The Gospel reading for The Feast of the Assumption includes the Magnificat, an empowering hymn that inspired a series of paintings that I call “Reimagining Mary.” I want to share those painting with you today, but first a bit about my journey with Mary.
[If you would prefer to watch me deliver this message and give a little back story about my paintings, click here. Or you can keep reading.]
I stopped praying to Mary when my kids were little, still in diapers. How could she possibly understand what I was going through? She only had one child, and he was divine, so how bad could he be?
That was over 20 years ago, and somehow, Mary keeps trying to get my attention. Mary keeps pulling me back into relationship with her, but now it is a different kind of relationship than what I grew up with, because I am learning to see Mary in a different way.
Who was Mary? How does the church portray Mary?
- Crowned queen of heaven
Can you relate to this version of Mary? If Mary is to be our role model, how do these descriptive words feel to you? How do they land for you?
Mary is lauded as a virgin and a mother. How exactly can Catholic women be virgins and mothers at the same time? Talk about your high standards! We are all set up to fail from the beginning.
In the words of Marion scholar Sally Cunneen, “Overemphasis on her virginity has often meant that young people find her ideal of purity unattainable, while praise of her utter selflessness as a mother has created unhealthy guilt feelings and needless alienation among many married women.”
Over the centuries, virginity was held up as the preferred route to holiness. Very few married women have been canonized as “saints” by the church. The Second Vatican Council proclaimed the universal call to holiness, a recognition that we are all called to bring about the kin-dom of God here on earth in the ordinary everyday moments of our lives. As a mother of 4, I had lots of ordinary everyday moments while raising my children, not all of them felt holy.
Mary has been portrayed as utterly selfless as the mother of Jesus. Mary occupies an important, supporting role in the Catholic faith. But in other Christian denominations, she has been silenced and seen only as the vessel for the birth of Jesus. Is this how we are called to be as mothers?
Is utter selflessness to be our goal as married women? This idea leaves many of us feeling guilty for having our own goals and ambitions, even giving ourselves permission to have our own desires. Sometimes, I feel guilty for buying crunchy peanut butter when the rest of the family wants creamy peanut butter!
Fast-forward past almost 30 years of motherhood. As an empty-nester, I found myself wondering if motherhood was all there is to being a woman? So, I started asking “What’s next, God?” Participating in Bible studies and faith sharing groups led to my discovery of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, which led to my becoming a spiritual director to learn how to guide others through the Spiritual Exercises. Oddly enough, the more you learn, the more you realize how little you know, so I went back to school for a master’s in theology and even now, more learning beckons.
And through it all, Mary keeps showing up: in the spiritual exercises, in my study of women in church history, in my prayers, in my travels. My husband and I went to Italy last fall to celebrate our thirtieth anniversary. You may not be surprised to hear that there are hundreds and hundreds of paintings and statutes and mosaics of Mary, mostly holding Jesus as an infant. Truly, no one ever needs to paint another Madonna and child. Again and again, I saw Mary portrayed with her eyes downcast, hands holding Jesus or folded in prayer and her mouth shut in silent obedience. Is there all there is of Mary?
Perhaps the reason there are so many distorted images of Mary is because the church and our society has maintained a distorted image of women, according to Cunneen. Religious art narrowly depicts Mary as silent and obedient, neglecting all the other dimensions of her character. Art typically does not portrayed her as fully human who experiences all the human emotions. She is not even allowed to age! Mary with grey hair?
Mary was fully human. And we see her full humanity in today’s Gospel reading. The Magnificat is a hymn that may have been modeled after one sung 1000 years ago by Hannah, the mother of Samuel. The first part of the hymn is filled with joy and praise about how God has blessed Mary.
But then, the hymn turns radical. The words capture a strong yearning for a transformed world, a longing for the fulfillment of God’s promises of justice and peace, of full bellies and liberated bodies, of uplifting the lowly and dismantling oppressive regimes. The words of the Magnificat portray an image of Mary speaking with prophetic authority because she knows that the child in her womb is the one who will bring fulfillment of God’s promises.
These strong words are not sung by the gentle, tender, dreamy young girl I saw in all the Italian artwork. This version of Mary is passionate, proud, and enthusiastic about the new beginning, about the hope for a transformed world. This is Mary who has seen the injustices of her people and is ready to take stand, to speak up, and maybe to flip a table or two.
In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor executed by the Nazis, the Magnificat is “the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary hymn ever sung. This song has none of the sweet, nostalgic, or even playful tones of some of our Christmas carols. It is instead a hard, strong, inexorable song about collapsing thrones and humbled lords of this world, about the power of God and the powerlessness of humankind. These are the tones of the women prophets of the Old Testament that now come to life in Mary’s mouth.”
Why is it important to see Mary as fully human? To see her as a woman who experienced all the feelings? If we can see Mary as angry, then we can give ourselves permission to be angry. If we see Mary as joyfully singing and dancing, then we can give ourselves permission to find joy and sing loudly at the top of our lungs.
We need to re-imagine Mary with images that liberate her. Images that are empowering, images that depict Mary as angry at the injustices of the world – just the way she sounds in the Magnificat. Liberating images help us to understand Mary as a sign of what we can be when we are aware of the divine presence in the world and most importantly, in our very souls.
Barbed Wire Mary
Protective Mary wearing a Veil of arrows
Mary empowered by the Spirit of God
Easter morning Mary surprised and overjoyed by the resurrection of Jesus
In the Magnificat, Mary praises God’s desire to do great things for her. God desires to do great things for us too, wherever we are in our lives. What we need is faith, trusting in God as Mary did with her whole life and being, mind and strength.
Just as the Spirit inspired Mary’s joy and confidence in God, so too the Spirit gives us abundant grace to follow our own calling in bringing about a transformed world.
We too can sing our own Magnificat.