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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 images—icons, 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 circumstances."

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 Truth."

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 guru—trained 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 reasonings—all 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 God."

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 blessed."

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 dream—of 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, pp. 18-22.