Sunday, May 13, 2007

Mother of God

When Mary uttered her brief and obedient, “So be it,” I hardly dare say what happened then — the word of the creature brought the Creator into the world.

— Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow, 1874

Today I am thinking about Mary, the mother of Jesus. I’m writing this on Mother’s Day, so that’s probably why. But I think about Mary a lot these days, being still somewhat at the beginning of my love for her — as if she is the mother I didn’t know I had.

Anything I write about women and Christianity is bound to be controversial. Friends ask me why I’d be part of a faith that seems so focused on men. Others worry that maybe I worship Mary. Some say — rather hopefully — that she is really our version of the Goddess. And to these questions I have to answer 1) There’s more to ancient Christianity than meets the eye 2) Venerate and worship are two different things 3) No, not a goddess, and that’s the beauty of it.

I have been in communities where I felt patronized and minimized as a woman — where men patted me on the head and told me that my role was “to be a support to my husband,” or “to bear children.” I have also been in communities where men were considered somewhat evil, or at least rather pathetic, but we forgave them anyway (maybe).

It wasn’t until I attended an Orthodox service that I experienced a community offering profound reverence to a woman:

More honorable than the Cherubim and more glorious beyond compare than the Seraphim, without corruption thou gavest birth to God the Word. True Theotokos, we magnify thee!

“Theotokos” means “God-bearer” and it’s what Orthodox call Mary. The implications are astonishing: a human-divine cooperation by which God becomes physically present in the world, in a form we can relate to and understand.

For Mary to have “accepted Christ into her heart” as she did (making her the first Christian), she had to have a deeply intimate connection and transparency with the Divine, cultivated over years. Tradition tells us Mary was brought to the Temple when she was three to be raised there, and that she left her parents and climbed happily up the steps as soon as she arrived. We are told that she slept in the Holy of Holies (which, if one is familiar with Jewish tradition, is outrageous. I was shocked when I first heard that teaching. But there is something quite wondrous about it.)

Orthodox believe that we are created in the image of God and that our journey is to remember who we are in that image — to come back to our Edenic selves, as it were, in a process called Theosis, or Divinization. This does not mean we are the Source of the universe; rather we journey closer and closer to the Source, until we become united with the Divine as iron takes on fire. The Theotokos is a perfect example of this, and as such she gives me hope. Mary is not a goddess, because she doesn’t have to be. She does not have special powers that I don’t have. She is an ordinary human who opened herself fully to God. This is something every single human being can do. In fact, it is our destiny. That is why we can hymn a human woman so extravagantly.

Mary elevates not only women, but all humanity, by reminding us of who we are and of our incredible potential for goodness. In mother-love she calls my attention to the wind of the Divine stirring in and around me — and gently prods me to have the courage to say, “So be it.”