Re-imagining Mary at Christmas

Re-imagining Mary at Christmas

by Kim E. Power Credits

Published in Re-imagining Newsletter (Minneapolis) 16 (1998) November, and here made available on the Internet with permission of the author (permission from the publisher applied for).

Re-imagining Mary at Christmas made me realise how much imagining went into Australians' Christmas symbols. Often, we celebrate a child born in a stable-inn-cave surrounded by starlight and snow, in the midst of December temperatures in the nineties, scalded by hot, dry, gusty north winds. Our shepherds are not intimate pastors who knew their sheep by name, but wind-burnt men who, with their kelpie dogs, drove huge herds of sheep sometimes hundreds of miles for pasture. Mary, the ideal mother adoring her first-born son, fitted comfortably into Australian patriarchal culture. So Christmas in Australia has always had a fairy tale aspect to it; one part baby Jesus to two parts Father Christmas.

Traditional depictions of Mary emphasise her submissive obedience. They are heirs to Augustine's argument that if the purest woman in the world was obedient to a husband of lesser virtue, then the quality of a woman's subordination was the index of her chastity. The Mary who dominated the imagination of the church was John's Mary, standing beneath the cross, her heart pierced with swords of Luke's infancy narrative. In their hands, and those of their medieval heirs, her suffering had an erotic quality, for the soul pierced by the Word was not only purified, but also united in ecstasy to the divine Bridegroom. This depiction of feminine ecstasy as erotic suffering is a strong theme in the Western imagination, not only in Christian art but romantic literature and film. Yet this Mary is difficult to recover from the Scriptures. Indeed, so little is said about Mary in the gospels, and much of that contradictory, that she offers enormous scope for projection. Thus contemporary liberation theology has offered us Rosemary Houghton's young Amazon, on fire for social justice; Mary the refugee; Our Lady of Guadelupe, icon of the oppressed and, in Christmas editions of popular TV shows, Mary the homeless girl. The use of Marian devotion to stimulate concern for the oppressed, the hungry and the homeless is essentially Christian. Still, ultimately I find myself discontented with a Mariology that needs to construe Mary as a victim, helpless and devoid of resources, material, psychological or spiritual, who meekly accepts one disaster after another. This picture is inconsistent with Luke's Mary who prayed the Magnificat, or even with the Mary of Mark's Gospel who brought her family to take Jesus home, because they thought Jesus was out of his mind.

Re-imagining such a potent symbol of womanhood demands the integration of much experience, symbolism and research. A key question was, "What kind of woman rears a man like Jesus"? Throughout this process, four images came consistently to mind. Let us explore them individually, to see how they help us re-imagine Mary.

A Mary for our place

In 1991, an exhibition of Aboriginal art and spirituality was held to coincide with the seventh World Congress of the World Council of Churches in Canberrra, Australia. One statue caught all eyes, featuring in most of the newspaper articles about the exhibition. Perhaps 18"-24" high, it was a crudely carved figure of the pregnant Mary. Her brown skin is painted with the dots that signify a virginal girl. On her torso is painted an egg shaped womb containing a little boy. He stands with legs apart and his arms held high, each limb touching the perimeters of his womb, just as the ideal renaissance body extended its limbs to occupy a circle. Mary's gaze draws that of the beholder. Compellingly, she conveys simplicity, serenity and joy.

The story of her creation is equally touching. She was discovered by a curator of the exhibition, Rosemary Crumlin, in a tin shed at Turkey Creek, in the outback. There, tribal artists were developing an art collection they used to pass on their traditions, not as static lore but as a living heritage that had integrated their Christian beliefs with tribal wisdom. Originally, the aboriginal community had had a white plaster Mary, which they took around the various settlements, but she broke when the going got rough. So elder and artist, George Mung, carved a Mary from indigenous wood. With the utmost integrity, his statue blended the courage of the Gospel Mary with the vision and insights of the rural tribal community. She is Mary for a sunburnt country, a Mary to travel with us, a Mary who reconciles Aboriginal and European heritages, with simplicity and peace.

Mary the embodiment of Joy

In 1998, at the celebratory Eucharist for the inauguration of the first lay president at College of Notre Dame of Maryland, the Gospel story was the Visitation. When the bishop came to Mary's Magnificat, he stopped reading as cantors sang the version of the Magnificat that was sung at the Re-imagining Revival. A young woman, vested in white, began to dance before the altar. This priestly Mary, bearing Christ to his people, danced her exultation in God's actions in and through her. Her movements were lithe and strong. For her no bowed head and circumscribed movements. She raised her head, lifted her arms and extended her limbs, dancing joy, embodying graceful dignity, self-confidence and delight for us. I wept to see every young woman's heritage incarnated, and for those of us who have not known, or will never know it.

Mary on the move

An image twinned to hers is the statue gracing the entrance to Notre Dame itself. Cast from bronze, by a Notre Dame alumna, she too replaces a plaster Mary who fell off her pedestal and broke her neck when storms hit. Whilst less exuberant, she conveys a sense of forward movement, as she walks towards us, her hands outstretched. This young artist's Mary reflects the real young women she knew, not an idealised feminine stereotype. Her Mary tends to be on the stocky side. Her head is erect, her face serene and mature, as she walks purposefully into the world, bearing grace and friendship. She embodies the motto of Notre Dame: Educating women to change the world. She makes you wonder what she'll be like when she's older.

The walking Madonna

Dame Elisabeth Frink's "Walking Madonna" offers us such a vision. Tall, gaunt and resolute, she walks towards her goal totally focused. She reminds me of the archetypal outback women: spare, wiry and strong. They embody endurance. A gift to De la Salle College in Philadelphia, from the class of '88, she is a formidable figure, providing an extraordinary contrast to the bowed, white plaster Mary in the Grotto nearby. This Mary is off her pedestal altogether. She would wear boots made for walking. One should be wary of standing in her way. Yet the students at the College treat her familiarly. When they play games on the lawn onto which she strides, they dress her in their hats and coats. She too is a Mary that walks into their world. She is a companion, a matriarch, a leader, rather than an idol or fetish. She has more than a touch of the Australian drover's wife. Isolated and alone in the bush whilst her man was droving, she was totally responsible for her large brood. Finding her own resources within, she contended with disasters such as snakebite, illness, bushfire, drought or flood if she and her children were to survive. She'd be at home on the back of a truck.

Mary re-imagined

These images coalesce for me, to produce a much more complex Mary. She is a woman on the move, walking purposefully and with dignity, her head erect. No plaster saint, her capacity for endurance is expressed in the materials in which she is manifested: wood and bronze. Her beauty is not the vulnerable immaturity of a childlike Madonna, but stems from her sense of her own self-worth, her serenity and balance, and her focus on her goals. She is grounded by an abiding joy that can weather storms and heartache. She is a woman who leads us into the future, inviting us to celebrate exuberantly God's life and graciousness alive within us and to embrace justice and compassion. In my imagination she does not travel fearfully to Bethlehem, but embarks on it as an adventure. Pregnant or not, she refuses to stay at home, but travels vibrantly and graciously to birth Emmanuel where he belongs, God among us.

Kim Power

Read Kim Power’s “Of godly men and medicine: ancient biology and the Christian Fathers on the nature of woman”.

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