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Mary and Jesus

Born of the Virgin Mary

Mary and Jesus

who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary

This is the next post in my series on the Creed. For the previous discussion click on “Conceived by the Holy Spirit“. We have looked at the Holy Spirit side of this line; today we look at the Mary side.

Humans seem to need role models, an ideal that they can aspire to, someone they can look up to – but not so much beyond them that all identification disappears. This great person is like me in so many ways – and also this great person has reached much, has achieved much – and inspires me to become more like him or her.

That was part of the role of Jesus. Jesus was a human being just like you and me – people could identify with him and yet, in his life and teaching and dying, people received energy to become a better person; to become more like Jesus; to, in fact, become more like God, in whose image and likeness we are being made to be. In whose image and likeness Jesus is.

So, you can understand why the early church, the early centuries of Christianity, were so insistent that Jesus was fully human.

But, more and more, people seem to have this tendency of making Jesus less and less human. Until we get to the point of not being able to identify with Jesus – he just doesn’t seem to be like us. At all.

And so, as Jesus drifts upwards beyond our reach, Mary seems to have filled the gap. Mary is clearly fully human. And so she, it seems, starts to take over the role that Jesus had.

But you are not really surprised when Mary too starts drifting upwards beyond our reach. People begin to obsess about her purity. Her difference from us. Her virginity. Many Christians start teaching that not only was Mary a virgin when she conceived Jesus, but they teach that she is perpetually a virgin. Before, during, and after Jesus’ birth. [Yes – for many, the mind boggles at “during”.]

Mary, I think, plays a very significant part in Jesus’ story. She is always there at noteworthy moments. She plays a very significant part in Christian history – just look at Christian art, and all the images of Mary.

To worship Mary in any way that should be worship reserved for God alone is just being confused. But the great tradition of asking Mary to pray for us is not much different to asking another person to pray for us.

Historically, Mary stands as a strong young woman, named after the great sister of Moses. Mary has been an inspiration for good down 20 centuries.

There is a wonderful Anglican maxim: all may; some should; none must. And it can well be applied to engaging with Mary. If someone finds Mary inspiring, great – she certainly has an important role in my life. For some people, engaging with the place of Mary would be very beneficial. But there’s no requirement to.

All may; some should; none must.

*****

This is the eleventh post in a series on the Creed.

The first is Apostles’ Creed.
The second is I believe in God.
The third is a source of the Apostles’ Creed.
The fourth is I believe in the Father.
The fifth is Handing over the Creed.
The sixth is I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son
The seventh is Don’t use the creed in worship
They eighth is Truly God truly human
The ninth is Conceived by the Holy Spirit
The tenth is Don’t use the creed in worship (part 2)

*****

Image source 16th century church of Ura Kidane Mihret on Lake Tana, Ethiopia.

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17 thoughts on “Born of the Virgin Mary”

  1. There is a Joy Cowley ‘psalm’ that speaks of the virgin place within all of us. From that space life is birthed even laboured for. Theologian Elizabeth A Johnson has made the observation that there is a need for imaging God as a female acting subject and also retrieving Mary as a genuine woman whose life was a journey of faith. That feminine aspect is birthed even in matters of language when spoken and framed inclusively, but can also be recived by males who have been abused – physically, sexually, emotionallly – by males and therefore breaking the connection with male God language and imagery. An engagement with feminine is surely not therefore a matter simply of all may, some should, none must – but the imperative that each Christian is called to – to be God bearers – to at the same time be both another Christ and another theotokos.

    1. Very helpful, thanks, Phillip. I guess, as I was writing the post, I was thinking of “traditional Marian devotions” – I think you are providing much greater depth, which is really the sort of thing I appreciate when dialogue around this site is at its best. Blessings.

  2. Thanks for these continuing reflections, Bosco. We’d better get our flame-retardant suits on. I predict that this thread may get hot!

    Your summary of how devotion to an ever-receding Mediatrix arose from the even more distant recession of the original Mediator is, I suppose, the commonly received interpretation. But I wonder if that’s really how it came about.

    Newman’s Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, for instance, certainly tied Mariology to advancing Christology, but not quite in the same way as the received version. For him, to decide that Christ is truly divine (as well as truly human) means that some of the roles we might be tempted to assign him are in fact too low for him and must be assigned to someone else in God’s economy:

    “they [the Arians] left Him [Jesus] a creature and were found wanting [by the Council of Nicaea]. Thus there was a ‘wonder in heaven’: a throne was seen, far above all created powers, mediatorial, intercessory; a title archetypal; a crown bright as the morning star; a glory issuing from the Eternal throne; robes pure as the heavens; and a sceptre over all; and who was the predestined heir of that Majesty? Since it was not high enough for the Highest, who was that Wisdom, and what was her name, ‘the Mother of fair love, and fear, and holy hope’, ‘exalted like a palm-tree in Engaddi, and a rose-plant in Jericho’, ‘created from the beginning before the world’ in God’s counsels, and ‘in Jerusalem was her power’? The vision is found in the Apocalypse, a Woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars. The votaries of Mary do not exceed the true faith, unless the blasphemers of her Son came up to it. The Church of Rome is not idolatrous, unless Arianism is orthodoxy. …

    “I am not stating conclusions that were drawn out in the [Arian] controversy, but of premisses which were laid, broad and deep. It was then shown, it was then determined, that to exalt a creature was no recognition of its divinity. … [I]t is not wonderful, considering how Socinians, Sabellians, Nestorians, and the like, abound in these days, without their even knowing it themselves, if those who never rise higher in their notions of our Lord’s Divinity, than to consider Him a man singularly inhabited by a Divine Presence, that is, a Catholic Saint, — if such men should mistake the honour paid by the Church to the human Mother for that very honour which, and which alone, is worthy of her Eternal Son.” (pp. 144-5)

    I suppose I’m forced to agree that there’s not much “requirement” for anyone to “engage” with Mary (as generally necessary to salvation, as we might put it). But I wonder if that engagement can be realistically avoided if we really are going to engage seriously with Christ himself, as the Church of the early ecumenical councils did.

    Just a thought.

  3. The Credal statement ‘births’ through the human voice the Incarnate God into our world as an expression of faith in the unseen God. As theologian Elizabeth A Johnson writes we need an imaging of God as a female acting subject and also we need to retrieve Mary as a real woman whose life was a journey of faith. We are both to another Christ and anoth theotokos – in praying that he was was ‘born of Mary’ we also become God-bearer, a relationship with our God that is all or nothing, rather than a may-be.

  4. ‘more and more, people seem to have this tendency of making Jesus less and less human. Until we get to the point of not being able to identify with Jesus – he just doesn’t seem to be like us. At all.’

    that is interesting Bosco, because I’ve heard many times ‘we can’t possibly be like Jesus’ and that trying to be is an impossible aspiration. Maybe so, but I do think we are supposed to make some attempt!

    It gets to be more about ‘being saved’ than ‘being kind’ somehow…I’ve never been much into the ‘oh I’m a helpless miserable sinner’ stuff though, it can become so self-indulgent!

  5. I like this. I taught in Cathoic schools for over 20 years and, having been raised an evangelical, always balked at prayers to Mary. I usually made sure a student read any such prayer at the end of the daily notices in roll call. Now that I consider myself an anglo-catholic, I find such prayers less objectionable but am still uncomfortable so “All may; some should; none must.” is a helpful view to take.

  6. Mary represents our yes to God that Christ might be born in us. Her perpetual virginity is reflected in the image of the 144000. I was always bothered by the Mary issue until I began to appreciate the role I need to assume when reading the Song – Who is this coming up from the desert, leaning on her beloved? It is Mary, it is the Church, it is me.

    Who can untangle these images?

    1. Thanks, Bob. [I am a Song of Songs addict – so right with you there]. I’m interested in the 144,000 typology – is there tradition behind that being related to Mary? Blessings.

        1. I do not think I have control over what shows, Bob. Akismet is the filter for this site. I receive about 10,000 spam comments a month. Most of that is filtered well, daily the filter makes mistakes. But I am not aware of any comments being lost – as you see, yours is on the site now. Blessings.

  7. When my mother Anne was studying for confirmation (age 13 or so) in the back woods of Georgia, she asked her priest if she really had to say the creed. He said yes, we all did, but why the objection? She answered, “Well, what if you can’t agree with some part? I can’t say ‘born of the Virgin Mary’.” “Why not?” he asked. Anne replied, “It’s no one’s business but her own that she is a virgin. I don’t think we should be talking about whether she is or isn’t.”
    The priest said, “Well, Anne, when you come to that part of the creed, just don’t say it.”

    That permission kept a stubborn 13 old girl in the church. She died last year, reading daily prayers from the BCP until the last few weeks. She loved to tell the story, and even near the end was given to saying, “you know, I still think we have no business talking about the sexual activities of Jesus’ mother.” The whole thing makes me smile still.

    The thing is, with all the theological training and years of thinking about such things, I too am of the opinion that the “virgin” comment is not so great. Virginity is fine, but if it is the preferred state of grace, then it is mistaken. My mother was not a virgin, at least not after a few years after her confirmation conversation. Her perfection (such as it was) as a human being was intimately bound up with not being a virgin. We make a wrong turn to tout virginity as “pure” and sexual engagement as less so.

    So Mary’s virginity is no ones business but her own. And biblical evidence to the rescue, she apparently was no virgin at some point, what with other offspring.

    I do recite the creed on this, but remember that it is a title of respect from a time when clarity of purpose and faith, and purity of heart to will one thing, was confused with being “untouched” and virgin. Mary, pure of heart, was and is a model for me. Mary the virgin is, well, less so.

    1. Thanks for this lovely and thought-provoking story, Mark. I wonder if many use the term “Virgin Mary” as title without much thought about the “Virgin” part. Many wouldn’t blink to hear someone say, “The Blessed Virgin Mary stood by the cross.” while themselves not holding to Mary’s perpetual virginity. Blessings.

      1. Hi Bosco,
        I think the phrase “The Blessed Virgin Mary” is a potent symbol of the mystery of God’s inclusion in the human predicament. In the end, it is not a statement about Mary’s sexual history, but a proclamation about Jesus; fully human yet truly “of God.” That mystery is not necessarily biological, but the symbol we emply to express it is.

  8. I have not done a close reading of Revelation though I did read many books on it in ancient days – from medieval art with comic dragons to Bauckham’s little monograph on the theology. The pericope of the 144000 is treated here as a rejection of Roman prowess. This might be extended to a rejection of all domineering use of sexuality (including the record of Sodom).

    The companions of the Lambkin are the only ones who can learn the new song. This is such an important phrase in the psalms – beginning with the first of the pillars that support the tent, Psalm 33 and to the last, 144:9. Each of these poems precedes an acrostic. the first and last of these with the last and first in Books 1 and 5 form a grand chiasm that supports the whole Psalter as tent poles support a tent, or pillars a temple. (See Psalm 15:1 for my intent – הוה who will guest in your tent?)

    If we cannot learn the new song, how can we be part of the new creation? How can we be redeemed? This is a tough image if one interprets it with exclusion in mind. It is even worse if one interprets it as abstinence – though that image is not completely off the table.

    So as far as tradition is concerned, I am not aware of the linkage between Mary and the 144000 though the connection could be made in Revelation, but it is a part of my own thinking. The new song is able to be learned – perhaps this restores virginity in that there is a complete healing of all the shame that can be raised by the very intimate and vulnerable reality of sex.

    The 144000 are ‘the redeemed’ so in that sense they represent the church and therefore include us who seek (and find). If they are the church they are the place where God’s word, his seed, finds a home, and where virginal conception, birth and growth in the Spirit therefore take place. The holiness of the temple, or tent, our body, individual or corporate is maintained by the same word.

    It is in this sense, which I hope I have expressed in the chink of this digital wall, that Mary and the 144000 are connected. Again our response is a yes in imitation of hers: be it unto me according to thy word. (And like Romeo and Juliet, it is a love story with identity strained by familial relations – the world of the beast vs the redemption).

  9. Kelly McArthur

    Hello. Forgive me please, but this might be important if someone is able to hear correctly. The short end is this: I’ve dropped out a white stone caught under a veil by a left hand that wasn’t mine but rather was male. The name on the stone really wasn’t quite there, it was more like a flash on the forehead within and I wanted to drop and felt rather small, and was stopped on the right and told to stand tall and hear the words given and remember them well and know the name of my soul was to come out of this hell. I have the solution to what ails mankind, of not knowing, of sickness and of healing the blind.

    I’m not the saviour and I’m not the Lord, tis’ only one Saviour who will get you on board, tis’ only one name who will set mankind free and the solution is simple and my name is Mary.

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