The carols have vanished from the radio. The sales notices announce we are officially “after Christmas.”
But the holiday lingers in churches, the Nativity scenes still standing and pointing some churches to tomorrow’s Feast of the Holy Family.
Yet even churchgoers misapprehend much about the event at the manger, especially the role of its lone woman, says theologian Virginia Kimball.
Mary is a near-total cipher in terms of documented biography; like her son, she is a canvas on which different cultures and generations have painted their own notions. The result, Kimball says, has been to discard the real Miriam, her Hebrew name, and the scene at Bethlehem.
“Many people today look at the Nativity scene as if it’s a pageant . . . where everybody’s there: the kings, the shepherds, the baby Jesus, Mary, Joseph, the angel, the star, everything,” says Kimball, who teaches at Merrimack College in North Andover and Assumption College in Worcester. That sacrifices historical reality (for instance, she says, there’s no way three kings would have attended the birth in the company of lowly shepherds).
Meanwhile, Mary has morphed into myth, reflected in the reverent titles piled on her head — queen of heaven, mother of the church — that “are pushing the figure of Mary almost to the position of an Isis,” the ancient Egyptian goddess, rather than a historical woman, Kimball says.
Kimball’s research has plumbed not just scripture but ancient traditions — extra-biblical writings, hymns, and prayers from Christianity’s infancy — to discover what the earliest Christians believed about the woman they considered the mother of God.
Moderns’ biggest misconception? “How absolutely terrified she may have been at all that was happening, which was so outside of the natural process of conceiving a child without a man.” As late as the 19th century, Kimball says, European Catholicism downplayed the physical in Mary’s motherhood, insisting she didn’t have a labor and that “Jesus just appeared.”
As the mother of nine, “I have somewhat of an affinity to motherhood,” Kimball says, and in her talks she stresses the physical realities of childbearing.
Even Mary’s physical appearance might surprise many modern Christians, raised as they were on the grown, white medieval Madonna of European painters. She was actually, of course, a peasant Jewish woman in the ancient Middle East. One biographer imagines her thus:
“She is thirteen. Short and wiry, with dark olive skin. The trace of a mustache on her upper lip, soft black down on her arms and legs. The muscles are hard knots in her arms, solid lines in her calves. Her hair is almost black . . . [and] the weight of it raises her chin and makes her walk tall, as she has learned to do when carrying jars of water or bundles of kindling on her head.”
Catholic theology traditionally elevated Mary more than Protestants’. But Jon M. Sweeney , an author and Episcopalian, wrote “Strange Heaven: The Virgin Mary as Woman, Mother, Disciple, and Advocate” (Paraclete Press) this year to explain Marian devotion to his fellow Protestants. He seconds Kimball that we need corrective surgery for our cloudy vision of Mary.
“Mary was not a ready-made, cookie-cutter disciple” of unquestioning faith, he says. The gospels say she tarried with questions and doubts when the angel Gabriel presented God’s plan for her, he notes. “She was a pregnant girl who was unmarried,” a state that could have led to her being stoned by family and neighbors for supposed sinfulness.
“There’s all kinds of work to be done by Christians,” Sweeney says, “to try and find who the real Mary is.”
Kimball’s own spiritual life has zig-zagged from childhood Quakerism to Catholicism to her current Greek Orthodox Christianity. Far from rejecting all that tradition says about Jesus’ mother, she believes in the virgin birth and other Christian theology about Mary.
As with much religion, the Nativity story is made murky by the fog generated by the collision of history and piety. Many scholars argue that the earliest existing Christian writings, the letters of St. Paul, are silent about the virgin birth because that idea didn’t exist in Paul’s day, being a later invention of Matthew and Luke.
Kimball strongly disagrees, though she has learned to live with what she calls the occupational hazard of theology. The field raises lots of fascinating questions; it’s the answers that remain elusive. She takes comfort from Buddhist wisdom that says meditating on the unanswerable can still yield many truths.
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