Monday 8 September 2014

Born to be Queen

                                              Blessed Virgin Mary from the Ghent Altarpiece

Taking the damsel by the hand, he saith to her: Talitha cumi, which is, being interpreted: Damsel (I say to thee) arise.  And immediately the damsel rose up, and walked: and she was twelve years old
Mark 5:41-42

It is the beginning of salvation, the origin of every feast for behold! The Mother of the Bridegroom is born. With good reason does the whole world rejoice today
St Peter Damian

Theologically speaking there is little that can be said about the birthday of the Blessed Virgin Mary on September 8 that cannot also be said about her Immaculate Conception on December 8. But when a child is hidden in the womb what is said about it has an abstract theoretical feel about it. Which is no doubt why people apparently find it so easy to justify, or pretend to justify, abortion to themselves. When the same child emerges into the world she or he becomes very real indeed. Hence, while the birthday of our Lady is less solemnly celebrated by the Church than her conception the feast of her nativity has a much more joyful feel about it. The birth of a child should be a joyful occasion and certainly Mary's parents, St Anne and St Joachim, were more than glad and after them the Church for all ages has joined in their celebrations. It is the case though, sadly, that historically and still today in many parts of the world the birth of a baby girl has been a cause for sorrow or at least disappointment.

The practice of female infanticide was, if not universal, at least very widespread indeed. That it has become less so in the past couple of thousand years is in no small part due to those religions which the secular world habitually refers to as misogynist. I will come to Christianity in a moment but in the first place I will say that it is (and I choose my words with care) to the eternal credit of the founder of Islam that, appalled by female infanticide, he condemned outright and forbad without equivocation the practice. Taking his usual robust approach to matters he brought about an end to the practice among Arabs and wherever Islam went afterwards it extended its protection to baby girls. Whatever the subsequent lot of women under Islam might be they have at least escaped a violent death at life's outset. By contrast atheist China with it's One Child policy has seen a sharp increase in female infanticide as well as abortion on grounds of gender over recent decades.

Christianity from the outset has also set its face against the killing of infant girls. Or, to put it in positive terms, has always held that women no less than men are members of the Kingdom of God. I shall return to the Blessed Virgin shortly but first I will consider an interesting episode from the life of her Son. Three of the Evangelists record the miracle within a miracle story of the daughter of Jairus and the woman with an issue of blood. For the sake of simplicity I will confine myself to St Mark's account (Mark 5:21-43) Briefly the story is that Jairus, 'one of the rulers of the synagogue', asks Jesus to come and heal his dying daughter. On the way a woman with a long standing 'issue of blood' touches His robe and 'forthwith the fountain of her blood was dried up.' Meanwhile the daughter of Jairus dies but undeterred our Lord and his entourage proceed to the house and raises the girl from the dead.

Neither the woman nor the daughter are named so we can take them as representative figures. The woman's illness, which is gynaecological, would have rendered her ritually unclean under the Law of Moses. St Mark tells us that she had suffered it for 12 years and thus been excluded from the assembly of the people and worship in Temple or synagogue for all that time. She was doubly offending against the Law by mingling with the crowd around our Lord and by touching Him because anyone who came into contact with her would themselves become ritually unclean. Yet Jesus says nothing of all this. What He says is Daughter, thy faith hath made thee whole: go in peace. By calling her daughter, by healing her of a uniquely female complaint and by disregarding the purity laws of Israel Jesus is making a strong affirmation that nothing bar sin excludes a person from the Kingdom of His Father, not gender, not illness, nothing. Moreover Divine Providence by including together in one episode a 'ruler of the synagogue' with one who had been excluded from that same synagogue for the same number of years that his daughter had been alive was making the point that His ways were not Man's ways but were founded on values that looked into the things of the Spirit more than the letter of the Law and certainly more than the sex of His children.

That Jairus is desperately concerned about his daughter's life and that he is an official of the synagogue is also no coincidence. There is a prayer used by some Orthodox Jews which goes  "Blessed are you, Lord, our God, ruler of the universe who has not created me a woman."  While this postdates New Testament times we can take it as a fair reflection of what Jewish thought at the time of Jesus actually was. In Jairus we have a man who is both Orthodox and desperately concerned about his daughter, so concerned that he turns to Jesus for help. Again Divine Providence is indicating to us the transformation which the Gospel brings about. The 'ruler of the synagogue' who values the life of his daughter so highly is stepping beyond the strict bounds of his worldview to find our Lord because He it is who make no differentiation between men and women, clean and unclean when it comes to giving His aid and His Spirit.  

The Gospels also record that our Lord's mission was, as it were, bookended by women. The first to become aware of the Incarnate Jesus was Mary His mother. The first to become aware of the Risen Jesus was another Mary, the Magdalene 'Apostle to the Apostles.' This profusion of witnesses to not only the value of women but to their centrality for the whole Christian project may seem a commonplace now to people in the West but that is only because the slow burning Christian revolution in human values has become the common currency of Western Societies. It is, indeed, the decline of Christianity which once again exposes female life to destruction in the form of abortion and it is precisely those societies most historically Christian (or presumably Muslim) where parents would not dream of aborting their children just because they were girls.

There is a tendency to project preconceived narratives onto Mary. Some feminist and liberation theologians look on the Mary of the Magnificat as a feisty class warrior or prototype for Rosie the Riveter. Rival schools of thought think of her as the archetypal non-feminist, meek, submissive, obedient, colourless. Others, more orthodox, think of her primarily as a remote empress who wields great power but is not warmly engaged in the lives of ordinary Christians. Of all the Marian feasts though perhaps her birthday is the time to think of her most of all as just herself.

Mary is characterised as the New Eve. Like her ancestress (literally or metaphorically as the case may be) she was free from Original Sin and enjoyed from the beginning a close relationship with God. She was also endowed with free will which meant that like Eve she could theoretically have made a serious misstep. That she did not in fact do so was not the result of some mechanical preprogramming which reduced her to the status of robot. Rather her life was always a fruitful interaction between her unique personality and the grace of God. Mary was richly human. What she was and what she became rested in no small part upon her sex. The first human after the Fall (literal or metaphorical as the case may be) to achieve perfection was a woman, it was Mary. The way she lived her life as a girl, as a teenager was the necessary and indispensable precondition for the salvation of the world. When we consider her life and achievements we can read the end into the beginning. Mary, however, lived her life day by day and walked by putting one foot in front of the other. That is, she was like us. The choices which she made, to love God and neighbour, to  resist temptation, were made as she went along her way and flowed from who she was. She loved because she was loving, she shunned sin because she was virtuous. She smiled because some things made her happy. She wept because some things made her sad. She got invited to weddings because people enjoyed her company. She could give instructions to other peoples servants and be obeyed because people knew her to be wise and judicious. She could be concerned about wine running out both because she was kind and considerate towards those around her and because she liked to see people having a festive time. Mary did not become courageous on the day she stood by the Cross of her Son, she was courageous all her life. She was not looked up to as mother by the disciples of Jesus only after His formal charge to Saint John on Calvary but before also and not just by the disciples. The Magnificat was not the only song she sang, the only poetry she composed.

Mary exists beyond the pages of a book or the pictures in a Church. She was and is three dimensional. She has her own thoughts, she is who she is in herself not simply as she exists in relation to others. It is true that the singular graces she received flowed from the merits of her Son Jesus Christ. But that she put these gifts to such good account is to her credit and as a result of her freely entered into cooperation with God as daughter of the Father, spouse of the Holy Spirit and mother of the Son. She filled those threefold roles with herself, not with a dead compliance by rote to a preordained script but with the life and liveliness of a woman.

Mary was born to be Queen but is was not a crown given to her simply by virtue of who her parents happened to be. She came to her realm through struggle and sorrow, and some great joys and happinesses too. She was crowned Queen of Heaven by her Risen and Glorious Son because she had triumphed in her task. The power of God shone through her because she, Mary, made every effort she could to let it do so. To become a channel of perfect love is no easy task. No one has succeeded at it like Mary did not only because no one has been so graced as she but also because Mary, the daughter whose birth we celebrate on September 8 every year, was the one, unique, irreplaceable Mary, she was herself. In her we see that it is only in dying to self that we realise who we actually are. This paradox of life springing from death which reached its climax through Mary's Son first entered the world as Jesus's mother. In being dead to worldliness and alive to God all her life Mary shows us that nothing is more human or more unique than a person who opens themselves entirely to God. Each flower is different from each other flower yet each is entirely submissive to God. So it is with us, submission to God enables Him to shine through us refracted by us in the perfectly unique way that He desires to be seen in us. Perfect submission, Mary's submission, kills the false promises of individualism but fulfils entirely our true individuality.

It would be trite and contrary to the experience of most of the world to say that for Christians all girls are born to be Queens (though the Scots words for girl, as it happens, is quean.) But it is true that all girls are born with the possibility of achieving perfection. The Church believes it, the Scriptures proclaim it and history demonstrates again and again that Christianity survives and flourishes wherever women are fully engaged in its life. In celebrating Mary the Church, which is more than half female, should never forget to celebrate her daughters also. And in defending the honour of our Lady and the Marian dogmas we should never cease either to defend her daughters whether they are attacked by the violence of armed men or the violence of poverty or exclusion from education or in suffer any other way  simply because they are women. Remember always There is neither Jew nor Greek: there is neither bond nor free: there is neither male nor female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28)    

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