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  • Nnaemeka Ali, O.M.I

Mary, Favoured Among Us


While we celebrate the birth of Christ, let’s question some popular narratives about the Virgin Mary. This reflection is the fruit of rereading certain assumptions about the mother of Christ. It’s born from a meditative admiration of this beautifully inculturated drawing of Mary and Christ. The drawing is one of the Hope Series by Ezeugwu Ifeanyi.


Unfortunately, we are forced to reduce the narrative to her virginity and blessedness when we think of her. Of course, we all agree that these are important attributes of our Lady, but some of our Mariological treaties need more biblical exegesis to remain faithful to Mary’s identity. Besides, the problem of laying too much emphasis uniquely on these attributes is that it beclouds their importance. Therefore, no discussion about someone's progress will make sense if the interlocutors ignore where the said individual evolved and what made his or her effort laudable. So, the importance of Mary’s “virginity and blessedness” can only manifest through a proper understanding of the insignificance of her origin and status. This is what this artist stands to correct through his drawing; and that we wish to reflect upon, hoping to do justice to Mary’s origin and status.

In Luke 1:26 – 27, the evangelist made sure to underline, in the Annunciation narrative, Mary’s humble origin and her compromised status:

“In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.”

In (biblical) narratives, narrators beautifully squeeze in important information that only informed eyes can perceive. One of those ways is using modifiers like adjectives and articles. We have some beautiful examples in the two verses of Luke’s annunciation narrative.

First, when Luke introduces the Angel, he uses a definitive article, meaning the reader is expected to know him. He is not any Angel, but Gabriel, the messenger which the tradition spoke about in Daniel 8:16, 9:22. Gabriel was sent to a town – now an indefinite article – “a word that accompanies a noun and indicates that the noun is not particular or identifiable to the listener because it is the first time the speaker is mentioning it, its identity is hypothetical or irrelevant, or the speaker is making a general statement “. We know in this case that the author is neither making a general statement nor saying that the town in question is irrelevant. On the contrary, the town is becoming curiously relevant, and the statement, particular. So, why the use of the indefinite article? The text says it. It is a town in Galilee called Nazareth. Again, we see a second modifier, the adjective “called.” 

Here, the author says the famous Angel Gabriel is sent to an inconsequential town found in David’s city, Galilee, called Nazareth. 

An informed reader should be intrigued at this point already. Why are all these contrasts present in the expository part of the narrative? Why tell the reader that the city is inconsequential, like Nathaniel would testify in John 1:46 – can anything good come from Nazareth? This is where the author informs the reader that Mary is from a humble beginning in a city of no importance. 

Secondly, often, readers are carried away by the fact that the author says that Mary is (a) virgin, but they easily ignore the role of the indefinite article modifying her status. The majority of the readers don’t pay enough attention to how that simple astute plays a capital role in God’s decision to choose Mary. Here again, the famous Angel Gabriel was not sent to a known, well-respected virgin but to “A” virgin of inconsequential (historically speaking and not creedal) value. She is a virgin the reader is not supposed to have known before this incident, but for record purposes, she is called Mary – “The virgin’s name was Mary.” The same thing could be said of Joseph except that he, unlike Mary, is of royal origin – “A virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David.”

So, when did we lose touch with these details and create a disincarnated Mary whose attributes have little or no historical relevance? 

We wish to consider this beautiful analysis made by Dolores S. Williams in Sisters in the Wilderness[1] of a whitewashed Mariology. While considering how both classical theology and black liberation theologies excluded the struggle of black and coloured women, Dolores explores one of the ways such Mariology was empowered to harm coloured women. In her reflection, Dolores compares “Chung Hyun Kyung’s treatment of Asian women’s new idea of Mary, the mother of Jesus” with Black womanist theological approaches. She states that for both theological perspectives, the actual image of Mary is “alien … because she is either too clean, too high, and too holy or she is too sweet, too passive and too forgiving”.[2] According to Dolores, this image of Mary is a mockery of every woman who does not identify with this white woman stereotype because

“The Virgin Mary as a social construct has stood for purity and innocence, which were qualities assigned to white women. Black women were construed by white social mythology to be loose, immoral, incapable of either innocence or purity. And for this reason, “within the context of North American culture where white disdain of black permeates almost every idea and image advanced in the mainstream, African-American women must contend with the way the social appropriation of the Virgin Mary has contributed to the advancement of white supremacy.” [3]

The consequence of such a social construct of the Virgin Mary is that, explains Dolores, “the Virgin Mary can be a negative symbol for black women: “too white” and “too false,” to represent “what is acceptably [black] female.”[4]

Of course, her cultural matrix could as well be termed a social construct, yet, coming back to the Lucan narrative of the annunciation, one might agree that the popular Mariology we have is suffering from a certain historical poverty. The Lucan text knew the value of Mary’s humble origin and her low status in a Jewish male-dominated society where though virginity might have been a social exigence, it was nevertheless not a virtue in a society where marriage and childbearing are considered of high status (Sarah – Gen. 11:30 —, Rebekah – Gen. 25:21 —, Rachel – Gen. 29:31 – ; Hannah – 1 Samuel 1–2 –

So, how did we come up with the present-day glorification of Marian virginity? The Lucan author, according to Fitzmyer[5] and Brown[6], might have introduced Mary’s insistence on her virginity as a narrative technique to explore more on the identity of Christ. For them, Luke phrases Mary’s question the way he does because he has the tradition that the divine plan excluded a human begetting of the child[7]. In other words, Luke has Mary ask the question for no discernible reason other than to give the angel the further opportunity to speak of the child’s identity. Therefore, most of this Mariological insistence on the virginity of Mary – which is indeed wonderful – is based on later interpretations of apocalyptic writings and extra-biblical teachings like the apparition mystagogic narratives. 

Thus, a historical image of Mary should be less Catholic, no rosary carrying Mary, neither blond nor white, but traditional as a humble woman who God chose to quiet the rich and the mighty – “He has taken note of me even though I am not considered important. From now on, all generations will call me blessed.” — Luke 1:48, NIVR –. This is the greatness of Mary’s call. “Despite” and not “because” of her humble status, she found favour according to the Lord. In the Nigerian context, that humble Mary could be close to a Muslim niqab-wearing woman with a child who, notwithstanding he is God, is born in a low background – Phil. 2:6-8 –. 

This is the Mary that this drawing presents to us here, humble, apparently dressed in traditional media-orientalist religious wear. Son of a poor carpenter, Jesus is also not as mighty as the classical drawings portray him. His humble origin is what made him friends with the poor and the abandoned. His taste of hard life informed him of about the poor and the indigents. This Mary would speak to black Africans and all those who care for the destitute and people at the fringe of society.

Henceforth, as Christianity in general, particularly Catholicism, moves west, it’s time to question our symbols and icons. We need to understand what mentality was behind the Christian narratives we have propagated since the Christianization era. And as Christianization is an empire of political Christian propaganda, we must figure out what was behind those narratives. We also need to adjust a few perspectives, considering all the recent historical and exegetical developments. 

However, even though we cannot right a wrong scriptural interpretation with another wrong one, this is a moment to be more biblically intentional in proposing our symbols and icons. We either must rethink the entire narrative or, at least, be more intentional in the contextualization of our theology. This demands a lot of self-discipline and a conscious self like. Our beauty codes need an update too. Many will see foreign-looking images as beautiful because they have been made to hate their own images. This could be because the measure of feminine beauty has been pegged on a single narrative of a white, blond woman. As Dolores S. Williams put it:

“A century before the nineteenth, when England and the American colonists were heavily involved in the slave trade, the Oxford English Dictionary defined black as deeply stained with dirt; soiled, dirty, foul… Having dark or deadly purposes, malignant; pertaining to or involving death, deadly, baneful, disastrous, sinister… Foul, iniquitous, atrocious, horrible, wicked… Indicating disgrace, censure, liability to punishment.
To the English mind, then, "Black was an emotionally partisan colour, the handmaid and symbol of baseness and evil, a sign of danger and repulsion."[8] 

A true contextualization of the theology demands we get rid of these stereotypes and racist narratives of black identity and body. And to do so, we need to start associating holiness with every aspect of our life where God manifests himself. Emmanuel, God with us, and not God coming to us from another land. He incarnates in our bodies, our culture, our society, and in our history. This type of theological affirmation is impossible in the current translational contextualization of our Mariology. The Angel was sent to a lowly woman of no historical consequentially, lowly born in a city before then almost unknown in the history of salvation. That Mary, from the eyes and experience of a black Christian, should be obviously identifiable and neither foreign, imaginary nor a purely cultural construct. 


Footnote

[1] Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk.

[2] Ibid. 180.

[3] Ibid. 180-181.

[4] Ibid, 181.

[5] Fitzmyer, To Advance the Gospel.

[6] Brown, “Luke’s Description of the Virginal Conception.”

[7] Reilly, “Jane Schaberg, Raymond E. Brown, and the Problem of the Illegitimacy of Jesus.”

[8] Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk, 91.

 

References

  1. Brown, Raymond E. “Luke’s Description of the Virginal Conception.” Theological Studies 35, no. 2 (1974): 360–62. https://doi.org/10.1177/004056397403500207.

  2. Fitzmyer, Joseph A. To Advance the Gospel: New Testament Studies. 2nd ed. The Biblical Resource Series. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Livonia, Mich: W.B. Eerdmans; Dove Booksellers, 1998.

  3. Reilly, Frank. “Jane Schaberg, Raymond E. Brown, and the Problem of the Illegitimacy of Jesus.” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 21, no. 1 (2005): 57–80.

  4. Williams, S. Williams. Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk. Orbis Books. Maryknoll, N.Y: Orbis Books, 1993.

 


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