Mary: The Subjective Execution of the Objective Work of Christ
The figure of Mary in the Christian faith is quite controversial today. It seems, however, that the role she plays has been quite confused by both those who do and do not reverence her in their respective traditions. Further, these two parties often falsely accuse one another with regard to Mary due to great historical and linguistic misunderstandings and variances. The Christian faith has, however, given Mary a significant place of endearment in its structure since the earliest centuries. In this article, I argue that it is necessary to regain that early approach to Mary, the perspective that existed before the faith was so divided and Christians so easily overcorrected with one pendulum swing or the other.
WHY ALLOW HER OUTSIDE THE NATIVITY SCENE?
To begin, it must be clarified that the early Church did not hold Mary, (or the “Theotokos” as the Third Ecumenical Council officially deemed her, translated, “God-bearer” or “Mother of God”), as holding an altogether different status or nature than the rest of humanity; as somehow a demi-goddess mediator between God and man or a celestial figure that was made to be a step up from humanness, a level that no one else could ever attain to. Rather, the Theotokos is significant really for two main reasons: 1) because of what God was able to accomplish through her by her willing consent and 2) because she serves as an example for Christians to follow in subjectively actualizing our salvation in Christ by most properly picturing the Unwedded Virgin, the Betrothed Bride, what one’s relationship with Christ is intended to look like.
For starters, consider the story of the annunciation by the archangel Gabriel that the Holy Spirit would come upon Mary and she would bear the Savior. Notice the direct parallels between this story and the story of the fall of humanity, how it is a direct mirror image and reversal of what happened due to man’s rejecting communion with God. The virgin encounters a celestial being, the first embodying pride and rejection of God by listening to selfish demonic desires; the second is His messenger bearing the Word of the Lord, a Word that would require tremendous self-sacrifice. Both stories also mention fruit, the first embodying a rejection of communion with God due to its seeming staleness to indulge on what initially appears luscious but is transient and does not satisfy; the second is the fruit of the Virgin’s own womb, which would not hang from the tree that caused the Fall but from the Tree of Life, the tree that indeed brought the world back to life if the world will but come to this tree, drink from the sweet juice flowing from the side of that blameless fruit, the medicine of immortality, our communion with God and not with death. Just as listening to the “angel” in the Garden of Eden allowed death to enter the world, so in listening to the Word that Gabriel delivered Life was allowed to enter the world. The early Church, therefore, rightly called Mary the mother of all the living, since Eve was so called (and in the Greek Septuagint her name was “Zoe,” meaning “life”), since the world now has eternal life by being united to Mary’s Son. In the historical culture Mary found herself in, she knew that she would probably at the least be a social outcast and more likely stoned to death by being found with child prior to wedlock. But she gave no hesitation in saying, “Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word.”[i] Such willing self-denial to be a holy vessel through the casting off of personal concern is the very apex of what it is to bear one’s cross and be a Christ-follower. Thus, as the first “Christian,” Mary is used iconically in the book of Revelation as a symbol of the Church itself, the entity that has Divine protection and numerous children against which the Dragon perpetually makes war.[ii]
AT THE FOOT OF THE CROSS
I personally struggled to experience the raw emotion and intimate significance that comes with the theological significance and image of the cross until I allowed the Theotokos to step into the scene. I recall once my family was watching a popular television show set in a hospital and during an emergency situation the husband of a woman giving birth had to tragically choose whether he wanted the doctors to try and save his wife or the child, because both were not going to make it. After a burst of emotion the man pleaded with them to save his wife, and this provoked a little discussion among us as to why that was. We determined that probably any man would have made the same decision, for it is the nature of a man to defend and preserve his beloved, even at such tragic costs. But earlier in the episode the woman had told the doctors to ensure the protection of her child, even if it meant her life. It seems also the case that most every mentally healthy mother would have the same desire, for it is the nature of mothers to defend and protect their precious child regardless of any self-sacrificing cost. There is something psychologically unique about motherhood that I will never be privileged to understand from experience, and having a person proceed from one’s own loins somehow spawns this connection between the mother and child almost as if the two had a bond to the extent that when one suffers, the other suffers with it as if in the first person. I have a friend who says when her children were newborns she could feel in her bones in the middle of the night when they were about to start crying, and she would suddenly wake up right before the child began to cry.
Apply all of this to the scene of the Passion. Could it be said that anyone of Christ’s followers suffered a more agonizing emotional distress and torment of the soul than Christ’s own mother? I unfortunately have forgotten the names and places of this story, but there is a tale of an old monk who was experiencing a vision, and when it was over his disciples questioned him as to what he had just experienced. He responded that he was with the Theotokos standing at the foot of the cross, and then lamented, “Oh, that I could weep like that.” As Christ endured His final moments on the cross, He looked down to see the last remaining faithful disciple John, symbolic of all who remain faithful to Him to the end, and then He looked over to see His mother enduring the greatest anguish that we can imagine, after having carried and raised God Himself to see Him suffer and die in this horrific way. And he said, “Son, behold, your mother.” John’s gospel, in which this is recorded, was more a theological treatise than another historical account like the earlier Matthew, Mark and Luke. He includes this not just to brag that he got to take care of Jesus’ mom, but to describe something profound. Recall Revelation’s iconic use of the woman with child as representing the Church: if we as Christ’s followers wish to remain faithful to Christ till the end, to endure all things with him and make him our Master, then we must be willing to make the Church our mother. Christ asks us to come, sit at her feet, and let her in her 2000 years of experience in being led by the Holy Spirit teach us and guide us in how to truly be his disciple, to become a sanctified temple and bearer of God totally devoted to Him, because this scene of Mary at the foot of her crucified Son is the very picture of how intimately connected to him you must be, in his sufferings, in his death, and eventually in his resurrection as well, when we will all trample down death by death as he accomplished. So the Theotokos is not the great exception or a super-human; she is the great example. She illustrates the total self-denying immersion into the sufferings of Christ with one’s whole being, without even thinking of pride or other passions while truly dying spiritually with Christ and making the reality of his self-denying death our own.
SHE’S JUST A “TUBE”
But even so, why should Mary be given any appreciation or special treatment for what God accomplished? She didn’t save the world, she was just a woman, and God used her to become human just as He could have done with any other woman.
I recently had a brief conversation with an Archbishop of the Orthodox Church in America. He told me that I had a very important name, because there was a Joseph to help Christ at the beginning of His life, and a Joseph to help Him at the end of His life. Both Josephs helped the Lord when God Himself was helpless. How on earth can God need our help? He does not need anything from us for Himself, but he does in fact require our willing co-operation with Him in order to carry out His plan on earth. Thus the Church has historically celebrated the Annunciation of Gabriel to Mary on March 25 since very early times – in fact, a major reason why Christmas began to be celebrated on December 25 is because it is exactly nine months after this date. The Church found it important to celebrate this great event in which God was permitted to become incarnate due to Mary’s subjective participation in and actualization of Christ’s objective work (coincidentally the crucifixion was also thought in early tradition to take place on March 25).
“THIS TASK WAS APPOINTED TO YOU”
In one section of the appendices in the final installment of J.R.R. Tolkien’s great work, The Lord of the Rings, it is recorded that the very climax of the story when Frodo and Sam get to Mount Doom and the Ring is destroyed along with Sauron and his armies, freeing Middle-Earth from ensuing destruction, occurred on – you guessed it – March 25.[iii] While Tolkien was not very keen on allegorical literature,[iv] as a serious Roman Catholic this detail would have had great significance to him. To be clear, it is the work of Christ that saves us; His victory over death is our only hope of conquering the enemy and apart from Him we can do nothing. But this objective salvation of all can only be put into effect when we, as free human agents, work with Him and allow it to become a reality in our own lives through denial of self. Destroying the One Ring, the sinful passions, lust of the flesh, and all transient beauty, will be a great struggle and probably be very wounding as it was for Frodo, but Christ tells us that such maiming in this struggle is worth ridding ourselves of our disease of sin.[v] Frodo’s humbly finishing the journey affirmed the words of Galadriel: that “even the smallest person can change the course of the future.”[vi] This rings true in the Gospel account when the woman cries out from the crowd that the womb and breasts of Christ’s mother were blessed and His response, which is so crudely misunderstood in most modern translations, affirms, “Μενουν” – that is, “much more” or “indeed,” communicating affirmation by clarifying, not correcting by denying – “blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it!”[vii] That is, yes, she is truly blessed, but not just because she’s my mom. She is blessed because she heard the word of God and she did it.
I am sure that it was unintentional (and Paul McCartney has stated it was based on a dream he had of his biological mother named Mary) but The Beatles gave an incredibly profound message to society when they sang the lyrics:
When I find myself in times of trouble
Mother Mary comes to me
Speaking words of wisdom
Let it be
And in my hour of darkness
She is standing right in front of me
Speaking words of wisdom
Let it be[viii]
This is the goal of all Christian effort in our walk with Christ, to deny ourselves, pick up our cross, and submit to what the Lord has given us to bear in order to be transformed into His holy vessel of light instead of the darkness we have fallen into.
MOST BLESSED AMONG WOMEN
I believe those who recoil in horror from the exalted language used by traditions that reverence the Theotokos misinterpret what is trying to be expressed. Mary cannot be anything other than human, for that is the very reason she is instrumental: she gave human nature and flesh to God and if she were in any way superior or “other than” what the rest of us are then Christ has not assumed our condition entirely and we are still dead in our trespasses and sins and the whole Christian faith at its core is entirely derailed. The early Church could not have overlooked this in their venerating her due to their excruciating attention to preserving the doctrine of the Incarnation. But praising someone does not make them gods and goddesses in our minds if we clearly do not hold that understanding. In the Church I grew up in we used to sing a contemporary version of Mary’s Magnificat, “My soul, my soul magnifies the Lord.” I wonder what kind of scandalous outrage would occur if the praise team had led the congregation in the words of Elizabeth in the very same passage:
“Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child in your womb! And who am I that the mother of my Lord should come and visit me?”[ix]
These are the words that the Holy Scriptures use to describe how someone who is filled with the Holy Spirit reacts when they encounter the Mother of God. Mary is treated with great affection in traditional Christianity as the quintessential icon and portrayal of what it is to be a Christian, and therefore her early depictions in icons always show her cuddling her infant Son or her body language directs the observer’s attention to her adult Son; for that is what the Church does, she leads us to Christ. Mary is “most blessed,” as she shows us what we must do when we encounter Christ: become “God-bearers” by denying our very life and inviting the Holy Spirit to come upon us, impregnate us, and transform us through humble self-abdication and total absorption into the care of and service to our Lord.
[ii] See Revelation 12
[iii] Tolkien, J.R.R. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Appendix B. New York: Ballantine Books. 1965 edition (orig. published 1954). pp. 467-468.
[iv] For a fascinating lecture on how Tolkien understood “allegory” versus “applicability,” see this podcast
[v] Matthew 5:29-30
[vi] Jackson, Peter. Dir. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. Film. New Line Cinema. 2001.
[vii] Luke 11:27-28 NKJV
[viii] “Let It Be”. Lennon-McCartney. Album: Let It Be. Apple Studio. 6 March 1970.
[ix] Luke 1:42-43 NET