22 December 2012

The two lives of the Virgin Mary

Here is my most recent "Principalities & Powers" column from Christian Courier, dated 10 December 2012. It is cross-posted with my Genevan Psalter blog.

Jesus’ mother Mary can be said to have had two lives: the one recounted with tantalizing brevity in the Scriptures and the one bequeathed to her in subsequent centuries by the church, which made her an object of veneration. Mary, of course, plays a prominent role in the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke and at the beginning of Acts.

Luke 1 recounts the visit by the angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary in Nazareth, announcing that she would give birth to the promised Messiah, the one who would save his people from their sins. Although we are told that she at first questioned how this could be, given her virginity, and that, in response to Gabriel’s explanation, she said: “let it be to me according to your word,” we are not told much else.

This is where Mary’s “second life” comes in, with later writers embroidering the biblical account with their own additions. For example, the second-century Protevangelion of James tells us that her parents were named Joachim and Anna (or Hannah in Hebrew). Lamenting her barrenness, Anna promises that, if God will grant her a child, she will dedicate him or her to the Lord’s service in the Jerusalem temple. An angel appears to Anna and informs her that her prayers have been heard and that she will indeed bring forth a child. In a plot twist similar to that of the Old Testament story of Hannah and the child Samuel, once her daughter Mary is born and attains the age of three, Anna entrusts her to the priests at the temple.

When Mary hits puberty, the priests decide to marry her to an elderly widower named Joseph, who has children by a previous marriage. When she is sixteen years of age, she is found to be pregnant. The author of the Protevangelion then recounts an entirely plausible scenario in which Mary and Joseph are condemned for having secretly married without the assent of the larger community. The priests subject the distraught couple to trial by ordeal, making them drink a concoction that will harm them if guilty but will not harm them if innocent. They survive the ordeal, and the plot continues with the birth of Jesus at Bethelehem.

It is, of course, difficult to determine where these extrabiblical stories came from or how they developed. It is possible that Mary’s parents were really named Joachim and Anna. Or it could be that, given the obvious literary dependence of Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) on the much earlier song of Samuel’s mother Hannah in 1 Samuel 2:1-10, a tradition began that Mary’s mother was also named Hannah.

In any event, Mary’s status became the subject of the Christological disputes of later centuries. In AD 431 the First Council of Ephesus declared Mary Theotokos (Θεοτόκος), or God-bearer, commonly rendered in English as the Mother of God. This was less a statement about Mary than an affirmation that her Son Jesus was fully God and fully man.

Indeed, in Orthodox iconography Mary is rarely portrayed without her Son, who is shown in her arms, seated on her lap or even inside a stylized circular womb, fully clothed and his head wrapped in the traditional gold halo.

The sixteenth-century Reformers continued to esteem Mary. Ulrich Zwingli, who reformed the church in Zürich, even retained the first part of the Ave Maria in his initial liturgy: “Hail, Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus.” Recognizing its scriptural origins (Luke 1:28, 42), Zwingli argued that “the Ave Maria is not a prayer but a greeting and commendation.”

Reformed Christians do not request Mary’s intercessions before God, primarily because Scripture is deafeningly silent on the matter. However, all Christians of whatever tradition do well to emulate Mary in her ready acceptance of God’s will for her life, despite hardships incurred, and in her jubilant expression of praise: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour!”

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