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Published on: January 4, 2014
Yule Blog
The Mother of All Meaning

To get any insight at all into what Jesus’ childhood and upbringing were like, you have to do something that sometimes makes Protestants uncomfortable: study Mary.

Connections between the adult Jesus, his childhood and the family in which he was raised aren’t easy to make. At first glance, the gospels don’t seem to sympathize with our natural human curiosity; whatever the gospel writers had in mind, producing complete biographies of Jesus wasn’t it. Mark omits Christmas altogether, and starts with Jesus getting baptized and launching his career. John has a short prelude and then does the same thing. Matthew and Luke give us the infancy narratives with a couple of sketchy references to childhood (flight into Egypt for Matthew, visit to the Temple in Luke) and that is pretty much it.

To get any insight at all into what Jesus’ childhood and upbringing were like, you have to do something that sometimes makes Protestants uncomfortable: study Mary. This late in the Christmas season, I haven’t yet written much about Mary, other than to write about her virginity. That is a characteristically Protestant and American failing. Throughout the Islamic, Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic worlds, the Virgin Mary isn’t just a figure in a storybook. She’s the object of widespread popular devotion.

Much of this makes Protestants slightly queasy for both cultural and theological reasons. Culturally, the folk piety of the Middle Ages combined Christian concepts with pre-Christian rituals and ideas. Christmas trees and Easter eggs had their origins in pagan customs and ceremonies; in many cases the old gods and spirits lived on, thinly veiled, as saints. We can see something like this today in Brazil and the Caribbean where African religious figures and ideas have been conflated with Catholic saints in various ways. The Virgin Mary, a powerful female figure associated with fertility, was a comfortable fit for many of the pre-Christian cults.

The traditional European missionary strategy for Christianity was to assimilate as many features of traditional piety and culture as possible to the new religion. In addition, much of Europe was converted to Christianity from the top down. Kings and the nobility adopted the new faith, and it only slowly ‘trickled down’ to the illiterate commoners. By the time of the Reformation, a wide gap had opened up between the folk piety in the countryside and way that educated people understood their faith.

The Reformers stood for what they saw as an intellectually consistent Christian position and they wanted to bring all of cultural life under Biblical norms. They associated popular rites, shrines and customs with the ‘high places’ and ‘groves’ that reforming kings like Josiah sought to abolish in ancient Judea. At the same time, they argued that the Catholic belief that saints (and especially the Virgin Mary) could and would intercede on behalf of sinners was doctrinally wrong and a source of corruption in the church. It demeaned God, they believed, to suggest that intercession from Mary would change his mind.  Is God’s compassion so limited, his wrath so blind, that he won’t show mercy unless the Virgin intercedes?

Surely not, said the Reformers and they promoted an individualistic faith in which each person stood alone before Christ. There was only one intercessor, only one mediator sinners required, and it was the son, not the mother who was the route to the Father. There was little room in this for the traditional veneration of the Virgin and to this day, Mary plays a very small part in the piety or the culture of the Protestant world.

Another aspect of the traditional Marian cult made Protestants nervous. The attention traditionally paid to Mary’s role not only detracted, Protestants thought, from the unique stature and work of Jesus; it also undercut the Protestant idea that salvation came through faith alone, with good works (deeds) having nothing to do with it. When Catholics celebrated Mary as the Second Eve whose obedience restored the relationship with God that the first Eve lost, Protestants heard this as a claim that human beings by their own will could overcome the effects of sin.

This is all very well, and I’m writing this blog to celebrate Christmas rather than to meddle in centuries-old theological quarrels, but I think the Protestant reaction against the excesses of medieval Mariolatry has gone too far. It’s possible that some of the Reformers threw out the mother along with the bathwater, and the Christmas season seems like a good time to reflect on the theology, rather than the cult, of Mary.

The key to the classic understanding of who Mary is lies in ideas that the overwhelming majority of American Protestant churches share with the Catholics and the Orthodox. Specifically, these have to do with who Jesus was.

Jesus is nothing if not paradoxical. On the one hand, he is the Second Person of the Trinity. But he is also a human being. How does this work? Like the Trinity itself, the nature of the relationship between the divine and human in Christ is a complicated idea, and over the centuries has been described in very technical ways by theologians much better educated than me. With some notable exceptions,  most Christians have held that Jesus has two natures combined in one person. He is fully divine, fully human— and still somehow just one person, one self. This idea was not formalized until the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD, but the implications for Mary were already clear enough that twenty years earlier she was proclaimed Theotokos at the Council of Ephesus.

Theotokos can be translated into English several ways: the most common is “Mother of God” and a very large majority of Christians around the world considers Mary to be, literally, the Mother of God. Since Jesus’ two natures are combined in one person, she must be considered not only the mother of his ‘human side'; she is the mother of the whole person. God’s love knows no bounds; his decision to enter history was so unlimited, so unconditional and so total that God became the son of a human woman.

I want to stress that this is not a point of theology that divides Protestants and Catholics. Martin Luther, John Calvin and Charles Wesley all subscribed to the concepts laid down at Ephesus and Chalcedon; contemporary Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Episcopalians and many others adhere to churches and traditions that consider these ideas to be basic parts of the Christian faith. (Mormons and Unitarians do not; most mainline Protestants, evangelicals and Pentecostals do.)

The question I’d like to suggest for readers here towards the end of the Christmas season is this: what respect and honor is due to the Mother of God? To sharpen it a bit, remember that Christians believe that Jesus perfectly fulfilled the law of Moses, not just ritualistically or to external appearances but sincerely and from the heart. The ten commandments sum up that law; the fifth commandment tells us to “Honor your mother and father.” Christians believe that Jesus honored his Father by a life of perfect obedience all the way to the cross. What honor do we think he paid to his mother? How exalted is she in heaven? What good thing would he withhold from her? What honor should we, his brothers and sisters by adoption, pay to the mother of our savior and lord, a woman who, if we take these things seriously, must be considered in some very important sense the mother of all believers?

I am not suggesting that Southern Baptists start chartering planes for pilgrimages to Lourdes or holding Wednesday-night rosary sessions. And it’s clear to me (as indeed it is to most Catholics and Orthodox) that the most important way of honoring the Virgin Mary is to do your best to follow her son. Yet sometime during the Christmas season, it might be worthwhile for Protestants to ask themselves how they propose to honor the Mother of God this year.

If Marian doctrine originates in our attempts to come to grips with the nature of Jesus, our understanding of Jesus will deepen if we study her. Christians of all stripes can usefully spend some time thinking about the woman who became the Mother of God, and looking at some of the ways she seems to have left her mark on Jesus.

The passionate concern for the poor that shaped much of his ministry can already be seen in her response to the angel Gabriel as reported by Luke. Giving thanks to God, she says of him that

He hath showed strength with his arm; he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away.

This is not a bad description of what Jesus did as an adult. The empathy for social outsiders, the refusal to be fooled or intimidated by wealth and social position, the radical intolerance for the abuse of privilege—they all seem prefigured in the words of his mother.

Another way in which Jesus was unusual for his time was his willingness to engage in serious intellectual and moral conversation with independent and unconventional women. The ‘woman of Samaria’ who interrogated him about the water of life, Mary Magdalene, Martha and Mary who were clearly his close friends, the woman ‘taken in adultery’ whose stoning he prevented: Jesus is comfortable and relaxed with many of the women he meets, jokes with them, and takes them utterly seriously as free human beings. There is not one single verse in the Gospels in which Jesus says or does anything to suggest that women are anything less than men. Do we really have to ask ourselves who might have taught him to look at women this way?

Down through the ages, Christian civilization has often treated women badly, yet visitors from other great world civilizations have often remarked on the (relative) freedom and equality that women enjoyed in the Christian world. The cult of the Virgin played some part in this; the medieval concept of the courteous and chivalrous knight was often associated with Marian piety (and sometimes with ideals of courtly love which had very little to do with Christian ethics).

I like to think that there is something more: Jesus was the son of a strong and independent woman. Steeped in the ethical traditions of Judaism, she was passionate about justice and willing to stake everything on her sense of God’s call. She had a soft spot for social outcasts—after all she was once in the position of being an unmarried, pregnant woman in a censorious and traditional society. She was thoughtful and meditative, but capable of swift and decisive action when the time came.

She was unflinching and courageous. She followed God, not social convention. She followed Jesus to the cross and watched her son die; her loving presence would have been one of the few comforts he had during that final ordeal.  She was ready to respond to the unexpected, to have her life wrenched out of a comfortable and traditional groove when God showed her that he had something else in mind.

This is the kind of woman that God asked to mother Jesus. And if Christians take their own theology seriously, our Lord and Savior was shaped by her genes and her character. Mothering is serious business, something I’ve thought about often this season as I go through my first Christmas without my own dear mother at the holiday feast. Jesus would not have been who he was if he had had another mother or no mother at all. She put a lot of herself in her son, leaving an imprint on his character that is visible from a distance of 2000 years. And she didn’t just mark him. She marked, marks us. Our civilization for better or worse has been shaped through its complicated, many-sided encounter with the man she raised and the faith that grew up around him.  We are all sons and daughters of Mary today, whether we acknowledge it or not.

I grew up in the Episcopal Church where one of the favorite hymns was “Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones,” often sung on All Saints’ Day (November 1).  I was an adult before I realized that one of the stanzas invokes the Virgin Mary:

O higher than the cherubim,
More glorious than the seraphim,
Lead their praises, Alleluia!
Thou Bearer of the eternal Word,
Most gracious, magnify the Lord,
Alleluia! Alleluia

“All generations,” she marveled to the angel while accepting God’s request to bear his son, “shall call me blessed.” For two thousand years they have; God blessed her and through her, he continues to bless us all. By saying ‘yes’ to God’s plan, she became the mother of meaning; without her, Christmas just doesn’t add up.

show comments
  • E.G. Lim

    I am not a Christian but have an interest in Western history, culture, and in Christianity. If upbringing is the key (“Do we really have to ask ourselves who might have taught him to look at women this way?”) where is Joseph in all of this? Doesn’t the human father also have a huge influence on the son regarding his relations with people, men and women alike? Or is Walter purely exalting biology, although he seems to argue mainly in terms of upbringing. Modern American culture, and here I can’t help interpreting the article in terms of current political trends, really seems to have it in for the father. Otherwise, the only other logical way to interpret the article is to view it as attributing all important familial influences on Jesus as purely genetic in nature. Am I off-base in noticing this stark imbalance in the article?

    • dloye

      The imbalance seen is reflective of where we stand. As a Protestant, I am delighted to see a thoughtful essay on Mary. The divisive nature of this topic is illustrated n a comment pastor of our congregation forbade the use of the music, “Ave Maria” in weddings or funerals in our sanctuary. Too Catholic. Joseph’s influence is truly a matter of speculation. Did Jesus train as a carpenter? Under Joseph? Seems very likely. But that’s narrative we impose from 2K years away.

      • E.G. Lim

        Thanks Dloye: Interesting comment about the pastor. On my point, I guess if there was absolutely nothing written about Joseph in the Gospels, then my issue is moot. But as I understand it, there were things written about Joseph. I too enjoy the article about Mary. My comment was not so much about Mary as about the complete neglect of Joseph (I would not have noticed if there was even a casual mention along the lines of not enough was known of Joseph’s influence etc). I was just shocked by the neglect in the same way that I am shocked by the treatment of men in the media, the courts, and Hollywood regarding child custody, reproductive rights, “men being predators as common “wisdom” ” (even Mamet in the interview with Peter Robinson) etc. But as you say, it’s just the way things are now. Merry Christmas and Happy New year.

        • Moi_in_NC

          Things are written about Joseph in the Bible, but his role is limited. Joseph was Jesus’s stepfather rather than his father, so his main role is that rather than having Mary stoned for adultery, as the law of the time allowed, or “send[ing] her away quietly”–that is, discretely ending the betrothal or effectively divorcing her as we would understand it since a betrothal was more like the first part of a marriage rather than an engagement–as he originally intended, he did as an “angel of the Lord” told him and accepted Jesus as if he were his son and married Mary. So while Jesus is God, and Mary literally the mother of God, Joseph played a more limited role in history and plays a more limited role in Christian theology as well. The essay is in no way a commentary on the current role of men or fathers, but instead looks at the differently theologies of Christians, where Catholics venerate Mary as the Mother of God, while most Protestants view her as just a woman, albeit the most “Blessed…among [all] women.” You can read all about Joseph in the first few chapters of Matthew and Luke. And Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you, too!

          • E.G. Lim

            Thanks for the information, Moi. See my reply below to both you and Jose

        • Jose Tomas

          Dear Lim, I cannot speak for WRM, perhaps he is trying to avoid “saints inflation” in a blog series that is eminently ecumenic.

          But as a Catholic, I can say to you that St. Joseph is one of the (if not THE) most venerated saints in the Catholic Church after Mary herself. Most theologians consider him the greatest of all saints after Mary. In fact, he is (again after Mary) the only saint to have three feasts, including the feast of the Sacred Family. Matthew call him “dikaios” (just, righteous man), a compliment offered to few people in the Bible (it is the Jewish equivalent of a saint). Catholic interpretation is that, just as God selected the most perfect creature to be his mother, he could not do less that select the second one to be his adoptive father.

          And yes, your intuition is correct, Joseph was as influential in Jesus’ upbringing as Mary. He taught him to read, to pray as a Jew, initiated him at the Synagogue, and, of course, passed along to him his trade. Thinking of Joseph as a second class, absent father is of course ridiculous, especially in a society like 1st century Israel. When he started his public ministry, the people at Nazareth called him “the son of Joseph”.

          In an age where the family is crumbling, more and more theologians are pressing for a greater focus on him. Mary was a married Jewish woman, not some kind of single mother.

          A marvelous book about him can be found here: http://www.amazon.com/Joseph-Silent-Michel-Gasnier/dp/0906138493

          • E.G. Lim

            Thanks Jose for the information. Your information about Joseph is really great to know. Very interesting. I was certain that Joseph corrected Jesus as a child when Jesus misbehaved (I heard in one of the Teaching Company audio courses). But both to you and Moi, I accept and respect the differences in the theological approaches taken by Catholics and Protestants. I am happy for the new information from both of you.

            My major point about WRM’s article is that he was speaking to Jesus’s upbringing as a critical influence upon Jesus, including in his respectful treatment of women. It then struck me as just so odd that the father was not given even the faintest mention when my common sense tells me the father (Joseph) has to be an extremely important an influence in the area of upbringing. Note that if WRM was only arguing his preferred theological view or attributing everything to genetics, I would have had no view. But he went away from theology and genetics and introduced upbringing (a legitimate approach) as a key factor, while excluding all mention of Joseph, which then left a deafening silence.

          • Jose Tomas

            You are wellcome!

            As for WRM, I really think that he meant no demerit to Joseph or fathers in general, My theory still is that he tried to avoid “saints creeping” in an argument already prone to polemics. But I, just as you, think that he could have tossed a word or two concerning Joseph in his otherwise awesome text.

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