Many years ago, I was asked to be a guest on a CBC radio show. My task was to talk about the Marian Antiphons with Jürgen Goth, a personal hero. It seemed like an odd thing to have happened, but I didn’t want to miss the chance so I took myself for some research not only on the antiphons, but on a new understanding of Mary, the mother of Jesus.
In my early church days, like everyone else I guess, Mary was a background figure. Despite the Magnificat, she seemed to be silent and passive, being caught between the plans of a father god and a divine son.
The antiphons presented quite a different picture of her, of course. Written between the 11th and 13th centuries CE, their prayer is to a woman of power and authority. Jesus may be entreated through her in times of danger or stress and struggle. In may parts of the world, icons and altars in her honour have been created. Nonetheless, in most of the paintings, frescoes and statuary, she remains a demure figure.
As a young and pious woman, I wanted to be as obedient and as demure as she; however, I am a fiery Sagittarian and such meekness could not be fulfilled without serious damage to my identity. Nor was my mother much of a traditional figure of humble, womanly behaviours. She was too much fun and too alive for all that. And thus, until the radio programme, I spent very little time considering Mary’s presence in my life or in the life of the church.
Study and reflection have caused me to re-evaluate this figure in the story of Jesus. Mary had enough influence that legends rose up around her, supplying her with an immaculate conception and a bodily resurrection along with her son. This would suggest the authority of her presence in the deliberations of the early church.
From her role as an apostle and leader in the fledgling church, she gradually became reduced to a supporting role in the church’s theology, although she remained influential to ordinary people. When the reformation came, she was finally demoted, except as a model of virtue and obedience.
Many women have commented on how poorly this affected their ideas about themselves, their autonomy, and their potential. I suspect that not only women have been colonized by these ideas of submission and obedience to a higher authority. The whole church, in many ways, forgot itself over the millennia. The activity of the church became caricatured as the laity supporting a highly regulated and dominant priestly caste. Not only that, while laity were reminded of their human weaknesses and need for salvation, the ruling classes of the church functioned above critique or judgement.
And so we come to the 21st century. In our time, the moment is upon us to rehabilitate the reputation and role of Mary. It is in her mouth that Luke places a song very like that of Hannah who has conspired with God and who will produce Samuel, that great leader in Judaism. In Mary’s song, she expresses joy and hope for the poor and a reversal of fortune for the selfish. Her response to the angel Gabriel, when told of how she could understand her pregnancy, is basically, “Lets get on with it then!” She raises her child and, in the non-canonical literature, it is she who demonstrates his power to heal. She travels with Jesus, possibly working with the women followers who were the probable funders of the mission. At the cross, when others flee, she remains with her son, in life and in death. Her confidence in him and her unwavering strength in the face of resistance, oppression, violence, and her own heartbreak, is an incredible model of discipleship. Not so much obedient as responsive; not so much demure as defiant.
With Jesus, Mary reminds us that the divine works within the human body and spirit. Within the fibres of our being, holiness is woven and revealed; within our lives — our human, bodily lives — healing and hope, compassion and relationship, are sanctified and made real; not just ideas or philosophies, but actions.
To venerate Mary is to venerate the generative power of life in all of us, our capacity to be creative, insightful, courageous. To venerate Mary is to recognize that life itself is holy and we are called to defend God’s choice for life in all its complexity and beauty. I am fairly certain that it is not obedience that frees the world, but rather truth-telling, reconciliation, and forgiveness. And so I say to you, don’t be a shrinking violet! Be like Mary, an outrageous dusky rose who said to the messenger, “All right, lets do this!”
Alma Redemptoris Mater
(From the First Sunday of Advent to the Feast of the Presentation)
Loving mother of the Redeemer, that passage to heaven,
gate of the morning, and star of the sea, assist the fallen, you who cure, lift up the people: you who bore to the wonderment of nature, your holy Creator,
Virgin before and after, who received from Gabriel
that joyful greeting, have mercy on us sinners.
Ave Regina Cælorum
(After the Presentation to Holy Saturday)
Hail, Queen of the heavens, hail, Lady of the angels,
hail, root of Jesse, hail gate of heaven, from whom light has come into the world.
Rejoice, Virgin most glorious,
Above all most beautiful; hail, o most highly honored, and entreat Christ for us.
(From Easter to Pentecost )
Queen of heaven, rejoice, alleluia, for he whom you were worthy to bear, alleluia,
was resurrected as he said, alleluia; entreat God for us, alleluia.
Be joyful and rejoice, Virgin Mary, alleluia,
Because Christ has truly risen, alleluia.
(After Pentecost until the First Sunday of Advent)
Hail, Queen, mother of mercies, life, sweetness, and our hope, hail,
To you do we cry, exiled children of Eden.
To you do we sigh, moaning and weeping in this vale of tears.
Ho! therefore, our advocate; Turn your merciful eyes to us.
And after this exile, show to us Jesus, the blessed fruit of your womb,
O clement, O holy, O sweet Virgin Mary.