Images of Mary
Reading: Luke 1.46-55
For some in the Church, Mary’s role is limited to giving birth to Jesus. In fact, the only time they give her any thought at all is at Christmas, and then it is solely to acknowledge the part she played in bringing Jesus into the world. To many of us, however, apart from any other consideration, this simply doesn’t feel right. Surely there is more to her role than that? But if her role is more than that, what is it?
It is very hard for us to think clearly about our Lady’s role because of all the arguments there are in the Church about her and all the different images that people have of her. Indeed, the images we have of her rather than helping us to understand her role only get in the way of it. But if our images of her are wrong, what image should we have?
In thinking, then, about Mary’s role, we need to begin by asking what our images of her are and in what way they are wrong.
There are, of course, many images of the Blessed Virgin Mary. These images are expressed in various ways: in music, in art, and in literature. They lie behind what gets said in Church about her and in devotion to her. I would suggest that four are the most common.
1. The Porcelain Image
The first image that people have of Mary is what I call the ‘Porcelain Image’. You see examples of this image everywhere not least in many of the statues of Mary in church buildings and on sale in places that supply ecclesiastical ornaments and furniture. But it is one that also appears in many paintings of her. In these statues and paintings, Mary is normally western, immaculately presented, and her clothes all perfect. She is completely free from any blemish, her skin smooth, clear, and white. This is not a woman who needs lotions and creams to achieve a flawless complexion!
Models in fashion magazines are often airbrushed or photoshopped to achieve whatever it is that is the editor’s idea of beauty and perfection. This is what this image tries to do with Mary. It projects on to Mary a cultural and essentially male view of feminine beauty. This image is femininity idealized according to a particular understanding of female attractiveness.
2. The Passive Image
Secondly, there is the ‘Passive Image’. This image, which does not exclude the first, and in some ways builds on it, focuses on what is seen as Mary’s submissiveness. In this image, Mary is portrayed as meek, humble, and dutiful. In pictures of her, her eyes are turned down to emphasize her subservience. This is a good girl, not one to argue, someone eager and willing to please. She is modest and demure.
It is the Passive Image of Mary that so upsets feminists today. It leads them to reject Mary as a ‘feminine icon’, and to turn instead to another Mary, Mary Magdalene. In contrast to Mary of Nazareth, Mary of Magdala is seen as sensual, spirited, and independent. She is someone far more in tune with the spirit of our age and more acceptable to it: not only a feminine, but a feminist icon. Regardless, however, of whether they are attracted or repulsed by it, this second image of Mary, the mother of Jesus, expresses the passivity that many believe to be central to her character and role.
3. The Prayerful Image
The third image of Mary, which again does not exclude the other two, focuses on Mary’s spiritual devotion. In this image, depictions of her present her in positions of prayer and of worship. She has her hands clasped together in prayer and she either has her head bowed down reverently or else she is gazing upwards with her eyes turned appealingly to heaven. It is the image of a devout Mary, someone in touch with the divine.
This Prayerful Image is of a Mary who is other-worldly. A Mary who would be at home in the sort of religious community that shuts women off from the world and makes it possible for them to avoid all material worries and distractions. Not for her the worries and concerns of daily life; her mind is set on higher things.
4. The Powerful Image
Fourthly, a somewhat different image of Mary to other three is the ‘Powerful Image’. Taking its inspiration from St John’s vision of the woman clothed with the sun, in chapter 12 of the book of Revelation, this image portrays Mary in dazzling splendour with a crown on her head. She is riding on the clouds or ascending to heaven where she is enthroned as its Queen. In some paintings, all heaven seems to centre on her and on her beauty and power. This is Mary transcendent.
Like the Prayerful Mary, this is a Mary removed from the world, distanced from its sin and temptations. This is the Mary who invites the adoration that protestants are so suspicious of, but who, like a goddess, draws others to her who are seeking comfort and help.
These, then, are four of the most common images of Mary. The ‘Porcelain Mary’, who looks like she might break; the ‘Passive Mary’ who looks like she would always do whatever is asked of her; the ‘Prayerful Mary’ who looks like she should always be in a church; and the ‘Powerful Mary’ who looks like she has now left this world behind her and achieved heavenly glory.
I have absolutely no intention to mock. I accept the sincerity and devotion behind each of these images. And they appeal to churchgoers precisely because there is truth in each one of them.
The porcelain image seeks to capture our Lady’s purity. When the Angel Gabriel tells Mary she will conceive and bear a son, Mary asks the Angel Gabriel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin (Luke 1:34)?’ In an age which has so highly sexualized any depiction of women, any talk of virginity beyond puberty is seen by many as de-humanizing. A person’s identity today is believed to lie in asserting a sexual identity not denying it.
This makes our Lady’s virginity both controversial and challenging. Our Lady’s virginity, however, is not simply about sexual purity, but also about her spiritual purity. The Angel Gabriel’s first words to Mary were:
‘Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.’ (Luke 1:28)
Mary begins the Magnificat with the words:
‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour …’ (Luke 1:46-47)
Mary’s purity is rooted first and foremost in the purity of her relationship with the Lord who is with her in a special way and in whom she rejoices.
The passive image seeks to capture our Lady’s obedience. Mary famously responds to the Angel Gabriel’s words to her:
‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ (Luke 1:38)
Then, when Mary goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who has herself conceived miraculously, Elizabeth says to her:
‘And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’ (Luke 1:45)
Doubtless, as Elizabeth is saying these words praising Mary, Elizabeth is also thinking of her husband, who didn’t believe what was spoken to him by the Lord, and who now can’t speak as a consequence. Mary, however, willingly both believed and accepted the role that God chose her for, and she carried it out faithfully.
The prayerful image seeks to express our Lady’s spirituality. Immediately after the birth of our Lord and the visit of the shepherds, St Luke tells us that Mary ‘treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart (Luke 2:19)’. Twelve years later Mary and Joseph take Jesus with them to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. On their way back, however, Jesus goes missing, and his parents eventually find him in the Temple with the elders. Jesus returns with them to Nazareth but, St Luke tells us again, that Mary ‘treasured all these things in her heart (Luke 2:51)’.
The last historical mention of Mary in the Bible is in Acts chapter 1 after the ascension. St Luke describes how the disciples return to Jerusalem as Jesus has told them to. St Luke writes:
‘All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.’ (Acts 1:14)
The last thing Mary is recorded doing in the Bible is praying!
The powerful image seeks to assert our Lady’s ongoing role for the Church and that her significance for us as believers did not end with her death. Instead, this image wants to affirm that she has a continuing ministry in heaven praying for us. This is the most controversial image of her amongst Christians.
For protestants, any role that they are willing to allow Mary came to an end with her death. The idea that Mary has any ongoing role is not only rejected but is seen as of a form of idolatry. Indeed, many would argue that we shouldn’t have any image of Mary, although some who argue like this don’t seem to have the same scruples when it comes to other significant figures in the Church.
Those, for their part, who see Mary as having an ongoing role reject the idea that they worship Mary, although, it has to be said, some do come very near to doing so. However, for the majority of those for whom Mary still has a part to play in their lives and in the life of the Church, her role now is not as the recipient of people’s worship, but as an intercessor and the mother of the Church and of believers.
I believe in the purity, the prayerfulness, the obedience, and the ongoing intercession of our Lady. So, I mean absolutely no disrespect to her or to those who value the images of her that I have described. I would, however, suggest that each of these images, while seeking to express a valuable truth about Mary, is a failed image because of the way they express it. These images not only fail to convey fully the truth they are trying to depict; they instead distort it.
We need an image or images of Mary that express the truth that lies concealed in the common images of Mary, but which avoid giving another misleading and false image of her.
It is, of course, hard to suggest any single image that accurately and completely expresses all these truths about her. My problem, however, is not just that the various pictures and depictions of Mary fail in what they are trying to express, it is that they miss an essential part of the character of Mary, and it is because they miss it that I believe they end up presenting a distorted image of her.
So, what exactly is it that I think they are missing? Quite simply, it is her strength. Too many of the portrayals of Mary make her seem as fragile as some of the statues of her. She comes across as delicate, vulnerable, and weak.
And yet here is a woman who accepts a role that, in the community in which she lived at the time, would mean her being labelled and treated with contempt. She would inevitably bring disgrace on her family. We are not told what the reaction of her family and neighbours was in the small village in which she lived, but judging by what St Matthew tells us was Joseph’s reaction, we can guess. Joseph, on hearing the news that the woman he is engaged to is pregnant, wants to get rid of her (Matthew 1:19). It takes a direct intervention by God to prevent him from doing so.
Forty days after his birth, Mary and Joseph take the baby Jesus to the Temple, as the Law prescribed. A man there called Simeon, whom St Luke describes as ‘righteous and devout’, tells Mary that a ‘sword will pierce her own soul too’ (Luke 2:35). In other words, Simeon is predicting great pain for Mary. The Porcelain Mary, however, would crack at the first sign of trouble. She certainly would not have the strength to flee for her life as a refugee to Egypt. Nor would the Prayerful Mary have what it takes to cope with the day-to-day realities of raising the Son of God.
When we start to see Mary as a strong woman of faith, everything else about her begins to come into focus. Her purity lies, not in the first place in her virginity, but in the purity of her character and in her sense of purpose. Her obedience is not a passive submission, but a willing acceptance of the will of God that she actively embraces. Her prayerfulness expresses itself, not in an unworldly detachment from the realities of life, but in her commitment and trust in God. And her power resides not in herself, but in the ‘Mighty One who has done great things’ for her, whom ‘her soul magnifies’, and in whom her ‘spirit rejoices’.
Surely this strong woman of faith provides a role model for us that is ‘for life and not just for Christmas’? Mary teaches us how we too should respond to God. For Mary’s strength lay not in herself but in the One whom she was blessed for believing. It was her faith that gave Mary her strength. The strength, not to follow her own dreams and desires, but willingly to abandon them to do what God asked of her.
Make no mistake: what God was asking of her was tough and demanding, and yet God’s will for her was not something she accepted reluctantly but welcomed with joy.
Repeatedly today we are told that we will only find peace and fulfilment by putting ourselves first and pursuing our own goals. Mary shows that precisely the reverse is true. We find peace and fulfilment, not by following our hearts, but by following her Son, and serving God through him: ‘in his will is our peace’. But how are we to know his will? St Paul writes:
‘I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God — what is good and acceptable and perfect.’ (Romans 12:1-2)
Discovering the will of God for our lives begins with a commitment to God that involves presenting our bodies, that is, our whole selves, to him as a ‘living sacrifice’. It means, as St Paul tells us, not being ‘conformed to this world’, but being ‘transformed by the renewing of our minds’. It is when our minds are renewed in this way, and only then, that we are able to ‘discern the will of God’.
To put it another way: Mary presented her body to the Lord, not only by conceiving and carrying our Lord, but in a life of service. We are to do the same. We are to stop seeing things as society and the world around us see them, and to start seeing them as God sees them. Seeing, as Mary saw, that God is the One who scatters the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; who brings down the powerful from their thrones and lifts up the lowly; who fills the hungry with good things, but sends the rich away empty (Luke 1:51-53).
God asks of us what he asked of this young woman in Nazareth: to believe his word to us and to embrace his will for us as we follow his Son. Jesus said:
‘If anyone wants to become my follower, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.’ (Luke 9:23-24)
Faith, in the sense of believing in the truths of the faith, isn’t enough. Jesus commands us actively to take up our Cross; to commit ourselves fully to what it is he is asking of us. The call of God is something that like Mary we have to obey, trusting God to give us the strength we need as we do so.
It isn’t easy. We are weaker than we like to admit. We fall and we fail. Mary provides us with the encouragement we need to see that it is God’s grace that enables us to be strong. For some, seeing Mary as a role model in this way is as much as they can accept. And that’s fine. All the Blessed Virgin Mary wants is for you to follow her Son. And in the Blessed Virgin Mary, the strong woman of faith, we have one who gives us an image and example to look up to as we seek to follow him.
But, as we think of her especially this week, who better to ask to pray for us that we may find the strength we need than she whom God favoured with his grace and by whose grace she lived her life.
Hail Mary, full of grace,
the Lord is with thee:
blessed art thou among women
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for us sinners,
now and at the hour of our death.