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Unmasking Mary this Lent

| Thursday, February 18, 2016

Growing up, I had a hard time finding a connection to Mary. She’s got more titles — Blessed Virgin, Mother of God, Queen of Heaven, Our Lady of (insert here) — than speaking lines in the Gospels. The images of her on my rosaries showed a flawless face somehow both serene and severe. In prayers, she was “blessed among women,” the chief role model for Catholic girls. But, unlike Jesus, whom we can characterize fairly well after reading the New Testament, all we had to go on was her “yes,” the yes that set her apart. (Side note: Even God checked for consent!)

But it can be hard to see Mary as an example of womanhood because we average women know we can’t live up to her standard of perfection — perfection that at its core revolves around some idea of beauty, both spiritual and physical. In art, she is as beatific and superhuman as the angels. In prayers she is a powerful, detached figure, a “Holy Queen” to whom we fly, poor banished children of that other woman whose shadow we’re still trying to shrug off. But in glorifying Mary’s “feminine” grace — her virginity, passivity, innocence and chaste beauty — we ignore Mary’s womanhood. The Catholic specimen of woman — venerated and popularized by centuries of (mostly male) theologians and clergy and artists — is barely shown as a woman at all. She is silenced, beautified and whitewashed — and only then is she the woman we should strive to emulate. A portrait of a white male fantasy, however holy that portrait may be.

Mary the woman was not white. She was not blonde or blue-eyed; she did not wear mantles of blue falling in rich folds around her feet. By our contemporary standards, she may not even have been “beautiful” at all. At the time of Jesus’ birth, she would have been in her early teens. She might have had blocked pores and greasy hair. She would have gotten her period. (No, don’t skip over that sentence: Periods are healthy, not unholy.) And though Catholic doctrine maintains she was a virgin her whole life, she was also a human being who probably had sexual feelings like everybody else, whether or not she ever experienced a sexual relationship. (For the record, other denominations do not share this belief of perpetual virginity.)

As she aged, she would have gotten gray hairs and wrinkles. She would have lost her girlish figure and gotten stretch marks from childbirth. She may even have lost teeth. In short, Mary lived in a woman’s body, experiencing all the awkward, beautiful facets of the female body. Her life journey — and God’s presence within it — validates and blesses the universal life cycle of womanhood. So why is that Mary not beautiful enough to paint? Why is a Middle Eastern mother not recognized as Queen of Heaven?

Miriam of Nazareth: the frightened, faithful Jewish girl who meets the angel’s greeting not with divine understanding but with confusion and disbelief (“How can this be?”). The dejected young woman facing judgment for being unmarried and pregnant. The refugee fleeing to Egypt. The terrified mother looking for her lost son. The proud mother who embarrasses him at a friend’s wedding to get him to act. The worried mother who hears Jesus call his friends his true family when she goes to caution him in his ministry. The grieving mother of a convicted criminal executed by the state. She was active and strong and human, and she was enough for God. Why not for us?

Maybe we think Mary is too familiar to fly to because we can turn on the news and see her fleeing Syria, mourning a murdered child. We can look out our window and see that Mary breastfeeding at the bus stop. We can look in the mirror and see that Mary struggling to imagine her future.

When we separate Mary the poor Nazarene from Mary Queen of Heaven, or replace her entirely, we miss the crucial message she offers us: that the ordinary can be holy, that we don’t need to look a certain way or come from a certain place to be worthy, that we don’t need to be in power to be important. By distorting Mary’s image to match our own ideals, we suggest that her ethnicity and gender — as they are — are not acceptable for a prominent figure of faith. Yet this is who God chose. Who are we to “perfect” her? Who are we to substitute her strength with our arbitrary standards?

And who are we to ignore the Marys in our own lives and times: the refugees, widows, mothers of prisoners and women without a voice? Who are we to see what she was — in body, mind and spirit — as anything less than what she is: blessed and full of grace?

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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