Mary, beyond statue and stereotype

Part 1 of 3

Since October is the month Catholics dedicate to the Rosary, I thought of writing a few essays on Mary of Nazareth. These reflections flow from a desire to understand her, past the statue and stereotype.

My mental image of Mary, as Gabriel found her in Nazareth, used to be of a polished, flawless, demure, and obedient young girl. A cradle catholic, I grew up expecting her to be a quiet, reserved woman, with porcelain white skin, a rosy glowing complexion, and an imperturbable demeanor of gentle, pious sobriety. But recently, after leafing through Luke’s gospel to prepare for a talk, I discovered aspects of her character I didn’t use to notice. Through these details, I caught a glimpse of a livelier and earthier Mary that old stereotypes rule out.

Surprisingly enough, it was a male colleague with unusual feminist sympathies who invited me to speak. He told me that the scheduled topic was “Mary: Model of Mission”, and requested that I use the Magnificat for a scriptural springboard. I jokingly pointed out that he preferred the Magnificat to the story of Cana (my preferred plan) because in the Magnificat, Mary appears to fan feminist sensibilities by proclaiming how her soul magnifies God’s greatness. In contrast, at Cana, she tells the steward: “Do whatever he tells you” — a response that makes her seem to be caving in to male superiority. The irony in all this is that I end up doing what my male colleague suggested I do. But that wasn’t why I changed my plan.

It’s a familiar story: Mary sings the Magnificat when she visited her pregnant, elderly cousin Elizabeth soon after the annunciation. According to author Rachel Held Evans, the song’s significance is it offers “the most revealing glimpse into her true character… — a prayer beloved by saints and Southern Baptists alike” (p. 70, A Year of Biblical Womanhood , Colorado: Wordserve Literary Group, Ltd., 2012). The Magnificat’s intimate look into Mary’s soul, coupled with its universal appeal were the first two reasons I decided to take a closer look at it. The third was my wondering whether there was an alternative to a strict feminist interpretation of this well-known passage.

I began preparing the talk by re-reading the section before the visitation. This prequel is where angel Gabriel announces to Mary that the Holy Spirit would overshadow her, and miraculously turn her into the mother of God’s Son. Here, Mary looks as obedient as at Cana, especially when she tells Gabriel, “I am the handmaid of the Lord. Let it be done to me according to your word.”

The “crack” I noticed during this re-read, however, was that even if Mary should have opted to sit back, relax, and play it safe, since she was in her first term of pregnancy, she does anything but that. Instead, we find her eager to travel, and to make matters more dangerous, to climb a hill: “In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a city of Judah”. In other words, after conceiving Jesus, who is no ordinary child, Mary decides to pack up, mount a donkey, and get to Elizabeth as fast as she can! (Women of her time obviously didn’t consult the ob-gyn.) This wouldn’t be so shocking if Elizabeth lived in the same town, or a few kilometers away. But this assumption was far from fact.

Nazareth, where Mary lived, is located in northern Palestine, closer to the Sea of Galilee than the Dead Sea. Judah, Elizabeth’s hometown, is ensconced in the lower half, 144 km southwest from Nazareth. According to the diary of Theodosius, a sixth-century Christian pilgrim, Elizabeth’s house was 5 miles (8 km) from Jerusalem which, coincidentally, matches the present-day location of the church commemorating this visit. The shrine of the Visitation is in Ein Karem, a suburb 8 km west of Jerusalem, as we can see below:

Nazareth to Ein Karem
Ein Karem to Jerusalem

Given the distance, Mary’s eagerness and hurry is unusual, almost reckless. She rushed to Elizabeth, despite having a full womb of her own, and the distance of 144 km! All this, without the convenience of a sturdy SUV and a freeway. On a donkey and foot, it definitely took her more than a day, and one can only imagine how uncomfortable the journey was: dry heat, a rocky and steep landscape, limited water supply, and several unexpected rain showers. Not to mention, she would have had to sit on a languid animal for long hours without a GPS and back support, and feel its every jerk as it walked through uneven, uphill terrain. A fragile, reserved, and cautious young mother would not have been willing to take such a trying and risky trip, much less survive it. Yet, Mary went. What made her go?

This time, it wasn’t God or Gabriel calling the shots. This trip was Mary’s idea.

Or at least that’s how it looks on the surface…