Many modern Catholics aren’t sure what to make of Mary, the mother of Jesus.
Some of us remember when, prior to the Second Vatican Council, she was very much near the center of our faith. Indeed, Protestants, in general, thought the Catholic church gave way too much attention to Mary, even, some said, to the point of idolatry.
Then, in the 1960s, among Catholics, there was a swing of the pendulum that moved Mary more to the margins of belief.
There were still a lot of believers who kept up their prayers and devotions to Mary, but, for the most part, Catholic writers and preachers didn’t have a lot to say about her, arguing, directly or implicitly, that they needed to turn their focus much more narrowly on Jesus. Mary, in other words, was seen as something of a distraction.
“Joyfulness of narration”
That’s the context in which my own faith was formed, and it’s only been recently that I’ve felt myself looking at Mary and trying to understand her better and to figure out her place in my own brand of Catholicism.
Mary: Images of the Mother of Jesus in Jewish and Christian Perspective is a delightful jewel of a book that, over the course of 106 pages, is built around 48 lovingly and elegantly presented images of the story of Mary’s life.
Most of these images are German Gothic scenes that are depicted on the Buxtehuder Altar, created in the 15th century by the workshop of Meister Bertram, and, as this book points out, they’re noteworthy for their “joyfulness of narration.”
That may seem an odd choice of words since a good number of the scenes depicted are anxiety-filled and painful ones for Mary, such as her son’s death on the cross.
Yet, I think the phrase is referring to two aspects of these scenes. First, of course, for believers, the stories of Mary and of Jesus, for all their pain, fear and sorrow, have a happy ending — the resurrection.
Second, these scenes communicate the great satisfaction, even glee, that these story-tellers have in telling their stories well. As someone who has been writing stories for a living for nearly half a century, I am very aware of how much pleasure and satisfaction a story-teller gets from putting the words on the page or, in this case, putting the images on the altar in a way that communicates some insight about human nature.
It’s a very visceral thing — to take the chaos of life and to find ways, through words or images (or music or dance), to give life form so that it can be understood, however flawed that form and that understanding are. Stories are never perfect. Life is too much of a mess.
The artists who created the images in Mary: Images of the Mother of Jesus in Jewish and Christian Perspective seem to have experienced a kind of bliss in doing their art and doing it well. There’s something spiritual in the act of creation, as if the artist is participating in some way in the work of God.
I suspect that a similar delight was experienced by the three writers who contributed short, historically based meditations on Mary for this book, first published in 1986 and re-issued in paperback in 2005.
- Jaroslav Pelikan, an American who was a major writer on the history of Christianity, a Yale University professor for more than 30 years and a Lutheran pastor who, late in life, converted to the Greek Orthodox Church after meeting with Pope John Paul II. He died in 2006.
- David Flusser, an Israeli who was an Orthodox Jew and a historian of Judaism and early Christianity who wrote much about Jesus from the perspective of his Jewish roots. He died in 2000.
- Justin Lang, O.F.M., a German who was a Franciscan priest and writer who, at the time the book was initially published was at the Frauenberg Cloister in Fulda, Germany. He died in 2008.
These three scholars are writing for a general audience rather than for Catholics alone, the target readership of most books about Mary.
So, for instance, in Lang’s chapter on Catholic devotions related to Mary, his aim is to discuss these devotions and, even more, explain their context, such as his pointing out that, since the Second Vatican Council, “Catholic theologians can be divided into Mariological maximalists and minimalists.” That’s unusual, he notes, because no other theological issue is so bifurcated.
Those on one side, Lang writes, live by the old maxim “In Mary’s regard there is never enough praise,” while those on the other side would just as soon not have to think about her at all.
Lang is definitely in the camp of the maximalists, yet he is also aware of human nature. He writes:
Those who love always and necessarily exaggerate….The only thing that is important is the believing heart that beats responsively to the same God as the heart of Mary.
“Reserved and translucent”
In other words, true devotion to Mary has as its goal the desire to love God as deeply and clearly as Mary loved God. She is a model for the believer, a helper on the journey to God. She isn’t the end of that journey.
Lang writes that, among the many Marian celebrations on the church calendar, the leading one is the Feast of the Assumption on August 15 when Catholics experience Mary’s departure to heaven “in festive liturgy and…smell it in the scent of the blessed baskets of fruits and vegetables. The last of the sparrows as well as the fine haze that somewhat disappears only during midday also belong to this feast.”
I would have thought one of the other feast days, such as the Immaculate Conception (December 8), would have been seen as more important. Nonetheless, Lang’s poetic evocation of late summer and its parallels to the feeling of loss that the early church people felt after Mary was assumed to heaven gives me thought.
There is something of the mystic to Lang’s writing. For instance, in discussing the legends and portraits of Mary, he writes:
Fundamentally, all that is light and pure, reserved but at the same time translucent; blue and fragrant; precious and hidden — all of these hint of Mary.
“A real person”
Flusser, from his Jewish perspective, notes that Mary can be understood as a symbol for the Christian church and for Christians in general. Nonetheless, he asserts:
One should never forget that this woman once walked the earth — this mother of sorrows. The Mater Dolorosa is not a theological concept or an overpowering experience of the archetypal but primarily a real person who was inspired by her joy and never defeated by her unspeakable pain.
Mary was a flesh-and-blood human being who gave birth — in whatever way it happened — to a flesh-and-blood son. The blood Jesus shed on the cross was real. So were the tears she shed at the foot of the cross.
It is this real place that Mary holds in human history, Flusser writes, that is “the foundation of her devotion among Christians.”
And there’s something else as well: Mary was not only a real human being and a real mother, she was also a Jewish mother of a Jewish son:
So the tragedy of this Jewish woman is an aspect of the uninterrupted way of suffering of her own people, the Jews.
“Universal human validity”
As Jews, Jesus and Mary share with all Jews down through the centuries a history of suffering and persecution.
Indeed, Flusser points out that, after Pope John XXIII viewed a film about the Holocaust and the six million Jews who died in the genocide, he said, “This is the body of Christ.” And Flusser writes:
Jesus was one among countless Jewish men who traveled the road of death to martyrdom. That is unfortunately especially clear in our day. For that reason, Mary also belongs to the countless Jewish mothers who lament their cruelly murdered Jewish children.
At the conclusion of his meditation, Flusser asserts that, while Mary can be seen as Jewish and as Christian, there is a “universal human validity” to her.
Through her sufferings, human suffering is made holy. If this is the direction in which Mary is valued, then this feeling crosses over all confessional boundaries. Then the remembrance of the pure mother of Jesus can at least in some way remove the defilement of modern humanity.
“Bearer of God”
Pelikan, in his discussion of Christian theology, also focuses on Mary as someone who lived and breathed. Her humanity is essential for the church’s understanding of Jesus as someone who, like every other human being, lived and breathed.
Key to Mary’s role in history as the “Bearer of God” — as the woman who carried the fetus of Jesus in her body and nurtured it inside her womb — is the miracle of her being virgin and mother.
This can be a stumbling block for some. Yet, the early Christians knew her as mother, and believed her to have been a virgin. Later theologians, building on those beliefs, came to the understanding that, despite giving birth to Jesus, Mary remained physically a virgin.
How could that have been done? Was it necessary?
Layers of belief
It was the reverence of those later theologians for Jesus that spilled over into their interpretations of Mary. Of course, they decided, she must have remained a virgin. And, going down another theological road, they decided that, of course, she must have been born without the original sin into which all of the rest of us, save Jesus, are born. And, of course, her body would not have gone into the ground to decay, but would be assumed up into heaven either at death or instead of death.
All of these layers of belief make Mary something of a miracle. Yet, she remains the teenage girl to whom the angel appeared, and the flesh-and-blood mother who gave birth, and the widow who watched her son die on the cross.
Somehow, in faith, these many and varied aspects of Mary make sense.
Somehow, in faith, the believer can look to Mary as another human being, a model, a helper, on the road to understanding Jesus.
Patrick T. Reardon