Sunday, December 09, 2007

Reflection: Ave Maria

There are two commonly held Nativity stories in the canonical Christian scriptures, but I'm fond of thinking of Revelation 12 as the third one. I imagine John sitting in his cell thinking about how he wrote a gospel without one, and deciding he'd throw it into his Apocalypse as a deleted scene. As with the rest of the book of Revelation, it's a Nativity with powerful symbolism.

A great Sign appeared in Heaven: a Woman dressed all in sunlight, standing on the moon, and crowned with Twelve Stars. She was giving birth to a Child and cried out in the pain of childbirth. And then another Sign alongside the first: a huge and fiery Dragon! It had seven heads and ten horns, a crown on each of the seven heads. With one flick of its tail it knocked a third of the Stars from the sky and dumped them on earth. The Dragon crouched before the Woman in childbirth, poised to eat up the Child when it came. The Woman gave birth to a Son who will shepherd all nations with an iron rod. Her Son was seized and placed safely before God on his Throne. The Woman herself escaped to the desert to a place of safety prepared by God, all comforts provided her for 1,260 days. - Revelation 12: 1-6, The Message

There's a Christmas special for WETA workshop to produce in there I think.

I gave a seminar at a conference this past year on the book of Revelation. My goal with the 90 minute session was to provide a summary of the book as well as some keys to discerning how to read it. There are a number of ways Christian theologians approach John's Revelation; I'm what's called a preterist-idealist. I think the book was written for a very specific audience, primarily first century Christians. I also think the symbolism is primarily aimed at them. However, I also believe that if we understand the first century context of the symbolism of the book, we can discern some powerful concepts for what it means to be Christian in the 21st century.

One of the first century keys in Revelation 12 is the number 12. The woman wears a crown with 12 stars on it. The 12 stars on her crown are a rather easy symbol to decode and can be defined from withing the context of Revelation itself. As G.K. Beale notes in his commentary on Revelation, "Other references to crowns" are connotations of the people of God (the "saints"), as are the stars, which represent the 12 tribes of Israel, or 12 apostles, or both. The people of God, at any rate; the stars themselves are symbols of "angelic representatives in heaven of the seven churches on earth" in Revelation 1 (626-27).

While our immediate assumption, given that this woman gives birth to a Messianic child would be to say she represents Mary, most scholars would disagree. It's unlikely this woman represents the historical or personal mother of the Messiah. We should think of her as the apocalyptic, or theological significance Mary points to as the mother of Jesus. In other words, Mary is what's happening on the mundane level...but the woman in Revelation 12 is the theological significance of Mary's actions. So we could say that the Woman is not Mary, but Mary is the Woman.

And yet Mary is a powerful representation of the Woman who represents the People of God. She is a virgin, innocent and pure. Both Israel and the Christian Church are portrayed as a woman, beautiful and beloved, but sometimes unfaithful. Mary herself was not unfaithful, but was certainly perceived as such. She bore the appearance of the harlot, though she was a virgin. In this way, Mary is a summary of Israel at its best and worst. She is the handmaiden of the Lrod, the willing servant, the beautiful virgin; "I have loved you with an enduring Israel" (Jeremiah 31:3-4). And yet to her neighbors, she must certainly have seemed unfaithful.

The Woman is not Mary. But Mary is the Woman. Rather, the Woman is the People of God.

You and I.

So now we might say, the Woman is not you or I. But we are the Woman. Therefore, as Walter Wangerin has said, we are part of the sisterhood of Mary.

You see, Mary is also a model for people who are not part of the pure, inside track. She was certainly Jewish, but not of the actual "line of David" as her husband Joseph was. She is kin to Tamar the Canaanite, Rahab of Jericho, Ruth the Moabite and Bathsheba, wife to a Hittite, who all married into the line of David from the outside. All of these women are included in Matthew's genealogy of Jesus. Wangerin tells us that "Hebrew genealogies almost never mentioned women. Yet Matthew names four in the ancestry of Christ. Not one of them is here by birth. Each becomes a matriarch of Jesus rather by her character and by God's grace. This is the sisterhood Mary is about to enter" (53).

It is also the sisterhood we are called to join.

We are called to join the sisterhood of Mary, and to allow the same apocalyptic, theological significance to inform our lives. Wangerin rephrases Gabriel's question to Mary in Luke's Gospel in this way; "Will you be the door of the Lord into this place?"

Doorways from other worlds are always gateways to hell in popular culture. If someone is opening a gateway in a movie, it's usually going somewhere bad. Or letting in a demon. It's all H.P. Lovecraft's fault as far as I'm concerned. Every gateway opened in a Lovecraft story is bad news. And if a virgin conceives a child in popular film or novels nowadays, it isn't the Lord who's been overshadowing. It's always Satan. Or a minion. Or a close neighbor with black robes. Regardless, the question posed to us given these two is, "which kind of doorway are you?"

We are called to incarnate Jesus every day. To be doors for the Lord into whatever place we are in. To be like Mary, and say "may it be to me as you have said" in response to Gabriel's question.

Protestants aren't into Mary so much. Smacks of papal whatever. Me, I'm post-Protestant, in that I'm not sure what the hell I'd be protesting about Catholicism, or perhaps I'm uber-Protestant in that I protest Protestantism as well as Catholicism. Or neither. Frankly my dear, I don't give a damn. And I like the Christmas song Ave Maria. And I think Mary is a helluva role model for me and anyone else interested in incarnating Christ.

So I got to thinking, what if saying "Ave Maria" didn't so much mean that I'm actually praying to Mary, but rather recognizing the Mary in myself and others? It would be like saying Namaste, which is a Buddhist greeting that recognizes the common divinity in myself and others. So this Christmas, when I say or sing "Ave Maria", I'm not saying it just to the woman who gave birth to a baby in Bethlehem. I'm saying it to the Woman in Revelation 12, of whom Mary is a part...a representative. But then again, you are as well. And so am I. So when I say "Ave Maria" this Christmas, I'm saying it to you. And I'm saying it to me.

I'm saying, "Hail YOU who are highly favored. The Lord is with YOU. Will you be the door of the Lord into this place?"

Ave Maria.

1 comment:

  1. This is completely the wrong post to add this comment to (the post was beautiful and thematic and this has nothing at all to do with your thoughtful topic)... but I'm going to be late for work and wanted to drop you this link before I leave...

    An intelligent review of the movie we both are curious about.