Right outside my church this summer was a thirty-five-foot tall statue of Mary, the mother of Jesus. I think it was made of metal.
The Mary outside my church was actually in the parking lot of the church next door. She’s known as Our Lady of the Millennium, and has been traveling across the country as a source of comfort and encouragement to Catholics throughout the United States. It’s an odd thought, taking comfort in a giant woman made of metal, but I've been prepared for such a phenomenon by DC Comics, which offers a similar option to comic book geeks everywhere in Natasha Irons, the super-sized super-powered Steel.
That’s different, though; Natasha is a hero; Mary is . . . well, what exactly is Mary?
I grew up Roman Catholic and became, through a circuitous route, a Presbyterian. Mary, as such, has played various roles for me, from near-divine coredemptrix to mere human vessel. I’ve alternately prayed to her and written her off. I’m tempted to compromise by calling Mary a saint and moving on, but the problem with saints is that they’re too easily placed on a shelf and forgotten. We venerate saints like Mary; meanwhile, we emulate heroes like Steel.
Steel, for all her heroics, is not a human being. She’s a commodity--manufactured, built to suit. By emulating a hero like Steel we simply congratulate ourselves for our moral sophistication and creativity. Meanwhile, up on the shelf sit saints made of flesh and bone and blood, offering by their lives a model of how life is best to be lived. So more recently I’ve taken to thinking of Mary not as a saint so much as a hero, and the chronicle of her hero’s journey as being her particular gospel.
I like to think of a gospel fundamentally as good news. The term good news implies the existence of a sender and a receiver; whether it’s news or not is determined by the bearer, and whether it’s good or not is determined by the hearer. If the news is ultimately deemed good, then the hearer will be inclined to think of the bearer as something of a hero.
As we read the Gospels we typically focus on Jesus, which is as it should be. But the very normal human life of the Son of God is an article of Christian faith, and so the very normal human family of God is important to his story. Throughout the stories of Jesus we see Mary pass through many noteworthy experiences, all of which, we’re told, she “treasured up . . . in her heart,” and ultimately passed along to the writers of the New Testament, hearers of the story she was bearing. Simply carrying the gospel, you might say, set Mary on something of a hero’s journey.
So this year during Advent I'll be reflecting on Mary as theotokos--"God-bearer"--as a way of preparing myself for the epic adventure introduced in the Christmas story. Along the way I'll be looking not for Mary the near-divine coredemptrix or the mere human vessel, and not even for Mary the saint per se, but rather the flesh-and-blood Mary who lived a life I can model my own after--a Mary I can emulate, a Mary I can call hero.