WIT welcomes Shelli M. Poe as a guest poster. Her full bio is available on her first post with our blog.
When I encounter a nativity scene on someone’s front lawn, in a church, or on a Christmas card, I am often drawn to Mary. We know so little about her, and yet she has been used in so many ways. Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza notes that when attention has been paid to Mary in the Christian tradition, she has been “‘mythologized’ far beyond any historical resemblance” in order to legitimize male domination in the church and the wider world (Jesus: Miriam’s Child, Sophia’s Prophet [New York/London: Continuum, 2004], 163). “Malestream Mariology and [the] cult of Mary, feminist theologians point out, devalue women in three ways,” Schüssler Fiorenza explains, “first, by emphasizing virginity to the detriment of sexuality; second, by unilaterally associating the ideal of ‘true womanhood’ with motherhood; and, third, by religiously valorizing obedience, humility, passivity, and submission as the cardinal virtues of women” (Jesus, 164-65). If feminists wish to recover the “historical Mary” by which Mariology and the cult of Mary might be corrected, however, the biblical record does not provide a great store of material.
Schüssler Fiorenza argues that feminists can recover just a bit of the historical Mary, who can be seen only here and there in the biblical text (Jesus, 185-87). She is a single, pregnant, twelve- or thirteen-year-old. She is living in occupied territory, and could have become pregnant through rape or seduction by an older man. More happily, she actively seeks support from another woman, Elizabeth, during the first trimester of her pregnancy. She also declares God’s upending of the usual nature of things by lifting up the lowly and filling the hungry, while bringing down the powerful and sending away the rich. Calling this more historical account of Mary to mind, I am reminded of the recent controversy around the nativity scene at Claremont United Methodist Church in California, in which Jesus, Mary, and Joseph are placed in cages. Mary is, in this reinterpretation, part of an immigrant family that has been separated at the U.S.’s southern border. Like the historical Mary, this Mary also would have been scared, facing separation from her fiancé and ostracism by the wider society.
In Christianity’s classical theological tradition, however, the question about Mary is whether she should be called “Mother of God” (theotokos) or “Mother of Christ” (Christotokos). It is a question that is not really about Mary at all, but about Jesus’ two natures and Christological grammar. While the debate has been largely settled among Roman Catholics, Protestants continue to weigh in. Karl Barth, for example, throws his weight in with Luther and Zwingli, rather than Calvin, on this issue: “As Christians and theologians we do not reject the description of Mary as the ‘mother of God,’ but…we affirm and approve of it as a legitimate expression of Christological truth” (I/II, §15.4). I am struck here by the routine way in which discussions of Mary are subsumed by discussions of Christ. Of course, there is good reason for this. Mary features in the biblical story only because she is pregnant with Jesus, the Christ. But when a woman does appear in the biblical text, and not only appears, but is central to the story of redemption to the extent that Jesus’ very existence as a human being, which is required for redemption, depends on her; and when this role in humanity’s redemption depends on her precisely because she is a woman, rather than because a man was unavailable at the time; then many feminists are interested in taking a moment to talk about her, rather than Jesus. Yes, even and especially during the twelve days of Christmas.
Schüssler Fiorenza offers four suggestions about how feminists might engage Mariology in ways that do not devalue women: 1) focus on the inadequacy of using masculine language for G*d and of associating the eternal feminine with Mary; 2) critically apply to G*d Marian symbols and G*ddess imagery that Mariology has transmitted in the Christian tradition; 3) emphasize that neither of the first two strategies is sufficient, and that images and symbols for G*d should also come from nature and the cosmos; 4) derive G*d language and Marian symbolism from the popular piety of antipatriarchal liberation movements (ibid, 179-81). These are a few ways that Christian reflection about Mary can contribute to the establishment of justice for women. When we also highlight the only historical bits of information about Mary we have, along with the ways that Mariology and the cult of Mary could be transformed in accordance with a feminist vision of gender justice, we foreground the inability of women to control their own bodies in patriarchal societies, and their dependence on men in such societies. Not very conducive to Christmas joy, from a feminist perspective. But attending to Mary’s experience also allows for a celebration of her resilience in the face of social ostracism, her courage during a time of profound personal transformation, her self-care and communion with other women when she was likely not feeling well, and her prophetic voice that affirms the divine upending of social power structures as we know them. All of that is reason for great joy—even considered apart from Jesus’ birth. And so this Christmas, may we also celebrate Mary: prophetic teenager, resilient woman, wise and courageous beyond her years.