Merest Shadow to Queen of Heaven
may have very little to say about Jesus; it has even less to
about his supposed mother. For the earliest Christians Mary
Mother of Jesus almost did not exist: they were
interested in the nativity of their god-man – it was his re-birth
after death that mattered. Paul does not mention Mary
(or Joseph) at all, and in the gospels, the shadowy figure of
destined to become the most pre-eminent of all the saints and Queen
of Heaven, at best, is a two-dimensional nonentity.
the gospel pageant, Mary appears in several scenes.
In all of them she is a passive character, habitually in
the background and virtually without a voice (she speaks in total
three times, twice in a single sentence). She is not described
(but then, none of the gospel characters are!); nor do we know
She is a bit player, primarily with witnessing parts. We learn nothing of her origins, save for the family connection
to cousin Elizabeth and as betrothed of Joseph. She appears first
in the so-called Annunciation (at the well
..?) when an angel maps out her career. With little ado, she
the blessed role revealed to her (Luke 1.38) and
rushes off to spend three months in the mountains with the
(she who will mother John the Baptist). In this, her
biggest scene, Mary delivers her only set-piece speech (such
articulation at this gob-smacking moment!) the so-called 'Magnificat':
My soul doth magnify the Lord,
And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.
For he hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden:
for, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.
For he that is mighty hath done to me great things;
and holy is his name.
And his mercy is on them that fear him from generation to generation.
He hath shewed strength with his arm;
he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seats,
He hath filled the hungry with good things;
and the rich he hath sent empty away.
He hath helpen his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy;
As he spake to our fathers, to Abraham, and to his seed for ever.
God only knows
who was also in the room (or was it a cave? ) to record all this!
Perhaps she wrote her memoirs. (In truth, the piece is an obvious
adaptation of the song of Hannah in 1 Samuel
2). But after this
soliloquy Mary has not a word to say for herself. She witnesses visits of shepherds and wise men and ponders (Luke 2.16); she is taken to Egypt (Matthew 2.13.18)
and brought back to Galilee; she puzzles at
her twelve-year olds claim to messiahship (Luke 2.48,52);
she witnesses the turning of water to wine (John
2.1,12); she is rejected by her super-star off-spring
(Luke 8. 19,21); she witnesses his crucifixion
(John 19.25,27); and she waits for the holy spirit
(Acts 1.14). Her ultimate fate is not revealed and she is credited with no
role at all in the creation of the Christian Church.
upon this sketchy outline a full-bodied character was to be fleshed
soon enough by creative Christian scribes. Pagan
gods, as often as not, were supposedly sired by virgin goddesses quite
commonly as a result of impregnation by a sun-beam. The resultant sun-god was
depicted as an infant at the breast of his mother the Madonna and Child no
less! Such iconography is to be found all the way from Egypt to
The Romans' own virgin goddess, Vesta, was served by women who
maintained her perpetual flame and their own chastity for thirty
The Mary of
the Christians considerably upstaged this achievement by the
double whammy of mothering a god and maintaining her virginity
two millennia! But it was to take a few centuries of creative
story telling for all the paraphernalia of the pagan myths to be
fused into the Christian one.
like a delayed echo of the invented life of the illustrious super-hero
himself, Marys own biography blossomed over the
centuries. Early Christian writers, like Justin and Irenaeus, elevated
Mary as a second Eve, her obedience reversing
the sin of the original garden dweller.
a Greek from Palestine who had fled to Ephesus at the time of
Bar Kochbars revolt, adopted the embryonic
Christianity he found in the city with relish. But Justins
enthusiasm came with a prior familiarity of Greek classics. In
adopted city the venerable cult of the moon goddess Artemis (or
Diana as the Romans called her) had been the eternally virgin
protector of youth, chastity and fertility for a millennium.
In the process the city had become a wealthy place of pilgrimage – the worlds first bankers had been the priests
set about infusing his Christianity with aspects of the rival
Despite the opposition of established Christians,
Justin insistently embellished the skimpy biblical Mary story
the idea that Mary had delivered a Virgin Birth. This
belief, so he himself admitted, was based solely on predictions
set forth by the blessed prophets, in other words, upon
the notorious mistranslation of Isaiah 7.14 (in which virgin
was substituted for young woman; see:
Lying for God Virgin Birth Fraud) to be found in
the Septuagint. In the context in which upstart Christianity
was competing with a far more ancient faith, it is no surprise
the Christ followers eventually settled on a Virgin Birth.
The miraculous arrival provided a useful rebuttal
to early critics of the Christians, who were suggesting that
Jesus figure had ever existed, he had a rather dubious parentage.
next major contribution to the Mary legend came in the mid-second
century, with the so-called Protevangelium of James,
a document so clearly fictitious that it has been rejected even
by the Catholic church since the Renaissance.
this pious nonsense underpins much of current belief regarding
Blessed Virgin, providing such information as the names of Marys
parents and grandparents, a story of her prodigious childhood
("left at the Temple from the age of three" an
event without precedent in Jewish custom!); her early commitment
to chastity (why did she know what was coming?);
daily chats with angels; and a safe marriage at puberty
to the elderly widower Joseph. With this embellished history,
Mary began her ascendancy as a mediator, more approachable than
Christ because of her humbling femininity. Artistic
representations of her began to proliferate, uncannily like
the prototype they were based upon Artemis, the
goddess with more than a thousand years of marketing success
A century later the Gospel
of the Nativity of Mary (well, we can never have enough gospels, can we?) added
background detail. This story of Marys birth to ancient
parents Anne and Joachim was a simple re-write of Samuels
Hannah and Elkanah already to be found in 1 Samuel. But now we
learn of such delights as Marys grandmothers seven marriages. Six husbands were dispatched by the Lord for
feeling lust while having sex. Thankfully the seventh was
inert during the sinful act, or we would not have had Anne, Mary,
Jesus and the whole nine yards!
Remains a Virgin
gospels clearly stated that Jesus had four brothers and two (unnamed)
sisters the theologians of Christ were disposed to argue that the
virgin "purity" of their goddess was not to be compromised:
she had, they insisted, remained a virgin throughout the whole birthing
"In the 4th
century the idea came to prominence that Mary's hymen had remained
intact through the birth of Jesus... Mary's in partu virginity
was an issue addressed by all the great theologians of the period."
Hampson, After Christianity, p189.
As the doctrine of Mary's 'perpetual virginity' became widespread so did
confusion among theologians over the supposed siblings of Jesus.
They had to be harmonized with the new dogma, so 'brothers and sisters'
became 'cousins, step-siblings', etc.
century was particularly favourable to the thriving Mary cult, largely
thanks to the peripatetic activities of the Empress Helena.
As mother of Constantine, she probably felt a particular affinity
with the original mother of a Lord of the World. Helena positively invented ecclesiastical
archaeology (or at least
the shrine-creation business).
she went in the Holy Land she found evidence of
Christ and ordered the construction of churches at the spot:
the cave of the nativity (or so the locals said), the house of
the last supper (or so the locals said), the garden of Gethsemane
(or so the...), the hill of crucifixion, the empty tomb, the
cross itself, even the very tree from which the wood was cut! And
sure enough, Helena found the very location (a cave) in Nazareth
where the angel Gabriel had made his announcement to
Mary. Like every other shrine it thereafter became the recipient
of imperial patronage and profitable pilgrimage. With the shrine
went a Mary festival, the Annunciation. Unfortunately
for the town of Capernaum supposedly the chief site of Jesus
ministry Helena did not get that far and the
town was lost to history!
fifth century, the Council of Ephesus (431 AD) accorded Mary
the title Theotokos (Mother of God).
"The surest protection against Christological heresy was the affirmation
and veneration of Mary as Theotokos."
– Varghese, God Sent, p43.
In other words, here
was an attempt to call a halt to the continuing speculation as to
just how far human, and just how far god, was the divine carpenter. He was God, part of the "Trinity" no less, and
Mary was his Mother.
The "Trinity" crowns
Mary "Queen of Heaven."
Gods is that?
of course, had long been the home of the Mother of God, though through
that period she had been happy with the name Cybele, the mother and consort of the dying/reborn god Attis. In the Roman period the Phrygian Cybele was conflated with the Greek Artemis. With a certain
amount of desecration and rebuilding, the sanctity business continued
Byzantine Romans had a particular affection for court ritual
and regalia and
Mary as a queen, complete with crown and sceptre, appealed
much more to imperial appetites than a shadowy peasant woman.
Jesus himself, she had gone royal and was elevated
into the sainthood.The sixth century Council of Constantinople (553 AD) went on to endorse as dogma Mary's "perpetual
The "purity" of virginity, it seems, is closer to the
"purity" of God.
Getting a Death or two
The first four hundred years of Christian testimony are silent regarding the end of the Blessed Virgin. But after the Council of Ephesus the 'tradition' emerged that, following on from JC's instructions from the cross, the disciple John had taken Mary to Ephesus – surprise, surprise! – and had built her a house in which to live out her days. Glory be, you can still visit it!
"He said to His mother, 'Woman, behold, your son!' Then He said to the disciple, 'Behold, your mother!' From that hour the disciple took her into his own household."
– John 19.26.27.
Meanwhile, a rival 'tradition' surrounding Mary's death had arisen in Jerusalem and here they had an empty tomb to prove it, located in the Kidron Valley, on the slopes of the Mount of Olives, and convenient for pilgrims. That claim has itself been contested by the extravagant Abbey of the Dormition, built across town by the Kaiser at the beginning of the 20th century. Here again, 'tradition' suggests early pilgrims regarded the site as the place were Mary 'fell asleep'.
the seventh century, creative writers had replaced the limp
ending of the Mary story with something altogether more satisfying.
John Damascene (together with Gregory of Tours) developed the
idea that Marys corporal body (and not just her spirit)
had been assumed into Heaven (again, paralleling
the career of her illustrious son). John lived in Umayyad Damascus
and his inspiration may well have been the claim made by upstart
Islam that Muhammad had 'ascended to Heaven', supposedly in the
year 620 (Qur'an, surah 17.1).
The doctrine of Mary's Assumption was defined as dogma as recently as 1950 by Pope Pius XII. In his Munificentissimus Deus, the pope left open the question of Mary's actual death, with the result that Catholics differ on whether Mary actually died before she was "assumed" into heaven and, if so, whether her soul arrived three days ahead of her body. The Orthodox Church uses the word Dormition for the same preposterous event.
787 the prelates and bishops again convened in Nicaea. Mary's
promotion was once more on the agenda. Earlier in the century,
with relentless pressure coming from Islam, two emperors Leo
III (717 - 741) and his son Constantine V (741 - 775) had
"idolatry" and its plethora of "holy icons".
But their "iconoclasm" had wiped out much of the income
of hundreds of monasteries and shrines and had set the Orthodox
Church against the imperial court. Empress Irene, acting as regent
for her young son, Constantine VI, caved in to religious pressure
and convened the 7th Ecumenical Council.
energetically endorsed the acceptance of icons, and in particular
the worship of Mary:
Lord, the apostles. and the prophets have taught us that
we must venerate in the first place the Holy Mother of God, who is above
all the heavenly powers. If any one does not confess that
the holy, ever virgin Mary, really and truly Mother of God, is higher than all creatures visible and invisible, and does
not implore with a sincere faith, her intercession, given her
powerful access to our God born of her, let him be anathema."
– Varghese, God Sent, p16.
the ninth century Mary had all but eclipsed the god-man himself and
Mary could be whatever the Church hierarchy wanted her to be.
the first writing of the birthing of Mary, she is no more immaculate than
anyone else (and we all know original sin is passed on by sex).
All the early Church Fathers agreed that Christ alone had been
born without sin. They had no doubt: Mary had been a sinner.
However, since Marys womb represented a temporary home for
the gestating superhero a tainted womb raised theological difficulties
if, that is, one stopped to think about such things.
the 7th century an emerging Islam – which quite happily adopted
"prophet Jesus", Mary and her
virginity – made its own contribution to the fabulous legend.
According to a tradition of Muhammad
every new-born child is 'touched' by Satan. But for
Mary and her
illustrious son, God interposed a protective veil. This notion of
Mary's (and not just Jesus's) sinlessness percolated back into
Catholicism. Wrote Edward Gibbon:
" The Latin
church has not disdained to borrow from the Koran the immaculate
of his virgin mother.
It is darkly hinted in the Koran, and more clearly explained
by the tradition of the Sonnites.
In the twelfth century, the immaculate conception was condemned by St
Bernard as a presumptuous novelty."
the thirteenth century a bitter doctrinal dispute led to fighting
between Dominicans (maculates) and Franciscans (immaculates).
The issue was never fully resolved until the nineteenth century,
when the autocratic Pope Pius IX endorsed the dogma of immaculate
conception as the opening gambit in his move towards papal
in 1854 could the world be sure that Mary had been conceived
normally but without sin!
Until then, perpetual virginity, the nonsense developed
by Jerome and Athanasius in the fourth century, had sufficed
to vouchsafe Marys purity.
a goddess, its hardly surprising that outbreaks of Marian
miracles were endemic throughout the Middle Ages (and continue
in our own time!) Less than God himself but considerably more
than human, blessed as a female with infinite humility,
she was seen as an intercessory to whom mere mortals could appeal
on lesser matters. She was, quite simply, the most
important woman that had ever lived.
cult was unstoppable. Whereas most saints had only one holy day
or feast, the Holy Mother had one every few weeks and her own
chapel in every church in Christendom. Eventually, even the
Catholic Church had to call a halt to the galloping fantasy by
the faithful that Mary had to be seen as completely dependent
on the Son. But it was all too much for the Protestants
of the Reformation. In their hands Mary was reduced once more
to a passive, obedient role, a shadow, somewhere in the background.
by her virginity, lauded for limitless humility and submission,
she is the idealized woman of misogynistic fanatics, in her
own words a handmaid (i.e. slave) of the Lord.
starts regular shuttle service between Heaven and
opportune moments the Queen of Heaven has deigned to
put in an appearance to assist the brethren. As early
as the 4th century she appeared to Pope Liberius with
the message that "childless couples should
leave their wealth to the Church." Now that
11th century England she apparently beamed Lady Richeldis
de Faverches to Nazareth and then assisted in the construction
of a facsimile "Jesus house" in Walsingham,
which fleeced pilgrims from all over Europe until closed
by Henry VIII.
Lady of Guadeloupe" she helped the Spanish conquer
the Americas (never mind the bloodshed, look at the
apparitions followed the routing of Charles X of France,
who had attempted to restore Church privileges swept
away by the French Revolution. In 1830 Paris a "Miraculous
Medal" of Mary sold by the million to the simple-minded.
Answering the challenge of growing French rationalism,
Mary popped back again and again: La Salette in 1846,
Lourdes in 1858, Pontmain 1871. In the new century
she switched first to Portugal and then to Belgium.
a girl! As old empires
collapsed in Europe and revolution shook Russia, 'Mary' turned up in Portugal
and made the sun wobble!
it or not, she's recently been putting in time in Bosnia
(part of the UN peace mission?) where,
terms of conversion of unbelievers Mary has exerted
a greater impact... than any other apparition in
history except for Guadeloupe." – Varghese,
God Sent, p66.
and child, posing for the camera, September
3, 1989 in Karacsond, Hungary
daily, Disney World, Florida
The Blessed Virgin Mary – A Saint for All Seasons
of a 'Holy Mother' has proved quite an earner for the Church
of Rome, more tangible than the 'Holy Spirit' (a tad difficult
for the iconography), more approachable than Christ Almighty.
the 'sacred feminine' for the cause of Catholicism back in the
4th century, papal agents ever since have fashioned the Blessed
Virgin into a malleable instrument of Catholic policy. 'Mary'
was, and remains, the 'Word' of the Catholic hierarchy, a convenient,
adaptable, protagonist of Church policy, freed not only from
the laws of the physical universe but also from the restraints
of Gospel teaching.
local saint was wanting or in difficulties BVM could always be
relied upon for a timely apparition, rallying the faithful and
stiffening the doubtful.
Graham Phillips, The Marian Conspiracy (Sidgwick & Jackson,
Marina Warner, Alone of All Her Sex (Picador, 1976)
John Shelby Spong, Liberating the Gospels (Harper, 1996)
John Shelby Spong, Born of a Woman (Harper, 1992)
Robin Lane Fox, The Unauthorized Version (Penguin, 1991)
Leslie Houlden (Ed.), Judaism & Christianity (Routledge, 1988)
W.H.C. Frend, The Rise of Christianity (Darton, Longman & Todd,
Riane Eisle, The Chalice & the Blade (Harper Collins, 1987)
Ruth Harris, Lourdes: Body & Spirit in the Secular Age (Allen
Roy A. Varghese, God Sent - A History of the Accredited Apparitions
of Mary (Crossroad, 2000)
Some fifty articles are now available as a book.
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