(New Year’s Day is more than just firecrackers, horn-tooting and booze swiggling. It is also about a Jewish mother, revered over the centuries, by Muslims and Christians alike. And the column is about this Lady, who is specially honored on January 1 – Juan L Mercado)
Time magazine titled a recent cover story “Hail, Mary”. It devotes eight pages to Jesus of Nazareth’s mother. “A Mary for All” was how the Economist bannered an earlier report. Life magazine led off with: “The Mystery of Mary”. And shortly thereafter, Time did a two-page spread: “Mary, So Contrary.”
What’s going on here?
After centuries of “sullen neglect… Christians of all denominations are finding their own reasons to venerate Mary”, Time reports. Families, pastors and theologians, notably within U.S. Protestant churches, are re-discovering the Virgin.
Harvard University minister Peter Gomes pinpoints this trend in a joke about a Protestant pastor at heaven’s gates. “Ah, Professor, I know you’ve met my Father,” Jesus says in making the introductions. “But I believe you don’t know my mother.”
New appreciation of Mary stems from the very arena in which Protestants historically pride themselves most: careful and full reading of Scriptures.
Mary stood by the Cross. And she figures in “a skein of appearances longer and more strategically placed than any other character in scriptures”, Princeton University professor of New Testament literature, Beverly Gaventa, points out.
“She is present in all key situations: at Jesus birth, at his death and in the Upper Room,” Gaventa writes in “Personalities of the New Testament”. Whether in Egypt, Nazareth or Cana, “there isn’t a figure comparable to her”.
The new thinkers are exploring the implications of Mary’s excruciating presence at the crucifixion. “(She) witnesses almost single handedly Christianity through its darkest moment.”
There are critics, Time notes. Southern Baptists Convention leaders complain their colleagues are “guilty of over-reaching”.
That would baffle Muslims. Mary is Islam’s most honored woman, the Economist notes. “(She’s) the only one to have an entire chapter named after her in the Koran. Christians and Muslims alike see in Mary an affirmation that there is no limit to proximity of God that any human can attain,” the report asserts. “Surely, that is reason enough, for people of any faith, to feel reverence for history’s foremost Jewish mother.”
The Economist cites the “wisdom” texts in Jewish and Christian scriptures and the Eastern Church’s lesser-known Gospel by James. It reviews studies by Methodists Hebrew scholar Margaret Barker to Jaime Moran, religion and psychology writer.
Muslim and eastern Christians “cherish the story of Mary’s childhood in a place of supreme holiness. Both name Mary’s guardian as the priest Zechariah or Zakariya.”
“Catholics would tell you, rather firmly, that Mary is not a goddess,” the Economist notes. “She is not worshipped but rather venerated: a human being with a unique role in praying for and protecting the human race.” That hews closely to Muslim belief too.
The wisdom texts speak of a “woman clothed with the sun”. And down the centuries, “heart-stopping turns of phrase” have been applied to Mary, the Economist notes. “Our tainted nature’s solitary boast” was the way one poet put it.
“Shortly after Vatican II, a period of Marian silence descended,” recalls Catalino Arevalo, SJ, of Ateneo University. “We, in the Philippines, did not go through that phase.”
“Churches in former communist Eastern Europe have not experienced the ‘eclipse of Mary’ either,” notes this Filipino theologian. “What strikes a mainland China visitor, who gets in contact with Catholics there, is that veneration of Mary has never been stronger.”
That “Marian silence” and “de-christianization” of Europe led the German theologian Karl Rahner to write: “Many Catholics today are going through a winter of belief.”
Once known as “Christendom” Europe built the Continent’s loveliest cathedrals from Chartres to Notre Dame. Now, Europe suffers from a “vacuum of faith”, Los Angeles Times notes. The Gallup Millennium Survey reveals barely 20 percent of West Europeans attend church services once a week.
“When the new springtime of faith comes…the cult of Mary the Mother of God, will return,” Rahner added. “In fact, it will be its surest sign. Its form may perhaps be different, but if Christian tradition is valid, it will return.”
That was in 1968. Today, Rahner’s comments resound in essays by, among others, Lutheran Carl Braten: “I can’t predict exactly how the (Mary re-discovery) will happen. Some of it will be good, and some may be bad. But I think it’s going to happen”.
Some 38 years after Rahner wrote of this “second spring”, Father Arevalo notes, “this appears a remarkably prophetic text”.
This comeback of Our Lady is seen on the dateline of stories from new Marian shrines: Medjugorje in Yugoslavia; Akita in Japan; Kibeho in Rwanda and Cuenca in Ecuador. “News accounts fueled renewed interest in the Marian movement.”
Then, there was Pope John Paul II. “No pontiff in the entire history of Catholicism has had so strong and articulates a devotion to Mary.” He willed that her logo be carved on his plain cedar coffin.
If Karl Rahner was right, then perhaps the current cover stories may be more significant than they appear, Fr Arevalo says. Are they buds of the “the new springtime of faith,” which, Rahner foresaw, “is about to begin”?