What About Mary? – Br. Eldridge Pendleton

The Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Micah 5:2-5a                                                                           Psalm 113
Romans 8:28-30                                                              Matthew 1:18-25

Several years ago, quite unexpectedly, a friend and I were invited to join the annual French national healing pilgrimage to Lourdes, to be a part of a contingent of 1,000 malades and 3,000 caregivers to spend a week at the famous holy place of healing. Both of us had serious health issues and as a result of eye surgery I had lost the sight of my right eye.  While I would never have considered a pilgrimage to Lourdes had we not been invited, our week there turned out to be one of the most important spiritual moments in my life.  Traditionally, pilgrims come to Lourdes with three prayer requests associated with healing.  Certainly two of mine were, but my third petition was to truly know Mary and know that she knew me as an individual and loved me.  I had grown up in a faith tradition that barely mentioned her and now am part of a community in which she is a vital force.  Who is she?  Meek and mild as the Church has traditionally presented her?  I wanted to strip away the myth and find the real person.

In the company of so many sick people I expected the week to be depressing, and so was surprised by its joyous atmosphere.  We worshiped with the pilgrims and were bathed in the waters of Bernadette’s healing spring and yet by the end of our pilgrimage I left believing none of my prayers had been answered.  In the middle of my first night home I woke too jet lagged to sleep and decided to read some of Graham Greene’s religious essays I had with me until daylight.  While doing so I had an experience of Mary in which she revealed her true identity ( she is neither meek or mild) and assured me of her love for me.  In that moment I fell in love with her and wished to make her known and loved.  Soon afterward my sight was restored.  And so in gratitude for my healing and desiring to enrich your personal prayer life by her presence, I bring to you on her birthday another look at Mary.

There is an ancient icon of Mary in a monastery on the holy mountain of Athos whose origin is shrouded in mystery.  It is known as “the universe in the womb of the Mother of God.”  It depicts the Virgin’s legs parted and veiled, so that the viewer looks between them into her body.  In her womb is a picture of the cosmos.  The icon is not well-known to outsiders and the monks themselves seem embarrassed by its image.  It remains in place because it is a part of the monastery’s tradition.  This embarrassment is understandable, but it needs to be replaced with a sense of wonder and awe with which the icon must originally have been written.  It represents a central aspect of the mystery of the incarnation and an affirmation of the unique dignity of the virginal Mother of God.

It was a sermon preached at the imperial court at Constantinople on the feast of the Virgin Mary in the season of Christmas early in the history of Christianity that led to a dispute over divine maternity—that Mary is the mother of God—which caused a major theological dispute about the combined nature of Jesus, human and divine, and led to the official definition as part of Christian orthodoxy at the Council of Ephesus in 431 CE.  Cyril of Alexandria, one of the foremost of the Church Fathers, the theologians who did much to define the doctrine of the Church during the first centuries of its existence, presented the argument that carried the day.  Cyril declared that the Word of God took our human nature upon himself at the very moment of the conception of Jesus in his mother’s womb, and he did this to redeem humanity from its very foundations.  Cyril said that after the Incarnation all human conception may now be sanctified because of the union of divinity and humanity in Mary’s body.  This is why Jesus blessed the institution of marriage.  If the Word of God was fully united in the humanity Jesus took from Mary, then the person she conceived and bore was God himself.  This mystery is beyond our ability to comprehend.  Yet our salvation depends upon its truth—that God took human flesh in Jesus of Nazareth, and to deny that Mary gave birth to God is to deny the Incarnation.  Our redemption depends on the fact that this human being, Mary, gave our mortal flesh to be united with the immortal Word of God when she conceived and gave birth to him.  We must also remember the implication of this mystery of the Incarnation, that when the Creator united himself with humanity, he did so by extension with all creation.  One of the promises of our salvation is that God will bring fulfillment at the end of time, and that the work of this glorification has begun in Mary’s body.

The ancient icon in the monastery at Mt. Athos that depicts the universe in Mary’s womb calls us afresh to see the holiness of the God- bearing world and to treat all that surrounds us as sacred and holy.  The symbolism of the glorification of the world through the Incarnation became a common theme in both Eastern and Western Christian art in the Medieval period.  In icons and sculpture those that show Mary and the seated Christ child facing forward in her lap represent the theological verity.  While not as graphic as the holy icon at Athos, in these other examples where the child Jesus serves as the veil, the message is the same.  Treat all things with reverence for they are holy.

Two other doctrinal issues closely associated with Mary’s role roiled the theological waters in those early formative years of Christianity, her immaculate conception and assumption into Heaven.  When we speak of Jesus as being fully human like us but without sin we point to the core of a controversy that has disturbed the Church since the beginning.  If Jesus was born without sin, if the original sin which taints all humanity was absent in him at conception, then by some mysterious grace Mary had been conceived without sin as well.  Then because she was without sin and therefore not liable to the physical corruption that comes with it at death, she did not have to await the day of judgment, but was bodily assumed into Heaven, the first Christian to be so resurrected and a foreshadowing of all that awaits the faithful at the end of days.

These traditions have always been held popularly by Roman Catholicism.  The same is true of Eastern Orthodoxy for the mystery of the immaculate conception.  Instead of the doctrine of the assumption, Orthodox Christians have always honored her dormition or “falling asleep” instead.  Yet it is specifically these aspects of Marian devotion, the immaculate conception and assumption, connected with the Incarnation but without strong scriptural basis that have met so much resistance from Protestants.  Part of this comes from an unfamiliarity of what the Incarnation means and its theological implications, and part of its is a difficulty with the idea that God did not choose an ordinary woman to give birth to Jesus, but someone who was different, semi-divine, set apart at her conception, free from the stain of original sin.  Supporters of the belief in the immaculate conception of Mary argue that there is scriptural support, in Genesis 3:15 and Luke 1:28.  Such influential Church Fathers as Irenaeus and Justin Martyr regarded Mary as the new Eve, just as Jesus was the new Adam of redeemed creation.

Since the earliest days of Christianity Mary has been very popular with Christians.  For men and women down through the centuries she played a major part in their devotional “habits of the heart.”  One of the popular artistic representations of her a thousand years ago was of Mary’s cloak, within which all needing help could find protective shelter.  A little later in history she emerged as the Black Madonna in remote, wilderness areas across Europe, a focus of peace and consolation for pilgrims fleeing the chaos of their lives.  The theology behind it was drawn both from the story of creation in Genesis, God bringing order out of chaos, and Mary his willing instrument.  About this time, the thirteenth century CE, two other devotional practices connected with Mary developed, the Angelus and the Rosary.  In town and country with the tolling of a church bell at dawn, midday and dusk Christians stopped work to remember the mystery of the Incarnation and to pray the “hail Mary,” a practice similar to that of the muezzin calling faithful Muslims to prayer that Europeans had encountered in the Holy Land during the Crusades.  Franciscans popularized the prayer chain called the Rosary (the rose being a symbol of Mary) with its meditations or “mysteries on the lives of Jesus and his mother to underscore the human nature of Christ.  In recent centuries Mary’s appearances during times of great social upheaval and uncertainty, notably at Lourdes and Fatima, have caused a popular revival of faith, miracles of healing and a strengthening of the Church.

During the deliberations of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, theologians took a careful look at Mary in the Church to prune away superstition and error and to reveal her great value in the Good News of the Gospel.    They prophesied that Mary would be the bridge that would bring about reconciliation with separated Christians and bring unity to the Church again.  The great psychologist Carl Jung, an onlooker caught up in the enthusiasm of the debate, argued that Mary should have an equal place with Christ so that the masculine and feminine could be fully integrated in Christian spirituality.  In recent years the usually conservative Anglican theologian John Macquarrie has said it might be helpful if we took seriously the idea of Mary as co-redemptrix.

In asking the question, “What about Mary?” what are we to make of all of this?  My intention is to leave you with more questions than answers, but I do think it would be worthwhile for you to reconsider Mary, and if she has no place thus far, to ponder inviting her to be a part of your prayer life.  Without taking anything away from Christ’s central role as mediator, we can ask her to join her prayers with ours.  We can also turn to her as a model of the resurrected Christian life for guidance.  She has much to teach us.  And if we return to the mystery of the cosmos in her womb, we may begin to view the world and our place in it differently.  We may reverence all creation as sacred and do what we can to preserve and treat it that way.

Graham Greene, the English novelist, said the most serious heresy threatening the modern world is the unimportance of the individual.  Today the human body is regarded as so much expendable material, something to be eliminated wholesale by the most highly sophisticated methods of warfare.  It has become anonymous carrion.  Mary’s experience gives us a different message—all is sacred, all creation is redeemed, all is a reflection of the glory of God.

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  1. Paul on December 24, 2015 at 09:19

    Many years ago I was talking with a dear Jewish friend and I told her that I thought that the “immaculate conception” was a myth. She came right back at me and said: “Oh believe in miracles, I do!” At that moment the scales fell from my eyes and Mary came into my life to stay, becoming and growing into the devoted Mother she is in my life today. I don’t know what I would do without her. Thank you, dear Jesus, for the precious gift of your Mother, my Mother, and the Mother of us all. Amen.

  2. Michael on December 23, 2015 at 08:51

    To try and understand the infinite with the finite makes little sense and adds lots of frustration to our already complicated thinking processes

  3. George W. Sowerby on December 26, 2013 at 03:24

    None of this intellectualization is of any importance, really. The only thing that ultimately matters is that Jesus is Pure Love.

    • Christina on December 27, 2013 at 20:11

      Thank heavens, George. I have read and re-read the above sermon and comments; their words don’t grant me any greater understanding about Mary’s role as the mother of Jesus. Is it too simplistic to accept that Mary, a young girl, was the mother of Jesus. Jesus is the Son of God. If we believe that the whole of creation is of God, that surely means that we too are all sons and daughters of God, God is the God of Eternal Creation and is Love.
      As the hymn says: Forgive our (my) foolish ways, if I have it all wrong. Christina

  4. DLa Rue on July 14, 2013 at 09:12

    For females, it is particularly important to have an equilibrated sense of valoration for a woman as well as a man in the foundational roles of creation, redemption and sustenance.

    I am also sometimes bothered by the same “meek and mild” characterizations given Mary (facing such torments, such a response would make little better of her than a hapless masochist at the hands of a sadistic God, as C.S. Lewis observed).

    A refreshing image of her as strong and able is welcome, then.

  5. Ruth West on July 13, 2013 at 21:07

    I strongly disagree with the doctrine of Mary as being divine. We are taught ,and I would think you would agree, that Jesus was real God and real man.
    If Mary was conceived without sin, became co-redemtrix with Christ, then
    Jesus had no chance to be real man. He would have been God from His
    Father and God from his mother.
    I love Saint Mary and greatly honor her. She said, “Yes” to her Lord God who granted to her the joy of carrying the Messiah. She was truly human and chose to do her Father’s will. She could have said NO, since she had free will to choose. I thank our Heavenly Father that he chose her, an
    innocent precious girl, and I thank God and Mary that she was obedient.
    If she had been born as a sinless creature, she would not have been able
    to choose, as the scriptures reveal.
    I am so sorry that so many of our dear brothers and sisters in Christ are
    teaching what I consider to be a heretical doctrine.
    Blessings on you, Brother.

    • George W. Sowerby on December 26, 2013 at 03:07

      I agree with the writer who went before me. His logic is correct. While I love Mary as the mother of Jesus, Mary was human. Had she been Divine, Jesus would have been all God, not God and man combined. Further, there is very little (from The Bible) we actually know about Mary.

      • George W. Sowerby on December 26, 2013 at 03:19

        As a psychoanalyst, I see this in some way as being an Oedipal issue. It would take pages to explain my feelings about this, but in condensed form, if we view Mary as divine, we have, from that perspective, Jesus as the son of a “perfect mother,” while he has a Father who conceives Him knowing that He will ultimately die on the cross. This combination is the psychoanalytic recipe for a negative resolution of the Oedipal Situation.

  6. Anders on July 10, 2013 at 14:10

    Thank you for placing the question of Mary and sharing your healing story. Jesus often spoke in parable with no clear-cut message, but he focused that we should love and heal one another. The divinity of Mary clearly probes these in looking at the sanctity of life. I grew up hearing about the “cult of Mary” and was chastised once for not believing in the Mother of God, all with little understanding.

    In my own growth and healing that integrates my body mind and spirit and my masculine and feminine energies towards wholeness, Mary is a good question. Perhaps I can let her play it out in my current struggles regarding what is perhaps the “cult of Paul”, a theological machination that diminishes the sanctity of human life by taking “love your neighbor” to “everyone is my neighbor” to “since I can´t love everyone, I´ll stick to what I can know and control to build my church and tribe.” Sometimes it ends up looking like the anonymous carrion you describe in our increasingly polarized, emotionally volatile society. Yes, what about Mary?

  7. Martin Dickinson on July 10, 2013 at 12:52

    “All is sacred, all creation is redeemed, all is a reflection of the glory of God.”
    Here is a poem of mine that illustrates this very idea . . .

    Portuguese Boats, Scituate Harbor

    Deus quer, o homem sonha:
    Fishermen, God wants,
    man dreams. At night
    you dreamt of the harvest
    your nets would drag up,
    fingers callused, bleeding,
    the sting of salt, shining backs
    of the codfish: bacalhau,
    their flapping tailfins
    slid down your ramps.
    Pescadores, but now
    you depart, blue mesh
    nets hang ready,
    the sky, too, ready.
    Your journey is against
    the orange sky, against
    the green water.
    Out past the light
    the sea awaits you,
    fluid and ethereal.
    The earth seems solid,
    but it is not so.
    The tide does not stand still.
    Once this whole earth
    was one thing, a unified
    and unseparated sea.
    O reapers of the water,
    you have known this
    as over the dark waves
    you cast forth your nets.
    Sagrou-te e foste desvendando
    a espuma: for He
    made you holy,
    revealing the foam,
    and this is no dream.
    Three hulls: São Miguel,
    Silver Rose, Filomena,
    you drift in the same fluid
    as your prey, under the same
    orange and glowing clouds.

  8. Claudia Booth on July 10, 2013 at 11:23

    Dear Br. Eldridge,
    Thank you for sharing your experience and understanding of Mary. Having loved her as a child, my relationship with Mary became more complicated and distanced as a adult when my brain got in the way trying to intellectualize and perhaps, rationalize her place in Christian theology. For me, accepting the mystery and honoring her central place as theotokos is much more satisfactory. It is a God thing! This was a beautiful piece.

  9. Polly Chatfield on July 10, 2013 at 09:34

    Thank you, dear Eldridge. To see – and keep remembering to see – all the world as God’s body is an exhilarating thing. Even the humblest bit of ceration begins to glow with beauty.

  10. jane goldring on December 8, 2011 at 14:01

    eldrige thank you for the piece on mary it certainaly gives me more understanding of her. i am trying to say the rosary during advent. It also brings in to perspective that there can be healing in ones life. thanks again eldrige for opening my eyes and thoughts. jane

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