Collect for Candlemas

Almighty and ever-living God, we humbly beseech thy majesty: that, as thine Only-Begotten Son was this day presented in the temple in the substance of our flesh; so we may be presented unto thee with pure and clean hearts, by the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

A Portrait of Mary

The Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception is this coming Tuesday, and with it comes the Jubilee Year of Mercy* that Pope Francis is promulgating. I haven't followed that very closely in itself; my bad habits make me an unlikely candidate for complete detachment from sin, and anyway I can't afford to visit Rome for the foreseeable future (though I really want to go back some day -- I've only been once, and I was at the height of my Romaphobic fundie phase at the time, so).

But it got me thinking about the Blessed Virgin Mary, not so much as a topic of Catholic doctrine, but as a historical person -- which, after all, is what the doctrine's about. (It's kind of arresting, when you're used to thinking of things as abstractions because you've encountered them intellectually at first, to realize suddenly that they were and are actual things, things you could bump up against if you were in the right place at the right time. Walker Percy is great at provoking this realization.) Devotion to her as the Queen of Heaven and the Mother of God has always been intuitive to me; even before I accepted Catholic beliefs about Mary, Catholic attitudes toward Mary seemed like the natural way to feel toward her, except maybe that reverence came more easily to me than affection. Still does. But I've only rarely thought about her as a living, breathing person. And when you do, you realize that she was kind of a shocking one.

Theotokos of Vladimir, ca. 1130

It's easy to say that. Christians, especially Catholics, love talking about how shocking the heroes of the faith were, usually with mouths that have clearly never said anything more shocking than "Surprise!" at a friend's party. But seriously, think this over:

First, according to St Luke's account of the Annunciation, she was betrothed to St Joseph but not yet living with him (which was normal practice at the time: about a year normally passed between legal betrothal and the marriage proper). Given the customs of the time, this would probably put her at about 13 or 14 years of age. This girl, at the age when most girls today are deciding which of the members of One Direction should dominate their Pinterest collection, responded to the appearance of an archangel -- something that terrified a large group of grown-ass men with heavy club-sticks at their disposal -- with, apparently, little more than a disconcerted expression: no screaming, no prostrations, even a clarifying (not to say challenging) question to test the spirit speaking to her. That, ladies and gentlemen, is some gorram poise.

The Virgin of the Annunciation, Fra Angelico, 1446

Next, as a girl who is now both unmarried and pregnant, which could get her at least disowned by both her parents and her fiancee, she runs off -- alone -- to the suburbs of the capital. Again: a pregnant maybe-fourteen-year-old girl runs off, presumably on foot (since taking an animal would only get her in more trouble), through a wilderness festively decked with criminals, that will probably take her more than a week to traverse. By herself. I can't stress that enough. The girl had serious guts.

After this, and after singing a fierce hymn of her own devising** with an epic guitar solo (probably), she goes back to the town, family, and fiancee that she bolted from three months ago. Also gutsy. And then, in the face of the tiny, gossipy town, she and her fiancee make it known that they are getting married.

Mary's subsequent history, so far as we know it, leaves the same impression. She receives foreign dignitaries in a carpenter's house, under the nose of Herod the Great of all people -- the same ruler who executed three of his sons, his wife, mother-in-law, and brother-in-law -- in Bethlehem, which was within spitting distance of Jerusalem. She (shortly thereafter) picks up her kid and runs with her husband to Egypt for an indefinite period. Her next recorded visit to Jerusalem, maybe ten years later, portrays her going into the Temple -- how far in exactly we aren't told, but if Jesus was "sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking questions," it may have taken place in the Court of the Israelites, which women were not allowed to enter*** -- once again to pose a challenging, and very motherly, question, this time not to an archangel but to God. I mean ... what do you even say about that?

The Flight into Egypt, Giotto, 1306

She prompts Jesus to perform His first miracle. She stands beside the gallows onto which her Son has been nailed as a convicted blasphemer and accused nationalist insurgent, watching the execution -- never mind the fact that, as an immediate family member, she could be dealt with too. Less than a couple of months later, she is found right in the middle of the same group of malcontents, prostitutes, illiterates, and scumbags who massed around Jesus in the first place, who have not only stuck together despite the very public and horrible judicial murder of their leader, but have started talking loudly about the whole affair in no uncertain terms and doing the same sort of frightfully dramatic things that alarmed the Sanhedrin in the first place.

I mean, say what you want about Catholic Mariology, but you can't deny the woman had style.

The Coronation of the Virgin, Diego Velazquez, 1636

*For those not familiar, a jubilee year is a year in which plenary indulgences are given to the faithful who 1) fulfill the normal conditions of an indulgence and 2) make a pilgrimage to four specified basilicas in Rome. An indulgence itself, as I've written a bit about before, is basically a grace obtained by the Church that lets us off from the unpleasant spiritual consequences of our sins (which is why they shorten one's stay in Purgatory, since Purgatory is basically the place where you sort through unfinished business). If you'd like a little more technical detail about jubilees, feel free to read this, and if you summon the patience to figure out what it means then feel free to tell me.

**Many New Testament scholars think that the Magnificat was composed by someone else and inserted later as "decoration" to the original story. I don't think this hypothesis at all necessary. The Blessed Virgin would presumably, like most of Nazareth, have been illiterate, living in a culture with a strong oral tradition, and one steeped in the language of the Torah, the Psalms, and the whole history of the Jewish people; both reciting and composing poetry probably came far more naturally to them than it does to us, especially since they didn't make a fetish out of being original. The amount of "stock" material in the Magnificat is high, and I see no reason to suppose that Mary could not have composed it herself, even on the fly.

***The Temple of that time consisted in: the Court of the Gentiles, which anyone could enter, and which was largely turned over to commercial purposes (this being the part of the Temple that Jesus cleansed during Holy Week); the Court of the Women, which all Jews were allowed to enter; the Court of the Israelites, in which only Jewish men were permitted, and from which one could see the next court, where most sacrifices were performed; the Court of the Priests; the Holy Place, which contained the menorah and the table of the showbread; and the Holy of Holies, which had once contained the Ark of the Covenant.


  1. As far as I understand, there is not a requirement for a pilgrimage to Rome for the indulgences of this Jubilee Year. The pilgrimage to Rome really would be about going through the Holy Door at St. Peter's (or the other specific basilicas in Rome), but the archbishops have been given permission to designate some church doors in their dioceses as holy doors. These holy doors give one the same indulgence that one would get if one went to Rome and went through the Holy Door at St. Peter's. Of course there's all the other requirements like confession, praying for the Holy Father's intentions, etc., but totally doable. Personally my nerdy side is saying that all the holy doors are actually just portals to another dimension.

    I'm never gonna say though that a pilgrimage to Rome wouldn't be amazing, but you can get the indulgences of this Jubilee Year even if you can't get to Rome this year.

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