One of the most curious incidents in the passion, whose story we are beginning to tell again in the days and weeks before Easter, is the story recorded in John:
And that is what the soldiers did. Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. 26When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” 27Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home. – John 19:25-27
It is curious for all sorts of reasons. In John’s gospel there is no nativity. So no mention of Mary until the second chapter where she is the one who nags Jesus about the wine having run out at the wedding party. Whether she nags him or not is a question. Jesus’ response, “Woman, you don’t know what your talking about,” is not a friendly, intimate, rejoinder.
Perhaps, I suppose, because of the dearth of references to Mary, because of the relatively unimportant role the gospels assign her, and because of the Protestant iconoclastic tradition, we protestants have not paid much attention to Mary.
And, I think likely that many of us having, recited for so long the Nicene and Apostle’s creed which contains that line in it about believing in “Jesus Christ . . . conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary,” have simply said, Marianism is relic from a past day. We have been uncomfortable too, with the tradition of veneration which has swirled around Mary, given what we take the essence of Christian faith to be about: namely that in the encounter with Jesus (be that in the tradition, or in the startling encounter of grace in the stranger) God is somehow known again. We call ourselves Christians, not Marianists, for this reason.
But might there not be some good reason to think theologically about Mary and about other more minor characters in the Gospels, as somehow also re-presenting the reality of God to us? I’m not advocating a veneration of Mary, just as I would argue that Jesus’ words about not worshipping him, ought to be taken seriously. But I do wonder if Leonardo Boff, who wrote a liberation theology book on Mary back in 1979, offers good advice for Protestants who have for so long ignored Mary, and for Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox as well, who have venerated her. He writes:
Christian virginity does not mean only keeping oneself for God. Before all else, Christian celibacy is a mission to others . . . Hence its maternal character. It engenders works of care and service. . . Mary is also our model for the basic attitude that we all ought to have before God, the only attitude worthy of a creature: openness and total acceptance. The Maternal Face of God (Harper & Row Publishers: San Francisco) 1979. Translated by Barr & Diercksmeier, p. 151.
There is, I believe, something for us in the tradition of Mary. And just like in our tradition of Jesus — we will not, nor cannot take it literally. Christian texts and Christian traditions are, of course, meant to be a grounding of our tradition. But that grounding is incomplete, and I would argue wrong therefore, unless the witness it offers be reflected in a life that witnesses to it by stating, in our own words, what we ought to think, say and do, if we are to bear it truthfully.
I want to play one of the hundreds of pieces of music dedicated to Mary this afternoon. It’s a piece written by a relatively obscure composer from Poland, Henryk Gorecki. He wrote this music in honor of Pope John Paul II’s third visit to Poland, their shared homeland. It’s a chorus, unaccompanied, and is called Totus Tuus, which was Pople John Paull II’s expression of his devotion to Mary, translated from the Latin, means totally yours. I want to play it not because I think that that is a good literally description of anyone’s relation to anyone, but because it describes, in music better than in words, the total openness of thought and integrity between the inner and the outer person that we offer not just to God, but to life itself.