Mary, Joseph, and Jesus

Here we are in Christmas week and the story of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus. For some, the story sets up a wrestling match between faith and fact. Which part of the miracle is real?

The story comes up in various guises – sometimes with a flight to Egypt; sometimes with angels; sometimes with wise men; and sometimes with all the elements mixed together. The one piece that’s usually overlooked is Matthew’s story of the angel coming to Joseph and announcing a child would be born.

The Annunciation that comes to Joseph is the older story in Matthew; and in Luke, a later written gospel, to Mary. The other two gospels, Mark and John, represent Jesus as simply the son of Mary and Joseph.

While Matthew and Luke tell very different stories of Jesus’ birth, each affirms a faith that Jesus’ birth was transcendent.

But this is where fact comes in. The story of the virgin birth of heroes and sages was widespread in the Hellenistic world. Both Artemis and Isis were said to be virgin queens; Alexander was said to have come from a virgin birth. Are all these myths or are they fact?

And here’s another fact: the announcement came at a stage in Joseph and Mary’s relationship when they were legally married but before they had begun to live together. That was the tradition at that time.

And what about the announcement to Joseph? Doesn’t it make you wonder how he took the whole thing? Here he was, getting a home ready for a woman, and he finds out she is pregnant. Does he divorce her quietly? But then what will happen to her? He must have loved her – wouldn’t he worry that something like stoning would happen to her if others found out she was pregnant?

But the angel comes in a dream and says don’t worry – the Holy Spirit did it.  And that makes it easier somehow? Wouldn’t Joseph have had a few negative thoughts about the whole thing? But he had faith and followed the angel’s message and opened himself to mystery.

Joseph is the image of a pious man who says yes to God and the image of a loving, human father.

Now, about Mary. Here’s some facts: The basis for Mary’s rise is the Church and its edicts. The Second Council of 381 proclaimed her a perpetual virgin; in 431 the church gave her the title “Mother of God; in 1854, the Immaculate Conception was proclaimed; and in 1954, the church named her Queen of Heaven and in 1964, the Queen of the Church. Whew. All this for a simple peasant girl who said yes.

(Here’s a simply irreverent comment – that reminds me of Nancy Regan saying, “Just say no” to avoid the domino effect.)

But what does this all have to do with us and with our journey? It’s a Christmas story – that’s all.

But it’s not all. Here’s what I wonder. Do we put Mary and Joseph and Jesus on pedestals so we don’t have to see each other as holy beings? If those three are elevated beyond human capabilities, can mere humans possibly match those qualities?

Here’s another thing I wonder: did the church elevate Mary because humans need to honor and hold some kind of holy feminine presence and by elevating this one woman, other woman were safely left in their lowly state?

There’s the battle between faith and fact. Which fact? And which faith?

Christmas is a time to remember – and a reminder to live our own transcendent birth. There is no one quite like us in the world; we are all called to be holy beings; our lives are steeped in mystery.

That’s what Christmas calls us to do: live the mystery. If we see life as a mystery, miracles will unfold.

The Good Mother

On Saturday before Mother’s Day, the front page of the Faith Section in the Kansas City Star ran the headline, “The Good Mother,” and went on to detail lives of three mothers from three different faith traditions: Mary in Christianity, Hannah in Judaism, and Khadejah in Islam.  In both Judaism and Islam, the women were wives, strong, resourceful, and independent. Only Christianity presents The Good Mother as obedient, virginal, and by extension, subservient. First I was angry, and then I became sad. What’s a good mother? How can any of us live up to that title?

We have the myth in Western society that to be a good mother means to sacrifice ourselves. And, of course, in the living we all fall short and become guilty that we’ve fallen short. There’s no “if” to falling short; it’s more a matter of “when.” And the when happens over and over. As does the guilt.

What we don’t think about is how the concept of Mary and her obedience is based on the life of Roman women two thousand years ago. Rome was patriarchy. The same patriarchy that rules the Roman Church today. Rarely are women told that Mary was considered the first disciple; even less rarely are we told that Mary lived her life and raised children as a single mom since it’s likely that Joseph died before her children reached adulthood. Her eldest, Jesus, would have been the father-figure in such a Jewish family.

Maybe that’s the reason he didn’t enter ministry until he was around thirty years old. That’s middle-aged in First Century life spans. Why did he wait so long? Is it possible that Jesus waited so long because he had to support the family as a carpenter after Joseph died?

Instead of a family woman, Mary is presented as a perpetual virgin, never having sexual relations, never complaining, never angry, never demanding. As always innocent; as always young and pure. And yet, evidence in the gospels says that Jesus had brothers at the least and probably sisters. Where did these brothers come from if not from Mary? And why did Mary and Jesus’ brothers confront him and ask him to come home? (Mark 3:31; Matthew 12:46; Luke 8:19)

Perhaps his response is akin to a modern woman saying to her grown children, “Okay, guys. You’re old enough to take care of yourselves now. I’m going back to school!”

The problem with perpetuating “the good mother” is that there’s no logic behind the myth. There is only a model that’s unrealistic and unattainable.  One could also say that it is a reconstruction, in Mary’s case, rather than an actuality.

Ray Brown, the preeminent Roman Catholic scholar of the Infancy Narratives says, in part: “…the opening of the Magnificat is a deliberate parallel to the opening of Hannah’s canticle after the birth of her child in Samuel 2: 1-2. The Hannah parallelism continues throughout the Magnificat, e.g., Luke 1:48, ‘Because He has regarded the low estate of His handmaid,’ echoes the prayer in 1 Samuel 1:11, ‘O Lord of Hosts, if you will look on the low estate of your handmaid.’ This handmaid motif was anticipated by Luke in 1:38 where ‘Behold the handmaid of the Lord’ was part of Mary’s final response to Gabriel. The term employed is literally the feminine form of ‘slave’; and besides the religious context of servants of the Lord (see Acts 2:18), it may reflect the sociological situation of many early Christians…That Mary designates herself a handmaid is poetically beautiful in our hearing, but…whether or not the Magnificat came from an early Christian group of ‘Poor Ones’, [as Brown illustrates in his proceeding chapter] it clearly shares their mentality. Mary has become the spokeswoman of their ideals” (Brown, Christ in the Gospels of the Liturgical Year p. 92).

In other words, our “Good Mother” is modeled on slave mentality.

It serves no one for women to believe themselves less because they do not perfectly emulate a woman’s story created in myth.

None of which means that the concept of the Holy Mother isn’t important. It is. We all need a spiritual mother as well as a physical mother. We all need to believe that there is an understanding mother when we make mistakes and fail, when we stumble and fall. A mother that will hold us and comfort. In other words, a mother’s face on God. Interestingly, while God is called “perfect,” as a masculine face, he’s also permitted pettiness and anger and jealousy.

In a post-denominational world, could we see Mary as fallible, as jealous of the other disciples, as wanting Jesus to come home and not put himself in danger? If we could move to that understanding, would we then see “the good mother” as someone complete in herself, with all the human characteristics that we humans have? And wouldn’t that be liberating! Both to women and to their children and to their husbands.