What are the first words or images that come to mind when you think of Mary, the mother of Jesus? We spent some time last weekend at the Advent Retreat pondering this – the brief glimpses we get in the Bible vs. the Mary we’ve inherited over the centuries. For many of us, she had morphed into this unattainable ideal of selfless motherhood, of perpetual youth and beauty. We could spend lifetime comparing ourselves to her and always come up short. No wonder so many either deify or dismiss her.
Whatever our images of Mary, they tend not to fit the image we’re given in the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55). It’s one of the most subversive songs in all of Scripture – so upending that for a while in the 1980s the government of Guatemala banned its public recitation. Here Mary chooses to believe that nothing is impossible with God – that the might of government and business won’t always make right, that the strength of God is best shown not in vengeance but in mercy, that the way things are is not the way they will always be. The proud will be brought down someday, and God will lift up those made low. It’s a powerful, startling faith claim.
We also spent time looking at how she has been pictured in Western art. As Kathleen Norris points out in her book Amazing Grace, “depictions of Mary as a wealthy Renaissance woman do far outnumber those that make her look like a woman capable of walking the hill country of Judea and giving birth in a barn” (p. 118).
In considering Michelangelo’s Pieta, for example, it’s tempting to focus on the unrealistic portrayal of a middle-aged woman and criticize the seeming deification of youth. But look a little deeper (as one of our retreat participants pointed out) – what you’re also seeing is the strength of a woman capable of holding her adult son with one hand. She’s holding death in her arms, and yet what comes through to us is a seemingly boundless love. What’s that, if not strength?
A lot of times we’re encouraged to view Mary as the model female, but I’m not sure that’s helpful. She’s no more the symbol or type for all women than is any one male in Scripture a symbol or type for all men. Not all of us are mothers, for one; not all of us are called to be. We find our identity in all sorts of ways. We’re sons and daughters, friends, parishioners, professionals…we need a lot of different models to figure out how to live into these roles. Perhaps Mary is not so much the model female as a model follower of God, period. In agreeing to be Jesus’ mother, she consents to something she doesn’t fully understand and lives into it for the rest of her life. Sounds like faith to me.
The truth is – we know so little of her story (in her own words, anyway) that we perpetually read into her story our own joys and sorrows – the inexplicable hope we feel at the birth of our children, the grief we feel when we’re inevitably called to let them go. She carries a lot for us.
What kinds of things does she carry for you this Advent? A knowledge of your pain from the inside? A message of love or compassion that might be hard to receive elsewhere? What does Mary mean for you?