Mary in History and Myth

November 8, 1998


Mary, in History and Myth

I am responding this morning to a request for a sermon about the mother of Jesus who, except for the virgin birth stories in Matthew and Luke, plays a surprisingly limited role in the New Testament — surprising, that is, in view of the vast importance she came to have in later Christianity.  Few things divide Catholics and Protestants more than the way they feel about Mary, and since we have in this church an unusually large number of people who grew up Catholic I am not surprised by the request to review what Christian scripture says about her and how she came to be venerated by millions of Catholics as the Holy Mother who responds to their adoration and prayers and intercedes with her Son in their behalf.  I have been fascinated by this topic for years, so in addition to being pleased at the chance to talk about it I have also asked our librarian, Mary Jean Ontko to buy Oxford graduate Marina Warner’s Alone of All Her Sex, a scholarly but highly-readable book which I think would be more useful to this church than any other of the books about Mary.

The earliest mention of the mother of Jesus in a New Testament book is by the Apostle Paul in a letter to the Galatian church (ca. A.D. 57), in which refers to Jesus as   God’s son who was born of a woman.   He uses the word gunaikos , the word for women in general, rather than parthenos , the specific word for a virgin, so scholars have wondered:  Did Paul  not know the story of a virgin birth, or did he know it and chose to ignore it here and in all the rest of his letters.  If Mary had already assumed the holiness she would have later, it seems almost incredible that he would not use the word that would tie the birth of Jesus to a miracle, or that he would not even bother to mention her name.   If the vast mythology that would one day surround the figure of Mary was already in the process of creation, it’s hard to imagine such restraint on the part of a man who wrote more of the New Testament than anyone else and who never refers to Jesus’ mother again.  Whatever the case may be, this first reference by Paul is certainly a very quiet entrance in Scripture for the woman who would come to be known as Mother of God, Queen of Heaven, Our Lady of Sorrows, and by many other titles which were never applied to her in Christian Scripture.

In Mark, considered the earliest of the Gospels, Jesus appears on the scene as an adult and there is no virgin birth story, nor any hint of one.  Mary is mentioned once simply as his mother, and another time when she appears  in a rather puzzling light (Mk.3).  Jesus has irritated the religious authorities so much that they accuse him of being possessed by demons, and his family decides to try to restrain him because people are saying, “He is out of his mind.”   When his mother and his brothers show up, they send a messenger through the crowd to call him out, but Jesus appears to dismiss any special claim his family may have on him:  “Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asks the crowd, and looking at those who sat around him he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers!  Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother.”  If Jesus knew his mother had been visited by an angel and chosen by God for a miraculous birth, it seems incredible to me that he would not have spoken of her with great reverence and responded immediately to her summons instead of claiming as his real family all who do the will of God.

In John’s Gospel, when the wine fails at the marriage feast in Cana, and the mother of Jesus says to him, “They have no wine,” he replies:  “O woman, what have you to do with me?” or, as the great Catholic translation known as the Jerusalem Bible has it, “Woman, why turn to me?”  This response is a far cry from the adoration and reverence with which millions of believers will address Mary in later centuries, and raises again the question:  Had Jesus ever heard, in his lifetime, about a miraculous birth, and if so, why does he never once mention it?

Some 70 or 80 years after the birth of Jesus, Matthew and Luke provide us with the stories that stress the virginity of Mary, but after they preface their Gospels with the miraculous birth they never refer to it again or even seem to be aware that they have ever spoken of it at all.  Once we leave the two prefaces, Mary appears only as a perfectly natural mother and Joseph is called the father of Jesus both by the gospel author and by Mary herself.  This has led many careful students of the New Testament to suggest that the birth stories, missing in both Mark and John, were not part of the story of Jesus as it first began to be circulated.  In still another curious moment, when Mary finds her son in the temple after he is missing for 3 days, and rebukes him, he says, “Why did you search?  Did you not know that I was bound to be in my Father’s house?”  But Mary, Luke tells us, did not understand what he was talking about.  Readers have wondered how she could possibly not have understood if she had been visited by an angel who promised her a holy child who would be called “Son of God,” and then conceived that child by the Holy Spirit in a stupendous miracle, and finally had astrologers from the East, following a mysterious star that came and stood over her house, present her with priceless gifts?  At about the same time, we are told, King Herod would have murdered her infant son along with all others in that region had it not been for still another visit from an angel who told the family to flee.  If those stories are history rather than  myths of adoration, how in the world, scholars wonder, could Mary have failed to understand as Jesus got older that he was not an ordinary child?

So we are at this point in our survey:  How important was a virgin birth story in the early church when Paul, Mark, John, James,  Jude and Peter never mention it in all their epistles; since two of the four gospels, including the earliest one, give no hint of knowing the story; and since Jesus himself never makes even the most oblique reference to having come into the world by a special miracle, and never suggests for a moment that his mother might or should become the object of worshipful adoration?  But, someone responds, why would Matthew and Luke tell those birth stories unless they were historical fact?

Bible scholars, both Protestant and Catholic, have suggested a possible answer.  In the ancient world, miraculous births were a widespread formula for explaining the appearance of extraordinary men.  So miracle stories surrounded the births of Pythagoras and Plato and Alexander the Great and the Buddha, and even that Simon Magus with whom the Apostle Peter had some arguments in Rome.  It would be the most natural thing in the world for some who adored Jesus to feel that only a divine miracle could adequately account for his greatness.

However that may be, it is certainly possible to trace the evolution of this story from its first appearance for us in Matthew and Luke to the amazing expansions of it through the centuries.  You understand, of course, that one incentive for a virgin birth story would be that it kept Jesus free from any taint of original sin since no earthly father was involved.  But still, there was Mary’s own flesh to consider — what if original sin got passed through her to her son?  So the church pushed the mythology backwards to Mary’s own mother, declaring that since her conception of Mary had also been “immaculate” there was no touch of original sin in her daughter that could be passed on to the baby Jesus.  This myth, for which there is not a shred of evidence, was declared official church teaching by Pope Pius in December of 1854, and is known as the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception.  Many people use this phrase to describe the birth of Jesus, but it actually refers  to the birth of his mother.

The history of Marian mythology had yet another chapter to come.  It occurred to the church next that having been kept free from sin in her own birth, and free from sin in the birth of her son, Mary should also be kept free from the corruption of death itself by a doctrine known as the Bodily Assumption .  After all, Hebrew scripture has Enoch taken off the earth without having to die, and Elijah swept up in a chariot of fire, so the idea was not new.  Greek myth had Herakles, dying from a poisoned tunic, snatched from death by the gods, and[1] the Roman emperor Constantine had coins struck showing him streaking up to heaven in a triumphal chariot.

Thousands of church leaders had been petitioning over the years for Mary to have this same honor, so when Pope Pius 12th came out on the balcony of St. Peter’s on November l, 1950 to make it official that Mary “was taken up body and soul into the glory of heaven,” he was greeted with thunderous clapping, with tears of joy, and with fervent prayers.  “There was need,” he explained, “that the body of her who in childbirth had preserved her virginity intact, be preserved incorruptible after death….”  Catholic scholars still debate whether she died and was immediately wafted into heaven so as to avoid the dissolution of the grave, or whether she was spared even the indignity of dying and was taken to heaven while still alive.

Any student of church history knows that the church borrowed features of the Roman Saturnalia in creating  Christmas, and borrowed Easter motifs from the Germanic celebration of their goddess of Spring, so it would certainly not be surprising for Christianity to borrow features from the mother-goddess cults all around them in the Greek and Roman world.  In 431 A.D. the Archbishop of Alexandria (Cyril), in a famous sermon at Ephesus, applied to Mary many of the descriptive titles given by the pagans of Ephesus to their great goddess Artemis/Diana.  In that same year, a church Council at Ephesus, over the protests of one great theologian, sanctioned for Mary the title “Mother of God.”  Within another hundred years, and long, long before it became official doctrine, the church established a feast to celebrate the assumption of their beloved Mary into heaven, assigning it to August 13th, date of the ancient festivals of Isis and Artemis.  The church did a marvelous job of gathering in pagan festivals and sublimating them to the purposes of the Christian faith.

Medieval Christians often had such harsh and oppressive lives that’s it’s no wonder the doctrine of a helpful “Mother of God” was so appealing.  God was too remote and stern for ordinary people;  it was comforting to have Mary  relay requests to her son, who could hardly refuse his mother.  People prayed to her so much that popular fancy at times pictured Jesus as jealous.  To one man who had swamped heaven with Ave Marias’s Jesus appeared with this gentle reproach:  “My mother thanks you much for all the salutations you make to her, but still you should not forget to salute me, too.”  There are hundreds of such stories.  Caesarius of Heisterbach (1230) tells of a boy who was persuaded by Satan, on the promise of great wealth, to deny Christ, but who could not be induced to deny Mary also.  When the boy repented of his denial of Jesus, Mary was said to have persuaded her son to forgive the boy.  The same monk tells of a Cistercian lay brother who prayed to Christ:  “Lord, if thou free me not from this temptation, I will complain of thee to thy mother.”

The Catholic church has tried to temper cruder forms of superstition in the adoration of Mary, and takes a cautious view of the hundreds of sightings of the Virgin Mother in a storefront window, a tree, or a cloud.  At the same time it does not wish to come down too hard on the simple faith of thousands who flock to see real tears flow on the face of a statue or a painting of the Virgin.  There are great Catholic theologians who recognize superstitition for what it is, but that church has prospered by being flexible enough  to embrace both the questions of scholars and the credulity of the masses.

The Cult of the Virgin has been one of the richest and most enduring the world has ever produced, and although the mythology built up around her has arisen outside the pages of the New Testament for the most part and has never been part of my own religious life, I understand why her tenderness and mercy have been a comfort to millions of Christians who hoped she would perform a gracious miracle in their behalf.  I know no better example of the hold she had on even the high and mighty than the pilgrimages made  year after year by Henry III, King of France, and his queen, walking 50 miles in the dead of winter to the magnificent cathedral of Chartres  to beg the Virgin for children. (Ca. 1582).  The 16th century Protestant Reformation movement rejected all traditions about Mary that are not directly supported in scripture, so she has never been a central person in Protestant preaching and ritual.  But it is helpful to understand this difference between ourselves and our Catholic friends, andone need not even be a believer to marvel at the power of faith and at the way the Cult of the Virgin has reflected the hopes and fears by which so many have lived and died over the centuries.


(Prayer: We are students of Christ, embarked on a lifelong journey of

discovery, and we ask your blessings, gracious God, that we may make it without

harm, and with ever-increasing delight.  Amen.)


[1] The italicized portion of this document was missing in the recorded audio version of the sermon.