The Fem Spot

The ugly truth about Mary

Posted in Feminist Theory by femspotter on December 29, 2010

December 29, 2010

Last week, my 5 month-old daughter made her theatrical debut as Baby Jesus in our church Christmas pageant. It was a precious happening because all of the other children, ages 3 and up, became serious and silent when they realized a real baby, and not a doll, was at the center of all the commotion. And Ellie – method actress that she is – slept soundly throughout the entire production.

I was Mary. As I sat there before the congregation in an itchy blue shawl with bobby pins pinching my scalp, I listened to the story of Jesus’ birth…or as I’ve learned to think of it: “Mary’s delivery.”

From the Bible’s Gospel according to Luke:

…God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, ‘Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.’

Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.’

‘How will this be,’ Mary asked the angel, ‘since I am a virgin?’ The angel answered, ‘The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God…For no word from God will ever fail.’

‘I am the Lord’s servant,’ Mary answered. ‘May your word to me be fulfilled.’ Then the angel left her.

(Oh my! “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you”?! Is that an archaic description of rape or what?! All that and she doesn’t even get to choose his name?!) This cannot possibly be accurate. (Smirk.) For starters, if we believe that Mary was indeed a virgin and then mysteriously conceived a child without having sex, it would take a lot more than a seven-sentence conversation to quell any doubts and fears she’d have about her immaculate conception. Luke doesn’t go on to tell us how Mary probably ran straight away to talk to her sisters, female cousins and friends, mother figures and others about her predicament. True to form, she would have analyzed the situation to death and tried to figure out what God Most High was thinking! Every woman would have nodded and smiled reassuringly, but inside thought to herself, “Yeah right…an angel told her that?! What a hussy!” And once the news leaked to Joseph, he and his posse of male relatives and friends would have accosted Mary until she named the father of her unborn as one other than the Lord so they could beat him to a pulp. This quiet acceptance is so…so…final century B.C.!

Additionally, I take issue with the whole virgin-conceives-the-living-god narrative, not unique to Christianity. The idea that sex – for women, at least – is dirty and cannot possibly result in a pure birth forms just the tip of the iceberg. The rest of the gritty details we live in denial about – such as where and how the Holy baby comes out of the so-called virgin’s body – form the bulk. It’s easy to shrug off the biological impossibility of this conception. It’s much more difficult to accept our imperfections and our feeble humanity in the face of such grace. Not only is the baby superhuman, Mary must have been superhuman too. (Oh right – she was “highly favored.”) 

More from Luke:

In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment, when Quirin’i-us was governor of Syria. And all went to be enrolled, each to his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to be delivered. And she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them  in the inn.

What kind of a birth story is that?! There’s more language in there about a census than there is about Mary’s experience. And what the fuck do Caesar Augustus, Quirin’i-us and David have to do with it?! The words “according to” in gospel according to… are really telling. History has been written primarily by men. And in Mary’s day, this experience of pregnancy and childbirth would have been witnessed by women and its story passed from mother to daughter in an oral tradition. Were there a Gospel according to Oprah, for instance, we might know more truths about the birth of Jesus.

As it is, when I was a child, I listened to this distorted nativity story with no incredulity whatsoever. Joseph brought Mary to Bethlehem on a donkey. He knocked on the door of the inn and was told that there was no room for them inside. So, they went to the stable where she (painlessly) gave birth to a healthy baby boy. Yeah…you try riding on a donkey when you’re nine months pregnant! And there really were no inns; just homes and travellers relying on the kindness and hospitality of strangers. A stable? Fine; but note that Joseph would have had little to no knowledge of the female body. That means Mary was on her own. She had no midwife and no sisters to prop her up so that gravity could help her baby travel down and out. How did Joseph know to cut the umbilical cord? Was he put off by all of the blood and shit that comes with baby? And when Jesus had trouble latching to Mary’s breast, who helped her feed him?

Marc Chagall - La MarieeBecause history has traditionally ignored such details, we’ve lost much: the practice of midwifery has dwindled and even disappeared from certain parts of the world, and the knowledge that women are strong enough to give birth naturally has practically evaporated. And we take the authors’ word for it – or rather their lack of words – that Mary’s delivery was uneventful. There’s nothing about the actual birth of Jesus in the Gospel according to Matthew: instead, Matthew chooses to focus on how Joseph was able to forgive Mary for whoring about and conceiving a baby behind his back. John and Mark don’t mention the Nativity at all.

So that’s it! That’s all Mary gets. There’s no reverence for the anguish she must have felt – as every woman feels – in the uncertain moments before giving birth to her first baby. When I had my moment of “great doubt,” I was 9 centimeters dilated and just about to begin pushing. It was then that I asked for pain medication and was encouraged to continue without by my doula. Mary had the relief of no such science, and the assistance of no such saint.

This is the part where all the MRAs chime in: “But Joseph’s experience really was harrowing!” they whine. Sure it was. It must have been very difficult to accept your betrothed’s impossible explanation for how she became pregnant without you. But what would have been really harrowing was if Joseph had knocked down the door to the “inn” and demanded that somebody give his wife a bed…and some rags and water and loving care. That’s right: a hero Joseph would have shouted, “Let us the fuck in!” And when those three idiot “wise” men showed up, he would have told them what they could really do with their gold, frankincense and myrrh. (Seriously, I can just picture the look on exhausted Mary’s face as she endures what must have been the original, extraneous baby shower; but instead of sea of pink or blue crap, she found herself with useless luxury goods. “Uh, thanks for the gum resin…really. But did you bring me anything useful, like burp cloths or a bottle warmer?”)

As a Christian, I try to find meaning in biblical stories rather than focusing on the details. But when it comes to Mary, there are no details; so what can I learn from her story about mothering? According to these accounts of her, she meant nothing more to Christianity than her anatomy, which was the vessel in which Jesus came to Earth. I wish the authors had seen it fit to value and relay her experience so that we might learn how strong, rather than subordinate, women can be.

The Nativity should not be a catalyst for women-man hatred. Ahead of his time, and perhaps even ahead of ours, German theologian Meister Eckhart (circa 1300) wrote: “We are all meant to be mothers of God, for God is always needing to be born.”

I agree. Fuck anatomy! We could all use a little of Mary’s grace!

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7 Responses

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  1. faemom said, on December 30, 2010 at 12:43 am

    This is why you can’t take the Bible literally, darling. I won’t get into the immaculate conception, other than to say, no one would have believed it and that the leaders of the church felt it NEEDED to be said.

    As for the birth, well, many experts say that Mary was actually in the bottom dwelling of the house, the warmest part, because Mary and Joseph were late due to Mary’s condition. She was probably surrounded by women, most likely Joseph’s kin. In Catholic school, we were assured that Mary had an easy birth because it was the Son of God. Right.

    As for Mary’s mothing, remember it was Mary who told her Son about the issue at the Canaan wedding, prompting His first miracle. She pops in and out of the scriptures. It’s Joseph that dissappears from the Gospels. The Catholics hold that Mary was sinless because she had to set the example for Jesus. They assume she must have been a good mother because she raised the Son of God. The Catholics, and I have to assume it was the female Catholics, have several folk lore stories about Mary, which is why I like them so much. Because really, Mary was a scared girl pregnant before she was married.

    P.S. Some scholars say that the title of “Virgin” was kept by women who were married for under a year and the marriage was honorably dissolved due to death or sickness or something else.

    • femspotter said, on December 30, 2010 at 9:24 am

      Of course we can agree that it’s unfair that historically women must be virgins when they enter into marriage, but men need not be!

      I knew you’d have much to contribute on this subject. Thank you. I decided in the past week that I could have a bit of fun with the story. When our pastor used the Eckhart quote, I thought, “That about sums it up!”

      The Nativity story we’re told as Christian children is not a word-for-word representation of what’s in the Bible. But what is there is a lot of fluff about a census and some hemming and hawing by Joseph – who is, let’s face it, for all intents and purposes, superfluous. The point I derive from the absense of a Mary story is that women have been conveniently left out of the historical record. As I mentioned, women’s stories were often passed from mother to daughter in an oral tradition. (I just finished reading The Red Tent. Does it show?) Even today, as progressive as he is, my husband shies away from waching movies with a female protagonist. He, like his friends, assumes they will be boring. Funny: I don’t assume that movies about men will be boring. Hmmm…maybe that’s because I have been conditioned to consider the male version of things supreme.

      • faemom said, on December 31, 2010 at 3:13 pm

        The absense of a female prospective is huge. Some scholars chalk it up to that it wasn’t important to the story. Others havce said it was important to the writers because they were men. There are tons of other gospels out there, and now I’m curious if one of the more female-oriented sects of Christianity didn’t writre something about Mary’s experience. The cult of Mary arose because there is no strong female presnce in the Bible as it is (due to sevre editing by the {Crap I forgot the name of what scholars call the sect of Christianity that modern Christianity spring from} Church leaders), and no matter how hard church leaders have worked to suppress it, the cult flourishes. Because we women want a connection to the divine. As it is, women are the most faithful of the followers in the Gospels.

        I’ll admit that there are a lot of books, plays, and movies I discarded because a the male writer wrote female characters so poorly. And yes, many of those writers are esteemed by scholars. Ugh. And there are male movies I don’t go see anymore. Testosterone Fests: shoot ’em up movies without plot or character growth. Just as bad as the classic chic flick where the female is dealing with her dying mother/ out to find true love without real character development.

  2. Mom said, on January 5, 2011 at 7:19 am

    Well…. a far ranging, thought provoking essay.
    There is so much history about the Bible and its origins…so much editting for someone’s design that it’s hard for me to imagine that there are people in this world who believe it verbatim. In fact, it is a bunch of stories written (or told) thru the years (by men) as that was the structure of society (and perhaps still is despite what we women would like to believe) and collected or excluded from various, multiple versions according to what the one in power (at the time) wanted the message to be.
    So what’s the point: a history lesson, a warning, a handbook on being human?
    Don’t know. Don’t care. The Bible, for me, stands as a talisman of something constant, albeit unbelievable. And I for one am looking for more constancy, less anxiety, more peace and certainly more love and understading in the world whatever Holy Book, or not so Holy Book can help stabilize the world we live in.
    I love collected Fairy Tales for much the same reason. I’m just saying……………..

  3. Big Little Brother said, on January 16, 2011 at 7:12 pm

    Well half of writing history is learning how to hide the truth or that’s at least what I have been told. With that in mind to borrow a phrase from the X-Files “the truth is out there”. There are dozens of gnostic gospels and secular historical sources out there many downplayed or ignored because of the messages they offered and the “facts” (truth being relative I think to the person’s perspective) they presented. It is my understanding that there are many Islamic sources that talk about Mary, Jesus, and Joseph, sources that provide a great deal more detail than those in traditional Christianity.

    I think the other thing to consider is that most anthropologists and theologians agree that none of the source text “Gospels”, gnostic or otherwise, were recorded until 40 to 60 or so years after the events and most likely not by first hand witnesses. Interestingly though research conducted on cultures that use oral traditions and song to record history seems to show that the tales remain consistent across generations, so who knows, but that’s not the point I think.

    I once had a conversation with a very nice conservative Christian fundamentalist, an interesting conversation to say the least, as I try to remain open to everything out there. He was adament about the literal truth of the written word and made every attempt to convince me of his position. After about an hour or so of listening to him, he turned to me and asked me if I believed in Jesus as my Lord and Savior and if knew my history, which upon clarification he meant, did I believe the Bible was the literal word of God, thus being the “truth”. I thought about my answer for a moment and I asked him a question in return. I asked him if in the end it really mattered if Jesus was real or not real, if he was one man or a combination of 100 men, if he was married or not married, if he raised the dead, walked on water, turned water to wine, healed the sick, feed the hungry, was born in a manger, died on a cross, or rose from the grave. He told me that it was essential and all matters of fact. I asked him if he meant matters of faith, he said fact was faith.

    So, I told him that the answer to his question was, I don’t tihnk it matters if he was real or not, if anything he did was real or not, I think what does matter is spirit of the stories, the beattitudes and the golden rule. I told him that some of the best and most “Christian” people I have ever known were in fact not Christain at all and I told him that I try to do the right thing and that when I don’t or I am not able to I try to ask the person or people and myself for forgiveness. But finally, I said if Jesus really was real and is the man from the Gospels than I think he will understand my position and judge me on my actions not my beliefs or about where or how they came about. I think if he does take it personally, than he is probably not the man from the Bible and I need not worry because he is not then the savior of my soul. Long way to go to say that I believe in the message, and the story is just that a story and whether it is “true” or not makes no difference to me.

    Faith through good works and good intentions. In the end I try think to myself, what person is a person who does not try to make the world a better place. It doesn’t matter I think if it is giving money, giving time, giving love, saving the whales, saving the rainforest, or passing some ground breaking legislation that gives health care to everyone who needs it. Every contribution is essential.

    • femspotter said, on January 16, 2011 at 8:10 pm

      And that’s why I asked you to be Ellie’s godfather. :)

      • Big Little Brother said, on January 17, 2011 at 2:30 pm

        Thank you! :)


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