The following articles appeared as features in December 2001 issues of the Toronto Star Newspaper:
There's something about Mary
Today, December 8th, Roman Catholics celebrate the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. But few celebrants can explain what the feast really signifies.
Case in point. I received this email recently: "At the office today Eli got drawn into a conversation between two colleagues (one of whom was the company's Chief Operating Officer, the other a Sunday School teacher) about the unrealistic timing of the day of the Immaculate Conception (on December 8) and the celebration of Jesus' birth on Christmas Day. Please clarify."
My reply: "The immaculate conception is about Mary, not Jesus. The birth of Mary is celebrated on September 8th, exactly nine months after December 8th, the feast of her conception. Jesus' conception is celebrated on March 25, the feast of the Annunciation. Nine months later, on December 25, we celebrate his birth. So the numbers are right, liturgically anyway. The Church allows the required nine months gestation for both Mary and Jesus."
The above exchange is somewhat resonant of the spate of theological/ecumenical jokes that make the rounds. The major protagonists are the rabbi, the priest and one other. I recall a blind golfer being the third. In the case of the emails above, there is a Jewish man named Eli, an unnamed COO, possibly agnostic, and one, presumably Protestant but could be Catholic, Sunday School teacher. One happily wonders: The seeds of ecumenism fertilized by the immaculate conception sprouting around an office water cooler in East York?
But the unique conceptions of Mary and Jesus are about more than the timing of gestation. Clarification is required about the nature of both conceptions. The Church's claim about Mary rendered in the dogma of the immaculate conception states that Mary was conceived without the stain of original sin, the only human being to have this privilege. Sinless when conceived; later extended to sinless, and virgin, for life. The claim about Jesus is that he was conceived without a human biological father. No penetration of Mary's hymen. No semen. Result: the doctrine of the literal Virgin Birth. This extends to the notion that Jesus, like his mother, was sinless.
Mary's immaculate conception has been celebratedand debatedfor centuries. Marian enthusiasts have always pushed for it; dissenters argued vociferously against it. The Dominicans were against; the Jesuits fiercely for. Thomas Aquinas felt that the immaculate conception violated accepted Christology. But in 1854, the debate about Mary's sinlessness ended by papal decree. Pius IX issued a Bull, Ineffabilis Deus, stating: "We declare, proclaim, and define that this dogma is revealed by God and therefore to be firmly and unremittingly believed by all the faithful: namely the dogma which holds that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, from the very first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege from Almighty God and in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, was kept free of every stain of original sin."
(Sinlessby grace of God, and the merits of her son. One naturally wonders if Mary herself, given an opportunity, would affirm or deny these posthumous claims about her person? Would she have a say? )
In 1869 Pius IX went on to proclaim the doctrine of papal infallibility. He convened the First Vatican Council primarily for that purpose. Some saw his declaration of papal infallibility as a strategy for confirming his dogma of the immaculate conception. Others saw it the other way around: Pius exalting Mary in order to exalt his troubled, besieged, papacy. The issue of Pius' motives is still being debated by theologians.
As is, not surprisingly, the nature of the immaculate conception itself.
At Vatican II the Church invited theologians to continue their work on Mary. It also reiterated its traditional understanding of the immaculate conception. For the record: In The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church the Church acknowledges that it "does not however, intend to give a complete doctrine on Mary, nor does it wish to decide those questions which the work of theologians has not yet fully clarified." [Lumen Gentium 54]. This is followed by the claim that Mary was "enriched from the first instant of her conception with an entirely unique holiness" [Lumen Gentium 56]. Thus, in 1965, the window on Mary was open. However, the doctrine of her immaculate conception remained unchangedpresumably temporarily.
The theologians accepted Vatican II's open invitation to clarify Marian dogma. Not surprisingly, the two dogmas theologians focused on were the literal virgin birth and the immaculate conception. They also felt called to examine the role of Mary as a mother goddess. Carl Jung's discovery of the mother archetype explained the ubiquitous presence of the mother goddess. But she is never a literal virgin, except in Catholicism. Theologians began to see Mary's literal virginity as a violation of the archetype, an aberration which led to such disturbances of culture as the witch hunts.
In 1984 Paulist Press, a venerable Catholic publishing house, issued a small book, What are they saying about Mary?, giving anyone interested a full and readable update on current Marian debate. Writing twenty years after Vatican II, the book's author Anthony Tambasco reports that one fundamental Marian question being pursued was: "Are the virginal conception and birth of Jesus and the perpetual virginity of Mary part of the historical data of Scripture or a symbolic statement pointing to some theological truth of another order?"[my emphasis]. In favouring the view that the Virgin Birth was symbolic, rather than literal, the theologians felt invited to expand the meaning of the immaculate conception. Provisionally stated: "It wasn't about Mary being different from the rest of humanity but rather a protopye of all humanity redeemed from original sin." Was this truly a vision of everyone redeemed? No barriers of gender, race, religion? The very zenith of ecumenism? Surely the people were informed.
Not to my knowledge. Rather, an alarm must have been sounded when the Church could not predict where this line of inquiry would lead. Tambasco's blue book was not dispatched worldwide to seminaries and parish councils for roundtable discussion. Instead it went immediately, and quietly, out of printin spite of being well-received by Catholics and Protestants. Official ecumenism delayed.
Then in 1987 Pope John Paul II issued the encylical Redemptoris Mater, (Mother of the Redeemer). In an effort to prune the burgeoning blooms of theological inquiry, John Paul II reaffirmed the physiological/literal interpretation of the virgin birth. Catholics were thus required to regroup at 'the enclosed garden'a code word for 'intact hymen.' Revisionist interpretations of the immaculate conception went underground.
But pruning serves to strengthen any plant. More blooms sprouted on the Marian tree. Almost ten years later, in 1995, another blue book appeared with an update on Marian theological endeavour. This book, by Marian scholar Maurice Hamington, was somewhat larger than Tambasco's 1984 compendium, and considerably more confrontational. Hamington's title is Hail Mary?. Note the question mark. And subtitle: "The Struggle for Ultimate Womanhood in Catholicism." Note the revolutionary nuance of struggle. In Hamington's text, the word "struggle" actually waxes to "holy war," albeit in parenthesis, and followed by yet another question mark. Hamington's survey of the Marian 'battleground' shows that the issues were virtually the same as in 1984: how to integrate the biblical Miriam with the Blessed Virgin Mary. Hamington's opinion of the immaculate conception: definitely nonbiblical, still problematic.
To my knowledge, Catholic Marian discourse remains at this impasse. But the distant horizon shimmers with a vision [mirage?] of ecumenism unfolding: Protestants and Catholics renewing their engagement with the woman who was a pivotal cause of their great schism; Jewish scholars who already acknowledge Jesus as a Jewish prophet going one step further to acknowledge Jesus' mother; Islam joining the roundtable to review its Qur'anic assertions about Mary and Jesus. Who can predict where this new focus on Miriam/Mary will lead? Should someone sound the alarm?
And something about Joseph
The quest for the historical Jesus began over one hundred years ago. The quest for the historical Mary, Jesus' mother, began after Vatican II. But the quest for the historical Joseph, husband of Mary and foster-father of Jesus, began long ago, in the 16th century. Until recently, it has received very little attention.
Joseph himself received barely a passing mention until the Middle Ages. Perhaps because the Church fathers were focused on defining the relationship between Jesus as son and Mary as mother. Joseph remained on the furthest margins of this prolonged mother/son discourse. Not that there wasn't abundant apocryphal literature exalting Joseph as virgin husband of Mary and foster-father of her son. But such literature never became authoritative. The Church fathers had noticed that flights of apocryphal fantasy failed the litmus test of historicity.
In the 16th century a Dominican priest, Isidore of Isolanis, penned a prophetic lament about the neglected father of Jesus: "The Lord will let His light shine, He will lift the veil, and great men will search out the interior gifts of God that are hidden in St. Joseph; they will find in him a priceless treasure, the like of which they had never found in the saints of the Old Testament. We are inclined to believe that toward the end of time God will overwhelm St. Joseph with glorious honours....At some future time the feast of St. Joseph will be celebrated as the greatest of feasts. The Vicar of Christ, inspired by the Holy Spirit, will order this feast to be celebrated in the Universal Church."
Isidore's deep longing for the real Joseph is palpable. Perhaps it was a corrective to the extravagant adulation of Jesus' mother. Isidore's prophecy may actually have been efficaciousthe neglect of Joseph did come to an end. As another sign of this new 'Joseph-time,' Teresa of Avila followed Isidore's suit. Joseph entered her imagination in such a vital way that she named twelve new convents after him. These convents were necessarily overshadowed by the grand medieval cathedrals that had been erected in honour of Mary. But it is significant that Joseph had entered Christian consciousness, presumably on his own merits. And as Isidore had predicted, the Vicar of Christthe Popeeventually took note.
But not until the late 19th century. And in delayed tandem with his wife, Mary. Pope Pius IX proclaimed the dogma of Mary's Immaculate Conception on December 8, 1854. Sixteen years later, on December 8, 1870, he proclaimed Joseph the Patron and Protector of the Universal Church. (One can imagine Isidore sounding a victory trumpet somewhere within the Communion of Saints!)
Nineteen years later, in 1889, Pope Leo XIII issued his own proclamation about Joseph. His encyclical Quamquam Pluries (On Devotion to St. Joseph) came at the end of a century. For Leo it felt like the endtimes, so besieged was he as Sovereign Pontiff by "the powers of darkness." In his writing, Pope Leo first invokes the protection of Mary, and then, seemingly with her permission, that of Joseph. Reflections on Joseph's Jewishness appear in this text, along with the traditional, and required, Christian memory of his virginity. Leo proclaims that in order for the Church and the family to survive the dark lawlessness of the times, men with Joseph's "greatness of soul" would be needed. As Isidore predicted, it was Joseph's "interior gifts" that were being celebrated as "priceless treasure."
Tragically, Pope Leo's invocation to Joseph seemed to go unanswered. A new century brought a deepening of global darkness. Two World Wars. The Holocaust. In 1962 another Vicar of Christ, Pope John XXIII, called upon Joseph, this time to be Patron of a Vatican Council. Joseph's patronage of this Council may come as a surprise to anyone who reads the published documents of the Council. His name is not mentioned. Not even in tandem with Mary's. Not even when mention is made of Mary presenting Jesus to the Father in the temple. One naturally wonders if the historical Joseph quest had somehow been aborted? Instead, at Vatican II, the Church envisioned herself as a Mother, specifically of sons. Daughters aren't mentioned. Perhaps Pope John XXIII died too soon to point out the oversight.
But all was not lost. Like Jonah coming out of the belly of the whale, Joseph came back. The timing was right. At the end of another century, in time for the Third Christian Millennium, on the 100th anniversary of Quamquam Pluries, on the feast of the Assumption of Mary, December 8, 1989, Joseph came back. It seems that Isidore's vision/hope was vindicated once again, this time in the reflection of yet another Vicar of Christ, Pope John Paul II. He had attended and participated at the Council as Bishop Karol Wojtyla from Kraków, Poland. At some point in time, perhaps after he became Pope, Wojtyla must have noticed that Joseph, the Patron of the Vatican Council, was paradoxically absent from the Council's reflections. So he corrected the oversight in 1989 by writing Redemptoris Custos (Guardian of the Redeemer), a full encyclical celebrating Joseph.
In his text, Pope John Paul picks up where Pope Leo left off, with a full exegesis of scriptural references to Joseph and a clear attestation to Joseph's "profound interior life." Joseph's virginity is reaffirmed, but only in passing. Then, in a spirited innovation, Pope John Paul imagines Joseph being an "eyewitness" to Jesus' birth, however "embarrassing" that may have been. (For Joseph to function as midwife would have been yet another great challenge!) As for Vatican II's neglect of Joseph, Pope John Paul assures us that he was included implicitly, if not explicitly.
In my view, Isidore would be satisfied with this reclamation of Joseph on all countsbut one. There is the matter of Isidore's enigmatic phrase "He will lift the veil." Isidore's intuition was that the faithful would be required to go behind the veil of scripture in order to find the historical Joseph; that the faithful would have to return to the Judaea of Joseph's time to actively contemplate the trauma experienced by Jewish men and women under Roman occupation.
Going back to scriptural references, we see Joseph as a man in crisis, a crisis involving the assumption of the role of husband and father in circumstances replete with scandal, as well as danger. Going behind the veil of scripture, we learn that the wives and daughters of Judaea were not spared the indignities experienced by most women under foreign occupation. Sexual violation was rampant. Distinguishing between adultery and rape was a burning legal/social issue. (In our time, the media regularly report hauntingly similar stories of the legal disposition of women suspected of adultery in Islamic countries.) For a "just man," recognizing the woman as innocent required protecting both her and her child. For Joseph, this meant completing his marriage to Mary and adopting her child. Not a task for the faint of heartin those times, or our times.
This behind-the-veil piece of historical Joseph inquiry has only just begun. In the words of scholar Donald Harman Akenson, "Within the context of [Joseph's] society, a man whose wife-to-be turned up pregnant by someone else, and who let the matter ride, inevitably became a lame figure"Joseph's "cruelly devalued" fate in his own time, followed by centuries of neglect. But the longing for Joseph developed and grew; the Mary/Jesus iconography was incomplete without him. Borrowing the words of Jewish scholar David Bakan, the longing is for "this great transgenerational spirit called Abba, the Hebrew for father." Like the Joseph who invaded the imaginations of Isidore of Isolanis and Teresa of Avila in the 16th century. Now Patron of the Universal Church... Patron of Canada, China, Belgium, Austria, Peru... Patron of myriad groups, situations, causes... Father.