[excerpted from “The Lost Gospel of Mary,” Paraclete Press, 2007]
The Beloved Virgin Mary
Who was she?
It is hard to see Mary clearly, beneath the conflicting identities she has borne over the centuries. To one era she is the flower of femininity, and to another the champion of feminism; in one age she is the paragon of obedience, and in another the advocate of liberation. Some enthusiasts have been tempted to pile her status so high that it rivals that of her Son. Others, aware that excessive adulation can be dangerous, do their best to ignore her entirely.
Behind all that there is a woman nursing a baby. The child in her arms looks into her eyes. Years later he will look at her from the cross, through a haze of blood and sweat. We do not know, could not comprehend, what went through his mind during those hours of cosmic warfare. But from a moment in the St. John’s account of the Crucifixion we know that, whatever else he thought, he thought about her. He asked his good friend John to take care of her. He wanted John to become a son to her—to love her the way he did.
It is not surprising that those who, in St. Paul’s words, put on “the mind of Christ” would discover that they loved her too. Though we may picture the love of Mary as a medieval development, it actually goes back to the faith’s early days. Those first generations of Christians did not include Mary in their public preaching of the gospel; they did not expose her to the gaze of the world. (Likewise, a celebrity today will object if reporters take photos of his family.) But when believers were gathered together in their home community, there Mary was cherished. As new members were brought into the Body of Christ, they would also begin to share in the love the Christ Child had for his Mother.
How can we know her the way they did? Our primary source of information about Mary is the Scriptures, of course, but the few passages about her have been so burdened by competing interpretations that they spark more argument than illumination. Just beyond that center, however, there is a wealth of other materials that were embraced by the early Christians. You could think of it as analogous to the materials found today in a Christian bookstore: stories, prayers, artworks, and songs that help enrich the life of faith. By looking at materials pertaining to Mary that were popular in those first centuries, we can learn something about how the early Christians viewed her.
In fact, their viewpoint is valuable whenever we seek to understand Scripture. Not because these early Christians were necessarily smarter or holier than we are, but because they had this practical advantage: they were still living in the culture that produced the Christian Scriptures. The Greek of the New Testament was their daily business language. They lived in the Middle East, or along its gossipy trade routes. Their parents or great-grandparents had been alive when Christ walked the earth. The history of these things was the history of their backyard, and some things that scholars now struggle to comprehend were as familiar and obvious as their own kitchen table.
And from the first they loved Mary—freely, deeply, and some way instinctively. This can puzzle some contemporary Christians, living as they do on the other side of centuries of controversy over Mary. It is my hope that, as we stand behind these fervent Christians and peer over their shoulders, we will be able to see what they see, and come to love her too.
We’ll do that by reading three ancient texts about Mary. In each case we’ll begin with some historic background, and then move to consider theological and cultural questions (sometimes, uncomfortable questions) that the document raises, before entering the complete text.
The first work is a “Gospel,” or a narrative of Mary’s life, which begins with her conception by her mother, Anna, and continues through the birth of Jesus. It provided a kind of “prequel” to the biblical Gospels, and was extremely popular. It was in written form by AD 150, but I suspect that (like the biblical Gospels) it collected stories that were previously in oral circulation.
If these stories were originally passed along orally, we have no way of knowing how far back they might go. We can know at least that we are in the company of Christians who lived during the era of persecutions, and well before the New Testament was given final form. Yet they were already enthusiastically in love with Mary. This book was circulated widely and embraced warmly, and its popularity is reflected in the unusually high number of ancient copies and translations that have been found.
Scholars know this text by the modern title bestowed by a sixteenth-century translator: the Protevangelium of James. The ancient church knew it by a number of different titles, most including a reference to James as its source. I have called it the Gospel of Mary because today we expect a title to identify a work’s contents, rather than its author. (We’ll explain the use of Lost later on.)
The second text is a very brief prayer to Mary, found on a scrap of papyrus in Egypt about a hundred years ago. The artifact is dated at AD 250, though (as above) the prayer itself is probably older; the papyrus just represents one time it got written down.
This is the oldest known prayer to Mary. It begins with “Under your compassion …,” and is still in use. In the Roman Catholic Church it is called “Sub tuum praesidium,” and in the Eastern Orthodox Church it is among the closing prayers of the evening services.
The third text is a lengthy, complex, and beautiful hymn written by the deacon and hymnographer St. Romanos, who was born in Syria about AD 475. This is the best-known of his works, and is regularly cited as the highest achievement of Byzantine Christian poetry. Eastern Christians are familiar with it as the Akathist Hymn, and they sing it during Lent, near the March 25 feast of the Annunciation (that is, the Angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary that she would conceive a son). Here I am calling it the Annunciation Hymn, again with the aim of identifying its contents.
Many Western Christians are unfamiliar with Mary, and somewhat leery of her; they suspect that it’s possible for devotion to her to get out of hand, and even eclipse the honor due to God. It is true that, over time and in other lands, praise of the Virgin that had been intended as lovingly poetic developed into something more literal, and consequently less healthy.
In Europe from the twelfth century on, strains of Marian devotion were arising that held that she could manipulate or even overrule her Son, that he was perpetually enraged but she was merciful, that she could work miracles by her own magical powers, that mechanical repetition of prayers to her guaranteed salvation, and that she had facilitated Christ’s work by her presence at the Crucifixion. The effects of these mistaken ideas lingered for centuries, and have not been wholly eliminated.
But, as we will see, the early Middle-Eastern church is not the medieval European church. All that sad confusion lay a thousand years from the time of the first love-notes to Mary, the time that we are entering now.