“My Goddess Gave Birth to Your God” reads the bumper sticker. The growing notion that God is not just and only male is well known in our UU churches and in other niches in society. Feminism has grown with us for decades and centuries. Gradually, it spreads around the world, bringing women status, freedoms, compensation, and rights in societies where patriarchy has ruled unquestioned for millennia. We need the Divine Mother, not just Our Father. But let’s also be careful to not just honor the feminine in spiritual images; let’s go on to honor women in many capacities.
Most Christian churches will center on Jesus’ death and resurrection this Easter morning; I wish to look at the three Mary’s most intimately involved in that, using them as a metaphor for the spiritual and practical resurrection humanity needs. They, the closest to the center of the story, are the most overlooked. It is long-since time to look. It is for all the women in the world who go unacknowledged that I offer this “For Mary.”
I had never noticed the absence of female imagery in Christianity until I read the psychologist Carl Jung. He noted that only in Catholic churches was the feminine celebrated, and then only in the form of the desexualized Virgin Mary. Protestant churches were entirely devoid of feminine elements. No paintings, no clergy, nothing. The only caveat to that were the many women in the pews and the kitchen. The feminine, and so, women, got short shrift in Christianity.
This goes back to scriptural roots. Women were put in their place and kept there by men who decreed that it be so. Paul said it wasn’t proper for women to speak or teach in church. This may reflect the tenor of the times. Certainly, early Christian settings aren’t the only place and time that men and women occupy separate spheres. My visit to India showed me how far more segregated the sexes can be than they are here in America. I’m not excusing Paul’s sexism; I’m acknowledging how pervasive, entrenched, and unquestioned it can be. It has taken thousands of years for us to question it.
Early Christians had to root Jesus in both the divine and the earthly. He was both God and man. Some Gnostic sects wanted to have him be all spirit, an appearance of solid embodiment, but really a pure manifestation of God not bound by a body. Early Christians called this a heresy. To save humankind the Christ had to be human. They insisted his suffering and death were real.
To be embodied he had to be born. To be born he had to have a mother. If God were to come into the world it would have to be through a very pure woman. To be pure she shouldn’t have sex, hence, the strange and miraculous story of the Immaculate Conception. The angel Gabriel appears to Mary and informs her that she is pregnant with the son of God even though she was still a virgin, not even having had sex with her husband. Motherhood is undeniably obvious; fatherhood is distantly invisible.
I wonder how this went over with her older husband Joseph. Without getting snide about the story, I like to give him credit for raising the boy as his own whatever the truth of her pregnancy. Let Joseph stand for all those men who lovingly raise children they may not have fathered.
The anti-sexual element in this story has long been a contentious issue. Why make sex dirty? And if the point is to make God the father, not Joseph, why trace the lineage from David to Joseph, as the scriptures do? Contradiction and paradox informs Christianity from the Conception to the Trinity. Don’t expect rational questions about it to undo its fantastic story. From the beginning, rationality loses out to faith. From the beginning, believing in impossible scenarios marks the religious person, not thinking straight or acting right. Be ashamed about sex and don’t ask sensible questions.
I learned this early on when I asked the nun in my Saturday catechism class this innocent and obvious question: “Was Mary still a virgin when she had given birth to Jesus?” Seventh graders can have a sense of anatomy even if they haven’t yet learned a sense of etiquette.
Whatever the condition of her insemination or the paternity of her son, Mary went through pregnancy and birth. In this, all humans are alike – we are born of and through a mother. She swelled. She gave birth. She nursed the babe. Some of the most beautiful artwork in Christianity is of Mary and Jesus as mother and child, both innocent and sensual, both very embodied.
No matter how unearthly Christianity became, this initial truth had to be honored: even God needs a woman.
Evidently, even God-as-Jesus needed a woman. Jesus, motivated by compassion and justice, stepped in the way of a self-righteous, angry mob to rescue Mary Magdalene. You know how some love to hate? They get juiced at the joy of injuring or killing a sexual woman. Unable to admit the sexuality they have shamed in themselves, they project it on some hapless other who they proceed to victimize with pleasure. It’s community-sanctioned sadism. It takes a bold rebel to step in and stop it. Jesus stopped it: “Let he who goes without sin cast the first stone,” went his insightful and successful challenge.
Biblical scholars trip all over themselves trying to separate Mary the prostitute from the Mary who Jesus loved. It would be the ultimate blasphemy to suppose Jesus loved a whore. Or if she once was one, they assert that she changed and sinned no more. Few seem able to consider the possibility that Jesus, infused with compassionate oneness, living in a cruel culture, surrounded by fanatical men – might need the soft and sweet company of a woman. And to imagine Our Lord as having sex with her – well that’s somewhere between unimaginable and blasphemous.
Yet, there she is, repeatedly with him in the crucial moments at the center of the story. She oils his feet and wipes them with her hair. She kisses him often on the mouth. She is picked by Jesus to teach. She goes to the tomb to retrieve his dead body but supposedly finds it gone. Mary Magdalene is the precious jewel hiding in the shadows of the Christian story.
That shadow grew quickly dark, for not only do the few mentions of Mary in the New Testament go unnoticed or dismissed, the competing texts of the early Christian era got thrown out and buried for nearly two thousand years.
Though both Mark and John name Mary Magdalene as the first to witness the resurrection of Jesus, she got ignored and Peter took credit for claiming the resurrection happened and that he should lead the early Jesus movement. Four Gnostic texts recently discovered agree that Mary Magdalene was favored by Jesus. Philip claims Jesus used to kiss her often on the mouth. The Dialog of the Savior claims Jesus favored her above Thomas and Matthew. Levi, the author of the Gospel of Mary tells how Peter was jealous of Mary, and he chastises him for being so hot-tempered about it. And Faith Wisdom recounts how Mary had to fear Peter because, “… he hates the female race.” Peter goes on to claim the authority that later theologians cement into place. Tertullian ruled: “It is not permitted for a woman to speak in church . . . nor claim for herself a share in any masculine function – least of all in priestly office.” (Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels)
Like Jesus, we know only bits of the actual life of Mary. Though intimate with Jesus and praised by him, she got shunted aside by jealous men wanting to seal their patriarchal authority. It would have been true to form for Jesus to buck the sexist trend of Jewish religious society of that time (which, unlike the competing neighboring religions, had excluded the feminine element from its Godhead) and dare to love and include her anyway. But, like anti-rational dogmatism, anti-female sexism marked the identity and direction for Christianity for thousands of years. What an ironic robbery when we consider how central the Mary’s were to Jesus and how his radical inclusiveness morphed and deformed into a reactionary exclusiveness. Christianity became what Jesus was against.
There is a third Mary to consider. The name Mary is our word for the common name of that era that often went as Miriam or Martha. Perhaps I stretch it a bit here to consider Cousin Martha as the third Mary. Indulge me. This Mary is neither the Holy Mother nor the Secret Lover. She is the dutiful quiet one, tending to background needs. She’s the one who doesn’t get noticed while she gets things done. It wouldn’t go well without her, yet with her there goes no thanks. She’s not the center of the story, yet without her the story stumbles and stalls.
It is these three women, the Mother, the Lover, and the Helper, who go to the tomb to get the body of Jesus. They claim angels had rolled the stone aside and that their savior was gone. I wonder.
Crucifixions used to take days; Jesus was up for only hours. Indicative of the twisted morality of shallow people, it was considered offensive to leave a tortured person up on the Sabbath. We hear “the third day he arose” but Black Friday was immediately followed by Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath. Considering Jesus had reputed healing powers and that he may have learned yogic techniques in an earlier trip to the East, it is feasible that he nearly died on the cross and revived in the tomb, especially when tended by the three women who tended him with their healing touch and balms. If so, it is further conceivable that he would appear to his disciples, show them his wounds, and get out of town. This sort of event gives rise to miracle stories, especially those that grow for thirty years and more before they were written down. I can’t prove my favored conclusion is true any more than Christians can prove theirs. They say theirs makes Jesus the Christ. I say mine makes Jesus ours, one of us, divinely human in the midst of a horrid society and humanly divine for living with love in spite of it.
You are familiar with the popular accounts of Jesus and Mary Magdalene going to Gaul (France) and having children but having that history suppressed by the church. It would undermine their claim to fame. Another version had them migrating to northern India, where to this day there is a village that honors him at his grave, where he was buried as an old man, joined by Mary and their children.
I, of course, love the union of the opposites represented here. Instead of the God Man poofing into heaven, he joins with the former prostitute and fathers children with her, leaving the religious zealots to each other. How human.
How odd that my plausible thesis about this might seem controversial while the pushed notion prevails that his miraculous resurrection was proof he died for our sins. That horrid blood fest of a movie, The Passion of the Christ, by Mel Gibson was really a cinematic version of the Catholic Stations of the Cross. Catholics will recognize this as the twelve stations on the walls of most churches at which one pauses to remember the suffering of Jesus. Gibson thrusts it in our faces for a couple of hours, but don’t worry, when the children were taken to it, it was explained that he went though all this “for their sins.” Guilty faith is the approved lesson.
One of the oddest things about that film was the flat, hollow grief of the Mary’s. They were persistently dead-pan. Perhaps they were in on the divine secret that this was really a good thing. Gruesome torture of an innocent godly man witnessed by his indifferent mother and lover should remind us how guilty and grateful we are that this all happened on our behalf. Outrage at atrocity isn’t religious; passive acceptance at cruel injustice is a way of building our faith. How inhuman.
I remind us of this Easter story not to argue it but to take from it those overlooked mythical or metaphorical elements that fit our lives and times. Though feminism has rightly argued for the equal treatment, opportunity and pay of women it hasn’t fully celebrated women yet. Yes, women can be far more than the housewives, teachers, and nurses they were consigned to be only recently. Women can be surgeons, salespersons, soldiers, and so much more. But with this needed push there came embarrassment and impatience with the more traditional roles of women. Our three Mary’s exemplify these: Mother, Lover, Helper. Our culture is like Jesus with these three: we love them, we need them, and we are saved by them.
We are all born through the Mother. One of the greatest differences between mothers and fathers is that fathers produce millions of self-cells daily in their testicles. There is an endless supply of new cells eager to swim upstream. Mothers have all of their self-cells in rudimentary form in their uterus while they’re still in the uterus of their own mother! The eggs of the ovum lie in potential form until menarche when only a few ripen and launch each menstrual cycle until menopause closes the process. Compared to the self-cells of men, these eggs are very old, rare, and huge. Mystery, mastery, and wonder rides in these to be launched into life in a process more intricate and majestic than any miracle the church can claim. The comfort and care of the mother during pregnancy and the early years is crucial to her offspring and our society. The need for mothers diminishes only somewhat after that, and while fathers can and should also raise the children, it is safe to say that through mothers our world is born anew. Each generation is the incarnation of all life and culture. We overburden, abandon, and abuse mothers to our own ruin. Women don’t have to be mothers, but I thank God that so many are and that they do it so completely and well.
My mother, Alice, and her sister, Mary, did it well. We were raised with unwavering nurture. The beauty they had was spent on their children. They never faulted us even while caring for us or correcting us. They grew in spirit while shrinking in size. Once great beauty queens, they succumbed to the ravages of our era’s toxins, and wore with effort in rescuing and supporting their children and grandchildren, they weakened only at the very end. They modeled for us the steadfast nurture we all need, and ultimately, need to give. I thank God for my mother and her sister Mary. Let us all thank God for mothers.
Thank God for lovers too. We don’t hear praise from the pulpit for lovers. We hear shame and warnings. Sometimes such shame and warnings are appropriate, I admit. But, why no celebrating of lovers? Surely, the most fervent prayers involve desire for and appreciation of our lovers. These live in a purity no scorn can defile. But, defile it many will. The religious world especially seems more eager to shame a lover than to lift her up. When Jesus lifted up Mary Magdalene, he bucked his religious world but stayed true to a higher truth – his and hers. His and her love was no shame; the shame is that religious types are ashamed of it. The shame is, we’re taught to be ashamed of our own human wholeness.
James Brown, the recently deceased rhythm and funk singer, has a classic: “It’s a Man’s World.” He goes on about how men make electric lights and locomotives, how they make toys for the kids and money for the family. “But,” as the refrain admits what men this world over know, “it would be nothing, nothing without a woman or a girl.”
James Brown sang a simple truth so universal it has become a classic. He sang what Jesus knew. As full of a life as Jesus had, full of heaven and earth, even he knew the need and fulfillment of a woman to love him. As loving as he was to all others, he needed that special realm of sweet softness where he could get and give his love in that special way lovers know. It speaks volumes that the religious world has swept this under the carpet and given us a sanitized Jesus suitable only for healing others and being hurt himself. I’m glad Jesus had a lover in Mary. May she stand for all the lovers in this world who bring sweet caress to those who need it.
Finally, I praise the third Mary, the quiet one in the background who dutifully tends the needs of home and hospitality. I would never consign women to the kitchen, but I’ve often been glad they were there. Human community has many characters and needs. Some are showy, like politicians or movie stars. Others make it all work, but earn no badges and not much pay. Where would we be without the helpers? This mere mention in a sermon isn’t much recognition compared to the gift so frequently and reliably given, but it is sincerely offered.
We tend to center on Jesus on Easter, going on how he saved the world. I doubt the faith formula the Christians have dreamed up but I grant the service and sacrifice of Jesus in other ways has saved the world some. In an inhuman world he dared to remain humane. In a spiritually shallow, legalistic, and ritualistic world he modeled deep kindness and bold honesty. We need such saviors.
But who saves the saviors? In this case, it was more likely these three women than any one else. If Jesus stands for the potential wholeness and holiness inherent in humanity, let the three Mary’s stand for the saving goodness of mothers, lovers, and helpers. May mothers, lovers and helpers be praised from more pulpits and placed into practical prominence in humanity’s resurrection. And who saves these saviors? We do. As we were cared for, so shall we be caring. We need each other.
If humanity is to survive the cross of massive poverty, militarism, and environmental havoc, and emerge from our gathering grave of ignorance, misinformation, and indifference, we will need all the spiritual and practical power we can muster. Humanity is being wasted by the new Romans of our time and their religious lackeys. Once again, like always, we need each other. Humanity must literally come back to life. In all our homes, in all our lands, may mothers, lovers, and helpers bring soothing balms and healing touch to any whole and holy one who needs it, and may they be honored and helped in the whole and holy work they do.
Reverend Brad Carrier
For the Unitarian Universalists of Grants Pass
©Easter, April 8, 2007
In loving memory of Alice Carrier, Mary DiPonio, and Joanna Stevens