Sunday, November 26, 2006

The Gospel According to Mary, Part One

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.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Dave: Are you reading IVP's new book on Mary by Perry (I'm a poet and didn't know it)?

David A. Zimmerman said...

It's on my list, as is Scot McKnight's The Real Mary. I should also acknowledge that Connie Neal's forthcoming Wizards, Wardrobes & Wookiees got me thinking again about the hero's journey, which I first read about in Joseph Campbell's Hero with a Thousand Faces and which influenced a fair bit of my writing in my book Comic Book Character--which would make an excellent companion Christmas gift to the DVD of X-Men III or Superman Returns.

Craver VII said...

Dave, there should be a 35-foot statue of YOU somewhere. We'll start circulating a petition to get this going, okay?

I tiptoe cautiously when talking about Mary because I believe it's very easy to go overboard in any direction here.

Personally, I want my life to point to Jesus, rather than myself, and yet I try to be a "follow me as I follow Christ" type of Christian, knowing that somebody somewhere might take me seriously and follow my example.

David A. Zimmerman said...

Can you imagine Elizabeth scolding a young John the Baptist? "Why can't you be more like Jesus?!?"

Jesus' first act of public ministry is initiated by Mary, in which she asks him for a favor and then tells the wine stewards, "Do whatever he tells you to do." Good advice for all of us, I suppose. There's an interesting discussion in Flirting with Monasticism about the proto-iconography that people accept. Giant portraits of university presidents, huge JPGs of senior pastors on church websites, George Forman grills, etc. Whether the veneration of Mary is the egg that became the celebrity-obsessed chicken or whether an increasingly secularized society is looking to venerate anything that doesn't confront them with the person of Jesus, or whether the two have nothing whatsoever to do with one another, I can't say. But I'm very willing to listen to what the great cloud of witnesses to Jesus has to say about my faith, and Mary if nothing else certainly floats in that cloud.