Saturday, December 8, 2012

Mary Most Holy

When I have debated with others about the Genesis narratives of creation one comment that emerges is the similarities of those narratives to other creation narratives, most notably the Enuma Elish in Babylonian mythology. This similarity for some is proof enough that the Biblical account is merely one among many accounts or that it simply stole from their captors but made minor changes (The Enuma Elish predates the written Biblical account).

Many Christian scholars now believe that the similarity in construction is intentional and that the Genesis account is structured close to the Babylonian myth in order to act as a theological polemic. When one puts both accounts side by side it seems as if the syntax is nearly identical—for the undiscerning mind. The slight changes of both tone and process reveals a delicate construction on the part of both authors, Babylonian or Hebrew. Contained in simple mythological language are commentaries about creation, the nature of man, the nature of God (or gods), and much more. In reading both I have always found that the Hebrew account was in all ways more fascinating, powerful, and rich. This is not simply my allegiance to Christ but also simply taking both narratives by the power of their own arguments. The Biblical account has the advantage of being the “response” so to speak, but some of the best and most compelling arguments are the ones that sound almost exactly like your opponent but turn the whole issue on its head. The Genesis accounts, both of them (but more the first), share this excellent quality.

This is a perfect example of someone who has taken the time to align the syntax of both stories in such a way so as to situate them as merely a historical occurrence. Indeed, at face value they are nearly identical when seen in this way. What the author of this rather long and not un-scholarly article fails to consider is "why" and "how" the stories are presented.
If the author does not believe in God (or discounts a perspective of belief) those questions are irrelevant anyhow. See the comments at the bottom of this article to see how others treat it. For them it's not a matter of it could be true, or that the construction is intentional, but that it's human, all too human. (Article)

I give you this example as a way of introducing a thought of mine on the great and beautiful account of Mary. It is not the fruit of years of research or devotion—I have not had the grace others who experience an intimate relationship with Mary in their prayer—but I must admit that as I grow older I am drawn more quickly to reflect on her maternal love and anguish, both of them intensified beyond my comprehension by virtue of her son, Jesus Christ. What I want to propose is that the Evangelists, men who knew Scripture and indeed had the Spirit working within them, chose a similar approach of expressing Mary. I do not deny the historicity of the Annunciation but I found it worth my time reflecting on the parallels between Mary's mission, as it were, and the mission and commission of others in Scripture. The similarities tie her into a greater narrative and the differences set her apart. This was a conscious choice by the Evangelists but also, in my mind, their indication of a most unique specialness of Mary in the whole of history.
Her uniqueness often lies in what makes her most unnoticeable.
I will focus on Luke who has a special interest in Mary. Luke also is kind enough to give us the whole paradigm by relating the announcement of the birth of John the Baptist to his father Zechariah. This narrative alone has strong parallels in Abraham's call and promise of a son. When the angel of the Lord told them that their wives would bear them a son Abraham laughed and Zechariah said “How shall I know this? I am an old man and my wife is advanced in years” (Luke 1:18). This is the response of mankind, from ancient times immemorial to the present day. God promises the fantastic and impossible and we shake our heads both stupefied and incredulous.

At first glance, it would seem Mary's response is no different: “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?” (Lk 1:34). This is a problem for English that masks this profound difference of Mary. In the Greek (I won't bore you with all the details) Zechariah asks “how shall I know this” as if to say 'unless I know how can I believe?' This is why the angel silences him, literally, saying “Now you will be speechless … because you did not believe my words” (Lk 1:20). Mary, on the other hand, responds with the verb “estai” in Greek which perhaps colloquially means “how can this be” but has the force of “it shall be, how shall it come about?” Zechariah asked how will he know (gnosomai) whereas Mary asks with that powerful verb 'to be' “how will it come to pass?” Already, in this small juxtaposition we see in Mary that there is no tension between her and the message of God. This is why she can say afterward “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word” (Lk 1:38).

We take for granted the circumstances of this passage. After all, an angel of the Lord presents himself to Mary and she trembles as every other man and woman had in all of Scripture. Yet when she is addressed there is no hesitation.

More curious and fascinating still is that in nearly every narrative that deals in a special call is preceded by an admission of the speaker of his weakness. Jeremiah declared he was too young (Jer 1:6), Abraham that he was too old (Gen 17:17), and Moses that he could not speak well (Ex 4:10). Mary, on the other hand, says nothing of her unworthiness in any fashion. Even Isaiah who readily exclaimed “Here I am! Send me” recalled that he was a man of “unclean lips from a people of unclean lips.” Mary, however, not only accepts the word of God but finds herself fully capable from the outset of doing it. The angel says nothing of her unbelief. Rather, Mary asked and the answer was given to her because of her faith. She knew it was not to be done according to her knowledge but His word.
A Flemish painting of the announcement of a son for Abraham. He seems to be saying, "What? With her?" He laughed when God suggested it and thus his son was named "Issac" which roughly means "he laughs."

There are a wealth of examples I could bring up about the stark contrast of Mary to the rest of the holy men and women cataloged in Scripture, such as her name remaining the same despite the gravity of her task (contrary to Peter, Paul, Abraham, Israel, etc. whose names were changed). The question we must ask ourselves when contemplating Mary, her role, her importance, and her significance is “what does it mean?”

Was it arbitrary? For the believer to say such a thing about Scripture is foolishness. Much like Genesis, when we see that the argument is constructed like the others we are lulled into a false security and sense of familiarity. The account of Mary is not a polemic as such, but it is a theology-rich exposition (history). It is constructed like all the others in order to magnify the differences. As to the question “what does it mean,” which is a worthy question for each line of Scripture, she clearly meant a great deal to Luke. The early Church furnishes us with further reflection on Mary and what she meant to them. They were ready to call her the “New Eve” for if sin first entered the world through the disobedience of man and woman then it is only right that through the obedience and humility of a man (Jesus) and woman (Mary) that salvation was made available to all. Augustine expresses this sentiment in his book “On Christian Teaching,” albeit seemingly unfair to women, by saying “The disease [sin] entered through a corrupted female mind; healing emerged from and intact female body” (Book I.13.xxix).
There are too many great images that seem to me to relate Mary's purity in a way that only an image can convey.

For it is not our place to simply say our salvation is “through Christ alone” as if to say “nothing else matters.” Rather, it is better to wonder at “God chose that His only begotten son would be born of a woman and bear our entire human estate.” I do not diminish Christ's supreme and necessary role. What I am saying is that we must examine, marvel, pray, and give thanksgiving for how he chose to effect His grand designs. Where men are often moved by grandeur God chose to enter in all humility. Likewise, where many in Scripture wanted to control the situation they were in (and in the process doubt God) Mary became a perfect conduit of grace by virtue of her obedience and humility.

On this, the Holy Day of the Immaculate Conception I thought it would be worthy to devote some time to reflection on Mary most holy. There is far more to say than my meager words here. I only leave this with you to look at Mary as I see her (or perhaps as I'm beginning to see her). No other human being can claim to have known Christ in his full humanity or divinity than his mother who loved him with all the intensity of motherhood and suffered on account of his suffering more than anyone can comprehend. Woman is the crown of creation and Mary the queen of humanity. May her resplendent example lead us to Jesus Christ her son and to God almighty.