August 15th is one of the feast days in the church calendar for remembering Mary, the mother of Jesus. In Advent-tide, the days leading up to Christmas, Mary is part of a tableau of characters arrayed around the manger. She adorns Christmas cards, and nativity scenes in homes and churches; though rarely these days in retail outlets. She is the sweet, pretty, serene, holy, adoring mother; and a good deal of patriarchal church doctrine over the centuries has wanted her to be nothing else.
August 15th is the Feast of the Assumption. This is the belief that Mary, due to her holiness, was assumed or taken up, body and soul, into heaven. Most liberal Protestants smile benignly at such a notion, enjoy Ruben’s painting, and quietly wonder why such a fantasy was developed. Nowadays liberal scholars see the resonance between Roman Catholicism’s elevation of Mary to a near divine status with the ongoing attempts in spirituality and theology to give expression to the divine feminine. Ruben’s painting, for example, is almost a replicate of Jesus ascension scenes – the difference being that a female is ascending, not a male.
For some time now I’ve been pondering about joy. What is it? Who do we think are joyful people? Are they people who smile a lot? If so, why do they smile a lot? How important are contentment and purpose to being joyful? How important are the primary childhood experiences of being loved and praised to one’s capacity to know and express joy? If we have experienced a lot of pain and sorrow in our life does it follow that we find being joyful difficult? And, how do we, regardless of our experiences, cultivate lots and lots of joy?
Eco-theologians and mystics talk about joy being fundamental in both nature and God. Kristal Parks, for example, is a peace activist who in the manner of Daniel Berrigan once spent 11 months in prison for resisting nuclear weapons. After coming out of prison she took a prolonged sabbatical in the Colorado woods. She writes:
“After about two years, nature and silence taught me this: At the core of all that exists, at the core of every blade of grass, hanging icicle, quarrelling marmot, beaver scowling eagle, quacking duck, squirrel, fox, howling coyote, quivering aspen leaf and melting snow flake, there exists an energy and vibration of joy. Not unlike a giggle. If we wish to take our cues from nature, and work in harmony with her, then we too have to be in the energy of joy.”
Later she also writes:
“Working from the place and energy of joy does not mean suppressing, denying or avoiding pain, sadness and rage.”
Intriguingly I find these same themes in what the biblical authors reveal to us about Mary – particularly by putting the Magnificat on her lips – namely themes of joy, pain, and hope.
Let’s take a trip back to 1st century Nazareth and refresh our memories about Mary and her home.
There is only one verse (Mark 6:3) and one word which gives us a clue to both Jesus’ occupation and social class: tekton. If true he was a day labourer, a wood worker, who belonged to the lowest class of peasants (just above beggars and slaves). Tekton were uneducated and illiterate (it’s estimated that 97% of the Jewish peasantry could neither read nor write). It is fair to assume that Mary was similarly of this class and education status.
As a day labourer Jesus and his brothers (there are four named in the Bible) would go to where they could find work. And that wasn’t Nazareth. Nazareth was a small village of mud and brick, with minimal work for tekton. Whereas a day’s walk away there was one of the most affluent cities in Galilee, the capital, Sepphoris.
After Herod the Great’s death in 4 BCE rebellions broke out across Palestine, and Sepphoris was one of the centres of that revolt. When Herod died he left behind a mob of jobless poor, who had flooded into the urban centres to build Herod’s palaces, theatres, and, of course, the Temple in Jerusalem. Tens of thousands of peasants and day labourers, many driven off their land by drought or famine or debt collectors, had been employed, then unemployed. Not surprisingly revolutionary activity fomented.
Judas the Galilean, who blended religious zeal with revolutionary ambitions, led a movement that was based in and around the city of Sepphoris, and it had a lot of sympathetic support from the peasant classes. Over the next decade his movement grew in size and ferocity. They opposed Quirinius’s census in 6 CE (for it was a Roman tax mechanism). Not long after this Judas was captured and killed, and as retribution against Sepphoris the Romans burned the city to the ground, slaughtering the men, selling into slavery the women and children. In addition, more than 2000 rebels and sympathizers were crucified en masse. Then Herod’s son, Antipas, the new governor of Galilee, decided to rebuild the city.
A brief word about the Magnificat: Firstly, it is very early hymn from the Jesus movement. The infancy narratives of Luke and Matthew were late compositions (late 1st, early 2nd centuries) added after the body of those gospels were compiled. But into those late compositions were inserted some early hymns, the Magnificat being one.
Secondly, the Magnificat reflects the social and political sympathies of the lower peasant class of many of Jesus early followers (this class is sometimes called anawim – literally: those bowed down; oppressed). The powerful and rich usually don’t like songs about God removing them from their thrones and emptying their treasuries!
Tradition has Mary being born and raised in Sepphoris. Jesus was probably born around 4 BCE, and probably in Nazareth (the Bethlehem episode is a device to fabricate for Jesus a Davidic lineage). Jesus therefore lived his first 10 years in the midst of this Galilean revolt, with probably a number of his extended family either involved or sympathetic. And he certainly would have remembered 2000 bodies on crosses!
What did Mary think of Judas the Galilean, the vision he had, the hopes he raised? And what did Mary think of the brutal suppression? The only hint we have is the placing of the Magnificat on her lips. Were her brothers, family members, and friends from her childhood among those slaughtered, enslaved, and crucified? Most probably. And most probably she was familiar with feelings of pain, sadness, and rage well before Calvary.
Consider too that the visit to her cousin Elizabeth might have had some historical basis. Maybe she went there, not to just get some family TLC, but to escape, hide from, the slaughter at Sepphoris.
The irony is of course that the destruction of Sepphoris and Antipas’s desire to rebuild it as “the ornament of the Galilee” then provided the tektons of Nazareth, including Jesus and his brothers, with employment. Jesus may have spent more time in Sepphoris, with its legacy of pain, sadness, and rage, than in any other town or city.
The other formative event in trying to understand Mary is the virgin birth legend. When the adult Jesus begins preaching in Nazareth (Mark 6:3) one of his neighbours bluntly asks, “Is this not Mary’s son?” Calling a first-born Jewish male in Palestine by his mother’s name – that is, Jesus bar Mary instead of Jesus bar Joseph – is not just unusual it’s a deliberate slur with the implication so obvious that later editors of Mark were compelled to insert the phrase “son of the carpenter (tekton), and Mary.”
Alongside this verse we might also place the only reference to Jesus’ parentage in Paul (whose authentic letters are the earliest writings of the Jesus movement we have), Galatians 4:4, ‘born of a woman.’ Again there is an unusual absence of reference to a human father, a reference which might have helped in silencing any critics who considered Jesus illegitimate.
Regardless of the diversity of opinion among Christian scholars today about Jesus’ father and the circumstances of his conception, there is little doubt that Jesus lived with the stigma of illegitimacy, and Mary more so. The idea that conceiving a child outside of wedlock, whether consensually or not, is somehow the woman’s fault has unfortunately a long and destructive history.
Again, like with the socio-political location of Mary and her family, we find in this birth story a mix of joy, pain, and hope. Mary is a young woman (16?), pregnant without being married in a time when this was religiously and socially offensive, maybe more importantly vulnerable economically (for the males were the providers), being of a lower social class with few resources, living in a time of political upheaval and violence (in which probably her family and friends were involved), and in the midst of all this finding faith, finding courage, finding hope to look beyond the past, with its pain and ongoing prejudice, and to see that a new birth is not a burden but a blessing, not a source of anxiety but a source of goodness and joy. Maybe she really did need an angel to stand beside her, and to help her to see her way through.
And maybe we do too. For I suspect joy and blessing is fundamentally not about whether life has been kind, nurturing, and good to us but about whether we can see past our experiences of pain, sadness and rage. I suspect joy and blessing is fundamentally about whether we will let the energy and vibration of the joy all around us – in nature, in one another, in ourselves - infiltrate our fears and worries and transform them. For is not opening the door for joy to come in what faith is? Teilhard de Chardin, the renowned French philosopher, priest and palaeontologist, once wrote: “Joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God.”
You know I suspect the later biblical editors who inserted the Magnificat into the Lucan infancy narrative had other candidates they could have considered as the first singer of that hymn. Peter? Mary Magdalene? Jesus himself? But they chose Mary.