There really is ‘something about Mary’

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This Virgin and Child subtly incorporates traditional allusions to the miraculous. Mary's long, loose hair identifies her as a virgin, alluding to the virgin birth.

Photo courtesy of Anthony van Dyck [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

This Virgin and Child subtly incorporates traditional allusions to the miraculous. Mary's long, loose hair identifies her as a virgin, alluding to the virgin birth.

 

The Virgin Mary awaits pilgrims along the Appian Way in Rome. Religion News Service photo by Kimberly Winston

The Virgin Mary awaits pilgrims along the Appian Way in Rome. Religion News Service photo by Kimberly Winston

(RNS) “Here am I, the servant of the Lord.”

These words, attributed by the Gospel of Luke to an obscure Jewish girl more than 2,000 years ago, were prophetic — today, the Virgin Mary is everywhere. Look around:

Churches and shrines are named for her everywhere.

Some see her influence in the flag of the European Union, with its background of blue — a color often associated with Mary in art — and halo of golden stars similar to ones seen on her statues. She is revered by Hindus in India, and Muslims hold her above all other women.

Apparitions of Mary number more than 2,000.

Medjugorje, Guadalupe, Lourdes and Fatima attract millions of people each year, many of them non-Catholics. People think they see her face in water stains, slices of toast, rock formations. A grilled cheese sandwich with her “face” sold for $28,000 in 2004.

She is among the most popular of tattoos.

And she’s appeared in over 80 comic books. Her face and form grace everything from dog T-shirts and drawstring pants to one-of-a-kind rhinestone leather and denim jackets.

Hugh Morgan, from Las Vegas, shows his Japanese inspired Virgin Mary tattoo, in front of a cardboard cut-out of Pope Francis, during an event organised by Christa Scalies, the co-creator of the Pop-Up Pope, in Fado Irish Pub & Restaurant in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on September 16, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Mark Makela *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-VIRGIN-POWER, originally transmitted on Dec. 23, 2015.

Hugh Morgan, from Las Vegas, shows his Japanese inspired Virgin Mary tattoo, in front of a cardboard cut-out of Pope Francis, during an event organised by Christa Scalies, the co-creator of the Pop-Up Pope, in Fado Irish Pub & Restaurant in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on September 16, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Mark Makela
*Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-VIRGIN-POWER, originally transmitted on Dec. 23, 2015.

Fifteen novels have been written about her in the past 20 years alone.

An untold number of scholarly papers have detailed her imagery in everything from “The Lord of the Rings” to “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”  In 2012, she became a Broadway star in the play “The Testament of Mary.”

Virgin Mary printed pants.

Photo courtesy of Betabrand

Virgin Mary printed pants.

She graced the December cover of National Geographic.

The headline proclaimed her “the most powerful woman in the world.”

“No other woman has been as exalted as Mary,” Maureen Orth writes in National Geographic. “As a universal symbol of maternal love, as well as of suffering and sacrifice, Mary is often the touchstone of our longing for meaning, a more accessible link to the supernatural than formal church teachings. Her mantle offers both security and protection. Pope Francis, when once asked what Mary meant to him, answered, ‘She is my mama.’”


READ: The ‘Splainer: Is the star of Bethlehem for real?


What is behind this mystique? Can she really be considered “the most powerful woman in the world” when most Protestants and evangelicals keep her firmly in the background?

“Without question she is the most powerful woman in the world,” said S. Brent Plate, a professor who studies religion and popular culture. But that power comes not so much from who she was but from who she can be. Like Buddha and Jesus, he continued, she can be all things to all people, light- or dark-skinned, rich or poor. She has been appropriated by dozens of different interest groups, including Mexican farmworkers, feminists and anti-abortion activists.

“There is no one Virgin Mary,” Plate said. “She becomes more powerful by the ongoing remaking of her.”

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Madonna of the Goldfinch, ca. 1767–70; Oil on canvas, 24 13/16 × 19 13/16 in.; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Samuel H. Kress Collection; inv. 1943.4.40. Photo courtesy of National Museum of Women in the Arts

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Madonna of the Goldfinch, ca. 1767–70; Oil on canvas, 24 13/16 × 19 13/16 in.; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Samuel H. Kress Collection; inv. 1943.4.40. Photo courtesy of National Museum of Women in the Arts

Ken Chitwood, a scholar who writes about religion and popular culture, said just this month he has seen the Virgin Mary in graffiti in Los Angeles, in a shrine in Miami and on a pair of men’s drawstring pants, price $78. He says she is especially popular among millennials and “nones” — people with no religious identification.

“Mary is super-cool,” Chitwood said. “She’s not even trying to be cool and she’s cool. She’s even cooler than Jesus in some ways.”

And that’s her special appeal to the young and unaffiliated. Mary is outside the boundaries of any institution.

“Young, hipster, spiritual-but-not-religious people find her appealing because she represents the power of the people,” Chitwood added. “We make her in our own image.”


READ: Who is winning the ‘war’ on Christmas? — Dec. 22, 2015


One reason we can do this is because we know so little about Mary. She speaks only four times in the Bible, mostly in one-sentence utterances. We are told nothing of her inner life, her feelings at being singled out by God to bear Jesus, only that at the visit of the wise men she “pondered these things in her heart.” She is silent even at the foot of the cross, watching her son die a horrible, tortured death.

“So much of who she is and was is left to our imaginations,” said the Right Rev. Mariann Budde, Episcopal bishop of Washington, D.C. “From that comes an ability for us to find a connection to God that is both gentle and strong, loving and bold. There is a sense of the approachability with Mary and, for me, a place of great freedom to think about her example of one who said ‘yes’ to such an amazing thing.”

Jon Sweeney, author of “Strange Heaven: The Virgin Mary As Woman, Mother, Disciple and Advocate,” is not convinced Mary is the “most powerful woman in the world.” Devotion to Mary, he said, is not as strong as it was two, three or four generations ago, largely because of the decline of the power of institutionalized religion. Still, he sees Mary finding greater acceptance among Protestants who once relegated her to an annual appearance in the Christmas pageant.

“Mary is increasingly a bridge between Protestants and Catholics among those under the age of 40 because for them, increasingly, it isn’t the doctrines of Mary that matter but the stories of her faith, both from the Bible and beyond, that are so beautiful as to inspire faith,” he said.


WATCH: Video: Suspended Wheaton College prof explains her view on Muslims, Christians and God


And Mary has the potential to cross other bridges as well. Elizabeth Hayes Alvarez, author of a forthcoming book about Mary in American history, said that when she teaches a religious history course at Temple University, Muslim students and Christian students find common ground.

“There is an energy and a joyfulness in those classes,” she said. “My students from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, they light up. And the evangelicals are happy Mary is in the Quran. It makes me more optimistic about the future, but I don’t know how far it will go.”

(Kimberly Winston is a national correspondent for RNS)

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  • Kimberly Chastain

    You’ve got a bit of a howler in the paragraph beginning, “one reason we can do that…” where the author says that Mary “pondered these things in her heart” when the wise men came to visit. But the wise men only show up in the gospel of Matthew, and Mary ponders in Luke (citation correctly linked)

  • Deacon John M Bresnahan

    As was accurately pointed out in this story Mary was silent at the foot of the cross. BUT her son said something to her and to John: Behold your mother—Behold your son.

  • Clare Julian

    Wonderful article! It may be of interest to some to know that in the 1950’s while visiting a Benedictine monastery, Sufi/Christian mystic, teacher and author, John G. Bennett had a profound experience in which he heard the voice of Jesus say to him, “It is my will that Christianity and Islam should be united”. In response to Bennett’s question, “Who can accomplish such a task?”, the voice responded, “Mary”. Apparently Bennett converted to Catholicism shortly after this experience, recorded on page 281-82 of his biography, “Witness”,

  • Kyle

    Marian apparitions and the cult of Mary are some of the most dangerous deceptions leading the world in the direction of the one world religion envisioned in the Book of Revelation (Revelation 17, Rev 19:20). The article does an excellent job in pointing out how adoration of “Mary” is a bridge between religions. There truly is no better way to distract people from trusting wholy in the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus for salvation. She has been elevated from the godly woman who said “yes” to a goddess in her own right. Many see her as more approachable than Jesus and pray to her so she can pray to her son. If we are to pray to Mary, then why are Christians told to boldly approach the throne of grace and that there is one mediator between ourselves and God, Jesus Christ (Hebrews 4:16, 1 Timothy 2:5)? The last point is so important I will reproduce it here as the Catholic Douay-Rheims says it: “For there is one God, and one mediator of God and men, the man Christ Jesus”.

  • clare julian

    Dear Kyle,
    Just a thought – but I am wondering if in your very admirable desire to be faithful to the “one mediator between men and God, the man Christ Jesus” you may be missing an essential point? Jesus expressed his wishes for us just hours before his death when he prayed , “That all may One, as you and I Father are One.” Healing humanity’s fragmentation is what our sole mediator came to do. He welcomed, healed and loved all who came to him from a diversity of backgrounds. Our common humanity is what Jesus came to mediate and make whole again.
    When we participate in this effort, respecting and protecting the diversity of our humanity and human Oneness we are in essence being faithful to Christ. When we engage in acts of spiritual superiority, exclusivity and the elimination of diversity we are in essence being unfaithful to him. The remarkable presence of Mary to us these days is, in my perception, a work of faithfulness to Christ and his desire for our healed…

  • Deacon John M Bresnahan

    How can one truly claim he loves Jesus while disparaging His Mother.??? Most of the things I see or hear Protestants say to put Mary “in her place” would be considered supremely insulting or callous if said about their own mothers.

  • Kyle

    John, If you read my comment, you will see that I differentiated between the true Mary of the Bible and the false Mary of the RCC and new age religion. The real Mary said yes to God, acknowledged she needed a savior from her sin, and was given someone to care for her by her divine Son in His dying moments on the cross. The false Mary shows up around the world, spreading false, works based deceptions that, if we are truly being honest, contradict each other, the Bible and are only shakily reconciled with the teachings of the RCC itself (ie pray the rosary and get pulled up to heaven, wear the scapula, consecrate the world to MY heart…just to name a few).
    Clare: yes, Jesus does want us to be one. But he also said this: Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.(Matthew 10:34). The key is how we become one. We are one when we are part of a local new testament church, which is admonished with keeping purity in doctrine (Titus 3:10, Rev…

  • clare julian

    One final response, Kyle, in reference to your comment on “purity of doctrine”. Jesus, if you remember, was arrested, tortured and crucified because he often challenged the power structures which hid behind the banner of “purity of doctrine”. People, not doctrine, were Jesus’ primary concern. The Gospels are pretty clear on this.
    Jesus gave us a new ‘pure doctrine’ or commandment – to love one another as he loved us. Pretty challenging – and the human ego is a master at finding ways to skirt around it! 1Cor.13 gives us a good description of how we can often be sidetracked with other pretentious acts of faith.
    If one’s devotion to Mary is bringing them closer to Christ and closer to caring for and respecting others, is that not a good thing and the very thing Christ desires of us?
    Many blessings in the New Year!

  • Ben in Oakland

    Most of the things conservative Christians say about everyone who is not them would be insulting if they said it about themselves.

    Funny how that works.