When I watched Terminator (1984) for the first-time last year, I was struck by the relative flatness of the character of Sarah Connor. Sure, she’s brave, resourceful and possesses some good lines (for a woman in a 1980s sci-fi), but she’s never interesting. Her sole reason for existing is to bare the future saviour of the world, John Connor. That’s it. She has no choice; everything is already decided by men she never even met. The value of Sarah’s existence hinges bluntly on her fertility. This is precisely how many Protestants (particularly evangelicals) treat the Virgin Mary. So frightened are they of the spectre of ‘Catholic idolatry’, they turn Mary into a passive object of divine providence. Here God is rendered another agent, in a long line of masters, who subject the bodies of women and girls to their will. This reading places Mary in a sorrowful lineage of women silenced by the official chronicles of civilization. In the authorised line of heroes and gods, from Assyria to Egypt, from Greece to Rome, of what account is a Palestinian woman, with a child of dubious birth? In the grand cycles of ancient (literally patriarchal) myth, such persons are merely the waste of cultural life, labouring invisibly to maintain civilization, with little rest or reward. For ancient women, this process of silencing was expressed through a prescriptive all-embracing mode of motherhood, which narrowed their material and mental horizons. As Simone de Beauvoir observes in The Second Sex:
[Ancient] Motherhood relegates woman to a sedentary existence; it is natural for her to stay at home while men hunt, fish, and go to war…. Domestic work, as it is taking shape, is also their lot: they weave rugs and blankets; they shape pottery. And they are often in charge of barter; commerce is in their hands. The life of the clan is thus maintained and extended through them; children, herds, harvests, tools, and the whole prosperity of the group of which they are the soul depend on their work and their magic virtues. Such strength inspires in men a respect mingled with fear, reflected in their worship. It is in women that the whole of foreign Nature is concentrated. (pp. 103-4)
True, the latter possibilities of sacred power could be utilized by select groups of elite women (priestesses and poets), yet for the majority, female lives were swaddled in the heavy veils of obscurity and demanding seclusion. The public and leisured voice of someone like Sappho is a rarity in the ancient world, and even her voice only comes down to us in a series of fragments. Mary is also a fragment in the records of civilization, but her voice, while seemingly thin, breaks the spell of female hiddenness in decisive ways. Instead of being a mere tool for divine power in a male world, Mary discovers her agency through the grace of God. In her moment of decision before Gabriel, her life breaks out of gendered privacy and into the risks and riches of the public sphere. She is not merely a secret servant of the Divine Life, but a prophet that declares God’s activity in the world. Hear what she says in Luke’s account:
“For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
And his mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
as he spoke to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his offspring forever.” (Lk. 1:48-50)
Through God’s promise, Mary’s privation is dispelled, and the public history of Israel is hers. Like Jacob, David and Solomon what she has affirmed will be remembered. But what has she accepted? The gift God bears Mary is motherhood, but it is not the motherhood of the confined and silenced, but motherhood as a totally public, self-chosen vocation. Mary’s future child is not the property of the clan but belongs to the decision she alone makes with God. No external rule of the father can intrude on what she seeks to accomplish with grace. This is the deep symbolic meaning behind Mary’s virginity. In ancient myth ‘the virgin’ (parthenos) is much more than the pre-sexual woman. Virginity denotes an existential independence from the bounds of sex, marriage, and subordination to a husband. This was the case of the Greek goddesses Athena and Artemis; whose virginity was understood as the armour against the intrusions and indignities of male force and sexuality. As Marianne Katoppo suggests, Mary’s virginity is not a sexual or reproductive status, but refers to ‘a woman who does not lead a “derived” life (as “daughter/wife/mother”..)..a woman who matures to wholeness in herself as a complete person, and who is open for others. Through this maturing process, she is fertile, she gives life to God’ (Compassionate And Free, p. 21).
Whatever else she may be, Mary is not Sarah Connor (a mere womb for the future). Mary’s ‘yes’ to God gives her a status independent from her community, her father, even from the possible demands of the future. Mary is no longer a passive object of her biology or social role, but an initiator of spiritual activity. This is her part at the wedding at Canna. Her son is unsure of his footing and seeks to remain in the safety of the private sphere (“Oh Woman, what has this to do with me? My hour has not yet come”) but her urging propels him into his public ministry. The water becomes wine, because she urges her son to act. Like her declaration before Gabriel that propels her into the history of Israel, she bids her son to make the same journey: “Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and it revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him” (Jn. 2:11). By acting as a motor of prophetic action, Mary stands for the new relation between women and men in God’s future, one in which self-chosen commitment stands higher than the law of the clan, blood, or the iron bars of gendered segregation. It is for this reason that Catholic and Orthodox traditions offer her many an exalted designation: Queen of Heaven, Queen of patriarchs, Queen of prophets, Tower of David. Each title conveys the obliteration of the oppressive roles of the past, towards a radically open future. Far from the Mary ‘meek and mild’ of sanitised Christmas cards, the Mary that unfolds in the long history of Christian prayer and liturgy is a force of great power, a lightning bolt that pierces the earth. Her choice shatters all before it, forcing the new to come into being. It is this beautiful but terrible personage that appears in the apocalyptic vision of John:
A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth. Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on its heads. Its tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that it might devour her child the moment he was born. She gave birth to a son, a male child, who “will rule all the nations with an iron sceptre.” And her child was snatched up to God and to his throne. 6 The woman fled into the wilderness to a place prepared for her by God. (Rev. 12:1-6).
Here Mary is regal, authoritative, holding the twelve tribes of Israel in the orbit of her crown. She is pursued by the ancient Babylonian symbol of cosmic chaos, but God is her mighty shield. Her Queenship is bound up with the sovereignty of heaven. She stands between the night and the morning of God’s designs, more potent, more sacred than any poet or priestess. Mary’s outward life may be clothed in humbleness and hardship, but on the planes of the spirit her prayers are weapons against darkness, while her tears cause the spiritual hierarchies to quake and quiver. Everything that she accomplishes on earth (unseen by most) has its majestic analogue in Eternity. It’s Paul who asks: “Do you not know that we will judge angels?” (1 Cor 6:3). Mary is the first to take up this authority, cosmic as it is earthly. Yet, as the vision of Revelations suggests, Mary is more than a New Woman, she heralds a decisive turning point in the history of the world. When the Patristic authors looked at the figure of Mary, they saw the fulfillment of the ambiguous words of Genesis 3:15: “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.” As far back as Justin Martyr this passage has been interpreted as the protoevangelium, the first proclamation of the saving Gospel of Christ. Just as sin was said to have come into the world through Eve, so the estrangement between nature and God is ended in the life of Mary. It is from this symbolic scaffolding that Catholics today affirm the doctrine of the immaculate conception (that Mary was born without sin). If Christ is fully human and fully divine (as orthodoxy insists) they reasoned that Mary must have been already fully human (a life fully rapped up in the perfection of God) from her birth.
Yet, ever since the Reformation, most Protestants have been disturbed by this way of reading Mary’s story. By making Mary sinless prior to the coming of Christ, such a formulation appears to put the mother on par with her son. How could this ordinary woman be immune from sin? Doesn’t that contradict Paul’s insistence that we have all been ensnared by sin? Such a reaction (in its understandable desire to protect the uniqueness of Jesus) nonetheless exacts a form of violence on the narrative structure of the Gospel. It tries to elevate Jesus by silencing Mary, yet if we wish to hear the Gospel in its fullness, we should be unreserved in assigning Mary centrality. Without Mary’s faithfulness, without a life already prepared for God, the spring could never have dawned. Without Mary’s willingness to be summoned, we would still be huddling in the spiritual wastes of winter. One cannot separate the rooted humanity of Jesus from his mother, whose own life was already full of grace and truth before his conception. Yet Mary is much more than a foreshadowing of the image of Christ. As a woman who gives her life and materiality over to God, Mary stands in the place of the Anima mundi (world-soul) of the Medieval alchemists. Mary is the personification of the creation greeting God as a lover greets a beloved. Her ‘yes’ is the moment when time and eternity meet and mingle. Without her intention, her love, her faithfulness, nothing could have been accomplished. As Nikolaevich Bulgakov has expressed it:
Mary is not merely the instrument, but the direct positive condition of the Incarnation, its human aspect. Christ could not have been incarnate by some mechanical process, violating human nature. It was necessary for that nature itself to say for itself, by the mouth of the most pure human being: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it unto me according to Thy word.” (The Orthodox Church, p. 116)
Thus, in Mary’s life is enacted the intentional mystic marriage of heaven and earth. In this mode, Mary is the chaperon to all those who seek to be born in God’s new creation. When Jesus tells John from the cross “Here is your mother” (Jn. 19:27) he reveals Mary’s relation to all the children of the new creation. Mary is the Queen of the saints, because she is the guiding star of all God’s children, the continuing manna of God’s fellowship. Whenever we pray with Mary, remember her, speak with her, we are reminded that as Christians we are summoned to a larger life. We live accompanied by a cloud of witness, as we seek to give birth to Christ in ourselves. On this journey, Mary is the prototype for all our sorrows and hopes, and the tutor who can steady our steps. Yet, so unnerved are some Christians of this cosmic vision, that they would rather place Mary behind closed doors, leave her in silence and diminishment. But reducing Mary to a mere pawn of destiny or a ‘walking-womb’ does not enhance the uniqueness of Jesus or the ‘rightness’ of our Christology. It merely flattens the Gospel, preventing us from seeing that in God’s love everything is transfigured, including the lives of once silenced women. Acknowledging the full wonders of God in Mary is not idolatry, but the proper affirmation of the Gospel. To say that in God’s Kingdom Mary will be silent no more, a cosmic Queen enthroned, is to affirm Jesus’ teaching: ‘the last will be first, and the first will be last’ (Matt 20:16). To deny Mary’s cosmic significance is to deny the extravagant love God wishes to pour on us, as saints in training. We shouldn’t fear speaking lavishly about Mary (too much), for in such praise, we touch the power and joy of God.