The Assumption of Mary offers us a challenge—either see her with new eyes or continue using her as a theological weapon for unjust structures and hegemony.
Mary is beloved by Catholics worldwide. That is, the Mary we’ve created. The overwhelming majority of Catholics approach her exclusively through what I call “the devotional and the emotional.” Few critically reflect on this or her.
Please watch the video below carefully…
Mary in the New Testament and History
You would never know from Catholics the lack of information we have on the historical Mary. Because despite the way many Catholics act, we know next to nothing of Mary’s actual peasant life. And the New Testament doesn’t offer much in this regard.
Her assumption and almost everything else we Catholics proclaim about Mary is nowhere mentioned by the New Testament. Only ignorance would see the New Testament as the norm under-girding Marian devotion or practice.
How did Mary die? Silence. What was her exact role in the early Jesus groups? Not a word is given. What was her life like in Nazareth with her family? Zilch. How was her marriage with Joseph? Nada. What was her childhood like? Nothing is said. How did her birth come about? Complete quiet. Who were her parents? There is no answer. And when it comes to the Assumption, Perpetual Virginity, and the Immaculate Conception, we hear nothing but deafening silence.
By the second century, two main things are known about Mary: she was mother to Jesus, and she was a virgin (maid) untouched by a man when she became pregnant. All subsequent Mariology until recent times was birthed out of 1) her Mediterranean motherhood and 2) her being a Mediterranean maiden.
Mediterranean Cultural Mary
What could be the foundation and explanation of all Marian devotion and understanding? It can only be Mediterranean culture. Without the Mediterranean-style father-ineffective family and “Godfather” patron-client relations, there would be no Marian devotions or dogmas. There wouldn’t be any visions of Mary, either. As scholar Bruce Malina explains, subtract those Mediterranean social institutions and cultural scripts, all these Marian staples wouldn’t exist.
We have a hard time even being able to see this. Watch this:
How familiar are you with Mediterranean motherhood? How familiar are you with the way it gender-divides labor in that region? Are you intimate with how Mediterranean mother-son symbiosis works? Do you relate to a neighbor with a considerable surplus as do characters in “The Godfather Trilogy” (i.e., looking to them in Mediterranean patronage, giving favors in ongoing reciprocity)?
Wouldn’t it be honest to say that these are remote to you? Wouldn’t you be lying if you affirmed that U.S. female roles and aspirations connect with Marian Mediterranean symbolism? Dropping the sentimentality and being honest with all of this, how would this affect our Marian practice and Mariological understanding?
New Testament Data is Scant on Mary
This past May, I blogged about the earliest and most negative picture of the mother of Jesus in the New Testament. We also saw that there was some evolution in this regard as later Gospels were produced (check out this post, and this post, and this post). Consequently, until someone wrote the Gospel called “Luke,” Marian devotion wasn’t possible.
Christian thinking about Mary originates in the infancy narratives of the documents we call “Matthew” (chapters 1—2) and “Luke” (chapters 1—2). However, Jesus was the focus of these stories, not Mary. These stories weren’t 21st-century Western biographies.
Mary and a Fitting Devotion
The Body of Christ stayed Mediterranean even when it became more sophisticated along Greco-Roman lines. Emperor Constantine adopted Christianity as a Roman legal religion at the beginning of the fourth century. Hence philosophically-minded Christian leaders, elites, needed to articulate the right ideas about Jesus.
But even as elites, they were all still Mediterranean men, enculturated and socialized accordingly. Consequently, their high regard for their Mediterranean mothers would naturally lead to Mary’s inclusion and prominence.
Mediterranean male Christian thinkers appreciated the principle of propriety (“fittingness”). Proper Mariology evolved out of this appreciation. These thinkers held that followers of Jesus needed to speak about and act toward the mother of Messiah Jesus in a most fitting manner.
Potuit, decuit, ergo fecit!
To the rescue came the principle of propriety. As Bruce Malina explains it: potuit, decuit, ergo fecit (if it is proper or fitting, it must have been and therefore it was).
Wasn’t it proper and fitting to call Jesus “God”? Sure it was, early Mediterranean Christian philosophy-types thought. If that is so, is it appropriate and suitable to call Mary “the Mother of God”? You bet, they answered.
But hold on! What good is a dead and buried Mother of God? That’s not fitting at all for such a high honor status VIP like Mary! The proper and fitting thing would be for Mary to have been raised following her death (potuit). Therefore, she must have been raised following her death (decuit). And hence she, in fact, was lifted up after dying (ergo fecit). Makes sense, right?
But being raised back to regular human life just wouldn’t be fitting! Hence, wouldn’t it be equally proper that she be taken up into sky vault upon her death and resurrection? Therefore that must have happened also. Consequently, she was, in fact, taken up into sky vault and is right there even now. See all the “facts” we can produce once the principle of propriety becomes accepted?
Assumption about a Sky Woman
The earliest mention of our (Mediterranean) Lady’s dormition or assumption comes not before the third century. Sorry Dr. Hahn and friends, but the Pregnant Sky Woman in Revelation 12 is a colossal nonhuman person giving birth at the beginning of time. She can’t be Mary, not in the literal sense anyway. All theology, Mariology included, evolves.
Appropriately Understanding Mary and Jesus
With that principle of propriety, intelligent Marian invention discovered prolific parallels between the life of Jesus and the experience and status of his mother. Jesus suffered. So too, Mary must have suffered. Jesus healed people. Therefore Mary must have healed people, as well.
Was Jesus the Cosmic Lord? Yes he is. So wouldn’t that also mean that Mary would have to be a Cosmic Lady of some type, a Sky Queen? After all, Jesus was king, and so Mary would have to be queen, wouldn’t she?
Stereotypes, not Psychology for Mary
Being Mediterranean personalities, early Christian elites, while adept at philosophical thinking, were distant from anything psychological. Anti-introspective personalities, Mediterranean elites and non-elites utilized stereotypical descriptions and explanations to understand others and themselves. They were not introspective Americans, judging people individually and psychologically. This leads us to ask: which stereotypes would they find fitting for Mary?
Seen philosophically through the Mediterranean cultural lens, Mary became a cipher for the Mediterranean feminine-positive, namely “virgin” (maid) and “mother.” With a paltry biological knowledge and zero interest in psychology, Mediterranean males turned Mary into a symbol within their contemporary cultural context in service to the established religious system.
Mediterranean male theologians celebrated culturally-specific understandings of the feminine. They did this by stirring in their biological misunderstandings, seasoned it well with their misogyny and dread of the feminine, and baked it all in the oven of abasing everything ordinarily female.
Mary is a perfect (Mediterranean) woman! Thus, because this is so, we cannot permit any “negative female qualities” in Mary. Hence, Mediterranean male theologians denied these qualities in Mary. Thus, they stripped away so much of her humanity to make her into a fitting symbol. This is identical to what the pre-Christian Mediterranean theologians did when they assessed the feminine in favorite goddesses such as Isis, Cybele, Demeter, etc. Ultimately, we committed the same crime on Mary.
Today American Catholics reside in a world rightly insisting on equal pay and benefits for the same work regardless of gender differentiation. We believe that everyone, no matter their gender, should realize their full potential. This severely contrasts with the Church’s revered role of Mary, “gentle woman, quiet dove.” Our United States values clash with Mediterranean gender-based sexual roles.
Wouldn’t it be unbalanced for any Euro-American woman to define herself exclusively on gender-based sexual roles? But how many bishops and priests urge precisely this? Imitate Mary. Women everywhere should assume her Bible-based role. But what is there to imitate? All we know about her is 1) she was a Mediterranean and 2) a mother.
But what if, instead, we explored Mary as a disciple? Sadly, our approach to her in this regard has been anemic at best and ethnocentric anachronism at worst. We suffocate this approach by perennially depicting Mary exclusively as Mediterranean maid and mother. Insidiously, we promote this as the definitive feminine.
Therefore the hierarchical Church says that woman must be be sweet, submissive, and passive. Consequently, Mary, the Woman, is also. Because, after all, isn’t this the only holy woman permissible? For a patriarchal society, yes.
Because of this, we see Mary prominently featured in societies where women are totally absent in the public square. The result is a Mary far away from the powerhouse of the Lukan Magnificat. It follows that the Mary we imagine is hardly a symbol of change to unjust social structures. Instead she becomes the very opposite, a symbol of the patriarchal status quo. Ultimately, Mary symbolizes mothers devoted to motherhood, and the proper submission of wives.
New Directions with Old Dogmas
How do we find balance here, and keep our sister-made-our-mother? How do we continue to venerate Mary without losing the illiterate, starving Galilean peasant woman she definitely was?
Tomorrow as we celebrate the Solemnity of her Assumption, we have to ask ourselves: who do we venerate in Heaven? Is it a Galilean peasant girl and nothing-person? Or do we instead enthrone idealized Mediterranean womanhood sitting at the right hand of patriarchal hegemony?