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Thursday, December 27, 2007
The Real Mary - Week 4
I hope everyone had a blessed Christmas. Although postponed a couple of days, I wanted to post the final post for out discussion of Scot McKnight's The Real Mary. Most of this I posted on my blog last year after I first read the book, but I wanted to share these ideas here since the theme of how Mary gets portrayed is so prominant in the book.

What really intrigued me was the discussion of how Mary has been portrayed in art and how that has influenced our perceptions of her. Most depictions of Mary present her as emotionless, ageless, and weak in a pale blue dress. She is decorative, humble, and seemingly powerless. I had never been a fan of religious art mostly because of the way it portrays "holy" figures as disconnected from real life. The Marys in art obviously have not just given birth, finished a long journey, or had recently been on a roller-coaster emotional journey. They are not surprised by the appearance of an angel, are not phased by the request from God, and are not upset by a serious life change. And they are not the kind of women who could sing a politically revolutionary song like the Magnificat. Perhaps that is why when I first encountered Ecce Ancilla Domini by Dante Gabriel Rossetti I was drawn to it. Although it makes use of a lot of the traditional symbols associated with Mary, it challenges tradition as well. Of course in expected fashion it was rejected by critics of Rosetti's day because it was new and different. Contemporary critics howled with outrage at the picture, denouncing it as ‘an example of the perversion of talent which has recently been making so much headway’. I liked it because it depicts a Mary who has emotions - who reacts in some way to the appearance of the angel and his startling request. Here she is scared to death, cowering in the corner, unsure of her fate. Rossetti (using his sister Christine Rossetti as a model) portrays a real person here and I like that.

But I'm not sure the portrayal is accurate. Yes, I believe there was surprise and fright involved in the encounter. But Rosetti's Mary doesn't look like she would willingly say "may it be to me as you have said" in response to this angel. This angel with the phallic symbol lily pointed at Mary's womb seems to represent the worst form of male violence towards women. One is reminded of Yeat's poem Leda and the Swan retelling the Greek myth of the maiden being raped by the god. But I can't seem to figure rape into the Christmas story - the God I believe in (the God I want to believe in) is not like that. I have to think that Mary's "may it be" was a true willingness. I like the description of Mary's willingness from the poem Annunciation by Denise Levertov - "She was free/to accept or to refuse, choice/integral to humanness." Mary knew what she faced, she knew the dangers and she still willingly accepted to bear the Messiah. As Scot McKnight mentioned "may it be" might be better translated as "bring it on," this was a women with fire in her eyes ready to serve and serve big.

I like that vision of Mary. I like finding strong women in the Bible who aren't afraid to challenge tradition and cultural assumptions in order to work for a greater good. I like that - that's the Bible I want to share with my daughter. But I have yet to find it in art. What will it take for the concept of a strong and revolutionary Mary to enter the religious consciousness? What will it take for the church to accept a woman with fire in her eyes? Will she (they) just continue to be shoved out of churches or subdued and tamed? What will it take for Mary to be re-imagined by the masses? Given the church's track record with women, I'm not expecting much. But this is a story I will tell - a picture I will paint differently.

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posted by Julie at 4:25 PM ¤ Permalink ¤


  • At 12/30/2007 11:34:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous


    I've enjoyed looking at some of the comments regarding "The Real Mary". I think it is important to retain some of the "humility" and "gentle" aspects for women ... just as it is for men! Men should be gentle too ... like Joseph ...or Jesus - born of Mary ... like Christ.

    All people need to move away from egotistical aggression and pushyness (and associated violence/hatred), and towards a connection with the Holy Spirit - all about Mercy, Love, Forgiveness, Hope etc.

    There is a place for assertiveness though, as well.

    Joanna Manning in her latest work "The Magdalen Moment", talks about Mary Magdalen in all her strength and fullness as well as Mary, the Mother of Christ - a Mary "with brass knuckles". I liked that.

    I think "Mary" (the young independent woman/maiden ... the Mother of Christ or Mary, the Partner/Bride of Jesus) represents the sacred feminine aspect of humanity and nature and needs some focus, both in terms of traditional understandings and newer understandings.

    "Mary" is an archetype for"
    2-Mothers/mature wise women and
    3-Wives/brides/partners... equal contributers

    I am SO into Mary!

    Here is an absolutely AMAZING poem by the Canadian poet, Margaret Atwood that looks at the Mary archetype in its Christ-like role. It both challenges traditional assumptions ... and moves them forward.

    (Note: The poem is based on the actual life of a historical person Mary Webster, a woman accused of witchcraft in Massachusetts in the 1680’s. She was actually an ancestor of the poet, Margaret Atwood!) You have to read the poem. It's so powerful.

    Half Hanged Mary --
    Margaret Atwood

    7 p.m.

    Rumour was loose in the air,
    hunting for some neck to land on.
    I was milking the cow,
    the barn door open to the sunset.

    I didn’t feel the aimed word hit
    and go on in like a soft bullet.
    I didn’t feel the smashed flesh
    closing over it like water
    over a thrown stone.

    I was hanged for living alone,
    for having blue eyes and a sunburned skin,
    tattered skirts, few buttons,
    a weedy farm in my own name,
    and a surefire cure for warts.

    Oh yes, and breasts,
    and a sweet pear hidden in my body.
    Whenever there’s talk of demons
    these come in handy.

    8 p.m.

    The rope was an improvisation.
    With time they’d have thought of axes.

    Up I go like a windfall in reverse,
    a blackened apple stuck back onto the tree.

    Trussed hands, rag in my mouth,
    a flag raised to salute the moon,

    old bone-faced goddess, old original,
    who once took blood in return for food.

    The men of the town stalk homeward,
    excited by their show of hate,
    their own evil turned inside out like a glove,
    and me wearing it.

    9 p.m.

    The bonnets come to stare,
    the dark skirts also,
    the upturned faces in between,
    mouths closed so tight they’re lipless.
    I can see down into their eyeholes
    and nostrils. I can see their fear.

    You were my friend, you too,
    I cured your baby, Mrs.,
    and flushed yours out of you,
    Non-wife, to save your life.

    Help me down? You don’t dare.
    I might rub off on you,
    like soot or gossip. Birds
    of a feather burn together,
    though as a rule ravens are singular.

    In a gathering like this one
    the safe place is the background,
    pretending you can’t dance,
    the safe stance pointing a finger.

    I understand. You can’t spare
    anything, a hand, a piece of bread, a shawl
    against the cold,
    a good word. Lord
    knows there isn’t much
    to go around. You need it all.

    10 p.m.

    Well God, now that I’m up here,
    with maybe some time to kill,
    away from the daily
    fingerwork, legwork, work
    at the hen level,
    we can continue our quarrel,
    the one about free will.

    Is it my choice that I’m dangling
    like a turkey’s wattle from this
    more than indifferent tree?
    If Nature is Your alphabet,
    what letter is this rope?

    Does my twisting body spell out Grace?
    I hurt, therefore I am.
    Faith, Charity, and Hope
    are three dead angels
    falling like meteors or
    burning owls across
    the profound blank sky of Your face.

    12 midnight

    My throat is taut against the rope
    choking off words and air;
    I’m reduced to knotted muscle.
    Blood bulges in my skull,
    my clenched teeth hold it in;
    I bite down on despair.

    Death sits on my shoulder like a crow
    waiting for my squeezed beet
    of a heart to burst
    so he can eat my eyes

    or like a judge
    muttering about sluts and punishment
    and licking his lips

    or like a dark angel
    insidious in his glossy feathers
    whispering to me to be easy
    on myself. To breathe out finally.
    Trust me, he says, caressing
    me. Why suffer?

    A temptation, to sink down
    onto these definitions.
    To become a martyr in reverse,
    or food, or trash.

    To give up my own words for myself,
    my own refusals.
    To give up knowing.
    To give up pain.
    To let go.

    2 a.m.

    Out of my mouths is coming, at some
    distance from me, a thin gnawing sound
    which you could confuse with prayer except that
    praying is not constrained.

    Or is it, Lord?
    Maybe it’s more like being strangled
    than I once thought. Maybe it’s
    a gasp for air, prayer.
    Did those men at Pentecost
    want flames to shoot out of their heads?
    Did they ask to be tossed
    on the ground, gabbling like holy poultry,
    eyeballs bulging?

    As mine are, as mine are.
    There is only one prayer; it is not
    the knees in the clean nightgown
    on the hooked rug.
    I want this, I want that.
    Oh far beyond.
    Call it Please. Call it Mercy.
    Call it Not yet, not yet,
    as Heaven threatens to explode
    inwards in fire and shredded flesh, and the angels caw.

    3 a.m.

    wind seethes in the leaves around
    me the trees exude night
    birds night birds yell inside
    my ears like stabbed hearts my heart
    stutters in my fluttering cloth
    body I dangle with strength
    going out of the wind seethes
    in my body tattering
    the words I clench
    my fists hold No
    talisman or silver disc my lungs
    flail as if drowning I call
    on you as witness I did
    no crime I was born I have borne I
    bear I will be born this is
    a crime I will not
    acknowledge leaves and wind
    hold on to me
    I will not give in

    6 a.m.

    Sun comes up, huge and blaring,
    no longer a simile for God.
    Wrong address. I’ve been out there.

    Time is relative, let me tell you
    I have lived a millennium.

    I would like to say my hair turned white
    overnight, but it didn’t.
    Instead it was my heart;
    bleached out like meat in water.

    Also, I’m about three inches taller.
    This is what happens when you drift in space
    listening to the gospel
    of the red hot stars.
    Pinpoints of infinity riddle my brain,
    a revelation of deafness.

    At the end of my rope
    I testify to silence.
    Don’t say I’m not grateful.

    Most will only have one death.
    I will have two.

    8 a.m.

    When they came to harvest my corpse
    (open your mouth, close your eyes)
    cut my body from the rope,
    surprise, surprise,
    I was still alive.

    Tough luck, folkds,
    I know the law:
    you can’t execute me twice
    for the same thing. How nice.

    I fell to the clover, breathed it in,
    and bared my teeth at them
    in a filthy grin.
    You can imagine how that went over.

    Now I only need to look
    out at them through my sky-blue eyes.
    They see their own ill will
    staring them in the forehead
    and turn tail.

    Before, I was not a withc.
    But now I am one.


    My body of skin waxes and wanes
    around my true body,
    a tender nimbus.
    I skitter over the paths and fields,
    mumbling to myself like crazy,
    mouth full of juicy adjectives
    and purple berries.
    The townsfolk dive headfirst into the bushes
    to get out of my way.

    My first death orbits my head,
    an ambiguous nimbus,
    medallion of my ordeal.
    No one crosses that circle.

    Having been hanged for something
    I never said,
    I can now say anything I can say.

    Holiness gleams on my dirty fingers,
    I eat flowers and dung,,
    two forms of the same thing, I eat mice
    and give thanks, blasphemies
    gleam and burst in my wake
    like lovely bubbles.
    I speak in tongues,
    my audience is owls.

    My audience is God,
    because who the hell else could understand me?

    The words boil out of me,
    coil after coil of sinuous possibility.
    The cosmos unravels from my mouth,
    all fullness, all vacancy.


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