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Surprised by Mary
Taking a Fresh Look at the Holy Virgin
Divine Nobodies

by Jon M. Sweeney, author of
Strange Heaven: The Virgin Mary as Woman, Mother, Disciple and Advocate

Read Jon Sweeney's remarks in their entirety
Read 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.

Mary 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.

Images 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 son.”

On 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?

She 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.

What 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 said:


Sometime 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 and doubt.

Centuries 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!


The 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?

I 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.

But 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.

One 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.

But, 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 Mary.

Mary 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.

The 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:

And 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.

We 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.

Mary’s 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.

She is both a path to God, available to us, as well as a symbol of wisdom in and of herself—a guide.

Returning 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 thinker.

Bernardino 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 Mary.

Thanks 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 country.

Her 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:

My 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.

Mary’s Magnificat threatened the powers that be, and that ruled unjustly. No preacher could have said it better!

Jesus 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.

Mary 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 us.

Archetypes 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.

Both 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

The 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.

Read Jon Sweeney's remarks in their entirety
Read an excerpt from Strange Heaven


1. Rowan Williams, Ponder These Things: Praying with Icons of the Virgin, (Franklin, WI: Sheed & Ward, 2002), xv.

Copyright ©2006 Jon M. Sweeney

Strange Heaven
To purchase a copy of STRANGE HEAVEN, visit amazon.com. This link is provided as a service to explorefaith visitors and registered users.


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