There's Something about Mary

... the Theotokos, I mean. The mother of our Lord.

A friend of mine suggested that without the virgin birth, it'd be difficult for him to believe in the incarnation. I'm cool with that, though I think virginity is a matter of hyperbole rather than strict necessity. In the doctrine, I mean. All the doctrine demands is the absence of human insemination. Virginity isn't logically necessary, though it has bonus probative value over against the assertion of divine insemination of an otherwise-sexually-active woman.

However, even if the reality wasn't exactly as Matthew or Luke attests, I do think Mary's innocence was a practical necessity, as pregnancy without attestation by the betrothed (or other responsible party, to therefore responsibly protect the mother and child) equals public shaming and the risk of violent death. The gospel communities were well aware of that—but for that reason they were not deeply concerned with proving Mary's virginity as a front-line defense. It was Joseph who solved that problem, and it was God who persuaded him—rather than any pseudo-forensic examination of Mary's body. Only the Christian tradition, in some of its parts, was obsessed with elaborating upon Mary's membranous integrity and its hypothetical and sometimes magical persistence. And that excess of trust in flesh is our problem to own.

Down the line, another friend suggested that the immaculate conception of Mary was a problem. And he's right, though not in the way suggested. We Protestants do poorly with scholasticism outside of our own debates, and that's inevitably the example. Touch it, and the problem sticks to you: how do you get a pure human nature for Christ, one free of sin? But that's our problem, a genuinely Christian problem that has to do with systematically rationalizing doctrines back into scripture. Nobody in the Bible is interested in plumbing the depths of the ontology of Christ's humanity. Genealogy, now that's a different matter. The logic behind the incarnation, the reason it was done, sure. The ontology of Christ's divinity is also a reasonably popular NT question. But the brute fact of his humanity is exactly that.

And in the end, Mary is a pawn in this game. They knew about his humanity, and wondered about his divinity, and therefore instrumentalized God in the process far more than they ever did Mary, who gets to bow out after the opening cut scenes, with occasional cameos thereafter. Mary, for the writers of scripture who care about her, gets to be a genuine human being, Joseph's wife and Jesus' mother (and James', of course—and how many other children is not attested with any precision, but there were others).

We, on the other hand, know about his divinity (we presume), and wonder about his humanity. We have therefore made Mary an instrument, an object of our speculation about how God could become human. We have put her on the examining table in ways scripture never did. We have built doctrinal edifices upon her virginity, her purity, in order to protect someone who needs no protection. What has Christ to fear from his mother, whose nature he shares? What have we to fear from Christ sharing our nature, being exactly as we are?

Could you resist the strong urge to add "... but without sin"? When you do say that, can you resist the lure of making the humanity of Christ—the humanity of his mother—something that must be abstractly perfect, something ontologically cleaner than ours? Can you resist the urge to alienate Christ, and his mother, from yourself? Can you resist the urge to alienate yourself from other people, pushing the supposed impurity away in another direction? We must stop trying to climb away to a higher place. God is not there any more than God is here—or for that matter, over there, in that other place where you have pushed the impurity away from yourself. Not more present here or there, and not less.

What is the problem? That we have presumed that God is alienated from us, because we are alienated from God. That God's alienation from us is therefore the thing that must be overcome. That God must come to us, and therefore that there must be a fitting place made for God in the world. A place that is not as the world actually is. That if God is to meet us, it must be at a place that is pure as the world is not.

That ideology of purity is sticky. Infectious. It creates a god who would not condescend to touch us, a god who actually hates what we are. A god who is dangerous to us, and a god before whom we must carefully purify ourselves in order for the encounter not to be fatal. A god incompatible with creation, a god far off and to be feared.

Why? Because in our self-awareness we are afraid of God. We were naked, and so we hid. We saw the shining glory and we put a veil over it. We insisted that God use prophets, to give us space. We realized God was in the boat with us, and we cowered and demanded that he go away. What do all of those have in common? The immediacy of God to us in the world. Immediacy that our alienation does not change. Immediacy that is willing to be mediated, but will not be denied. The Creator always nearby in every place in the creation, and the creation shrinking away. Demanding the intervention of some impossibility, some fiction that would permit a limitation to our responsibility to God. And flatly demanding escape, "mercy," where no such structures exist to mitigate our self-induced terror of God.

Anyone who looks at it twice will notice that Jesus Christ—the incarnation, death, and resurrection of God in human person—is a senseless means of reconciling God's alienation from us. God did not become human and die at our hands in order to balance God's own books. Fortunately, God is not and has never been alienated from us. It is our alienation from God that must be fixed, and with it our alienation from ourselves, one another, and the rest of God's good creation.

If it is our alienation from God that needs to be fixed, how should God go about fixing it by creating something alien to us? How should we suggest fixing alienation with alienation? We do not need a third thing, an outside place between God and us where we can meet on neutral terms. We are not equals, and we deserve no such space or recognition or negotiation. And as many places like that as we have built to mediate God's presence, Jesus Christ is not one. In Jesus Christ, God has given up on negotiating with our alienation. You don't treat the sick by granting that the disease has a rightful claim on the patient. You simply administer the cure! In the man Jesus is demonstrated the perfect compatibility of Creator and creature, the coexistence of God and humanity with no conflict. And that only works if his humanity is exactly like ours—really, only if his humanity is in fact our humanity in every respect. It isn't redemptive any other way. We cannot quarantine Jesus from us, and we shouldn't try to quarantine his mother, either. They already have what we've got—and it isn't fatal.

What is there, beyond our self-loathing and our consequent ideologies of human perfection, to make us insist that there be something unique about Jesus' humanity, and therefore something special about Mary his mother? Why can we not see this the way scripture does: God's full union with humanity as it actually is, beginning in the unremarkable personage of Mary? There is indeed something special about Mary: she was chosen. She is a human site of grace, for whom we might well use the Greek word hilasterion. The word refers to a place where God is hileōs, gracious. The places where God is gracious, and the people God chooses, are not remarkable beforehand, marked out as destinations, custom-made for the moment of gracious action by God. This is not a hero's tale, and we do Mary no justice by devising for her an heroically unique character in preparation for the rôle she was destined to play.

How shall we do her justice? In other places the patriarchs built monuments to commemorate God's gracious act. But Mary is not a place, and we do her no honor by colonizing her with monuments to our understanding of God's actions. And yet one place, one person, is not as good as another, because Mary is the one to whom all of this actually happened. We cannot honor God by refusing to honor Mary.

Let us honor her as the woman she was—in her genuine humanity, in her equality with us in every way, yes, just as we say of her son, but also as this very particular woman. Let us honor her for the life she led before God—of which we really know very little. And knowing that, let us honor the silences of scripture, rather than treating them as blank canvas on which we inscribe our ideals. We cannot reach the Mary of history, because we have no access to her except in the stories told of her son. We cannot truly undo the instrumentalization of her life, because it began well before the stories that tell us the little they say about her. Let us not too-highly rate the monuments those stories have built over her reality, either.

Luke speaks of Mary as parthenos, which Matthew leaves to a citation from Isaiah, but also circumlocutes, explaining that Joseph and Mary had not yet had sex with one another. In neither case should we read this as a commendation of virginity, or of Mary as its ideal, or of its necessity to the incarnation. It is the glorification of a fact, and an unremarkable one at that. In its own way this is yet another use of Mary, a declaration of what kind of man Jesus is: the Isaiah 7-9 model, the messiah born on the eve of the doom of the nation, the child whose maturity promises its deliverance. Otherwise, it is not remarkable of Mary that, as a young girl betrothed to Joseph, she remained chaste. It was to be expected. Nor do we do her or scripture any justice by assuming that this was not the case. To do so is to strain out the gnat and swallow the camel: and yet she found herself pregnant anyways, and between the three of them they worked it out.

Mary's obedience and her embodiment of the hopes of her people in song are their own kinds of monuments, and in their own ways also glorifications of unremarkable facts. It does us no good to throw out the fact with the monument, nor should we be engaged in such a quixotic and iconoclastic effort as trying to do away with these monuments. But let us not too-highly esteem the monuments, as though by so doing we honored the woman. There is a self-loathing and an alienation in our refusal to handle the reality by preference for the ideal. And there was a real woman there, just like us if not just like you. She is praiseworthy, who not only gave birth to our Lord but also mothered him. She is praiseworthy precisely in her reality, and not because it was in its own way remarkable before God stepped in. She is praiseworthy, as we may all hope to be, because she models humanity in the wake of grace, as Jesus is who models humanity in the responsive enacting of grace for others.

If we can accept that, both about Mary and her son, we stand a chance of accepting the reality of our cure, rather than conjuring up ideals about how we think it ought to work instead.


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