Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Does Christianity Need a Mother?

Here are some quotes from Life magazine, December 1996, in a feature article, "The Mystery of Mary":

"I envy Catholicism its Mary. Protestantism has nothing that can replace the part that she could or might play in their churches. She lends the idea of God a feminine face and makes the idea more available, less exclusionary. I would like to think that she could be a bridge between religions."
--Forrest Church, Unitarian minister

"I think that everybody needs to know that God loves us both like a father and a mother. And the Mary metaphor reflects this. The way that a mother loves a newborn child whom she's holding in her arms and is about to nurse--that's the way God loves us." --Father Greeley

"The primordial picture of the mother with her child has been a good counterbalance in a male religion. The image of the mother--it's a strong one, an ancient one, a powerful one." --Karen Armstrong, religious historian

In subsequent articles I'd like to focus on the way that I am working out this Divine Feminine image, to locate the actual person behind the image and metaphor. The purpose of art, including paintings, statues, poetry, and song, is to align one with hidden, mysterious concepts and realities that are difficult to grasp in a linear, literal fashion. This enhances the learning of scripture, as does personal devotion.

In my own home I am decorating for Christmas, and I always begin with my living room fireplace mantle. It is a wide marble mantle resting on limestone. In the center is a Victorian style silk flower piece built upon a large, antique spool. On the left of that is a Nativity scene, and on the right a Victorian metal box in which I keep wedding mementos. On top of this box stands a statue of Mary holding lilies, and leaning against it is an Italian plaque of Mary and the baby Jesus, both sets of eyes serenely closed in ineffable love.

A daily devotion I practice is to light a candle in front of the statue and say the "Hail Mary" prayer. I ask for guidance as I go about my daily round, ordering and decorating my home, preparing meals, caring for and educating my child, and being a wife. I also understand Mary, and myself, as a "woman unto herself," an ancient definition of "virgin" uncovered by Christian writer and novelist Sue Monk Kidd (The Secret Life of Bees and The Mermaid Chair) in her memoir Dance of the Dissident Daughter. The "woman unto herself" is autonomous, not defined ultimately by any of her roles, such as daughter, wife, or mother, but as a person who is spiritually and psychologically whole unto herself, subject to her own inner authority, in line with the will of God.

The Virgin Mary is shown to be one unto herself when she says "yes" in the Annunciation scene in the Gospel of Luke. She doesn't ask her father or Joseph for his opinion or permission. Her answer is autonomous and rests upon her faith in the Lord. Jesus further emphasizes a woman's value as a faithful disciple over the traditional value of a woman based solely on her ability to produce children in the Jewish society of those times. He does not devalue motherhood or family, but instead underscores the new relationship of the family of Christ as foundational.

Jesus' message is egalitarian, equalizing the status of women and men. However, the church Fathers were often misogynist in their writings, and this attitude toward women was pronounced in the formation of Mariology that pitted Mary (pure, ever-virgin, undefiled, perfect) against Eve, and by extension, all women (whore, temptress, defiled, inferior). I will show in subsequent articles how this idealized Mary sterilized her image and harmed both women and men psychologically and spiritually. I think that an integration of Protestant and Catholic beliefs about Mary, an ecumenical Mariology, is needed if we are ever to be integrated as individual people and as a society.

Christianity does need a mother. As Christmas nears, let us all contemplate the reason for the season, gazing more closely than usual upon the mother in the picture, the human mother of a divine child and the gift and promise they brought to save the world, together.

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