Thursday, May 28, 2015


On our third day at Ephesus, we saw the terrace houses, magnificent structures in the process of excavation and restoration. These “houses” are more like an elaborate luxury apartment complex for the upper class of the city. And we saw the Ephesus Museum rich in ancient art and artifacts. Several more themes from Ephesus are now formulating themselves into something I can sort of express or at least hint at.

In this post, I will take up the question of gender and divinity/ holiness. This plays out for us in the person of Mary the Mother of Jesus. Very generally speaking, In the Neolithic era when society was more matriarchal, religion was dominated by worship of Mother Goddesses. In the Bronze Age (roughly 3,000 BCE to 1,200 BCE in the Near East), the Mother Earth Goddesses were supplanted by Male Sky Gods. Aeschylus’s classic tale of Orestes being pursued by the vengeful displaced goddesses after he has killed his mother makes the point explicitly. Apollo shows up in the end and tames them, turning the old goddesses from the Furies into the Kindly Ones. Basic point: as society became patriarchal, the image of the divine became patriarchal along with it.

But the goddesses would not go away, especially in cities where they were the chief guardians, like Athena in Athens and Artemis in Ephesus. The feminine held a strong place in the pantheon here on the Aegean coast. The Temple of Cybele (a Neolithic mother goddess!) appears to have been going strong in the 1st Century CE. In Roman culture she was called “the Great Mother.” There was, or at least recently had been, a strong cult of the Egyptian goddess, Isis, worshiping in the Isis Temple in Ephesus. The mother of Horus the King (Mother of the Lord), Isis was the model wife and mother, and was the friend of the poor, the downtrodden, and sinners. Does that remind you of the Magnificat? Her image was a throne, which may remind us of the throne on which Mary sits in Byzantine Icons. But the main goddess in Ephesus was Artemis. She is the virgin goddess who is paradoxically the patron of motherhood and childbirth. Her temple here in Ephesus was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

This is the religious context of Ephesus in which Mary, not so much the person as the symbol, took on a new place in Christian faith. But first, we need to think back on the real person behind the Madonna of Faith. We can be pretty sure historically that Jesus’ birth was “irregular” in a way not condoned by Jewish society. We Christians may believe in the Virgin Birth or at least have an affinity for the notion acquired from singing “round yon virgin, mother and child” every Christmas, but the Jews of 1st Century Galilee would not have interpreted Mary’s pregnancy that way.

In the Gospel Of Thomas (believed by many to contain some genuine sayings of Jesus) Jesus says, “He who knows the mother and father will be called the son of the harlot.” If he means himself, then Mary may have had a hard life in Nazareth, and Jesus’ affinity for the outcast may have come from seeing his own mother shunned. When he was condemned and crucified, things hit rock bottom not only for him but also for his already disgraced mother. His resurrection then would have validated and justified them both.

In Luke, Mary is visited by the Angel Gabriel, she consents to God’s will with the immortal Fiat (Let it be), she exclaims the Magnificat praising God for vindicating the outcast (is this her song about her pregnancy or is it about the resurrection read back into the pregnancy?). She visits her cousin Elizabeth who recognizes her as the bearer of the Messiah and says, “All generations will call you blessed” – Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus.

The Synoptic Gospels do not show Mary at the crucifixion or the discovery of the resurrection.[i] But John places Mary at the foot of the Cross alongside the Beloved Disciple. Jesus says to her, “Woman behold your son” and to the Disciple he says, “Behold your mother.” So the Mary-John link is forged.

Luke places her among the disciples praying in Jerusalem up to the day of Pentecost, but then we hear nothing more in the Gospels or Acts. But 2nd Century legend has it that John and Mary came to Ephesus and spent their lives sharing the gospel here. A house said to have been Mary’s home still stands and has been visited by Popes to pray there.

One has to wonder if it is coincidence that the Virgin Mary should have grown to prominence in Ephesus the city of the Virgin Artemis and the Mothers Isis and Cybele. The spiritual context was at a minimum ripe for her. It may well be that Christianity without her could not have gotten traction here.

After her death, dormtion, or assumption (the end of her earthly life however that happened) John the Divine on the nearby island of Patmos wrote this prophesy: “A great sign appeared in the sky, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and her head crowned with 12 stars. It was with child and wailed aloud as she labored to give birth.” From this image, the Roman and Orthodox Churches would later come to call Mary the “Queen of Heaven.”

All of this leads to a point of church politics and geography. In the early 5th Century, a dispute arose between two church leaders, Cyril and Nestorius, as to whether it was proper to honor Mary as the Theotokos, the god-bearer, or the Mother of God. A council was called to solve the issue and the die was cast when they determined the venue – Ephesus – if it wasn’t Mary’s hometown, they sure thought it was. So, yes, after having been honored as the Theotokos in popular piety for centuries, she was given the title officially by the Church at the Council of Ephesus in 431 CE.

Mary’s virginity, especially the Roman Catholic claims of her perpetual virginity, bother some as it seems to denigrate sex and be nigh unto gnostic. That strikes me as a fair point. But there may be more at work here than an aversion to sex as sex. It may have to do with independence and power. I am not at all clear on this, but I am struck for example by The Acts of Paul and Thekla which extolls celibacy at the same time as containing some erotically charged passages. There was for some mystics the practice of sublimating sexuality into a spiritual ecstasy. I am not prepared to defend these claims of perpetual virginity. I don’t think biological virginity is necessary for the incarnation. Mark and John did not seem to think so in their gospels. I am just saying there may be more involved here and I am not ready to denigrate anyone’s belief about this.

Mary is certainly not God, but her symbolic role of surpassing and salvific holiness strike that kind of chord in our collective spirit. Some people recoil against Marian piety as some people, especially men, recoiled against the goddess cults in the Bronze Age. Others find Mary’s prominent place in the faith to be a gracious crack in the patriarchy. It seems to me that the visceral reactions to Marian piety, both pro and con, say that there is something important going on with her in our souls, something that bears attention.

As for what should we believe about Mary, Linda made the point in our class, that it may not matter so much what we believe. We are called to “be like” Mary. We are called to be god-bearers, to give birth in our lives to the Christ who God has already implanted in our souls. It is not so important to “believe” as to “be like.” As the 14th Century mystical monk Meister Eckhart said, "It does not matter that Christ was born in Bethlehem long ago unless he is born in you today."

Still we may want some guidance about belief and piety. Fortunately we now have a bit from the Anglican-Roman Catholic international Consultation (ARCIC) Agreed Statement On Mary, Mary: Grace And Hope In Christ. If you would like to hear some official word on the question of Mary, I commend the Statement to your consideration.

[i] Except that Matthew says the women at the tomb were “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary” (most likely Mary of Bethany).

No comments: