On Friday, some parishioners asked if we could hold a vigil for the Dormition–a service in honor of the Virgin Mary. “Sure,” I said.
We have a lot of former Roman Catholics who have migrated on over to Canterbury with us, and for them, honoring the Mother of Christ is a big deal. I like Mary, though most of the traditional forms of mariology make me want to throw something, so I thought the service could be fun.
At the group’s request, I found a reading from a female theologian on Mary–because any excuse to buy a Dr. Elizabeth Johnson book is a good one. And I came up with a reflection.
Here’s what I said.
Two days ago, Janelle Monae, from Kansas City!, put out a new single—pretty much a protest chant. She released it with the other artists on her record label at a #blacklivesmatter march in Philly.
It’s not really a song—there’s a repeated chorus, and then the shouted name of one of the many people killed by police over the past few years: Rekia Boyd, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Jonathan Ferrell, Eric Garner, and on and on and on—a litany of names. In between, the crowd shouts—say his name, say her name.
It’s the protest form of the litany of saints: that roll call that the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches do as you run down the list of saints, asking them to intercede for you. Like an attendance call in heaven, of sorts—running down the list of the worthy, the holy, the good.
In pretty much every religious tradition, naming has been important—more than important—naming has been holy. God brings things into being through naming them, as the first act of creation. To name something is to speak its essence, to control it—and to give it life. Adam and Eve name the animals. Jesus names when he heals. It’s also why there’s that big aura around the name of God.
And so, because naming has this power, this effect—it is vital that we pay attention to who is named in our tradition and who gets to name them. Who gets to say his name. Who gets to say her name.
And when we do that, we discover that there’s a bit of an inconsistency. Men are named—men get lots of names. Fathers, sons, uncles, family names. Lots of names. Women get …fewer.
Because we not only meet Mary Magdalene with Jesus, we also meet Joanna and Salome, floating out in space, untethered by named relationship, and for Gentile women, it’s worse– the Syro-Phonecian woman (no name) and the woman at the well (no name, again.)
But that’s not so bad! At least women are there, right?! So many women in the gospels! So many! And yet, names themselves are less important than who says them.
In the book I just read from, Dr. Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ points out that for most of Christian history, only one group was really doing the naming. Only one group decided what names got named. And so that affected the stories that got told.
The story of Mary. Mother of God, told this way, becomes a story about submission to authority, about purity, about self-denial, and at times, almost borderline erasure. In many ways, the traditional telling of Mariology—all blue and white and hyperdulia, erased everything that made her unique. Everything that made her human, so that she could be an even better story. So that she could be a name that all women aspired to, and a name that reminded all women just how sinful we were.
But—(that never fully worked.) Did you notice? Because all around the edges of this official, spiffed up story that the Church was telling, were these other stories. Stories from different people, and not the people in charge.
Stories of Our Lady appearing as an Aztec princess to a Mexican man during the Spanish conquest, appearing as a grieving mother during the Plagues in Europe. Mary being depicted as every tribe and race under the sun, even in priest’s vestments. Mary never really seemed to get the memo on her ‘official story’. Everywhere you look, Mary shows up in various not-exactly sanctioned guises. One of my favorite iconographers, who’s work I borrowed for this service is Robert Lenz, who depicted Mary as a Latin American woman who lost a child to the death squads in the civil wars. And as a woman in a Holocaust concentration camp. And as a homeless woman. And as a struggling woman in America’s inner cities. Despite her official story, Mary has managed to reach out to women and the oppressed who find in her a a real person–a kindred spirit through the centuries.
And I don’t think that’s because the official naming of Mary by the church is so compelling. (In fact, you can argue that the official “be good and quiet and God might love you” does a great deal of harm, but that’s another sermon.)
I think that’s because Mary does something no other woman in the Bible does. Mary names herself.
When she greets Elizabeth, she sings the Magnificat—my soul magnifies the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my savior—from this day on, all generations shall call me blessed. She defines herself. THAT’s who she is. A poor, pregnant, unwed teenage girl, in an occupied village, whom the whole world would say was anything but—She defines herself.
That’s her power, I think. That’s her lesson. For those of us whom the world would name as unworthy, as less than, as failed and as disposable, Mary reminds us in her witness and in her person, that in the reign of God we are all counted as beloved, all counted as worthy. She gives us an example of naming ourselves blessed, of telling our own stories, for ourselves, in our own voices, as this is what God prizes, she assures us. Because this is what the reign of God requires, what it is built on—this reign where the lowly are lifted up, the rich are sent away empty, and the hungry are finally fed. In order for that to happen, all of our stories need to be told, all of us need to be named in this world.
For this naming is the work of the gospel, this naming is good news for all of us.
The Eastern Orthodox observe this too.