The Virgin Mary and Equality

Candlemas has really got me thinking this year.  Yes I know it has now passed, however due to a series of events I have found myself pondering on the events we remember on 2nd February a lot over the past couple of weeks, or maybe I should say used to remember.

The Feast on the 2nd of February used to be all about Mary, however in more recent years the focus has moved more towards Simeon and Anna’s words about Christ, with a passing nod to those pigeons or turtle doves.  Even more recently the Church has been reclaiming those 28 days of Christmas the Victorians tricked out of us for the past century or so.  For some congregations the notion of singing carols after Epiphany is still more shocking than the notion of singing them in early December, yet there are many of the most well known carols which better fit into the post Epiphany season than those scarce Sundays named as ‘of Christmas’, but I digress.

There are still those in our churches who remember being ‘Churched’ after the birth of their children.  Indeed the story was shared with me about how a new mother was not allowed across her mother-in-laws threshold.  Until she has attend Church and been publicly prayed over at the correct time, she had to hand over her new baby outside the garden gate.  She hadn’t been allowed in Church until that time, and her home was also considered unclean as her daughter had been born in it.  In the village in which she lived this was considered quite acceptable, and she tells the story with a laugh and the quip, ‘At least they didn’t make me wait the full 80 days’  Something she hadn’t been aware of until I had mentioned that Leviticus stated that the birth of a daughter was doubly unclean (Lev 12:1-5).  In case you are wondering her daughter is still, just, in their thirties.  Yet the more we talked the more it became evident that the memory of being told that she was unclean, not worthy to come before God, or even her extended family was one which has impacted on the rest on her life.  It is only in recent years that she has come to believe that her self esteem issues hark back to how she was treated after the birth of her two daughters.  The idea of birth making a woman unclean is not something that happened millenniums ago but something that happened in the lifetime and even in the lives of many who live today.

I have often thought it slightly odd that Mary having given birth to Jesus would need to be purified at all.  Indeed I remember my Sunday School teacher getting quiet irate with me over it.  The subject, my age and lack of understanding as to what it physically meant to give birth probably didn’t help matters.  I suppose the odd feeling came, at that age at least, from a gut reaction rather than theological reflection so what has been happening over the past couple of weeks is probably long overdue.

Virgin Mary by Elisabeth Sonrel 1874–1953

Virgin Mary by Elisabeth Sonrel

Mary is often depicted with lilies, a symbol of purity.  Indeed many artists show Gabriel giving Mary a lily at the Annunciation as if stating that is when her purity starts.  Now I am not advocating that art should dictate our theology, however art certainly reflects it.  Or at least the theology common at the time of the painting, or the artist’s, or the person who had commissioned the paintings, personal beliefs.

The angel said to her [Mary], ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. – Luke 1:35

If Mary is to be considered the Virgin, pure and not sullied at conception, how can the Holy One’s birth suddenly make her unclean?  Did Mary’s purity really disappear for those 40 days?  If it does then what does it say about the rest of Mary’s life, what does it say about the holiness of Christ, what does it say indeed about Mary’s virginity?  Is it that Mary was only pure for the term of her pregnancy?

My ponderings over the past couple of weeks have led me to a whole different conclusion, a conclusion that firstly took me back to the 3rd chapter of Genesis, it is there that the lack of purity and giving birth are first linked.  Because of eating the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, women shall have greater pain in childbearing.  This pain is seen as a punishment for disobedience and it is hardly surprising that a theology developed that birth itself must somehow make those who were engaging with it unclean.  After all not only was there pain, there was blood too, and all too often death rather than birth.

Whizzing back forward to Gabriel’s arrival at a poor young woman’s home to tell her that she, above every other woman alive at that time, had been choosen by God to become the God bearer.  The nature of God, that of love, says that sin can not be part of the Godhead,. God not only can not be sin, but also can not bring sin upon another, or be the cause of someone’s sin.  So Mary can only be God bearer if this happens without human intervention, without anything other than purity and love.  Mary must remain a Virgin if she is to bear the Son of God, Mary herself must be kept pure and holy, she herself must be pure not just the child inside her.  The child will be born holy, Gabriel tells Mary.  If the child is holy how can the mother be soiled by bringing that Holy child into the world?

Now it could be argued that Mary was just following the custom of the day, when she went to the Temple to be purified, just as the mother in that conversation I recall above was simply following the custom of that Welsh village.  I can accept that may have been the case, however what I question is the interpretation men have been putting on it for the passed centuries.  For what has been promulgated for centuries is that; Mary was unclean like all women who give birth are unclean and if Mary needed to be purified then every women since is also, unclean, unworthy, second class.  Now this might no longer be the case in this land, however the tendrils of that tradition have bound how women have been viewed for generations.

I think it is time we looked at Mary’s purification from a different standpoint and for that we turn firstly to her son.  A few weeks before the Church celebrates Candlemas and the Purification it celebrates Jesus’ Baptism, Luke records it in Chapter 3 of his Gospel that John didn’t see a need for Jesus to be Baptised.

As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, ‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. vs 15,16

It is often preached that Jesus was Baptised to give us an example to follow, I don’t believe that.  I think Jesus was Baptised to identify with our need to be redeemed.  Jesus can only be our substitute on the cross if he takes with him to it all the things in our lives need cleansed of.  We are all equal under the shadow of the cross and the glory of Easter morn.  In Christ there is no east or west, no Jew or Gentile, no male or female. Ahhh, and we come back to Mary.  For while in Jesus there is no difference between male and female, through the story of the purification people have used it as a sign that women are unclean.

Yet what if rather than Mary being an example of how impure women are, the need to be cleansed after childbirth as the ultimate demonstration of their second class status.  What if instead, the purification of Mary was a symbol that purification was no longer needed.  Mary was purified, despite giving birth to the Son of God so that women weren’t seen as unclean by birthing but rather that all births were seen as holy.

Mary and Eve by Sister Grace Remington OCSO

Mary and Eve by Sister Grace Remington OCSO

At this point with the shout of heresy ringing in my ears, I should say that we must be wary that in revisiting this once familiar idea about Mary we keep foremost in our mind that Jesus, not Mary, steps on the head of that snake putting an end to all that separates us from God.  What I am advocating is that Mary is the first example of the new equality that Jesus came to bring, not that she is the Saviour.  In Mary we can see that Christ did indeed come to and for everyone, all are worthy, all equal, all are loved and precious before God.

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2 thoughts on “The Virgin Mary and Equality

  1. You are right, Kirstin, that “The Purification of St. Mary the Virgin” does seem something of an oxymoron, ripe for re-interpretation. It is little discussed, I think, because everyone is vaguely embarrassed that it is a remnant of previous ages that, in our understanding, demeans new mothers – although, in its original cultural context I’m sure that was far from the intention. And it’s worth noting that “the Churching of Women” isn’t entirely dead: several times (the most-recent about 17-18 years ago) I have found an uncomfortable young man on the doorstep, waving anxiously and speechlessly at a young woman in the car with a babe in arms. Each time, I have taken them into Church and offered the ASB Service of Thanksgiving for the Birth of a Child, thereby, I hope, satisfying both their sensitivities (or their mothers’!) and mine.

    But I don’t think Luke ever intended the story to be about Mary. It is, after all, a feast not of Our Lady but of Our Lord. There are all kinds of layers to Candlemas – the purification; the offering of the first-born, and his redemption; the faith of Simeon and Anna – but, fundamentally, it’s about the Light being revealed to both Jew and Gentile. In recent years, I’ve embraced the idea that Candlemas is Luke’s Epiphany: the point in Luke’s narrative (occupied in Matthew’s version by the adoration of the magi) at which Jesus is formally recognised as the Christ. And I find it wonderful that the revelation comes, not through fantastical Persian astrologer-princes, but through a couple of ould buddies who’ve been knocking about the Temple for decades.

    So, yes, the Purification probably needs to be re-imagined in terms of our modern understanding, learned rather late from Jesus’ own example, that all human beings are equal under God – and I rather like how you get to that conclusion – but I’d want to argue that the focus on Mary has for too long obscured the revelation of her son as the Christ. And, surely, she would be the very last person to want that.

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    • Thank you for your thoughts David.
      I totally agree that Candlemas is a feast of the Son not his mother, I didn’t mean to imply that it should be otherwise. Although it certainly was for a time. Indeed I don’t think Luke made a big thing of Mary’s purification at all, however I do think that for far too long the Church did, and even today in churches were the tradition is a faded or fading memory, the echo of its damage remains.
      Like you I see revelation as central to Epiphany which is why I celebrate Transfiguration Sunday on the last Sunday of Epiphany. For, me, the final Epiphany rather than being those who have faithfully waited, are those who have followed but not quite got it until it smacks them right between the eyes. Those who should have known, who even thought they did know, but didn’t and even when they have that revelation still don’t get just how big it is.
      I don’t think my pondering on this has finished yet, there is still something there which I haven’t yet quite been able to grasp, I think it could be to do with Anna, we have an unusual amount of detail about her.

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