'More than the sum of her parts'
Written by Susan A. Blain
December 2006 - January 2007
January 1, 2007
UCC - meet Mary
As I was making my crossing from Roman Catholicism to the UCC, one of the things that kept me for so long on that Catholic shore was Mary.
Something about Mary captured my attention in my childhood, and has kept me fascinated throughout my life.
It seemed to me that if I was coming into this new Christian tradition, Mary would have to come with me. And not just as a stow-away, but as a first class passenger in my life's s journey.
One of Mary's main roles in the Christian tradition is to be the "God bearer." In fact, that is her main title in the Orthodox churches. Theotokos - God bearer - that is what she has been for me in my prayer life, and my imagination.
So, from time to time, when Mary makes an appearance in the lectionary, I take the opportunity to introduce her to my new friends. And of course, Advent and Christmas are full of stories about Mary.
So, Mary, meet the UCC. And UCC, meet Mary!
Growing up with two pious, Irish grandmothers, I learned the "Hail Mary" very young. I learned the Rosary, and enjoyed its comforting weight in my hands - it is a very tactile prayer. I relaxed into the Rosary's soothing repetitions, and most important, I learned the great stories of Jesus' birth, life, death and resurrection as we cycled through the Rosary's "mysteries." All Jesus' stories filtered through Mary's experience.
Beautiful reproduction images of Medieval and baroque art were my "starter" images of Mary: gilt-edged haloes, gorgeous robes, lovely blond hair - so rare in the holy land!
Mary was beautiful. And her prayers were beautiful. Her litany was a long list of wonderful images: Queen of Heaven, Tower of Ivory, Star of the Sea, Mystical Rose, Arc of the Covenant, all drawing from scripture and pious legend. Her prayers inspired -required - confidence: "Never was it known that any one who fled to thy protection.was left unaided. ."
Her face appears throughout the scriptures, captivating attention. She is the young women in Luke who sings in the Magnificat of the justice of God, dawning in her life, about to be born in the world, through her. She sings of God coming to meet people in their experience of poverty and deep need: God incarnate with them in their life experience - beginning with Mary.
Later, she is the mother who ponders and worries about this mysterious child. She is the sorrowing mother at the cross in John. And, according to traditional Roman Catholic interpretation, she is the triumphal figure of the woman clothed with the sun in Revelation, giving birth to the new creation.
Feminists have critiqued Mary's subservient reputation: She is too silent, too passive, too traditionally submissive. But then, we contend with this image of the woman clothed with the sun - power. Mary is always more than the sum of her parts.
When examining the Middle Ages, Protestants have often critiqued, vociferously: Mary was getting more attention than Jesus. Yet, as I understand it, in late medieval Catholicism, Jesus was often cast as distant, a judge, an angry figure. He, himself, was in need of a mediator - hence, Mary's role.
But, as the Reformers insisted: Mary wasn't God, or God's Christ or God's Spirit.
She was just a woman, a human being, a servant of God. Not deserving of reverence, perhaps not even attention.
Yes, the Protestant Reformation successfully restored the focus to Jesus - a very good thing to do - but Protestants also did away with Mary, did away with most feminine elements in ritual and iconography. And that is a great loss.
Protestants, who rightly have been credited with empowering female inclusion and leadership, have rid their churches and traditions of feminine elements. But Protestantism has become even more male - very rational, no symbolism, little mystery.
In our UCC parlance, I think there is "yet more light" to be shed on Mary, God and women.
Until we can recognize dimensions of God which are female, we need someone in this male-dominated Trinitarian system to look to, who offers that possibility. Until then, some of us, from some Christian traditions, have Mary.
Susan A. Blain, who spent 11 years as a Roman Catholic nun, is the UCC's minister for worship, liturgy and spiritual formation in Cleveland. A graduate of Union Theological Seminary, she is pursuing ordination and is in-care with the Metro Association of the UCC's New York Conference. This column is adapted from a sermon she preached at Broad Bay (Maine) Congregational UCC in 2003.