It took a bit of adjusting, coming in from the bright sunlight to the small, dark, one-roomed house. It was the House of Mary in the ruins of Ephesus, in Turkey, where Mary is supposed to have lived out the last years of her life. The only light was provided by an array of candles, some in front of a darkened icon of the Virgin holding her Son. And I remember that there was only one other person there, an old Muslim woman who, unlike me, was praying. It comes as a surprise to Christians to be told that there are more references to Mary in the Quran than in the Bible because in Islam she is honoured not just as the mother of Jesus but as the mother of all the prophets. Still, I couldn’t help wondering what Mary meant to that old woman. Did she find a secret comfort for herself there?
I’ve always believed, despite my theological hangups, that there is something refreshingly subversive about Marian devotion. It sidesteps the structures of patriarchal power, secular and religious, and it has caused Church officials considerable unease down the centuries. Mary may be the Mother of God, but she is also a creature and certainly not “divine”. Marian devotion over the centuries has suffered from accusations of being emotional and even “feminine” and immature. But these criticisms are mostly the views of male theologians who have never been at ease with the “feminine” and are based on male-derived values of independence, separation and control.
However, Mary represents another understanding of maturity, one judged by the different values of interdependence, inclusiveness and relationship. And we need to be aware of this if we are to stop looking over our shoulders or making excuses for the power she exerts in the lives of so many Christians and in the history of the Church.
Mary is that original subversive influence, a woman at the heart of the Gospel, overturning the essential categories of human power. It is surely no accident that it is given to her to pray the most “politically charged” prayer in the entire Gospel narrative – the Magnificat – a prayer about pulling down princes from their thrones and raising up the lowly and downtrodden. Mary has evaded categories, appealing to unimportant people in remote places, inspiring great tides of devotion that often break the bounds of ecclesiastical decency. Just think of Lourdes, Fatima, Guadeloupe, Medjugorje and Knock, to name the best known.Her festivals cluster like the stars in the sky and pilgrims flock to her shrines in their millions, hoping for healing, counting on forgiveness and comfort. People know her as powerful, they need her, love her; she is the great Mother of God. Mary, the obscure but feisty young woman from Nazareth, is caught up in that divine giving and receiving of love at a point of unimaginable power. Through her and with her, human power is overturned and salvation breaks out.So maybe we don’t need to apologise to Jesus because his mother allows human hearts to seek what they have always sought. Mary and Jesus were together in his birth and death and beyond. And we should always think of them together, as Mother and Son.