Journal Entry

Today, I offer this journal entry from my current seminary class on the book of Acts. We are reading a theological commentary by Jaroslav Pelikan, published by Brazos Press. I am reflecting here on his entry entitled “Mary the Theotokos,” a theme he picks up from Luke’s first chapter of Acts. Luke makes a special note of the women who are gathered with the disciples, and especially he notes the presence of Mary. Pelikan offers, in his commentary, reflection on the Tradition of Mary, based upon the theological writings of the early Church Fathers. Below is my response.

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After reading this entry, I am shocked that this is the first I have heard of the comparison between Mary the Mother of Jesus and Eve (Pelikan 2005, p. 45). This strikes me as a very foundational piece of theology; one that could actually do much to correct the male domination of American evangelicalism. I may be overstating that a bit, but it clearly raises the role of the female in the Great Story to a new level. She is the God-bearer. There is no Messiah without her humble obedience. She is the vehicle of salvation, certainly not in the same way Jesus was and is. Nonetheless, her faithfulness to her call is essential in the salvation story. She gives birth to new life, thus she is the new mother of all who live; just as Eve was the first mother of humanity. Contrasting the choices and lives of these two women, examining the way God acts through them both to bring redemption—there is so much theological meat there—and it saddens me that most of our churches have been missing out on the treasure.

How do I see this as a corrective against male domination in American evangelicalism? I don’t know that I could go so far as to revere Mary with statues in front of church, or pray to her. I do, however, wonder what it would be like to hear her name in church as much as King David’s or Solomon’s or Paul’s or Peter’s. Granted, there is not nearly as much biblical material written about her. On the other hand, if we based a character’s air time in church on their significance to the Story, Mary would have to be right up there with David and Jesus.

In addition, there is another angle to Mary’s title of God-bearer, and that is the way the Church continues to carry on Mary’s role even now. We bear God in the world as we live in it, as we are Christ’s Body on earth. We often speak of the Church as Christ’s bride, and certainly that analogy is present in scripture. However, I do not think it is too much of a stretch to also draw this parallel from scripture as well—that the Church is now God-bearer. Our task is different than Mary’s, but no less a privilege and no less a responsibility. We are invited to answer the call with her words: “I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38 ESV). If she is not a model disciple, who is?

Going even further, the imagery of birth could be used so richly in our churches. The paradox of agony and joy, pain and relief, is a wonderful way to describe the life of a Christian. There is blood, sweat and tears, along with the beauty of being reborn. One needs great patience and perseverance in order to bring forth the life of Christ—what a perfect analogy for spiritual formation! While I am certain this would push the edges of orthodoxy for most evangelicals, I also believe that the image of God giving birth brings fullness to theology, if we truly believe that our God is beyond gender, and both male and female were created in His image. He gets His Hands dirty with us. He labors right along with us to redeem creation. He deals with sin, not by remaining apart from the damage, but by entering into it and absorbing the pain and agony.

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What are you responses to this?  Have I opened a can of worms, once again? 🙂

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1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Mike
    Dec 11, 2008 @ 13:16:34

    For me, no worms. For others, though, perhaps.

    Well, perhaps a small can for me, because I think that it can give others the open for their much larger (and, frankly, more annoying) cans. But the can of worms I’m talking about isn’t so much yours as Pelikan’s (and, while we’re at it, let’s hear it for amusing names!).

    And here’s what I mean: referring to Mary as Theotokos may well be the most accurate Greek phasing available, but that coupled with the pairing with Eve, is very troublesome to me, on a number of levels.

    First, tiktein (the root of the tokos part) is very specific to childbirth. In terms of “going into all the world…” phereinto bear, root of Christopher (Christ bearer) and Lucifer (a lovely Greek/Latin hybrid, meaning light bearer)— would be a much better choice. I see your point, of course, about the joy and pain, the struggle and relief, the labor of “bringing Christ into the world” in Christian living—it’s a beautiful analogy, truly. I’m just not sure, though, that it works. Particularly in the context of Mary and Eve.

    Which brings me to my second point. When we start using images of childbirth to discuss Mary, and to give her what is certainly her rightful place in the story (as, perhaps, “the mother of salvation,” the “god-bearer,” the theotokos), we must, in a sense, accept Eve, not as the mother of us all, but as the “sin-bearer,” through whom we all fall—which is already the root of much mysogyny in the Church.

    I guess I’m saying that I’m not sure that Mary as theotokos is a thought or image powerful enough to overcome the notion of Eve as the root of all human sinfulness; I doubt whether most practictioners of Christian mysogyny see Mary as anything more than a necessary evil in the Story. After all, how else does the Word become Flesh?

    Beyond this, a brief, third point. The idea of theotokos strikes me, in two ways, as very Catholic (again, not a problem for me, but….). (1) God-(child)bearer seems very close to “Mother of God” to me (which is a Roman Catholic concept and is foreign to most Protestants and, likely, heresy to many Evangelicals); (2) the –os ending: it’s masculine, not feminine; in the spirit of “masculine is all inclusive except of the explicitly feminine,” the words describing girls and young women in Greek were gramatically masculine, including the more common surname applied to Mary: parthenosvirgin; to refer to Mary by another maculine appelation, then, enforces the notion of “ever-Virgin” and, to me, opens still another further, bigger, and more horredous can of worms.

    I realize I’ve been all over the place here. And that I’ve, perhaps, opened the cans that you’ve avoided opening.

    And, I suppose, I was trying… at least a little bit!

    Reply

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