So. I know I said that my next non-fic book was the Giant Ghost Book, but I remembered why I've never manged to finish it. It's like the dictionary. It's nice to have and it looks pretty neat having such a big thing on your shelf but it's boring to read all the way through. I'm still reading it but it'll be bite size bits at a time. In the mean time I've pulled another book from the 'hat'. As you can guess by the title of the post it's about the Virgin Mary.
It's by Frederica Mathewes-Green and it's a little book, only 159 pages. I guess I must have picked it up on a sale or something. Anyhow.
"It's hard to see Mary clearly, beneath the conflicting identities she has borne over the centuries. To one era she is the flower of femininity, and to another the champion of feminism; in one age she is the paragon of obedience, and in another the advocate of liberation. Some enthusiasts have been tempted to pile her status so high that it rivals that of her Son. Others, aware that excessive adulation can be dangerous, do their best to ignore her entirely."
I'm sure you guys can guess which party is which above. The thing that hit me while I was reading this this morning is that each attitude describes an extreme. But between the two is the 'middle road'. It's very easy to drift to one side or the other of a path and wind up in an extreme that was never intended by those who laid the path. But it's harder to get from two extreme opposites to a middle path. Which, for those of you who don't live in my head means that I think if a 'middle' exists between two attitudes then it's more likely that that middle was the original idea and the two extremes developed out of it than that either extreme was the original belief and that the other extreme and the middle path grew out of it.
I think, and it seems that Frederica does too, that sometimes we forget that Mary was a human woman and a mother, behind the notion of her being the Virgin Mary. I held a baby in my arms today (not mine, obviously!) and giggled and played with him, letting him grab onto my fingers and push himself up on my legs, letting him gum and drool and coo and do all sorts of baby things. Remember that before Christ's public career began, before His trials and His Crucifixion, before the Resurrection He was her son. She carried Him and loved Him as every mother ever has loved their child. Above being the Savior and God Incarnate, He was special to her because He was her son.
When Christ gave Mary to St. John He also gave her to all of us. He loved her in the way that a son loves his mother and He wanted (on top of everything else that He had given us - salvation, existence) to give her to us. His beloved mother.
The love of Christians for Mary goes back to the early days of the faith. Frederica proposes to show us this early love of Mary, to prove that it is not a 'modern' (for certain values of the term modern, meaning medieval) invention by examining three ancient texts dealing with Mary. These texts, while not within the canon of the Bible are valuable because the writers had "this practical advantage: they were still living in the culture that produced the Christian Scriptures. The Greek of the New Testament was their daily business language. They lived in the Middle East, or along its gossipy trade routes. Their parents or great-grandparents had been alive when Christ walked the earth. The history of these things was the history of their backyard, and some things that scholars now struggle to comprehend were as familiar and as obvious as their own kitchen table."
The first work we will be presented with is a 'gospel' or narrative of Mary's life beginning with her conception by Anna and continuing on through the birth of Jesus. The copy being used was written by AD 150, but the author (and others) believe that the written form was predated by oral stories passed through believers. Just like the biblical Gospels and so many other ancient works. Given the assumption that they were originally passed along orally there is no way of knowing how far back they may go. The text was named the Protoevangelium of James by a translator in the 16th century. Frederica has renamed it the Gospel of Mary because "today we expect a title to identify a work's contents, rather than its author." She says that she'll explain the 'Lost' bit later on.
The second work will be a brief prayer to Mary discovered in Egypt about a hundred years ago. The artifact is dated to AD 250, but again that is merely the date of the oldest surviving written copy. It was likely in circulation long before that. This prayer is the oldest known prayer to Mary and is actually still in use today in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches.
The third work is a lengthy, complex and beautiful hymn written by the deacon and hymnogropher St. Romanos who was born in Syria around AD 475. It is known as the Akathist Hymn and is sung during Lent, near the March 25th Feast of the Annunciation. Frederica calls it the Annunciation Hymn, again with the aim of identifying its contents.
"Many Western Christians are unfamiliar with Mary, and somewhat leery of her; they suspect that it's possible for devotion to her to get out of hand, and even eclipse the honor due to God. It is true that, over time and in other lands, praise of the Virgin that had been intended as lovingly poetic developed into something more literal, and consequently less healthy.
"In Europe from the twelfth century on, strains of Marian devotion were arising that held that she could manipulate or even overrule her Son, that he was perpetually enraged but she was merciful, that she could work miracles by her own magical powers, that mechanical repetition of prayers to her guaranteed salvation, and that she had facilitated Christ's work by her presence at the Crucifixion. The effects of these mistaken ideas lingered for centuries, and have not been wholly eliminated.
"But, as we shall see, the early Middle Eastern church is not the medieval European church. All that sad confusion lay a thousand years from the time of the first love-notes to Mary, the time that we are entering now."