Taking a Fresh Look at the Holy Virgin
Jon M. Sweeney, author of
Strange Heaven: The Virgin Mary as Woman, Mother, Disciple and Advocate
Jon Sweeney's remarks in their entirety
an excerpt from Strange Heaven
On July 17, 1987 a man named Robert Arthur Cambridge walked into
the National Gallery in London with a shotgun under his long coat.
He later testified that he had visited several museums that day,
looking for the right object on which to unload his anger. When
he walked down the gallery that contained Leonardo’s painting
The Virgin and the Child with Saint Anne and John the Baptist,
he pulled out his gun and fired one blast into it.
sometimes sparks violent reactions against religion, or her, or
God. Images of Mary can lead to sudden feelings and emotions from
people, even those who may not be religious. Many times I have seen
tears on the faces of people in the halls of art galleries standing
before paintings of the Virgin, where most observations of religious
art are so cool and detached.
of Mary have also caused the mentally unstable to come completely
unhinged, as, for instance, when in 1972 a man in New York City
climbed onto Michelangelo’s Pietá (which was
on loan from the Vatican) and began pounding Mary with a hammer.
He hit her in the face, breaking part of an eye, and he severed
a finger on the famous left hand of the Virgin—the hand that
is tilted up as if to say, “I accept what must happen to my
April 22, 1988, a 51-year-old homeless man walked into a Museum
in Munich and sprayed Albrecht Dürer's Mary as Grieving
Mother with sulfuric acid he concealed in a champagne bottle.
The man wasn’t caught until a group of school children came
upon him. Stunned, one of the students cried out for him to stop,
which he did, setting down the bottle and then finding a guard to
explain what happened. The man said he attacked the painting "out
of revenge," because of deductions that had been made from
his pension. But why did he choose to walk down several long corridors,
selecting a painting of Mary to destroy?
is an easy target—that blithe, unflinching example of faith.
That’s why we often don’t like her. But she wasn’t
blithe, or unflinching, or credulous, or simple.
did she first say, at the Annunciation, when the archangel Gabriel
came to tell her that she had been specially chosen by God? Mary
does not sound like a ready-made disciple. She is not the cookie-cut,
already perfect mold into which God was poured. In effect, Mary
after her shock subsided, she actually then said: “Here am
I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your
word.” She believed, and in so believing, became the first
disciple of her as yet unborn son. Even so,
she was also the first person in the New Testament Gospel accounts
to show us that belief does not come without some measure of question
of tradition have tended to erase that fact, making the images of
Mary into unerring and unflinching gazes of certitude, but don’t
believe it. Mary is the chief disciple precisely because she shows
us how to wait on God, expect God, have awe for God, and hope for
God, but not with an easy credulity. Hers was not an unquestioning
belief. What is most remarkable is that these expectations of awe
and hope—doubt and faith—began at about the age of thirteen!
effect of Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code has
been tremendous in our churches. The portrait of Mary Magdalene
in the book and in the film (which is now available on DVD) has
caused many people to become interested in spiritual things over
the last few years. People are desiring to understand things about
the early Church that they previously never considered. How was
the canon agreed upon? What role did women play in the ministry
of Jesus, or in the first centuries of Christianity? What happened
to Jesus and his followers after the crucifixion?
have seen how these questions have caused some church-goers to leave
their parishes, disillusioned. But I have also seen how the same
questions have driven others to services, to adult education, to
explore more. I hope that we can keep asking the questions, and
encouraging others to ask them, too.
I also believe that it will be the Virgin Mary, and not Mary Magdalene,
who will revitalize the Church universal in the years ahead. But
only if we begin to see her for who she really was.
of the dominant images of Mary that we inherited from the early
Church fathers is of her as a refined, graceful, obedient young
woman. Men—who represent ninety-nine percent of the authors
who have praised Mary in print over the last two millenia, because
the writings of women were rarely preserved—seem to love to
focus on the beauty, charm, and grace of the little woman from Nazareth.
Pre-marital virginity, which is the only quality we seem to really
know for certain about Mary from the initial description of her
in the Gospels, takes on much greater proportions in the minds of
the men who have admired her. The patristic and medieval commentators
on scripture clearly wanted Mary to be the ideal woman, right down
to physical type.
there are other traditions—traditions that we should know.
Mary wasn’t just refined and beautiful. Early gospels of the
life of Mary—documents that did not make it into the canon
of the New Testament—provided background for understanding
Mary before the Annunciation. The Christians of the early centuries
understood these things, and read these non-canonical gospels about
of Nazareth did, after all, have an identity outside of what happened
to her, then and there, at the Annunciation. Chief among these gospels
is a text known as The Gospel of the Birth of Mary first
written in about 150 A.D., a fascinating text which illuminated
Mary’s virginity, and her relationship with Joseph. It is
also from this apocryphal text that we have the traditions of who
Mary’s parents were (Anna and Joachim), and the animals that
were present at the Nativity, among other things.
Gospel of the Birth of Mary (which is also called The Gospel
of Psuedo-Matthew, given an unreliable legend that it was written
by the same person who wrote the canonical gospel of Matthew) tells
of a young girl who was sent to live in the home of the high priest,
and who dedicated herself to lifelong virginity, becoming, in a
way, the very first nun. The story of her first entering the Temple
at age three goes like this:
the priest received her, and kissed her, and blessed her, saying:
“The Lord has magnified thy name in
all generations. In thee, on the last of the days, the Lord
will manifest His redemption to the sons of Israel.” And
the priest set her down upon the third step of the altar, and
the Lord God sent grace upon her; and she danced with her feet,
and all the house of Israel loved her.
see scenes of Mary teaching the priest in the Temple, rather than
the reverse—scenes, in fact, that would have allowed Christians
of an earlier era to better understand what was happening when they
read the New Testament story of the boy Jesus lingering behind in
Jerusalem to learn in the Temple, while his parents were searching
for him. Mary had done the same thing as a child.
wisdom was clear long ago. Up until the time of the Reformation,
she is often shown with a book on her lap at the moment of the Annunciation.
In Fra Angelico’s painting The Annunciation,
for instance, Mary is sitting in a portico with a book on her lap,
reading, when the archangel Gabriel, arrives with his heavenly message.
She wasn’t working in the house, or sleeping, or talking with
her parents or friends—she was studying. There are many popular
images of Mary at study, throughout history.
is both a path to God, available to us, as well as a symbol of wisdom
in and of herself—a guide.
to the canonical New Testament, one sentence from Luke’s Gospel
says volumes about who Mary really was: “Mary kept all these
things pondering them in her heart” (2:19 RSV). Such a statement
does not mean that she simply thought about heavenly things; it
says something about her wisdom. She was not a quick or careless
of Siena takes this notion a bit deeper, in another passage from
that famous sermon delivered in 1427. Bernardino spent two hours
relaying to his audience what he called the twelve qualities of
the Virgin Mary. Number one was her intelligence.
Despite our inherited images of Mary as a servant of a masculine
God, her wisdom stands out most of all. That
pale-skinned, blue-gowned, lovely-faced serene and refined lady
of millions of plastic statues has very little to do with the real
to some scholarly approximations, in recent decades we have come
closer than ever to understanding more about the historical person,
Mary of Nazareth. Archaeology, sociology, and historical investigations
into first-century Judaism and the role of women have helped us
to paint a picture of who she might have been. There is Mary (or
Miriam, as she would have been called in Hebrew) the Mother of God,
the object of devotion and the subject of numerous minutiae of theological
speculation, but there is also Mary, the simple woman who became
the mother of Jesus. By all of the earliest accounts, she was unmarried
and pregnant, poor and insignificant, a woman living in an occupied
Magnificat, for instance, was a rebellious act of courage.
The Magnificat is what we have come to
call the short speech that Mary gave, just after the visitation
from Gabriel. It is taken from Luke chapter 1, verses 46-55:
soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor
on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations
will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the
thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendents forever.
Magnificat threatened the powers that be, and that ruled
unjustly. No preacher could have said it better!
echoed her, years later, in his Sermon on the Mount. He surely learned
more from his mother than from any other, single person.
We should do away with the modern invention—since the Reformation
and then the Enlightenment—that we stand before God alone,
face the Last Judgment alone, and we must face up to obedience and
fidelity alone before God. Kierkegaard emphasized this side of faith
and talked at length about “the individual”
who is the only reality of faith. I don’t think so. There
are saints—and Mary is chief among them—past and present
who are in your corner, rooting for you. Praying for each other
and living in community are two realities in Christian faith that
are not bound by space and time.
doesn’t want to be a theological argument. She’s not
a sticking point. She is the Mother of God and a mother for all
of our ancient, religious imagination—inherited from generations
of our ancestors—are always with us, bubbling beneath the
surface of our conscious selves. The motherhood of God is one of
these archetypes, an idea that is common in many religious traditions,
as is sainthood, or the possible culmination of the divine and the
earthly within us. Not that it will happen today, or even necessarily
in our lifetimes, but that it will happen in God’s time.
of these archetypes are central to understanding why images and
legends of the Virgin Mary, if not dogma about her, still draw us
today. In other words, we don’t always “decide”
to turn our attention to Mary. It may even be somehow hard-wired
into us. As Rowan Williams
recently said, Mary “stands for the making strange of what
is familiar and the homeliness of what is strange.”1
central act of Mary’s life was one in which she was also acted
upon by God. She had the option to say no. But she didn’t
say no, and her womb became a “strange heaven,” in the
words of poet John Donne. This description perhaps best summarizes
the feeling that many people, all of us on-lookers, have toward
Mary’s life and vocation. It was strange indeed—but
a strangeness that we can come to understand more fully.
Jon Sweeney's remarks in their entirety
Read an excerpt
from Strange Heaven
Rowan Williams, Ponder These Things: Praying with Icons of the
Virgin, (Franklin, WI: Sheed & Ward, 2002), xv.
©2006 Jon M. Sweeney
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