless one is a literary scholar. But, in the art and music and poetry of Catholics, Roman and otherwise, Mary’s image reflects the tenderness of God.
Do we need the image of a woman to reflect the tenderness of God? (Isn’t that a little bit sexist, and certainly a little old-fashioned?). Of course not (though of course it maybe is those things, too). But the human experience of gender being what it is, and at least until very recently an entirely coherent reflection of a biological reality, it helps to have the image, and its appearance may well have been inevitable anyway.
It is not really the doctrines about Our Lady, nor the theologies which have developed around them, which are surely the basis for the image’s appeal. I cannot reject or criticise those doctrines or theologies; long before the doctrines were elaborated and the theologies written, the stories were already told. It is the story, ultimately, that God loves us like a mother as well as a father (though it’s not all that often expressed in such explicit language), that is the core of appeal of Mary.
Of course, when our imagination and sensibility links the fertility of nature and the fertility of women with that of God, it risks being insulting to both God and women. It reduces women to birth-machines and suggests God does not transcend fertility as He transcends all. So how could we introduce Mary, a mere human woman (albeit an infinitely special one), as an intermediary between God the Giver of Life, and humankind?
Maybe the question is fair: but it also makes God’s nurturing of life and creation’s nurturing of life seem discontinuous. It denies the role of the latter in the former, and even the use of the latter as a metaphor or hint (however imperfect) of the former. The catholic imagination bravely (or foolishly) sweeps aside these fears of over-elevating a human being, and first permitted, and then encouraged, the Mary “cult” to develop.
As late as the 12th century, the Vatican was uneasy about the Normans’ propensity to dedicate their magnificent, soaring cathedrals to Our Lady. But the popular tradition couldn’t be denied either. The Normans, barely out of short trousers as far as their Christianity was concerned, were building temples to the Christian “goddess” of spring. They were God’s churches, of course. But they were hers, too, and that was that. Given the longstanding decisions made about “baptising” everything good in paganism, this development was probably inevitable too.
Our Lady guards the scintillating tympanum above the west doors of Amiens Cathedral, completed c.1270AD
The sudden and dramatic appearance of the Norman Romanesque cathedrals, and their successors in gothic, in the 12th century and after, is an astonishing phenomenon, although we usually take it for granted. Descendants of pirates, only a generation or two removed from paganism, the churchmen, nobility, craftsmen and artists who created these wondrous spaces might have been weak in their theology, and perhaps still superstitious. Like their Celtic and Norse predecessors they may have danced naked by the sides of lakes in the springtime; but they also knew who Our Lady was, and, in an interlude of stunning creativity, they celebrated her as a spring “goddess” with spring temples. What did Mary mean in the Middle Ages, really? Go to Paris or Amiens or Chartres and see what it meant, because the churches built in her honour are still there: life, and superabundant life. We have not seen anything like it before, or since.
Of the actual mother of Jesus we know almost nothing, historically. What we know does not really account for the power of the metaphor she has become. Four New Testament moments, however, have been seized on by our Catholic imagination: the visit by Gabriel, the birth in Bethlehem, the Babe in her arms (the classic “Madonna” pose), and the Pieta. If such images were attractive to great artists (to Botticelli of his Annunciation, or Raphael of his Madonnas, or Michelangelo of his Pieta), the reason was that these stories and the lurking metaphors had enormous appeal to the human imagination. That’s the way God loves us, the stories and images say: the way a mother loves her child.
The Madonna as mystical Theotókos
As important as the Christmas Nativity scene is, the central Mary story I think is the Madonna image; one that is preceded by depictions of mother goddesses and their sons, though very different from Mary and Jesus. Like all mother-and-child religious imagery, the central story is based on the simple idea of a mother with a baby in her arms – an image irresistible to human nature since it represents the ongoing triumph of fertility over morbidity – of life over death. In the Byzantine churches, the icons of the Θεοτόκοϛ are rich and stylised. In the West, as the High Middle Ages gave way to the Renaissance, the Madonnas which fill the musea of Europe become less mystical and more human and earthy: placid and attractive peasant girls with fat and happy babies (although one sometimes finds a very pompous looking baby, or one who, like Cupid with Venus, touches his mother’s chin….and that is before we approach the remarkable tumblr chronicle Ugly Renaissance Babies).
The more bucolic Madonna del prato by Raphael, 1506, where the infants Jesus and John play at Mary’s feet
At times these Madonnas, such as those of Raphael, have been accused of being too human, devoid of spirituality. This is, of course, exactly the point. Mary is just a woman. A very wonderful, woman who was the Mother of our Redeemer – but just a woman: special ultimately and principally in the way that every women is special, in her co-operation in the bringing of life to the world. That the life she brought into being in His full humanity was the Life of men, is in some ways just the icing on the cake. The real Mary and the real Jesus surely did not look very spiritual or mystical. Together they were a peasant mother and her son (even if they were also something else in the story of our redemption) – both doubtless appealing but not likely to be engaged in ecstatic experiences.
Ave, Maris Stella
Dei Mater alma,
atque semper virgo,
felix coeli porta.
It seems to me, that to turn away with haughty (Protestant) disdain from stories in stone, paint and song, like this, is to miss the point completely.
If one says “but we do not know what the actual Mary was like,” then the response must be (if a response is needed), that we do know what her Son was like. So, we can guess at the kind of mother that she was.
The Mary image has proven irresistible to poets and artists of many different faiths through the ages – and some with no faith at all. One wonders how such a wondrous image could possibly offend. There is, of course, a solid instinct behind the Reformation’s resistance to “superstition” – metaphors easily can be abused, and perhaps there was (and is) abuse of Mary, as a metaphor.
But we need not in a fit of 450-year-old Calvinist pique, throw out the Baby’s mother with the bathwater. T.S. Eliot (a convert from Unitarianism to Anglo-Catholicism) felt that power remained in the image. In his passionate cry for salvation at the end of Ash Wednesday, he begs:
Blessed sister, Holy Mother, spirit of the fountain, spirit of the garden,
Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood,
Teach us to care and not to care,
Teach us to sit still
Even among these rocks,
Our peace in His will and even among these rocks
Sister, Mother and spirit of the river, spirit of the sea,
Suffer me not to be separated
And let my cry come unto thee.