A "New Mary" for a New Age?
by Peter Jackson
A recent issue of "Life" magazine (December 1996) featured a
cover story entitled "The Mystery of Mary." An Orthodox reader cannot help
but wonder what kind of "Mary." The article is very revealing because of
the particular manner in which the Theotokos is portrayed, and also for [sic] the
author's intention to influence the American public's understanding of the person and role
of the Mother of God.
Before the text begins the author confronts us with a montage of imagesicons,
statues and "religious art"depicting the Virgin Mary in various guises:
everything from the Vladimir Mother of God to Italian Madonnas to Japanese watercolors and
African animist-style figurines. The message is clear, though for clarification he quotes
historian Karen Armstrong (a former Roman Catholic nun): "Mary is continuously
re-invented... In each age, people have changed their definition of her to fit their
In other words, they would have us think that "Mary" is nothing
more than a product of each culture and epoch. Every society has the right, under this
view, to create Her "in their [sic] own image." In a pluralistic
Western culture, no opinion is permitted to lay claim to absolute Truth. Hence, any
opinion is considered valid just as long as it makes no claim to be anything more than a
mere opinion. Any view is tolerated except the one which says, "This is the
In the last century we have witnessed how this sort of "tolerance" has been
manifested regarding to the person of Christ. Modern writers would write their own
"biographies" of Jesus, such as those of Renan and Schweitzer and Tolstoy, so
popular in the 19th century. In effect, each would refashion Christ to suit their [sic]
own ends, create a god to their [sic] own liking and, more often than not, end up
with [a] reflection of themselves.[sic] Thus, liberal scholars see Christ as a
rabbi, socialists paint Him as a revolutionary, and New Age mystics view Him as a
gurutrained in Tibet.
Another way Christ has been reinterpreted has been the result of
anthropologists' studies of Near Eastern religions in which they have drawn parallels
between the God of the Christians and the false gods of antiquity, such as the Persian
Mithras, the Egyptian Osiris, and the Babylonian Tammuz (See Ezek. 8:14 where the women of
Jerusalem are depicted mourning the annual death of Tammuz in anticipation of his
resurrection.) Making the observation that mythologies often featured elements such as a
hero who was resurrected or who as an infant escaped being murdered by a tyrant, these
scholars conclude that Jesus Christ is nothing more than another such hero. However,
Jesus Christ is not a mythological figure, but an actual person who walked this earth at a
particular moment of history and whose existence was attested to even by non-Christian
writers such as the Jewish historian Josephus. Christ cannot be reduced to a mere
"Jungian archetype." On the contrary, the presence of a resurrected hero
in so many pre-Christian cultures can be understood as an expression of the universal cry
of the human soul in anticipation of the arrival of its Redeemer. The distorted
image of such a hero being conceived as someone inferior to the
Christian God is, of course, a natural consequence of man, having lost his Creator's
image, trying to imagine the coming Messiah: a fallen nature produces a distorted image.
So modern man is of the opinion that there is no single Christ, but each of us is free to
create his own. But, as St. Paul warned the Galatians: "Even if we or
an angel from heaven preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached
unto you, let him be accursed." (Gal. 1:8). The same can apply to preaching
about "another Mary," for the same methods used to re-invent Christ are now
being directed toward His Mother. This should not surprise us. St. John of Shanghai
and San Francisco, in his treatise "The Orthodox Veneration of the Mother of
God," wisely pointed out that "[A]ll who hated Jesus Christ and did not believe
in Him, who did not understand His teaching, or to be more precise, did not wish to
understand as the Church understood, who wished to replace the preaching of Christ with
their own human reasoningsall of these transferred their hatred for Christ, for the
Gospel and the Church, to the Most Pure Virgin Mary. They wished to belittle the Mother,
so as thereby to destroy faith also in Her Son, to create a false picture of Her among
men, in order to have the opportunity to rebuild the whole Christian teaching on a
different foundation. In the womb of Mary, God and man were joined. She was
the One who served as the ladder for the Son of God, Who descended from heaven. To
strike a blow at Her veneration means to strike Christianity at the root, to destroy it in
its very foundation." (pp. 25-26)
So just as there have always been false Christs, there have always been
false Marys. The devil knows that in order to promote the one he must sell the
other. Thus, in ancient paganism Tammuz was accompanied by his mother Semiramis, and
Osiris by Isis. Protestantism is always quick to identify the veneration of Mary
with the worship of pagan goddesses, although for the sake of consistency one would also
have to associate the worship of Christ with that of His pagan counterfeits. If
Christians can discern between the true Christ and the false, then we should also be able
to distinguish between the Theotokos and ancient pagan goddesses who claimed the title
"Queen of Heaven" (cf. Jer. 44).
"Mother goddesses" of the type known in the ancient world were not just confined
to the Near East and Mediterranean but are universal. The Kogi Indians, among whom
we lived in Colombia, worship a spirit called Nabubi, the "Ancient Mother."
When Roman Catholic missionaries attempted to evangelize the Kogi in the last
century, they used a not-uncommon strategy for drawing pagan peoples into Rome's fold:
rather than explaining the differences between the pagan mythology and Christian truth,
they found "equivalences." Christ, under this syncretistic view,
corresponds to the Kogi Sejukukui (a trickster god who faked his own death by hiding in a
cave), while Nabubi is said to be the Virgin Mary. This confusion has led the Kogis
to call their pagan temples "cansamaria," a corruption of "casa de
Maria" (house of Mary).
Given these Roman Catholic "evangelistic methods" of more than a
century ago, is it any wonder that contemporary "apparitions" of Mary are
invariably accompanied by ecumenistic messages promoting the idea that all religions are
equally valid and that Orthodox Christianity is but one "path" among many?
A recent issue of Orthodox Tradition (1996) contains the account of
Matushka Katherine Swanson's trip to Medjugorje,
Croatia, to investigate the most famous of the recent cases of apparitions of Mary in the
Roman Catholic world. In it she recounts a telling episode:
Our guide took our group for an audience with the "seers."
During this audience, a pilgrim asked one of the children the following question:
"Does the Virgin say that the Catholic Church is the true church?" The
response given by the child provides clear evidence of the ecumenical content and
religious relativism which, oddly enough, increasingly mark the "revelations" at
Medjugorje: "Our Blessed Mother says that all religions are equally pleasing to
The "Life" magazine article, then, is yet another contribution
to this line of thought. Given the idea that all paths are equally valid, then all
"Marys" are equally valid, too. The author describes several of the Marys
of our times: Miraculous Mary (such as at Medjugorje), Mediator Mary (who, as the author
quotes Fr. Andrew Greeley saying, lets people into Heaven through the "back
door"), the Modern Mary of the feminists, and Mother Mary. This last one,
Mother Mary, is the role which the author considers the most appealing to non-Catholics:
"The emotional need for her is so irresistible to a troubled world that people
without an obvious link to the Virgin are being drawn to her. It is known that
Muslims revere Mary as a pure and holy saint... Interdenominational Marian prayer
groups are springing up throughout the world. Many Protestants, even some who still
reject notions of a supernatural Virgin, miss Mary."
To which Mary are Muslims and Protestants being drawn? The
Protestant Reformation rejected the distorted view of Mary which had developed in the West
since the Schism of 1054, and which would ultimately result in the Roman Church's
proclamation of their dogma of the Immaculate Conception. But Protestantism did not just
reject the Western view of Mary; it ignored Her altogether, in effect denying Her role in
the Incarnation and, consequently, the part She plays in our salvation. As Rome
began to see her more and more as a "goddess," a fourth Hypostasis of the
Trinity, as it were, the Protestants reacted by downplaying Her position and refusing to
honor Her at all, this in spite of the Gospel words: "All generations shall call Me
Today, as heterodox Christians become more and more ecumenist and work
toward creating a "One World Church," the search has begun for a Mary of
universal recognition, one who will appeal not only to those who bear the name Christian,
but apparently to Muslims and others as well, just as attempts are likewise being made to
identify the "new Christ" with the Muslim concept of their coming Mahdi and with
the Messiah still awaited by the Jews. This, of course, will be no Christ at all but
the antichrist. Apparently the way is also being paved for an "anti-Mary."
The "Life" magazine article ends with the case of a Unitarian minister
who "has a dreamof a middle-ground Mary, an Everymary who can transcend
ideologies and give this tumultuous world the mother it needs. I would like to
think that she could be a bridge between religions,' he says."
Let such words be a warning to all Orthodox Christians who might he
intrigued by apparitions such as those at Fatima or
Lourdes or Medjugorje. These occur outside the Church and are as such suspect.
Another disturbing aspect of the article is the demeaning usage of common
catchy journalistic phrases in reference to the Mother of God, for example:
the notion that Mary remained a virgin her entire life wasn't on the
table." "This boosted Mary toward being... 'a major celebrity,' and
"As the Bible's most famous woman by a mile, Mary has become a symbolic player in the
fight for the ordination of women..." Our position is that the Theotokos is not
an abstract "Everymary" whom we are free to reinvent and mould to our liking.
She is a real person who walked this earth, and to understand who She is we need
look no further than the Divine Scriptures and the Sacred Tradition of our Church, which
has remained unchanged since Apostolic times. She is neither the super-human
creature invented by the Roman Catholics, born without a fallen human nature, nor is She
merely human as the Protestants would have it. For the West, cut loose from its Orthodox
moorings, has forgotten the Patristic teaching of theosis or "divinization".
No one is born perfect, but neither are we humans doomed to be mere fallen
creatures. These seem to be the only alternatives that heterodox Christianity
can comprehend. But our Church Fathers have always taught that "God became man that
man might become divine," that is, that we might share in His nature (II Pet 1:4) and
be conformed to the divine image in which man was originally created. Salvation is a
process which begins with our fallen, sinful nature and leads upward to participation in
the very Life of the Trinity.
The Theotokos, the Church teaches us, is the first and greatest example of
this process. She submitted Her will to God by agreeing to bear His Son.
Without Her there would have been no Incarnation and consequently, no Redemption.
Through prayer and fasting She grew in holiness to become a pure vessel to contain the
Uncircumscribable One. After Christ's birth she remained Ever-virgin and continued
Her podvig to become "more honorable [than] the Cherubim and beyond compare
more glorious than the Seraphim." This, the Orthodox view, avoids the Western
extremes which consider the Theotokos either born perfect or else never having become
perfect at all.
Orthodox Christians should follow the example of the true Mother of God,
"the very Theotokos," and by calling Her to remembrance "commit ourselves
and one another and all our life unto Christ our God."
Reprinted (with slight editing for the Internet) from Orthodox Life, No. 1, 1997,