There are passages, events and people in the Bible that I think are best understood by woman. Mary is certainly a case in point. So this morning I’ve turned to a woman, Joan Chittister, a gifted writer of theology and her book, “In Search of Belief” which is a primer on the Creed. She writes this of the Virgin Mary and I think it’s worth sharing…
“The question of Mary’s place in the history of salvation has ebbed and flowed throughout the centuries. Mary raises many questions. What does God really want from woman? What kind of sign is Mary to us all? What, if anything, do we see in her that has any meaning for women today?” I remember, writes Chittister, “that as a young child, despite the efforts of the nuns who taught me, the parish that formed me, and the example of other girls my own age, I developed little affinity to Mary. She was they taught me, docile and passive, submissive and unquestioning. She was not the strong, self-directing, thinking woman my mother was. What could I possibly find in Mary to respect, to imitate?
It took years but little by little the masks began to fall away and I saw for myself a Mary they never told me about but who, once I allowed myself to see for myself, was, yes painfully apparent. I had to rethink everything to be able to see her. This was a woman who made up her mind outside of the law, alone, independent of keepers or guides. This was a woman who risked everything to do what she knew her God required of her, whatever its cost socially, publicly, spiritually. This was a woman who acted alone, outside the permission of the systems and traditions around her. This was a woman who inserted herself into a public situation and directed Jesus to do the same, despite the fact that he said he was not ready to do so. She had a strong will, a strong faith, a strong sense of self and deep spiritual stamina. The contrast between what I was always told about Mary and what I found in the Mary I saw before me in the Scriptures has affected me deeply.”
The Mary that Joan Chittister describes I suspect is new to may of us. Certainly she is more compelling, stronger, and worthy of our attention. And Chittister goes on…
To often we have missed or ignored the Mary who carried good news to Elizabeth and opened herself to the strong support, the wisdom, the guidance and direction of another woman.” We have ignored, “the Mary who did not take the message of the incarnation to the priests, to the rabbis, not even to Joseph, her spouse, for approval or for legitimation, but received it herself and acted on it herself.” We have ignored, “the Mary who bore the burden of criticism, fear, and rejection but, full of the consciousness of God’s call in her, never waivered in the faith that God was leading us to something new. We have ignored this wonderful example of strength, faith, conviction and equality.” Again I suspect that this is a very new picture of Mary to many of us!
And finally Chittister writes of Mary, “Mary was not used. Mary was not made a pawn in the birth of Christ. Mary was asked a question to which she had the right to say no. Mary was made a participant in the initiatives of God. God did not impose on Mary. Mary was not treated by God, as woman generations after have been, as the means to someone else’s ends. Mary did not have life forced upon her. She was made an equal partner in the process. God asked a woman a question, something that happened only rarely thereafter. Mary chose to say yes. . . . .
The fact is that the Scriptures give us a picture of Mary deliberating with the angel, Mary questions the angel. Mary, in a culture given to the total control of women, makes a personal decision and replies to the angel, takes the responsibility for the act, and bears the consequences. Mary is a strong woman who changed the course of human history.”
And again I have to say that is a picture of Mary that most of us don’t have. Chittister ends her chapter of Mary with these words; “until we can say I believe that Jesus…was born of the Virgin Mary” and mean that a woman was spiritual partner to the greatest spiritual event of all time, then the devotion we have for her can only be partial and the pain that comes from that . . . will strike at the root of faith, make it lesser, and limit its growth.”
In faith as in life we all need heroes, people to look up to and emulate. And in this season of Advent we meet in Mary a strong woman who changed the course of human history by saying yes to God. Which of course raises the question have we the courage to emulate her, to say yes to God in our lives.
Our hesitancy in offering our entire lives up to God only highlights the strength and courage of Mary. There is much in her to respect, and follow. If only we have the courage!