When my three-year-old heard that her preschool teacher was pregnant last week her immediate reaction was “Wow! You’re just like Mary!” Admittedly, she doesn’t know very many pregnant women, but she was onto something when she made Mary into an archetype for all pregnancy and childbirth. Indeed, from the perspective of the New Testament Jesus (and by extension, His mother) is the model for everything that is. She is, in the terms of realist philosophers, the universal woman, mother, or Christian. Jaroslav Pelikan comments that “there does seem to have been a practice in early Christianity of reading the first three chapters of Genesis as anticipating the coming of Christ. Therefore they may have cast the story of the temptation of Christ by the devil as a kind of midrash on the story of the temptation of Adam and Eve.” Or, one might add, they may have discovered that reflecting on Mary can help explain a whole host of other ideas found in the Bible. This is certainly how Pelikan interprets her in Mary Through the Centuries (1996). He quotes Louis Ginzburg in an attempt to explain his method: “Just as a pearl results from a stimulus in the shell of a mollusk, so also a legend may arise from an irritant in the Scripture.” Tiny phrases in the Bible have provoked whole artistic and theological traditions, and in a reading that Miri Rubin describes as “capacious,” Pelikan explores how the story of Mary has inspired people to see the world in new ways.
Gabriel’s message to Mary in the Annunciation has occasioned a great deal of theological reflection throughout the ages. When he wrote the hymn “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come,” the reformer Martin Luther (1483-1546) was most struck by the fact that it was God who chose Mary and not the other way around: “To you this day is born a Child, from an elect Virgin.” Others saw in Mary’s “let it be to me according to your word” the paradigm for accepting God’s grace of our own free will. Some Christians have found in the angel’s greeting “Hail Mary, full of grace” (Ave Maria, gratia plena), proof that Mary can help us through our earthly struggles. Pelikan comments, “the Mother of God, being “full of grace” and therefore the Mediatrix, was in a position to intercede for them, which they in turn had the right to request from her directly. In a striking way, therefore, the Ave Maria epitomized not only the irony of Mary’s having become a major point of division between the sole authority of Scripture and the development of doctrine through tradition; for even those who affirmed the absolute supremacy of biblical authority would nevertheless refuse to pray the impeccably biblical words of its first sentence.”
Of the thousands of artworks portraying the Annunciation, one of my favorites comes from Henry Ossawa Tanner in 1898. He reminds us that Mary was just a terrified girl at the time – something that makes her act of obedience even more remarkable.
Irenaeus (c. 130-202) is one of the many commentators who have noticed the similarities between Mary and Eve, which the German sculptor Toni Zenz portrayed in this door for Saint Alban’s Church in Colonge. Irenaeus wrote, “just as the former was let astray by the word of an angel, so that she fled from God when she had transgressed His word; so did the latter, by an angelic communication, receive the glad tidings that she should be the bearer of God, being obedient to His word. And if the former did disobey God, yet the latter was persuaded to be obedient to God, in order that the Virgin Mary might become the patroness of the virgin Eve.” Glossing on the idea that both Eve and Mary were the mothers of us all, Tertullian (160-220) wrote of Christ that “since He was ‘the truth,’ He was flesh; since He was flesh, He was born. … He is no phantom.” Being born of a woman is proof that Jesus participated in our humanity, and hence our sufferings and weaknesses. He was able to redeem our human nature because He became one of us, and Mary was instrumental in making that happen. Thus, just as Christ is the second Adam because He reversed Adam’s curse, Mary is a second Eve for the curse was lifted thanks to her motherhood.
Sometimes the tradition emphasizing Mary’s virginity that began with St. Ambrose (337-397) and was developed by the Desert Fathers seemed to clash with the idea of Mary’s motherhood. When a critic of this tradition named Helvidius posed the question “are virgins better than Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who were married men? Are not infants daily fashioned by the hands of God in the wombs of their mothers?” Jerome (347-420) replied, with clear echoes of Socrates, that “the virgin’s aim is to appear less comely; she will wrong herself so as to hide her natural attractions. The married woman has the paint laid on before her mirror, and, to the insult of her Maker, strives to acquire something more than her natural beauty. Then comes the prattling of infants, the noisy household, children watching for her word and waiting for her kiss, the reckoning up of expenses, the preparation to meet the outlay. … Tell me, pray, where amid all this is there room for the thought of God? Are these happy homes?” The most he was willing to concede is that “we do not condemn matrimony, for virginity itself is the fruit of matrimony.” Eventually, canon lawyers concluded from Mary’s perpetual virginity that “it is consent, not sexual intercourse, that makes a marriage.” In a world where marriages are too often transactions between fathers and their future sons-in-law, and where marital rape is too often considered acceptable, this interpretation of “the marriage of the Virgin” is a badly needed vision of what love should look like. Note, however, that Joseph doesn’t look too excited about his wedding in Giotto di Bondone’s painting.
Being the mother of Christ was no walk in the park, as the angel warned Mary when he predicted that “a sword shall pierce your heart too.” (Luke 2:35) The famous Greek hymn-writer Romanos the Melodist (c.490-c.556) put these words in Mary’s mouth in his Kontakion:
I am vanquished by loving grief, child, vanquished
And cannot bear the thought of being in my chambers while you are on the cross;
I, at home while you are in the tomb.
Let me come with you! The sight of you soothes my pain.
Her Son replied:
Lay aside your grief, mother, lay it aside.
Lamentation does not befit you who have been called “Blessed.”
Do not obscure your calling with weeping.
Do not liken yourself to those who lack understanding, all-wise maiden.
You are in the midst of my bridal chamber.”
Mary is not just an inspiration for those who decide not to marry or for pregnant women awaiting their children. She is also a comfort for those mourning loved ones who have died, especially in unjust circumstances. As Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) wrote of her, “She was so full of grace that it overflows on to all mankind. … Thus in every danger thou canst find a refuge in this same glorious Virgin.” Mary Through the Centuries does not capture everything that people have ever thought about Mary, nor does it proceed systematically or chronologically. Instead, it contains the reflections of an old man reminding us of some of the gems from a religion that he loved more than life itself.