The month of December features two feasts of Mary — the Immaculate Conception (8 December) and our Lady of Guadalupe (12 December). Additionally, the first day of the New Year is the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. Given the huge role Mary has played and continues to play in the piety of both the Catholic and Orthodox churches, Christians are often surprised at how little attention she received in the New Testament.
Although “his (i.e., Jesus’) mother” appears in the Wedding of Cana narrative (John 2:1) and at the foot of the cross (John 19:25-27), Mary is never mentioned by name in the Gospel of John. In the Gospel of Mark, considered the earliest Gospel, Mary appears in Mark 3:31-15 and 6:3 when his fellow townspeople ask, “Is this not the carpenter, the son of Mary?” Paul mentions that Jesus was “born of a woman” (Gal 4:4) but does not see fit to mention her name. All told, the name of Mary, the mother of Jesus, appears 19 times in the entire New Testament. In the Gospels, the name of Mary appears 5 times in Matthew (four of which are in the Infancy Narrative); 12 times in Luke (all of which are in the Infancy Narrative); once in Mark; and, as is noted above, not at all in John’s Gospel.
Perhaps it is precisely the lack of a detailed, biblical memory of Mary and details about her that makes her a relatively pliable figure in Christian piety. Interestingly, Marian apparitions (which are a recent phenomenon, especially in Western Christianity) show various “inculturations” of the mother of Jesus. In these apparitions Mary is sometimes dressed like a local woman (Our Lady of La Salette) or as she is portrayed in medieval art. She is never portrayed as a woman of clear Semitic origins, but most often (with a significant exception — Guadalupe) as a northern European woman. Of course, she speaks in the languages of the visionaries.
This pliability has led to an understanding and portrayal of Mary that some theologians find one sided at best. In devotion to Mary, great stress is placed on her virginity, purity, humility and obedience. There is a certain give and take here. The dominant cultural understanding of what it meant to be a woman at any given time in the history of Christianity was read into Mary. Her figure is, therefore, to a great extent determined by contemporary expectations. As the ideal woman, however, Mary’s characteristics were then often re-projected on women as being normative. Thus purity, humility, silence and obedience — relatively passive characteristics — became “normative” for the Christian woman, whose model was Mary.
Advances in biblical theology, church history and the work of women theologians have provided a corrective by showing aspects of Mary that have been overlooked.
The Gospel of Luke is often referred to as the Gospel of Women, since women, including Mary, play a significant role. If in Matthew, Mary is simply “found to be with child” and the explanation/annunciation is made to Joseph, in Luke’s Gospel the annunciation is to Mary and requires her consent, a consent she gives only after asking some questions. She is not merely a passive agent in the Incarnation.
I have always found it interesting that although Mary was “betrothed” (Luke 1:27) to Joseph, right after the annunciation Luke tells us that “Mary set out that time to the hill country to a town in Judah” to visit her cousin Elizbeth. In a culture where women were very restricted, we are not told that Mary took what may have been a journey of several days with Joseph or even with Joseph’s permission. The decision to go and the visit itself are Mary’s decision.
Another particularly important insight into Mary in Luke’s Gospel is the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55). Although some biblical scholars believe this canticle was originally attributed to Elizabeth, most biblical scholars hold that Luke attributed it to Mary — traditionally, the Canticle of Mary. Even the most cursory reading of the Magnificat reveals a truly revolutionary document: The arrogant of heart are put down; God pulls down the mighty from their thrones and exalts the lowly; God fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty!
This has not been lost on oppressive governments.
In the last century and a half, at least three oppressive regimes have forbidden the recitation of the Magnificat because it was subversive and revolutionary. Hardly the manifesto of a passive, humble, silent, obedient woman.
A similar dynamic may be at work in the apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Colonial powers and their “evangelists” have often been dismissive at best of the indigenous cultures and languages that they encountered. Often attempts were made to impose the language, culture and religion of the conqueror on the conquered population to “civilize” them. While the indigenous peoples of Mexico had a highly developed material culture, it was a violent culture with war and human sacrifice playing significant roles.
The Spaniard conquerors were horrified by these Aztec practices. Nevertheless, the Spaniards seem to have had no qualms about war and, while horrified by human sacrifice, were not squeamish about the auto da fé, in which heretics were burnt at the stake.
We can see a certain tension in the devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe. The visionary, who was canonized by John Paul II in 2002, is commonly known as Juan Diego. A growing self-awareness of indigenous peoples has resulted in him now being called Cuauhtlatoatzin, his name in Nahuatl, his indigenous language. It is also significant that Our Lady of Guadalupe addressed him in Nahuatl and was dressed as a traditional, pregnant Aztec woman. While the conquerors might have disdained Cuauhtlatoatzin’s language and culture — even his name — the apparition of Mary clearly did not.
The radical theology of the Magnificat, the drive for justice for the poor, the hungry and the oppressed that Mary proclaims in Luke’s Gospel is manifested symbolically, but clearly in the apparitions of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Marian piety has enjoyed a long and rich history in both Eastern and Western Christianity. In all honesty, at times the image of Mary portrayed has been used to serve the dominant paradigm of patriarchy, but today we have a more comprehensive understanding who Mary is. In fact, Mary was an active and not a passive agent — in contemporary parlance, an empowered woman — and a lot more like Jesus in his advocating for and preaching of freedom, liberation and justice.