The Statue at the Synod and the Catholic Imagination

Symbols and artwork are multivalent.

How can any Catholic with a properly formed imagination look at a statue of a heavily pregnant woman in the context of a church, and not see Mary pregnant with Jesus?

Is it because she is naked, with her drooping breasts clearly shown? The breasts that nursed him, the body that bore him, that God would not suffer to decay?

Is it because she doesn’t appear “beautiful” by contemporary Western standards for women? Those standards presume either young perky non-pregnant breasts, or supportive undergarments.

Is it because she is brown? Surely not. Mary was probably brown. We have other wooden statues in our churches.

Is it because indigenous Catholics prayed before it? Come on. We pray before statues of Mary All. The. Time.

Is it because their prayers didn’t look like our prayers, with neat rows of votive candles, flowers in vases, and rosaries? We cannot use “looks familiar” as a necessary criterion for authentic Catholic prayer. “I know it when I see it” is a definition of obscenity, not of Catholicism.

Is it because the statue was described as symbolizing life and fertility? No, that can’t be it, because that verbal description came after the imagination responded to the image. (And besides, we call Mary  “our life”, and our most common Marian prayer blesses the fruit of her womb.)

Symbols and artwork are inherently multivalent. Inscribing Christian meaning onto non-Christian symbols has been intrinsic to evangelization and the spread of the gospel since the birth of the church. The Christmas tree is merely the best-known example; the practice was pervasive. If we look at the statue and see Mary, the mother of Jesus; and indigenous people of the Amazon look at the statue and see a symbol of life and fertility, then that is the opportunity for a conversation about how our visions overlap, where they differ and what they have in common. This is part of conversion and part of inculturation. That’s how it works.

How can a Catholic look at that statue, in a church, and not see Mary, pregnant with Jesus?

Or Elizabeth, pregnant with John in her old age, with her husband rendered mute by God for challenging the angel who appeared, all unexpected, in the sanctuary of the Temple?

Or Felicity, imprisoned by the Romans with her fellow Christians but at risk of being executed later without them because the Romans would not send a pregnant woman into the arena? She prayed that she would give birth early, and God granted that prayer.

Or perhaps the mother of Moses: pregnant, enslaved, and secretly planning how to craft a chance of survival for her baby, in case she bore a son, by floating him down the river.

 

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