Can we help you forget, for a day, all the fights Christians have had about the Virgin Mary, “the mother of God,” the mother of Jesus? Should they/we pray to her, ask her to be the middle-person between us and her Son, count on her to help get us out of purgatory — or should we talk her down, gripe about attention paid to her by others, or just forget about her?
Perhaps to get those arguments behind us we should take a fresh run at revisiting her place in the New Testament and in the Christian story. We need pictures in our minds that are so graphic, compelling and vivid that they displace the images referred to in those arguments.
Here are two. One is of a girl who is weak, frightened, awed. Call her Mary with Shudders. The other is of a woman who is strong, assertive, active. Call her Mary with Biceps.
Mary with Shudders, painted by African American artist Henry Tanner back when Black people like him had little place in society. He could identify with the teenager who is cowering in fear on her cot in a brown-toned bare room. It is lit by an almost phosphorescent column representing the angel who brought her scary news and brought us good news: the Savior of the world is to be born from her womb. Let the gossips start clucking!
If this were the only Mary we had, it would be enough for the story of salvation, but it is only half the story for those who need models of the life of faith in the fear of God.
Mary with Biceps, painted by Michelangelo and one among many great works in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, issues from the world of power. The artist was well-placed in society. His patrons were elites in a city of palaces and princes.
The picture with a strong Mary startles viewers who have habitually shelved Mary among the meek and the weak, who serve God’s purposes by assenting to them. But she is hardly the type who makes life-threatening donkey rides while pregnant and, we are told, later had the hardihood to survive as a migrant to and from exile in Egypt.
Follow her through life and see her worshiping her Son and boldly representing people who lacked her courage to ask anything.
I picture her also at work in the home with its in-house carpenter’s shop, carrying water from the well in Nazareth, or on the way to and from Jerusalem when Jesus was 12 years old.
We wish we learned more about her from the New Testament, so winning and compelling are the glimpses we do get. But do we really need more? Aren’t these the extremes of human life apparent among so many saints, heroes and heroines — exemplars who inspire both admiration and saintly and heroic acts among us who are not naturally saints or heroes?
Only one of these two paintings deals with the Annunciation, a beautiful holy-day that occurs nine months to the day before the December date the church eventually chose to celebrate the Nativity.
In the annual calendar, the Annunciation is close, so close, to the week we call Holy. When she stood under the cross and shared the agony, which artists liked to paint as the “Pieta” wherein she holds her lifeless Son, she may well have had muscular help from the few disciples who had the strength to keep a vigil with that little girl who later now shows up with biceps.
In Michelangelo’s painting she is not nursing or coddling or nestling a cute baby. In this one, sitting on the grassless ground unsheltered by trees and not surrounded by the lilies which grace so many paintings of her, she flexes muscles for lifting the rather developed infant Jesus.
Think about her handing the child off to Joseph as a gesture not of Matins or Vespers or Devotional hour, but as part of the day’s work. Her strong hands do the lifting, but her fond motherly eyes tell us more of the story of Mary, whose labors and devotions inspire ours. The Joseph of the painting is to hold him briefly, and then, we picture, he passes Jesus on to us. Our hands are ready to receive him, we like to think, and we get to receive him as a living and vivid gift in this season again.
Martin Marty is a pastor of the ELCA and a long-time professor of Christian history at the University of Chicago.