readily available to us than to our parents. Whether we are any more permissive than people were in other periods of history may be questioned, but such is hardly the point. Through the insights of depth psychology we understand intellectually a good deal more about the role of sexuality in personality development and the dynamics of sexual attraction than did our parents. We are also far more aware than most of our ancestors were of the rights and privileges of women.
It does not follow, however, that we are any less afraid of our sexuality or that we enjoy it more. Some observers report that our younger generation, supposedly free from sexual hang-ups, is retreating from love because of fear of personal involvement. Divorces are increasing. Too many first marriages end in divorce, and even more second marriages fall prey to the same fate. Experts freely predict the end of the institution of marriage. But the alternatives do not seem inviting to most people; frequently they turn out to be merely fashionably rationalized exploitation—usually of women. So far humankind has found no more efficient or satisfying way of arranging most of its sexual relationships other than the relatively permanent commitment of a man and a woman to each other, with varying kinds of exclusivity involved in the commitment. There are other forms of heterosexual activity, of course, but they account for a relatively small amount of the total acts of intercourse performed each night, and there is no real reason to think the proportion has gone up in our time. Marriages may end more easily today than they did in the past, but that simply means there will be, for weal or woe, more marriages.
The condition of marriage today, or anytime, is a revealing symptom of our problems with sexuality. In principle, marriage is more than merely an effective and convenient way of satisfying passion and rearing children. It is supposed to be the opportunity par excellence for combining physical pleasure with interpersonal communion. It is supposed to be the context of the strongest possible human love. Most people expect their principal life satisfaction and self-fulfillment to come from their marriage relationship. Hardly anyone enters a marriage any more without at least modest expectations for happiness. Yet many marriages turn into disasters, others are less than rewarding, and even the best are frequently plagued by strain and tension. Sex drives us toward another person; it often opens up our spirit as well as our body to embrace the other in deep and rich human love. Yet the very intimacy into which our sexual passion forces us produces friction and conflict. The life space of the marriage bed and the family house or apartment seems too confined for two humans to occupy for very long without getting on each others nerves. We are drawn together by a mixture of physical hunger and emotional attraction—which can serve as a good beginning for love. But the emotional attraction all too easily turns into repulsion, and if the hunger does not diminish, its satisfaction often loses much of the reward it once seemed to promise.
The answer is that sex scares us. No matter how practiced or sophisticated or nonchalant we may try to be, we are afraid of the sexual encounter. Some of this fear is based on childhood problems and bad sexual education, but we are kidding ourselves if we think the basic cause of sexual fear does not go much deeper in the personality. We are afraid of the other person. He or she is different from us biologically, psychologically, or humanly. We do not understand him, we cannot predict his behavior, we have only the dimmest notion of his needs and expectations. He will see us in our most defenseless and vulnerable psychological and physiological state; he will be evaluating our body, our personhood, our performance in an area in which we are very unsure. He has access to our body and our emotions that we are very reluctant to grant. He can bring us great affection and pleasure, but he can also reject us, ridicule us, humiliate us, and torment us. We humans are very careful indeed about whom we give power over our intimate self; yet our sexuality forces us to turn over that which is most intimate in us to someone who often seems almost a total stranger.
Furthermore we have our sex under rather poor control; it forces us to do things that are undignified and that we would be ashamed to have others witness. Worse still, it pushes us into relationships of which we are afraid. Frequently it leads us to actions which are clearly stupid and irrational, and for which we feel guilty. Bad enough that it is so powerful a force, but, worse still, we control it so poorly.
Small wonder that so many philosophies thought sex evil. If humankind is a spirit trapped in a body, the most obvious and most animal part of the cage is sex. Small wonder, too, that so many religions are darkly suspicious of sex; it surely interferes with reflection and contemplation. The early nature religions believed sex was sacred; anything that powerful had to pertain to "the Other." In addition, fertility of animal and plant and human was necessary for the perpetuation of the tribe. But it was not clear to the nature religions whether the sacred power of sexuality was benign. Some of the darkest, wildest, and most evil of the nature deities were devouring goddesses who linked sexuality, birth, and death in most awful ("awe-full") ways.
Yet we know that sex can be a revelatory experience. There are times when it hints to us very powerfully indeed that the Something Else out there must be very gracious to have thought up such an interesting and rewarding way to keep the species going. For some people sex is the trigger for mystical ecstatic experiences. The majority of us do not go from orgasm to mystical ecstasy (and people who do say that the mystical interlude is specifically different and far more spectacular than orgasm), but we do know that sex has the power to turn us on. It is a dull, gloomy, miserable day; then an attractive person of the opposite sex crosses our line of vision. We may not speak, we may never see each other again, but it is as though a flash of light has broken through the darkness. Here is beauty, here is elegance, here is pleasure. At the end of a frustrating, battering day, when the world seems mean and harsh and unfeeling, it is important for most people to discover in the arms of the beloved that there is still tenderness and affection on the earth, that we are still lovable (and capable of loving), that in a rhythm of mutual giving and receiving we can give, that which is best in us and receive the best of the other in return. In such moments we know that there is goodness in the human condition, that there is graciousness in the universe.
Christianity came into being at a rather interesting time in the history of human sexuality. The Hebrews had a realistic and matter-of-fact approach to sex. Marriage, intercourse, and children were part of human life, they were gifts from Yahweh and they were meant to be used. They were not particularly given to romantic ideas—although, as the Song of Songs shows, they were by no means incapable of powerful romantic emotions. In such writings as Osee, Jeremias, and Ezekiel, the Hebrews united imagery from romantic love or portray the hunger of God for his people. The later prophet, Zephaniah, even described Israel as a "corporate person" (A favorite Old Testament literary form in which a person stands for the whole community). The people were the'Virgin daughter of Sion" for whom Yahweh longed as the bridegroom for a bride.
Generally the Jews were very skeptical of mixing sexuality with their worship. Yahweh had to contend with the fertility cults of Canaan for supremacy in the land, and the victory over the cults of the "high places" (apparently the hilltops where the rituals occurred) was not an easy one. Israel had a horror of mixing "filth" with its devotion to Yahweh. So it abhorred the frequently debasing fertility rites that were so much a part of the folk religion of the Roman Empire at the time of Jesus.
A very different strain of thought, however, was going on in the Greek culture. People took care of their sexual needs, of course, but convinced as they were that humankind was spirit, the philosophers regretted that bodily demands and social responsibilities forced them to engage in such lowly behavior. Sex was low, base, and foul; and to the minds of some, relationships with one's own sex (usually male) were superior to heterosexuality, since friendship was possible with other men but scarcely so with such "second-rate" creatures as women, who were "incapable of philosophizing." This contempt for sex dominated the intellectual milieu into which Christianity moved when it left Palestine. It was inevitable that Christianity would be tainted by it if it was to use neoplatonic philosophy to explain itself to the pagan world.
So Christianity arrived on the scene in an environment created by the realism of the Jews—which was complicated by images of romantic love and the frequently vile superstitions of the pagan folk religion that was part of the Jewish tradition—and the horror of sex that was beginning to dominate the philosophical view of human nature. What happened is still astonishing.
The Christ event revealed that grace is in the world. Everything was defined for salvation. God gave himself to us and all things were to be renewed through and in Christ. The world was starting all over again. In the exuberance of the Easter experience there was no room for the gloom of pessimistic paganism with its contempt for the human body. Was it not a body that hung on the cross and rose from the dead? How could the body be evil?
By the time of St. Paul (and hence very early—even before the Gospels had been written down) the marriage image of the Old Testament had been taken over and put to use to describe the Easter experience. The gift of God to us in Jesus and our gift in response was like the exchange of gifts between husband and wife (a fact that was not completely forgotten through all the years of antisexual neoplatonism). Marriage was a sacrament (in the nontheological sense of being a revelation of a secret) of the passionate love of God for us.
Then two currents of very early Christian reflection began to drift together. The assembly of the followers of Jesus began to be thought of as the new Israel, the new People of God. Jesus was described as the new Adam who gave humankind a fresh start. If the Church was Israel, then there was a need for a corporate personality that could stand for the Church the way the Daughter of Zion in the late prophetic literature stood for the people. Yahweh longed for his people as a husband does for his bride. If Jesus was the new Adam, it seemed appropriate for there to be a new Eve. For reasons we do not know (though they may very well have something to do with the qualities of the historical person herself) the early Christians assigned this role to Mary the mother of Jesus. So by the time the Gospels were written, we have in the infancy stories a"protomariology"in which the mother of Jesus is already playing the corporate role as the new Daughter of Zion. She has already begun to represent the Church, and at the same time, particularly in the virginal conception account, she is being assigned a role as the new Eve, the mother of a new humanity. In St. John's Gospel we have a more elaborately developed mariol-ogy in both the Cana and the crucifixion scenes, where Mary is quite explicitly identified with the Church.
This is still a corporate mariology. Mary is present, not so much as an individual person but as someone who stands for the whole Church. But within a hundred years, a personal mariology also developed. As part of the exuberant enthusiasm of the early Christians, Mary replaced the mother goddesses of the pagan world. In theory she was not a goddess, but she played a role for Christianity that was functionally similar to those that the female deities had played in antiquity: she reflected the feminine aspect of God.
No one could possibly have expected such a development. The Hebrew religion abhorred the goddesses. Yahweh was beyond sexuality (and his pre-Sinai consort, Shekenna, had been reduced to nothing more than the glory of his presence). But in its extraordinary openness and self-confidence, Christianity was less worried about corruption. If there was truth and goodness and beauty in the notion of a feminine deity, Christianity would take over the idea and integrate it into its own world view. If sexual union was revelatory, then feminine humanity, as well as masculine humanity, could reveal God to us, and Mary was God's self- revelation through femininity in its perfection. And thus there came to the Western world what may well be the most powerful cultural symbol it has known for the last two thousand years.
One of humankind's earliest insights into the nature of God was that those attributes that constitute both masculine and feminine perfection are intermingled and combined in the deity. Some of the most ancient gods were androgynous. They had both masculine and feminine characteristics that were later to be separated. Whatever it that was "out there" was strong, direct, and aggressive like a brave hunter or a resourceful tracker or a hardworking farmer. But it was also gentle, tender, and compassionate like a mother nursing a child, a young woman inspiring a warrior as he went into battle, a wife gently caring for her husband by the campfire at the end of a dangerous hunt, or even an older woman holding in her arms the body of her dying son, fatally wounded in battle or the hunt.
We know from primitive art that the feminine deity was a Madonna (the mother who gave life and who presided over the fertility of the earth), a Virgo (the beautiful but untouchable inspiration), a sponsa (the pleasure-giving spouse), and a pieta (the goddess of death, the earth receiving back in death that which it once gave to life). All these manifestations of the femininity of God were easily corruptible, but they revealed that God the active creator is also God the tender lover. Once Christianity took the critical step of permitting a personal mariology, it was natural that Mary be depicted in each of these roles. Michelangelo's Madonna of the Barrelhead and Pieta sum it all up visually; and long before the history of religions sorted out the various roles of the mother goddess, Gerard Manley Hopkins caught it in "The May Magnificat."
May is Mary's month, and I Muse at that and wonder why: Her feasts follow reason, Dated due to season—
Candlemas, Lady Day; But the Lady Month, May, Why fasten that upon her, With a feasting in her honour?
Is it only its being brighter Than the most are must delight her? Is it opportunest And flowers finds soonest?
Ask of her, the mighty mother: Her reply puts this other Question: What is Spring?— Growth in every thing—
Flesh and fleece, fur and feather, Grass and greenworld all together; Star-eyed strawberry-breasted Throstle above her nested
Cluster of hugle blue eggs thin Forms and warms the life within; And bird and blossom swell In sod or sheath or shell.
All things rising, all things sizing Mary sees, sympathising With that world of good, Nature's motherhood.
Their magnifying of each its kind With delight calls to mind How she did in her stored Magnify the Lord.
Well but there was more than this: Spring's universal bliss Much, had much to say To offering Mary May.
When drops-of-blood-and-foam-dapple Bloom lights the orchard-apple And thicket and thorp are merry With silver-surfed cherry
And azuring-over greybell makes Wood banks and brakes wash wet like lakes And magic cuckoo call Caps, clear, and clinches all
This ecstasy all through mothering earth Tells Mary her mirth till Christ's birth To remember and exultation In God who was her salvation.
"The May Magnificat"
Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889)
Influenced by neoplatonism, Christian theology may have shrunk from facing the femininity of Mary. Fortunately, artists like Michelangelo and poets like Hopkins knew better.
So the mystery of Mary the mother of Jesus crystallizes the Christian faith that sexuality is not only good but also revelatory, and Christianizes the ancient human faith that both masculine and feminine must be combined in whatever is "out there." The idea that Mary represents and reveals to us the tenderness of God need have nothing to do with rigid definitions of masculine and feminine roles or personality traits. On the contrary, in the revelation that God is androgynous we are liberated from rigidity and permitted to develop the multifaceted dimensions of our own personalities; and whether we are man or woman, we are free to combine aggressiveness with tenderness, courage with gentleness, competitiveness with sympathy, the ordering of life with the giving of life. Certain kinds of mariology may have become linked with an "eternal feminine" ideology that seems to some to restrict women to permanent second-class positions. But there is no such ideology at the core of the mystery of Mary the mother of Jesus. She reveals to us only that God is our loving mother as well as our powerful father.
Intellectually and historically it may be a long way around from the protomariology of the infancy stories to our own agonizing over sexual identity; psychologically, however, it is but a quick leap. If God is not only our powerful father but also our loving mother, then it is safe to risk oneself in sexual encounter, for in the long run we cannot get hurt. If God gave himself totally to us in the Christ event, we can give ourselves totally to our partner, not only in the marriage bed but also in the common life. If the sexual union is a sacrament of the Christ event, then we need not fear its terrors and can more readily give ourselves over to its pleasures. Some Christians may have tried to desexualize Mary (though Christian art and literature has cancelled this effort), but she still represents the powerful and tender flow of the life forces at work in the world, and guarantees that we can give ourselves over to these forces with joy and confidence. The mystery of Mary the mother of Jesus does not promise that strains, frictions, and conflicts will be eliminated from our intimate relationships; but she does promise us the resources we need to learn from our mistakes, to rise up from our failures, and to confidently and joyously begin again—just as the human race began again with the birth of her son Jesus.
In rural Poland there used to be a custom that the young bride and groom would rise from the bed after consummating their marriage and recite the Magnificat (the prayer of Mary) together in gratitude to Mary for the joys of their union. It was imagined that Mary had been present with them in their first act of love, guarding and protecting them. The marriage chamber was hardly the place where the sexless piety of the official mario-logical devotions would have wanted Mary the mother of Jesus to be. But the shrewd peasant mind knew better. The young couple needed special help and protection at such a moment of both terror and happiness. To whom else would they turn besides God our loving mother, as represented to us by Mary the mother of Jesus?
1. The various marian titles can all be subsumed under four: mother, bride, spouse, and virgin. The central historical basis for the titles, and for the mariological symbols and theology from which they come, is the fact that Jesus was born of a human mother, Mary. Most Christians have called Mary the mother of God because of an ancient theological custom called the "communication of idioms," which was based on the philosophical terminology used in the third- and fourth-century controversies over Jesus. Jesus was described in these terms as having both a divine and human nature but being only a divine person. Whatever was said of the human nature could also by this custom be predicated of the person. Thus as the mother of the man Jesus (the human nature), Mary could be said to be the mother of God. Obviously, in the strict sense of the word, God does not have a mother, and the misunderstanding of the custom of speech has needlessly offended and confused people. In the terminology we are using in this catechism it could be said that Mary is the mother of God because she is the mother of the man with whom God is most completely united and in whom He most totally discloses himself to us. Further clarification must await progress in current attempts to restate the nature of the union of "man like us" and "something more than human" in modern philosophical categories.
2. There is some controversy today over the virginal conception of Jesus. It is an important point, though it should not distract us from the still more important question of belief in the revelation of Jesus. How he came into the world is far less important than why. Clearly the authors of the infancy narratives are emphasizing a new beginning for humankind in Jesus, who, like Adam, is depicted as not having an earthly father. Whether this is a theological reflection only or a reflection combined with a historical claim is at present a matter of hot debate among Scripture scholars. Nor is it a solution to the debate to say that a virginal conception is "scientifically impossible." Having created the universe, God can choose any way he wants to re-create it. Furthermore, the argument that the virginal conception is "anti-sex" merely indicates that some misguided Christians have used it as part of their own antisex misunderstanding of Christianity. The burden of the New Testament message leaves no doubt that sexuality, like all other good things of this world, was liberated and reconciled in the Christ event. On the basis of the present scholarly analysis of the infancy stories, it can be said that while they are obviously theological in intent, the virginal conception tradition is Palestinian (not Greek, as some had thought), very ancient, unlike any other story of divine incarnations in its tact and simplicity, and quite foreign to the Hebrews religious tradition. If it were merely theological "fiction," it is hard to understand where the story came from or how it developed.
The early Church admitted women as full-fledged participants in the community. St. Paul sees no distinction between male or female in Christ Jesus. The Mary symbol went a long way toward improving the degraded position of women in pagan society. Women had great power in the medieval Church, presiding over vast lands and, as in the case of the Irish St. Brigid, even ruling monasteries of men as well. While there is no documented case of the ordination of women to the priesthood, it is now certain that the women deaconesses were considered to be in sacred orders, and that the women heads of monastic communities had certain powers that bishops possessed (such as giving "faculties" to hear confession and assigning priests to parishes). Such powers were exercised even into the nineteenth century. In many ways the Church has been and still is backward in extending full rights to women. On the other hand, particularly in the United States, women have had more "check-signing" power in the Church than in any other human organization. Today many women are working as leaders in parishes and in diocesan offices.
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