As a Roman Catholic feminist who was named after Our Lady of Victories, my relationship with Mary has been complex. Traditional Mariology never “took” for me: as a good Vatican II Catholic, the extreme veneration of Mary as “co-redemptrix” that my mother’s generation was brought up with made me shudder. As an adult, I’ve come to see that this semi-divinization of Mary was offered to Catholic women as a kind of consolation prize, just as being a nun was held out to Catholic girls as what we got to have instead of the sacrament of ordination: God is male, but we shouldn’t feel bad about it because Mary is a girl and look how special Mary is!
Mary was also wielded as an instrument of the gender police to enforce and reinforce traditional gender norms for girls. Mary meek and mild, holy one, lowly one, humble, obedient, docile… honestly, it makes me want to throw up. There’s this awful song by Carey Landry, “Gentle Woman”, that gets pulled out by folk groups on Marian feastdays because it’s hard to accompany traditional Marian hymns on the guitar. The prologue isn’t bad, it’s a very pretty sung rendition of the Hail Mary. But the chorus is cloying, and oh, that second verse…*
Gentle woman, quiet light, Morning star, so soft and bright Gentle mother, peaceful dove, Teach us wisdom, teach us love Blessed are you among women (Right.) Blessed in turn, all women too: (..huh?) Blessed they with peaceful spirits, (WHAT??) Blessed they with gentle hearts. (#@$%@#!!!)
That said, there is one element of Catholic teaching about Mary that I did take very much to heart, and that is the importance of Mary’s “yes”. As a girl, I was taught that Mary’s “yes” mattered. It was not pro forma, it was not inevitable, it was not guaranteed. When the angel Gabriel showed up to tell her of the great honor God had bestowed on her, she could have refused.
She could have said “no.”
God gave Mary a choice. She could have said no. But she said yes!!
She said yes, and so our Savior was born into the world. And so are we to say “yes” to God, when God calls us.
Which brings us to today’s feast day, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Or as I like to put it, “Catholic trivia for $200, please,” because most non-Catholics and even many Catholics incorrectly suppose that the conception we’re talking about here is Jesus’ conception in Mary’s womb, and “immaculate” is fancy church-talk for “no sex”.
In fact we’re talking about the conception of Mary by her parents, Anna and Joachim.** (You won’t find those names in the Bible; they’ve come down through tradition in the non-canonical writings.) And “immaculate” is fancy church-talk for “no stain”: the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is a formulation of the tradition that God preserved Mary from the stain of original sin from the moment of her conception, so that she would be worthy to bear the Son of God.
I’ve always had a problem with this doctrine as traditionally explicated in the Catholic Church. It so clearly seems to come out of a model of Original Sin that is biologically transmitted, and so in order to simultaneously safeguard the sinlessness of Christ and his human birth of a human mother, one must conclude that Mary had to be protected from Original Sin from the womb because otherwise she would have passed it on to her son. Which it seems to me is getting rather too micromanaging of the mechanics of the miracle of the Incarnation. And I think it actually undermines the humanity of Christ by making Mary unlike other women
Either that, or it’s intended to highlight the similarities between Mary and Eve, who was also (by definition) born (well, created) without Original Sin. Which, if one has already moved away from a literal interpretation of the creation stories in Genesis, seems to be rather more a stumbling block than an aid to the faith.
Somewhere, I read an explication of the tradition by an Orthodox theologian (unfortunately I cannot remember who) that I like better. This understanding draws on the Orthodox understanding of original sin (which they call ancestral sin) as a social, interpersonal phenomenon, that affects all human beings because all human beings are born into a society afflicted with sinfulness. In this understanding, Mary was born to to a family line that had faithfully kept the covenant, even while the rest of Israel had become unfaithful. Because Mary was born and raised in a family (society) that faithfully lived according to the Law and the Prophets, she was preserved from the consequences of living in a society afflicted with sinfulness.
Denise Levertov draws this out for us in a section of her poem “The Annunciation”:***
She had been a child who played, ate, wept
like any other child – but unlike others,
wept only for pity, laughed
in joy not triumph.
Compassion and intelligence
fused in her, indivisible.
Traditional Mariology is problematic for me, as I said, but fortunately there are contemporary theologians that are engaging with the stories of Mary in scripture and tradition from a feminist perspective. The best known of these might be Elizabeth Johnson in her book Truly Our Sister. Indeed, the Second Vatican Council took a significant step in this direction when its treatment of Mary was integrated in its document on the Church, and placed some emphasis on Mary as the first Christian and a model for us all in that way. I remember reading of a church that was being remodelled during the years after the Council, that removed the traditional statue of Mary up on the wall, and instead placed a statue of her kneeling in prayer in the front pew. I love that!
Today I understand Mary as a brave woman, a questioning woman, a faithful woman — a woman like me, a woman I can actually relate to. Not a meek, mild, gentle dove, but a woman of strength and courage.
Pray for us, O holy Mother of God,
That we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.
* Interestingly, when I have complained about this verse, people usually do immediately get the point that women are obviously not, simply by virtue of being women, blessed with peaceful spirits and gentle hearts… 😉
** The icon that I really wanted to put here was under copyright, but please do go look at it.
*** If you are not familiar with this breathtaking poem, do click through and read it in its entirety — it is one of my very favorite poems ever.