Brothers and sisters, the feast day of Saint Mary was earlier this week on the liturgical calendar, namely on the 15th of August. As so often happens with the feast days of the liturgical year, many churches will have shifted the observance to one of the neighboring Sundays.
In the case of my new church of attendance, that means this morning.
Given the occasion and my own religious affiliation, this week's diary will be Christian-centric, but all are welcome here.
Welcome to Brothers and Sisters, the weekly meetup for prayer* and community at Daily Kos. We put an asterisk on pray* to acknowledge that not everyone uses conventional religious language, but may want to share joys and concerns, or simply take solace in a meditative atmosphere. Anyone who comes in the spirit of mutual respect, warmth and healing is welcome.
"Hail Mary, full of grace..."
"Courage is grace under pressure." - Ernest Hemingway
Why I Am Writing About Mary
I grew up in a faith tradition that did not respect Mary.
I mean that word precisely. Forget veneration, we didn't respect her. At least not officially. Outside of Easter and Christmas, she was simply not mentioned and even then it was only because she could not be completely ignored. If Jesus hadn't directly addressed her from the cross, we might have only mentioned her at Christmas - and forget that mention including the fact the Magnificat exists, for that matter.
It's gotten worse since I left. She's practically one of the new bad girls of the Bible among some evangelicals now, in the fine company of Esther and Ruth.
There was little mention of the tradition that she stayed a virgin after Jesus was born. My church didn't so much have a doctrine on the matter as a decided lack of a doctrine. We also had an unofficial belief that all single women really ought to be in the singles department getting married off and that every childless married woman ought to be harassed into adopting if God wouldn't let her get pregnant and every mother of a single child should be harassed until she got pregnant again, so a Mary who never had another child would have been rather unwelcome if she had shown up some Sunday.
So it wasn't until well over a year after I realized I was a heteroromantic asexual that I figured out there was any statement in the Bible other than Jesus' statement about celibacy that said people like me simply are without a value judgment about the matter.
For those of you unfamiliar with the orientation terminology I've just used, it basically means that once you remove Jesus from the family picture and ignore traditionally presumed age differences, the happy family taking care of each other until death did them part that Roman Catholic and related traditions claim Mary had with Joseph is pretty much what I romantically want out of life.
Even before then, she mattered a lot to me as one of the few Biblical women my church mentioned at all. I still remember the day when as a teenager I realized that by the time she was my age, Mary was probably betrothed and likely already pregnant. She and Esther were the only real images of woman-as-heroine I received within the church walls.
"One Of Us" (Lyrics)
Yes, I know this song isn't about her, but it always reminds me of her for the reasons above, so I'm including it.
A Bit Of Background
Mary was born in Palestine Province of the Roman Empire during the time later to be known as the turning period from one first century into the other.
A lot of people are dying. And, thanks to the particulars of the era, a lot of the dying is going on in Galilee. The province is still locally ruled as one piece, and only when the current King Herod dies will his power be split with his lands among his three sons, making the local divisions between Galilee, Samaria, and Judea mean much of anything to the Romans. Even so, those later referred to in a musical as "scripture thumping hack[s] from Galilee" already have a long tradition of beginning minor rebellions that end in wood and nails before long.
The Roman strategy of executing rebels as a means of keeping the populace subdued and doing so in the nastiest ways they could think up is the driving force behind this massive drain on the population. Crucifixion is not a special reserved horror in a part of the empire as unruly as Palestine Province. It's brutally common.
Fueling this is the Roman taxation system. Rather than being based on population or property or income, it's a quota system. The emperor tells the provincial governors what money he needs to run the state - including the military. The provincial governors split this up among their subordinates and add in the money they need to run their households plus some for future savings as they do so - many a Roman political campaign was financed with a stint as a provincial governor in the candidate's (relative) youth this way. And finally after another step or two comes the lowly local-born tax collector who is stuck collecting whatever the Romans demand plus enough to feed himself and his family - no matter how little the neighbors he's stuck taxing actually have left. Cue massive poverty.
And on top of that, Roman ideas about religion clash horribly with Jewish ones. Issues with who can be where and do what in the Temple become major political problems. High priests are appointed by Rome out of the pool of priests held to be properly eligible under Jewish religious law - and get replaced every three to five years or so as Rome pushes them too far and they respond by pushing Rome too far right back. The two notable exceptions will not be around for decades yet, being notable mainly for the collusion with Rome that maintained their status well past the typical limits. It's entirely possible that Mary grew up thinking no one could be high priest as long as Caiaphas and Ananias would be so long as the Romans still ruled Palestine Province.
The once-nation of Israel was a long-lost dream. Palestine Province was her reality.
Reza Aslan was not kidding when he claimed in an interview that it was one of the most disruptive times that part of the Middle East has ever known.
"Masters In This Hall" (Lyrics)
Mary's actually in this one, even if a bit obscured to modern ears. I heard this song before I focused on the passage the Magnificat comes from. My first thought after doing so was 'That's like Masters In This Hall!'
It was not, therefore, the time or place to talk about the powerful being removed from power or the downtrodden being raised up to dignity. Rome didn't like it because it was a threat to their control, and while the Magnificat itself did not exactly rise to the level of a punishable-by-death offense, it was still very gutsy for the time.
Reading from the prophets in the synagogue or reciting passages at home quietly was one thing. Applying those same ideas to the current political climate would have been something completely different.
Forget the image you've gotten of demure sweet little Mary who simply assented to what an angel told her must be.
Think the virgin 14-year-old who got slut-shamed this year for holding a sign up at a political rally. Think the kids who start recycling programs or gay-straight alliances in their schools, or insist that if they are going to overpay for coffee it had better be from Fair Trade sources.
And the only guarantee she had was that Jesus was going to grow up. Not that she was going to see that happen. Not that her betrothed wasn't going to leave her. Just that she wasn't going to be stoned for the sex no one would believe didn't happen and that her baby was going to grow up.
She was pregnant, with the same lack of guarantee any woman in that era had that she might not survive childbirth - and with the same increased risk any first-time mother would have been carrying simply by not having tried giving birth before - and she sang that.
If she'd been a young man the same age, there probably would have been people shuddering and wondering just when she'd cross the line and end up on a cross. Just the way things were under Rome.
It didn't get any better after Jesus arrived. I wouldn't be surprised if at least one person who heard that little Temple visit prophecy that he'd end up causing Mary pain eventually went "He's going to take after his mother and get himself hurt, isn't he?"
But at least she had some prediction that she'd live to see him grow up.
Not, however, that Joseph would.
"Mary, Did You Know?" (Lyrics)
This is the only song I remember ever hearing in church during my youth that mentioned Mary by name. Most versions are not sung by women, and the Christmastime solos at my church were no exception.
There is exactly one story in the New Testament after Jesus' toddlerhood when Joseph is present, and that is when Jesus went to go talk in the Temple instead of go home with Joseph and Mary like he was supposed to when he was twelve.
The youngest possible age-at-death most Christians use when talking about Jesus' life is 33 years. Going by astronomical clues in the New Testament, he may well have been as old as 37 or so.
No sign of Joseph at the wedding at Cana when the water was changed into wine.
No sign of Joseph when everyone else in the immediate family tracked Jesus and his disciples down to tell him to tone it down or stop preaching completely.
Certainly no sign of Joseph during Holy Week, even when Mary is all over the place.
Which means that Mary was likely a widow before Jesus' ministry started, and certainly was by the time that it ended.
No one else from Jesus' family is noted as having been at the crucifixion.
In the end, she faced the horror of her son's death-by-torture with no one beside her but the friends and followers he'd made along the way. Those of them who hadn't turned and run, that is - mainly her fellow women, who the Romans would have been less likely to see as a threat.
And when all was over and done, she was still with them and they were still with her.
"Ave Mary A" (Lyrics)
I had just bought the album containing this song this past winter about when I started really seriously looking into prayer beads... and then spent about a month listening to it while clutching them.
Grandmother of a New Movement
Her presence is noted at Pentecost, and after that Mary fades into obscurity so far as the New Testament goes. Everything about her life past that point is based in squabbled-over tradition.
A friend and I both think she had her hand in the way support for widows and orphans was the first truly organized thing the early church did.
If Jesus had not had the chance to formally hand off her care to one of his followers at the cross - and given he was already nailed up and dying at the time, the early Christian community would have considered that a blessing that almost didn't happen - Mary would have been lumped right in with them.
I can almost see her confronting the remaining Eleven, arms crossed and foot tapping, reminding them of just how many people had been following Jesus around for hope and a meal. The women who had given what they had in support of the ministry and now had nowhere else to go and nothing left. The people they needed to be helping right now because in a world with Roman taxes and self-serving high priests no one else was going to.
And in the end, that was Mary. Not the (inaccurately) young woman of La Pieta or of so much statuary. A woman of at least fifty or sixty years by the end who had to be listened to both because she was Teacher's mother and because of her own age and wisdom. An aging woman with laugh lines and worry wrinkles and the best justification ever to claim that odd preacher son of hers put all those gray hairs on her head.
"Salve Regina" (Lyrics)
Is a Mary diary complete without this song? I think not!