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30 March 2003

A protestant rediscovers Mary

I don't know how legal this is to publish like this, but I don't have a link for it and I am not even sure that it's on the web. Anyway, thanks to my good friend Lance for mailing it to me, and thanks also from numerous friends that I forwarded it to.

From: Goldsberry, Lance
Sent: 05 December 2002 15:36
Subject: A Protestant Rediscovers Mary

A Protestant Rediscovers Mary
My church dragged Mary out at Christmas and placed her at center stage.
After, we packed her in the creche box and ignored her.

By Kathleen Norris
Reprinted from "Blessed One: Protestant Perspectives on Mary" with
permission of Westminister John Knox Press.

A friend who had spent a sabbatical working with refugees in Southeast Asia
once sent me a homemade Christmas card that put the more colorful cards to
shame; it consisted of a black-and-white snapshot of a Cambodian mother
holding her infant in her arms. What struck me most was the youth of the
mother and the fact that this unposed photograph was instantly recognizable
as a madonna and child. The mother beholding the child, in love and wonder.
I don’t think it matters what breed of Christian my friend is—he is, in
fact, a Roman Catholic bishop—but what is significant is that he “got” Mary.
In silence, the photograph spoke powerfully about Mary as a presence in our
world, a constant reminder that in the incarnation the omnipotent God chose
to take on human vulnerability. And a vulnerability of the most extreme
sort, a child born not to wealth and power but to an impoverished peasant
woman and her uneasy husband in the rural backwater of a small, troubled,
colonized country.
I think that many Protestants, if they think about Mary at all, get hung up
on what they are supposed to believe about her. And she doesn’t make it
easy. It’s as if her calm visage belies our seeking after labels. Is Mary a
cultural artifact or a religious symbol? A literary device or a theological
tool? A valuable resource for biblical exegetes or the matrix of an
extrabiblical piety that we, as Protestants, must avoid at all costs? The
point about Mary is that she is all these things, and more, always more. She
is poor yet gloriously rich. She is blessed among women yet condemned to
witness her son’s execution. She is human yet God-bearer, and the Word that
she willingly bears is destined to pierce her soul. Had we a more elastic
imagination, we might be less troubled by Mary’s air of serene
contradiction. But ours is a skeptical and divisive age. We are more
comfortable with appraisal than with praise, more adept at cogent analysis
than meaningful synthesis.
Mary is useful to us as a corrective to our ordinary state of mind, the
epitome of “both/and” passion over “either/or” reasoning. She has a
disarming way of challenging the polarities that so often bring human
endeavors to impasse: the subjective and objective, the expansive and the
parochial, the affective and the intellectual. Mary’s designation as both
virgin and mother, for example, no longer seems to be an impossible “model”
for women that justifies their continued oppression within church and
society. Instead, Mary constitutes a challenge as to what is possible for
me, as a married, childless, Christian woman: to what extent can I remain
“virgin,” one-in-myself, able to come to things with newness of heart, and
in what sense must I become “mother,” losing myself in the nurture and
service of others and embracing life’s circumstances with the ripeness of
maturity? This Mary is a gender-bender; she asks the same question of any
Christian man.
If Mary points us beyond our traditional divisions, ideologues of all
persuasions—conservative and liberal, feminist and anti-feminist—have long
attempted to use Mary to argue their causes, with varying degrees of
success. But Mary ultimately resists all causes. Like our God, she is who
she is. And Mary is, in the nationally televised words of the Rev. Jimmy
Swaggart (who prefaced his remark by saying, memorably, “The Catholics got
one thing right”), “the mother of God.” From the Council of Ephesus to the
less-respectable reaches of contemporary American evangelism, Mary holds her
As theotokos, Mary is also the mother of Wisdom. Unlike Zechariah, who
responds to his annunciation concerning the birth of John the Baptist by
inquiring of the angel, “How will I know that this is so?” Mary asks,
simply, “How can this be?” It’s an existential question, not an intellectual
one. God responds to Zechariah by striking him dumb—for the entire gestation
of his child, a nice touch—while Mary finds her voice, making the ancient
song of Hannah her own.
For me, the essential question is not what author placed Hannah’s words in
Mary’s mouth, and with what theological intent. What is far more important
is how I respond to this threading of salvation history from 1 Samuel to the
Gospel of Luke. How do I answer when the mystery of God’s love breaks
through my denseness and doubt? Do I reach for a reference book, or the
remote control? Am I so intent on my own plans that I ignore the call, or do
I dare to carry the biblical tradition into my own life’s journey? When I am
called to answer “Yes” to God, not knowing much about where this commitment
will lead me, Mary gives me hope that it is enough to trust in God’s grace
and the promise of salvation.
When I first began visiting Benedictine monasteries some twenty years ago, I
was so ignorant of Scripture, despite an upbringing in Methodist and
Congregational churches, that I did not know where the prayer the monks and
nuns prayed each night came from. Gradually, I learned that it was a passage
from the first chapter of Luke, and that for centuries before the
Reformation it had been employed as the church’s traditional vespers
canticle. It was called the “Magnificat” because it begins with that word,
in Latin translation; in English, it reads, “My soul magnifies the Lord.”
I did not know that I was one of many Protestants, both laity and clergy,
who had begun filling monastery guest rooms and choir stalls, and
discovering there much common ground. What could be more refreshing to a
Protestant than a daily immersion in Scripture, not only in communal prayer
based on the Psalms but with a rhythm of hearing and responding to entire
books of the Bible read aloud? I sensed that I was drawing from the tap
roots of Christianity, from traditions and practices of prayer that had
existed before the church split into the Roman Catholic and Orthodox
churches, and long before the Reformation. I could claim as my prayerbook
the entire Psalter (and not just psalms deemed suitable for Sunday morning);
I could open my eyes and ears to the literary and theological treasurehouse
of the early church; and I could reclaim Mary as a significant figure in my
Christian faith.
No doubt it was my repeated exposure to the Magnificat in monastery choirs
that led me to make it the focus of encountering Mary in the Scriptures.
Each time I pray, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God
my savior,” I am compelled to ask, with Mary, “How can it be” that salvation
has ways of working around all of the obstacles of sin, ignorance, and
defiance that I place in its path? “How can it be” that God troubles with so
wretched, self-centered, inconstant, and spiritually impoverished person as
myself? Who, after all, am I?
The correct answer, to paraphrase a line from the Episcopal hymnal, is that
I am called to be a person whose soul, like Mary, can be God’s earthly
sanctuary. Like Mary, I am invited each day to bring Christ into the world
in my prayers, thoughts, and actions. And each evening, as I pray the
Magnificat, I am asked to consider how I have done in this regard. Have I
been so rich, stuffed full of myself, my plans, and my possessions, that I
have in effect denied Christ a rightful place on earth? Or am I poor and
despairing, but in my failures, weakness, and emptiness more ready and
willing to be filled with God’s purpose?
The church in which I was raised had a curious attitude towards Mary, an odd
mixture of hubris and bashfulness. We dragged Mary out at Christmas, along
with the angels, and placed her at center stage. Then we packed her safely
in the crèche box for the rest of the year. We effectively denied Mary her
place in Christian tradition and were disdainful of the reverence displayed
for her, so public and emotional, by many millions of Catholics around the
world. The more pilgrimages Catholics made to Lourdes, or Knock, or
Czestochowa, the more silent we became. Even when the feminist movement
opened the way for increased study of women in Scripture, few Protestants
wrote about Mary, few preachers discussed her in their sermons. Mary was
mysterious, and therefore for Catholics; our religion was more proper, more
masculine. Anything we couldn’t explain—or explain away—was either ignored
or given short shrift. I recognize the church of my childhood in this
description by Nancy Mairs: a church with “all the mystery scrubbed out of
it by a vigorous and slightly vinegary reason.” But mystery endures, and I
end this foreword as I began, by contemplating a madonna and child. The
young woman’s face is calm, yet creased with worry, expressing both love and
pity. She knows hard times, all the pain and suffering this world can bring,
and she knows that this child will someday die. But salvation always has a
price. For now it is enough to hold the child, holding life and death all at
once in her arms. It is enough to hold on, and to gaze at the child with a
look of love and joy that is eternally comforting, both human and divine.

From Blessed One: Protestant Perspectives on Mary, edited by Beverly R.
Gaventa and Cynthia L. Rigby. © 2002 Westminster John Knox Press. Used by
permission of Westminster John Knox Press.

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