May is the month of the Blessed Mother, but can we even see the real Mary of History?
May is the month of mothers and of Mary, most holy. How easy it is to substitute the real Mary for a cultural congenial idealized motherhood. We U.S. Christians do this with Jesus so often. Why? Because a culturally congenial Jesus who buys American values is easy for us to swallow. And just like we wouldn’t tolerate a Jesus who doesn’t buy American values, so also venerating the Mary of history just isn’t an option.
I mean, except through significant transformation.
Explore the Mary of history here—
Mary of History, the Middle Eastern Girl
Consider the advice given in Proverbs 13:24; 19:18; 22:15; 23:13-14; 29:15, 17, 19; and Sirach 22:6; 30:1—13. Understand that this advice—so violent, repulsive, and counter-productive to many American parents—concerns only sons, not daughters. Not that limiting this prescription to raising boys would make American parents feel okay with doing what is prescribed!
Vatican II’s document on Divine Revelation explains that biblical interpreters must pay special attention to the cultural background of the human authors (Dei Verbum n. 12). Like all humans everywhere, biblical authors perceived reality in culturally specific ways. Because of this, Vatican II says bible readers need to be culturally informed when interpreting Scripture.
Almost all advice found in Proverbs and Sirach is about “sons.” The authors address males in nearly all their folk wisdom. Do you think the author of Sirach had any intention of teaching Israelite women like the Mary of history? He didn’t. Ben Sira wrote exclusively for young men. Both author and intended audience lived in a patriarchal, androcentric society.
So what about instructing Israelite girls, such as the peasant nothing-person Mary of history? This came from their mother and other village women. Forget about the legendary Mariocentric nonsense about her being raised in the Temple spun by a heretical document that refuses to die. Starving peasant women raised the Mary of history.
And like all ancient Mediterranean girls, Mary enjoyed no childhood. From the beginning of her harsh, brutal life, women taught Mary what womanhood meant. She learned everything that would be expected of her. As soon as she was capable, like all Mediterranean girls, the Mary of history had to assume difficult and physically challenging domestic tasks. She was expected and trained to be utterly subordinate.
When Ben Sira begins giving out pithy advice for girls, it is about limiting the time they spend with married women and getting into social trouble. And suppose Israelite fathers don’t watch over their daughters. In that case, they become a laughingstock to enemies, a byword among Israelites, and an object of ridicule. In other words, the worst fate of all—shamed.
My son, keep a close watch on your daughter,
lest she make you a laughingstock for your enemies,
A byword in the city and the assembly of the people,
an object of derision in public gatherings.
See that there is no lattice in her room,
or spot that overlooks the approaches to the house.
Do not let her reveal her beauty to any male,
or spend her time with married women;
For just as moths come from garments,
so a woman’s wickedness comes from a woman.
Better a man’s harshness than a woman’s indulgence,
a frightened daughter than any disgrace.
Notice how Ben Sira sees unruly daughters (Sirach 22:3-5)? What would happen to such a defiant Israelite wife? Her husband could lawfully dismiss her, returning her to her father. In turn, her father would be obligated to return the bride-price. This was the payment the husband’s family paid the bride’s family for “taking away” an economic asset.
Perils of the Mary of History
Recall the last post on the lowly lives of Galilean peasants. They survived on a subsistence kinship economy. How damaging would be insubordinate daughters to a Galilean peasant family? Ben Sira gives his folk wisdom on the matter (Sirach 22:3-5).
With a woman sin had a beginning,
and because of her we all die.
Allow water no outlet,
and no boldness of speech to a wicked woman.
If she does not go along as you direct,
cut her away from you.
Do you think the New Testament offers a different perspective on Israelite female subordination? If so, think again. Right from the start, Israelites instructed young girls like Mary that they were of small value—
1 Timothy 2:11-15
A woman must receive instruction silently and under complete control. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man. She must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. Further, Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and transgressed. But she will be saved through motherhood, provided women persevere in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.
Mary of History, the Lifelong Problem
In the ancient Israelite view (really the pan-Mediterranean view), ideally, women remained always subservient to men (Sirach 9:2; compare with Ephesians 5:22). An Israelite father had no role in disciplining his children until puberty, and then primarily his sons. But daughters were lifelong problems (Sirach 42:9-10). Look very carefully over this and consider the problem pregnant Mary caused her father.
Recall that honor (reputation, socially recognized worth) is everything in the Mediterranean world of the Gospels. Even today, when people catastrophically lose honor in the Middle East, the family cannot recover without some extraordinary and horrific means. As long as the stain of shame remains, who will trade with the disgraced family? They become outcasts, scorned and derided. In the collectivistic world of the Mediterranean, life without community is impossible.
Saving the family from certain death is why honor killings happen in the Middle East. Do you think that Mary’s early pregnancy didn’t imperil her? Again, forget about the devotional excess. The Mary of history wasn’t in the Temple or considered to be a holy child. She was seen as just another near-worthless Galilean girl, of little value but tremendous risk, growing up in Nazareth, nothing-place of nothing-people (John 1:46). How can you love someone you refuse to get to know?
Haunted By Scandal & Shame
How do you think her life went after her scandalous pregnancy? Full of angelic choirs singing her fellow villager’s concerns away? This haunted Mary and Jesus for the rest of their earthly days. When they called Jesus “son of Mary,” they weren’t honoring him or his mother. Quite the contrary! You don’t identify a male in the Middle East that way unless you aren’t sure who his father was. What does that imply about how Jesus’ peers perceived him?
But don’t think that Mary and other Middle Eastern women are powerless. To survive in such a world, against such structures of injustice, Middle Eastern women must be the intelligentsia of the village. They dominate the home and often instruct the men how to perceive, think, and respond in public. Oh yes, they do have power. How could they survive otherwise?
If you make Jesus alien to these cultural realities, you deny the Incarnation for all practical purposes. And all the verbally orthodox protestations otherwise won’t change that. Since to be human is to be culturally specific, to see Jesus or Mary honestly, we must always check our cultural reading glasses.
Therefore, don’t deny Jesus’ humanity. And by extension, don’t do this to Mary and the other saints.