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The Serene Contradiction of the Mother of Jesus

Why I reclaimed the virgin mother as a significant figure in my faith.
By Kathleen Norris | posted 12/23/2002.

In Blessed One: Protestant Perspectives on Mary (Westminster John Knox Press), editors Beverly Roberts Gaventa and Cynthia L. Rigby argue that other than at Christmastime many denominations have forgotten Mary theologically, liturgically, and devotionally. They write: "The time has come for Protestants to join in the blessing of Mary."

Author Kathleen Norris already has. In the foreword for Blessed One, Norris writes about how she came to encounter the Mary of the scriptures and what the mystery of Jesus' mother can show all Christians.

Norris' books include: The Virgin of Bennington, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography, The Cloister Walk, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, and three collections of poetry.

* * *

A friend who had spent a sabbatical working with refugees in Southeast Asia once sent me a homemade Christmas card that put the more colorful cards to shame; it consisted of a black-and-white snapshot of a Cambodian mother holding her infant in her arms.

What struck me most was the youth of the mother and the fact that this unposed photograph was instantly recognizable as a madonna and child. The mother beholding the child, in love and wonder. I don't think it matters what breed of Christian my friend is—he is, in fact, a Roman Catholic bishop—but what is significant is that he "got" Mary.

In silence, the photograph spoke powerfully about Mary as a presence in our world, a constant reminder that in the incarnation the omnipotent God chose to take on human vulnerability. And a vulnerability of the most extreme sort, a child born not to wealth and power but to an impoverished peasant woman and her uneasy husband in the rural backwater of a small, troubled, colonized country.

I think that many Protestants, if they think about Mary at all, get hung up on what they are supposed to believe about her. And she doesn't make it easy. It's as if her calm visage belies our seeking after labels. Is Mary a cultural artifact or a religious symbol? A literary device or a theological tool? A valuable resource for biblical exegetes or the matrix of an extrabiblical piety that we, as Protestants, must avoid at all costs?

The point about Mary is that she is all these things, and more, always more. She is poor yet gloriously rich. She is blessed among women yet condemned to witness her son's execution. She is human yet God-bearer, and the Word that she willingly bears is destined to pierce her soul. Had we a more elastic imagination, we might be less troubled by Mary's air of serene contradiction. But ours is a skeptical and divisive age. We are more comfortable with appraisal than with praise, more adept at cogent analysis than meaningful synthesis.

Mary is useful to us as a corrective to our ordinary state of mind, the epitome of "both/and" passion over "either/or" reasoning. She has a disarming way of challenging the polarities that so often bring human endeavors to impasse: the subjective and objective, the expansive and the parochial, the affective and the intellectual. Mary's designation as both virgin and mother, for example, no longer seems to be an impossible "model" for women that justifies their continued oppression within church and society.

Instead, Mary constitutes a challenge as to what is possible for me, as a married, childless, Christian woman: to what extent can I remain "virgin," one-in-myself, able to come to things with newness of heart, and in what sense must I become "mother," losing myself in the nurture and service of others and embracing life's circumstances with the ripeness of maturity? This Mary is a gender-bender; she asks the same question of any Christian man.

If Mary points us beyond our traditional divisions, ideologues of all persuasions—conservative and liberal, feminist and anti-feminist—have long attempted to use Mary to argue their causes, with varying degrees of success. But Mary ultimately resists all causes. Like our God, she is who she is. And Mary is, in the nationally televised words of the Rev. Jimmy Swaggart (who prefaced his remark by saying, memorably, "The Catholics got one thing right") "the mother of God." From the Council of Ephesus to the less-respectable reaches of contemporary American evangelism, Mary holds her own.

As theotokos, Mary is also the mother of Wisdom. Unlike Zechariah, who responds to his annunciation concerning the birth of John the Baptist by inquiring of the angel, "How will I know that this is so?" Mary asks, simply, "How can this be?" It's an existential question, not an intellectual one. God responds to Zechariah by striking him dumb—for the entire gestation of his child, a nice touch—while Mary finds her voice, making the ancient song of Hannah her own. For me, the essential question is not what author placed Hannah's words in Mary's mouth, and with what theological intent. What is far more important is how I respond to this threading of salvation history from 1 Samuel to the Gospel of Luke. How do I answer when the mystery of God's love breaks through my denseness and doubt? Do I reach for a reference book, or the remote control? Am I so intent on my own plans that I ignore the call, or do I dare to carry the biblical tradition into my own life's journey? When I am called to answer "Yes" to God, not knowing much about where this commitment will lead me, Mary gives me hope that it is enough to trust in God's grace and the promise of salvation.

When I first began visiting Benedictine monasteries some twenty years ago, I was so ignorant of Scripture, despite an upbringing in Methodist and Congregational churches, that I did not know where the prayer the monks and nuns prayed each night came from. Gradually, I learned that it was a passage from the first chapter of Luke, and that for centuries before the Reformation it had been employed as the church's traditional vespers canticle. It was called the "Magnificat" because it begins with that word, in Latin translation; in English, it reads, "My soul magnifies the Lord."

I did not know that I was one of many Protestants, both laity and clergy, who had begun filling monastery guest rooms and choir stalls, and discovering there much common ground. What could be more refreshing to a Protestant than a daily immersion in Scripture, not only in communal prayer based on the Psalms but with a rhythm of hearing and responding to entire books of the Bible read aloud? I sensed that I was drawing from the tap roots of Christianity, from traditions and practices of prayer that had existed before the church split into the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches, and long before the Reformation. I could claim as my prayerbook the entire Psalter (and not just psalms deemed suitable for Sunday morning); I could open my eyes and ears to the literary and theological treasurehouse of the early church; and I could reclaim Mary as a significant figure in my Christian faith.

No doubt it was my repeated exposure to the Magnificat in monastery choirs that led me to make it the focus of encountering Mary in the Scriptures. Each time I pray, "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior," I am compelled to ask, with Mary, "How can it be" that salvation has ways of working around all of the obstacles of sin, ignorance, and defiance that I place in its path? "How can it be" that God troubles with so wretched, self-centered, inconstant, and spiritually impoverished person as myself. Who, after all, am I?

The correct answer, to paraphrase a line from the Episcopal hymnal, is that I am called to be a person whose soul, like Mary, can be God's earthly sanctuary. Like Mary, I am invited each day to bring Christ into the world in my prayers, thoughts, and actions. And each evening, as I pray the Magnificat, I am asked to consider how I have done in this regard. Have I been so rich, stuffed full of myself, my plans, and my possessions, that I have in effect denied Christ a rightful place on earth? Or am I poor and despairing, but in my failures, weakness, and emptiness more ready and willing to be filled with God's purpose?

This book would have been helpful to me as I forged a meandering path through monastery retreats back to membership in a Protestant church. Rediscovering Mary was no small part of that journey, but I felt very much alone with my new understanding of her, and of her place in my life of faith. The church in which I was raised had a curious attitude towards Mary, an odd mixture of hubris and bashfulness. We dragged Mary out at Christmas, along with the angels, and placed her at center stage. Then we packed her safely in the creche box for the rest of the year.

We effectively denied Mary her place in Christian tradition and were disdainful of the reverence displayed for her, so public and emotional, by many millions of Catholics around the world.

The more pilgrimages Catholics made to Lourdes, or Knock, or Czestochowa, the more silent we became. Even when the feminist movement opened the way for increased study of women in Scripture, few Protestants wrote about Mary, few preachers discussed her in their sermons.

Mary was mysterious, and therefore for Catholics; our religion was more proper, more masculine. Anything we couldn't explain—or explain away—was either ignored or given short shrift. I recognize the church of my childhood in this description by Nancy Mairs: a church with "all the mystery scrubbed out of it by a vigorous and slightly vinegary reason."

But mystery endures, and I end this foreword as I began, by contemplating a madonna and child. The young woman's face is calm, yet creased with worry, expressing both love and pity. She knows hard times, all the pain and suffering this world can bring, and she knows that this child will someday die. But salvation always has a price. For now it is enough to hold the child, holding life and death all at once in her arms. It is enough to hold on, and to gaze at the child with a look of love and joy that is eternally comforting, both human and divine.

From Blessed One: Protestant Perspectives on Mary edited by Beverly R. Gaventa and Cynthia L. Rigby. 2002 Westminster John Knox Press. Used by permission of Westminster John Knox Press.