Rediscovering Mary

[National Review Online, April 5, 2007]

Interview about “The Lost Gospel of Mary”

Q. Frederica, you have a new book out about Mary. Have you discovered a new gospel? Where was it hiding?

A. I feel ambivalent about the title — kind of lurid, isn’t it! But my point was that there are many, many ancient Christian texts that are fully orthodox; it’s not only a matter of New Testament versus gnostics. Earlier generations of Christians read the same kind of supplemental and devotional works we do today: biographies, commentaries, letters, sermons, debates with non-believers…pretty much anything you would find in a Christian bookstore today. Except men’s dress socks with little fish and crosses on ‘em.

These works got “lost” mostly because we forgot them—our “family memory” fades after a few decades or centuries. Contemporary Western Christians have a bad case of spiritual amnesia. So I’m hoping to put a few of the more appealing and worthy works back on the shelf. In this book I present three ancient texts concerning the Virgin Mary, with new translations and verse-by-verse commentary. The first is a “gospel”, or narrative biography, of the Virgin Mary’s birth and early life.

Q. How important is the life of Mary, especially in her Son’s final days, as a model for Christians?

A. Mary’s suffering faith during our Lord’s last days is a model and inspiration for all believers. But what I found in these three documents was that the greatest interest for early Christians was in her pregnancy. The fact of the Incarnation was something early Christians continually marvelled over; also, it was the grounds on which they had to fight most often, defending the real divinity and real humanity of Jesus. And it was Mary whom God called on to provide the physical matrix for Christ’s appearance in the flesh; she was a regular human being, one of us. That means that on one side, Jesus’ grandmother was named Anna, while on the other side…you see how mind-blowing it is.

Q. What does she teach us about sacrifice?

A. The first text, the “Gospel of Mary,” shows us Mary as an adorable little girl, and then as a teenager coping with a “crisis pregnancy” that could cause her execution as a suspected adultress. This was an extremely popular work among Eastern Christians (that is, Asian, African, and Middle-Eastern) in the second century. Many of the stories here made it to Europe, but the intact text did not. A 16th century scholar who translated it into Latin named it “the Protevangelium of James;” this is how scholars know it today, but it’s not the original title (no one title stuck, actually). In this work, Mary is steadfast under this trial, and teaches us much about courage.

The other two texts illuminate other aspects of Mary’s role. The second is a very short prayer that was found on a scrap of papyrus in Egypt in 1917, and dated 250 AD; it is the earliest prayer to Mary. It begins, “Under your compassion we take refuge…”, and it’s still in use East and West (Roman Catholics know it as “Sub Tuum Praesidium.”) This second text shows us that early Christians believed that she (like all the saints) is not dead, but alive in Christ’s presence and continually in prayer, so we can call on her as a prayer partner. The third text is a beautiful and intricately complex “sung sermon”, written around 520 AD, which explores the mystery of the Incarnation and all the ways that Mary’s role is foreshadowed in Scripture.

Q. Is Mary of particular importance to women as a spiritual guide?

A. One of the things that has surprised me, as I explore early Christian spirituality and the Eastern Church, is that there is so little interest in gender division. There aren’t separate types of prayer or spiritual disciplines for men as opposed to women, or for Greek rather than Arab or Egyptian Christians, or for rich versus poor Christians—none of that seems to matter. In Western Christianity, of course, we hear a great deal about tailor-made spirituality, right down to personality type; it fits the grid of our consumer culture. But in these texts there’s very little interest in Mary’s feminity; all the emphasis is on her humanity. She is the Theotokos, the “God-bearer” in the sense of bearing a child; her example invites all people everywhere to be Theophorus, “God-bearers” in the sense of bearing God’s presence like a candlewick bears a flame.

Q. It often seems that poor Joseph doesn’t get the coverage Mary and Jesus (natch) get. What should we know of him?

A. Yes, Joseph is usually relegated to standing in the background and leaning on his staff. There’s a bit more about him in the Gospel of Matthew (Matthew knew the story of Mary’s pregnancy from Joseph’s point of view, Luke from Mary’s), and in the “Gospel of Mary” he is an even more developed figure. When he discovers Mary pregnant, he becomes extremely distraught; when the High Priest tells him he must separate from Mary now that she’s pregnant, he weeps openly; when he’s making plans to bring her to the enrollment in Bethlehem, he talks about how embarrassed he is to present this pregnant woman, decades younger than he is, as his wife. Most interesting is the scene when Joseph helps Mary down from the donkey and goes to find a midwife. Suddenly all of nature is frozen: he sees the birds motionless in the air and the stream standing still. The time of Christ’s birth is accompanied by nature’s stillness and awe, just as his Crucifixion will be accompanied by noontime darkness and earthquakes.

Q. Could Mary REALLY have said NO to God?

A. There’s a toughie! It’s the unanswerable question of how God’s will is done, yet humans aren’t mere robots. I think we have to say, on the one hand, that Mary’s acceptance was free and unconstrained, and all Creation hung breathless on her reply. But, on the other hand, God knew her as well as he knows every human being; he knew her every thought and action, and so he knew that she was the right girl to ask. When my daughter was a toddler, I used to think of this puzzle this way: I knew that if she heard me open the refrigerator, she would come over and reach into the bowl on the bottom shelf for an apple. I didn’t compel her to do that, she was free not to, but I knew my daughter. He knows us that way. And God draws us in a similar way, much like a beautiful piece of fruit draws a little girl: his beauty is compelling, and anyone who’s had even a taste of his presence never forgets it, but continually hungers for more (just like a whiff of cinnamon at the mall makes you crave a cinnamon bun). Christianity is not an institution, not a brokerage for spiritual transactions, but a treasury of wisdom; it’s the “art and science” of gradually, increasingly being able to bear the light of Christ—the thing that we are made for, and yearn for.

Q. Are Catholics too into Mary?

A. When you picture Christ on the Cross looking at his mother, and think about how much he loved her at that moment, and how he said to John (and through him to us), “Behold your mother” — surely no amount of love we give her could ever displease him. But I think that over the centuries her role has sometimes been misunderstood and exaggerated, in ways that must distress her. Folk belief has sometimes held that she can overrule her Son, that she has her own magic powers, that she is something of a demigod. But the leading characteristic of her life was humility and service; her whole goal was perfect union with God’s will! Mary has been sometimes misunderstood over the centuries, and accorded imaginary powers, separate from her Son, things that would probably sadden her. I saw an anti-Catholic comic book once that showed Mary kneeling before God’s throne and asking him to have mercy on people who exaggerate her role, and the thing is, that’s a pretty good picture of what the best of Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christian belief says about her: that she us praying for us, that she is our friend and prayer partner.

Q. Is there a message in your book for non-Christians?

A. One of the interesting things about the Gospel of Mary, that I hope will intrigue non-Christians, is that it is such a strong depiction of a little girl being loved. When I read Julia Duin’s extraordinary 4-part series in the Washington Times about sex-selection abortion in India I was heartbroken; I had never before visualized the century after century of little newborn girls being strangled, buried alive, left out for wild animals to devour—simply because they were female. Now sonagrams and abortion are making this killing a prenatal matter, and the ratio of newborn girls to boys is plummeting. Well, that’s the way much of the world has been, for much of history; the most endangered human being on the planet is a little girl.

But in the Gospel of Mary we see the birth of a girl greeted with a cry of exultation, and watch as the girl is treasured and cuddled and loved throughout her childhood. There’s a lovely 14th century mosaic icon in a church outside Constantinople, that shows her parents, Joachim and Anna, embracing and kissing her.  Whatever else was going on in the rest of the world, among Christians in the second century it was easy to believe that a little girl was precious. That’s worth thinking about.

Q. What about Mary in the Easter story is most revealing?

A. It’s funny, but the texts I look at in my book don’t focus Easter; they’re primarily concerned with Mary’s conception of Jesus. So many splinter groups at the time were denying either that Jesus was God, or that he was human, and the obvious place to emphasize that he was both was in Mary’s womb. But of course, Mary’s role at the Cross, on Easter and on Pentecost, is resoundingly significant. What most intrigues me is the hints in the Scriptures that at the time of the conception of Christ, she had only a partial idea of what God’s plan was. The hymn she sings after the conception of Christ, known as the “Magnificat”, clearly expects that the Messiah will be a military leader and expel the Roman oppressors. That didn’t happen; very tragically the reverse, and the utter devastation of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. So it must have surprised Mary when Symeon told her, on her first visit to the Temple after Jesus’ birth, that “a sword will pierce your soul also.” In Orthodox Christian hymnography, as Mary sees Jesus carrying the Cross, she calls out to him and asks where he is going; perhaps to another wedding at Cana, to turn water into wine? We know that in a deep sense this moment is, in fact, the entrance of the Bridegroom, and that he is going to a feast and he will provide the wine. These hymns, which we will sing Thursday night in Eastern Orthodox churches, portray her grief with great intensity; it’s a good idea to bring some tissues to dry your eyes.

Q. What are you doing for Easter?

A. We Orthodox Christians have about a dozen services in the days leading up to Easter, and many churchs will host all-night vigils on Friday night, as the psalms are read aloud next to Christ’s tomb. We observe Easter (we call it Pascha) with a midnight service on Saturday night. We’ll begin in a darkened church with some ancient hymns, have a candlelight procession outside, and then come back in to find the church transformed with light and flowers. The service that follows takes about 3 hours! When it’s over we gather for a breakfast feast with champagne and all the foods we’ve been fasting from during Lent. The last person rolls out the door around dawn—just when our neighbors are heading out for their Sunrise Service. It’s a powerhouse of an evening, and I don’t think I could handle it more than once a year!

About Frederica Matthewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service,, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.

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