MARY Multiple images enshroud the Virgin

Identities: Much about the mother of Jesus remains a mystery. That might be why Mary remains subject to redefinition after 2,000 years.

December 21, 1997|By COLMAN McCARTHY

Is she the Virgin Mary? The Blessed Mother? The Madonna? Our Lady of Lourdes? Queen of Heaven? Mother of God? . .

These multiple identities of Mary, peasant woman of Nazareth, are definitions by believers, theologians and artists. But behind the images and versions, who is the real Mary? Biblically, little factual information exists. No words of Mary are recorded in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark or John. Only in Luke is she quoted and then extensively only in one scene.

That might be enough to demythologize Mary and see in her words a person often at odds with the depictions that have been imposed these past 2,000 years.

Midway in the first chapter of Luke, Mary, visiting her kinswoman Elizabeth in Judea, is given her say. It is what Latinists would call "the Magnificat," a canticle that is both faith statement - God "who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name" - and the prophetic cry of a passionate dissident eager to change the political order of her Romanized times.

Mary speaks of her God of Israel, who "has scattered the proud in the conceit of their heart. He has put down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of low degree. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty."

This is the tone of a young woman - her age is not given, she is thought to be a teen-ager - who has a taste of rebellion, a woman with a well-developed social conscience who sees the overthrow of the rich and powerful as cause for celebration. Her religion is centered on a God of the powerless.

How Mary the young Palestinian came to think this way - was it the influence of a teacher, the village rabbi, her parents? - is left unreported. Yet Mary would become one of recorded history's most celebrated women, the mother of all mother figures. Whether seen as devotional zeal or theological enthusiasm, interest in Mary has surged in recent years. Such scholars as Jaroslav Pelikan of Yale, author of the recent "Mary Through the Centuries"; the novelist Patricia Pfeiffer, who wrote "Above All Women: the Story of the Virgin Mary"; and the December 1996 cover of Life magazine have expanded Mariology well beyond the boundaries of piety.

Only a few centuries were needed for church fathers to tame the revolutionary spirit of the Lucan Mary. The mother of Christ, according to Ambrose, the Gaul-born bishop of Milan in the late fourth century, declared that Mary "was humble of heart, serious in her conversation, prudent in her counsels, fonder of reading than speaking."

St. Athanasius embellished: Mary "remained continually at home, living in retired life and imitating a honeybee." In the fifth century, Cyril, the bishop of Alexandria, offered his view: Mary was "the world's treasure and light, ornament of virgins."

Little is known of how Jesus regarded his mother. In the Gospel of Mark, he is speaking in a house when informed that "your mother and brothers are outside asking for you." Christ answered, looking at those in the room: "Who are my mother and my brothers? These are my mother and my brothers. Whoever does the will of God is brother and sister and mother to me."

In Luke, a listener in a crowd calls out, "Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you." Jesus replied, "Rather, blessed are they who hear the word of God and keep it."

In the new book "All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets and Witnesses For Our Time," Robert Ellsberg, editor-in-chief of Orbis Books, writes of those passages, "Neither of these stories reflects a disregard on the part of Jesus toward His mother. But they do show that He rejected the claims of blood or natural kinship in favor of discipleship. In this perspective Mary's prominence is due to her having exemplified the spirit of true discipleship: attention, reverence and obedience to the word and will of God."

A thousand years after the early church fathers portrayed Mary as a model of docility, Italian artists began oiling her as a figure of matronly piety, not a woman glad to see kings dumped and the rich routed. Michelangelo, Titian and Botticelli - all 16th century contemporaries - painted a Madonna with bowed head and eyes gazing down on the infant Jesus. Mary was called Theotokos not by the Bible's writers but by the third council of the church, at Ephesus, in 431.

In 1950, a papal decree ruled dogmatically that "when the course of her earthly life was run, [Mary] was assumed in body and soul to heavenly glory." A century earlier, the Immaculate Conception of Mary had become a binding dogma of faith.

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