Dumping My Assumptions about Mary

Monday is the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary for Roman Catholics. In the 1979 Book of Common Prayer (Episcopal) August 15th is Saint Mary the Virgin, Mother of Our Lord Jesus Christ. In the 2006 Evangelical Lutheran Worship it is Mary, Mother of Our Lord.

Over at Patheos, Pat Gohn writes on dumping her assumptions about Mary.

Blessed feast day, everyone.



  1. Pat Gohn writes of discovering Mary in the course of experiencing feminine weakness. I venture to suggest that it is more helpful to discover her in other spheres when the personality is less vulnerable.

  2. I guess I still have some of those assumptions about Mary and have a hard time believing the doctirnes about her – immaculate conception, perpetual virginity, assumption. I wish there was more about her in the NT.

  3. Some of the doctrines about our Lady are indeed difficult to ‘believe’. But, if one believes that the resurrection actually did occur, there is little difficulty in the rest. Finding scriptural warrant for some of them is probably the most tenuous or difficult aspect. Consistent tradition would seem to be the stronger source, though the Eastern reservations about the Assumption are not at all difficult to sympathise with.

    As for weakness & cet., I have great repulsion at the pallid, limpid, pitiful and droopy pastel depictions of Mary which are so common on holy cards, plaster statues, and even much real art and devotional literature. I believe that she must have been a woman of tremendous strength, courage and power, and most likely the near opposite of the sort of piteous waif that multitudes of Catholics seem to think of her as. No doubt she was also wounded and sorrowful, but not in the permanently helpless way in which she is depicted. Real mothers are strong, and the Mother of God, of our Lord, must have been a very strong, mature, and admirable woman, even in her obedience and sorrows.

    1. “if one believes that the resurrection actually did occur, there is little difficulty in the rest.”

      But the resurrection is in the gospels. None of the Marian doctrines are.

      1. As Fulton Sheen said, “The Gospels did not start the Church; the Church started the Gospels. The Church did not come out of the Gospels; the Gospels came out of the Church.
        The Church preceded the New Testament, not the New Testament the Church. […] Men did not believe in the Crucifixion because the Gospels said there was a Crucifixion; they wrote down the story of the Crucifixion, because they already believed in it. The Church did not come to believe in the Virgin Birth because the Gospels tell us there is a Virgin Birth; it was because the living word of God in His Mystical Body already believed it that they set it down in the Gospels.”

    2. “Eastern reservations about the Assumption”. Do you mean The Immaculate Conception? The Dormition on August 15 is bedrock Orthodoxy.

    3. I think you’re confused about Eastern doctrine on Mary. My parents were married in my father’s Greek Orthodox Parish which is named after the Assumption of Mary.

  4. It would be an interesting ‘thought experiment’ to think of the Blessed Virgin Mary resembling (at least in appearance) for example, Golda Meir or Indira Ghandi or Michelle Bachmann or Sarah Palin. It does provide mental provocation! After all the ‘tradition’ does say she did live into ‘old age’ with John the Evangelist.

    1. Fr. Allan,
      I must agree with you. I especially love the scene where Jesus washes his hands and then sprays the water on Mary while putting his arms around her. The portayal was quite human.

    2. or maybe a sort of Bea Arthur type of character as found in “Maude” or “The Golden Girls”, or, perhaps, the late actress, Anne Bancroft’s version of an older Mary. I think it was Franco Zeffereli’s character. A Sicilian mother with a certain loving toughness, while possessing a mellowing beauty mixed with wisdom which only a mature woman with a lot of pain and stress seems to possess.

      1. No, Anne Bancroft played Mary Magdalene in Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth. It was Olivia Hussey (she of Zeffirelli’s Juliet) who played Mary the mother of Jesus; they aged her up a bit for her affecting Pieta scene.

  5. Elizabeth Johnson’s Truly our Sister (or the 10th Chapter published separately as Dangerous Memories) will alter significantly all of one’s previous notions. Highly recommended.

  6. Fr Allan, I think I do agree that the actress in the Passion the Christ movie did an exceptional job in her role as given her by the director Mel Gibson. But I still think the ‘thought experiment’ would be a useful ‘thickening of our understanding’ of the Blessed Virgin Mary and her role as ‘the personification’ of the Church in our response to her Son and our salvation

  7. Philip Sandstrom’s thought experiment – Golda Meir or Indira Ghandi? Perhaps… but the lady from Alaska????
    This would be defamation of character and ridicule!

  8. It’s interesting to see what effects and affects a ‘thought experiment’ can provoke! The two ‘living ladies’ I mentioned as examples have both had several children — and one besides has cared for a number of foster children — and they provoke a very negative reaction from ‘so-called’ feminists and others who are dominant in the ‘public culture’ of the United States at this time in history. So why not them?

  9. Stephen Manning – ‘do you mean…’
    I am conscious that I do not by any means speak authoritatively on these matters. I believe that Orthodoxy (in chorus with Aquinas et al.) does not hold to the Immaculate Conception, nor is the Dormition at all synonymous with the Assumption. I do stand and wish to be corrected if appropriate.

    And, Jeffrey Pinyan speaks wisely – holy writ is written tradition, and issues, inspired, from the Church which preceded it.

    1. RE Immaculate Conception you are correct. But there is very little difference between the Eastern celebration of the Dormition and the Western Assumption aside from some wording and emphasis. The East holds clearly that Mary died and was raised up to heaven, body and soul. The West is agnostic about whether she died or was taken up alive. Both opinions were preserved in the ambiguous wording (“having completed the course of her earthly life”) of the papal definition.

      Although it was never defined as a dogma in the East, it is universally believed; http://www.goarch.org/special/listen_learn_share/dormition. If any Orthodox asserted that Mary’s body was still in a tomb somewhere, he or she would be in big trouble.

  10. “The Church preceded the New Testament, not the New Testament the Church.”

    Yes, but the “events” recorded in the NT came before the church and it was those events which created the church. Yes, they were recorded after the church began, but the church didn’t “create” the resurrection simply because its recording of it caused belief in it. The church, though, does seem to have “created” the Marian doctrines.

    1. If you read the history of the Church, you’ll see that it took hundreds of years and lots of discussion and debate to clarify the even fundamentals: the Trinity and the Incarnation. It could be argued that the Church created them, too.

  11. I guess part of what bothers me about the Marian doctines is what they seem to say about human nature, women, sex (although the idea of Mary’s perpetual virginity also seems to contradict the NT). Mary is chosen to be the human mother of Jesus, but is she really human if she’s born without original sin? If God has made her conception pure, does that mean he predestined her “yes”? Why is it better to believe that Mary never had a sexual relationship with her husband or had other children?

    NT Wright wrote of the assumption …

    “There is no hint in early Christianity of the view which came to dominate the Roman, western church in the Middle Ages, and which some are eager to develop and propagate in our own day, that Mary was taken up, ‘assumed’, into a special, unique place, as it were a saint among saints. And we might note that the Eastern Orthodox churches, on this as on some other things, agree with the Reformers here against the Latin west. Though attempts are made to align the ‘dormition’ of Mary (her ‘falling asleep’, i.e. her death) with her ‘assumption’, the two are in fact significantly different. The Orthodox say Mary died, and that her body is resting and will eventually be rejoined with her soul; the Romans say she didn’t die, and that both her body and soul are already in heaven. “

    1. Your uneasiness about the Marian doctrines re human nature and sex. There are really no different from what the Christological doctrines say about these issues: the man Jesus was virgin born , sinless, and died himself a virgin. If that still allows him to be fully human, then her sinlessness and virginity can be no bar to her full humanity. If you have a problem with the Marian doctrines on these grounds then it seems to me you have a problem with Christ.

      I say this not in judgment –I think it is indeed a problematic psychological issue in Christianity for contemporary Westerners– but simply to offer a larger context.

      1. But Jeffrey and Stephen,

        Jesus was God (and human)! Mary was just a person. You can’t really compare them. She’s supposed to be the human contributor to Jesus’ human nature, but if she is born without original sin (and I don’t believe in original sin myself) then how can she be “good”, how can she make real moral choices? She’s something other than human like the rest of us. It’s as if God (as reveled in the gospels) thought the human woman Mary was good enough to be Jesus’ mother, but the church didn’t think so, and decided to “clean her up” with all the Marian doctrines later, which say a lot to me about what the church thinks of women.

      2. Jesus is “just a person” too. 😉

        If you think of being without original sin as being in right relationship with God, then of course Mary was “good”. Mary had free will — she could have chosen to sin (as our first parents).

        From a scriptural perspective, you could argue that the God of the Bible (including the N.T.) considered Mary to be made impure by the very fact that she gave birth; consider the sacrifice of a pigeon (or two?) at the presentation of Jesus in the Temple.

      3. “From a scriptural perspective, you could argue that the God of the Bible (including the N.T.) considered Mary to be made impure by the very fact that she gave birth; ” J.P.

        Your posting is profoundly dualistic and manichaean. And the tentative terms in which it is phrased do nothing to lessen that.

        What kind of weird theology are you spinning to say that it is possible to argue that giving birth is a cause of moral impurity?

        You are confusing ritual purity with moral probity – a fundamental misreading of the Jewish Bible.

      4. Gerard, I’m not confusing ritual purity with moral purity. I didn’t say God considered Mary morally impure because of childbirth, so please don’t think that I did, or that I do think that.

        I do see, though, that bringing up ritual impurity does not help the discussion, so for that I apologize and retract it.

    2. “Though attempts are made to align the ‘dormition’ of Mary (her ‘falling asleep’, i.e. her death) with her ‘assumption’, the two are in fact significantly different.”

      I would then call into question NT Wright’s scholarship entirely. As I’ve commented elsewhere my father and his family are Greek Orthodox and many times I’ve attend liturgies in our home parish of the ASSUMPTION of the Virgin Mary. I don’t know what else to say, other than this author is absolutely wrong on this point of Eastern belief. Moreover, she is consistently addressed as the glorious ever-Virgin Mary in orthodox liturgy.

  12. The quote from N.T. Wright is interesting and accords with what I had thought to be the case. Would Stephen Manning like to comment on this?

    Also, as Mr Manning points out, much of the faith took centuries to take the shape which it now has. This doesn’t mean that the Church ‘created’ the doctrines in question: rather, that the Church was, over time, taught them or lead to see them – that they developed as the Church aged and realised the import of pertinent tradition, scripture, and revelation. This would be in accord with Newman’s teaching about ‘development’, would it not?

    We ourselves take a life-time to learn the import of, to make sense of, many things. So it is with the Church as she lives through the centuries.

    1. I believe the great Mr Wright is mistaken on one point. Go online and read through all the Orthodox sources you can find about the Dormition. In no case have I found any belief that the body of Mary remains in a tomb anywhere. One of the arguments for her bodily resurrection (Dormition or Assumption or Ascension) is that despite the huge cult of the saints entombed, no tomb of Mary ever claimed to hold her body.

      As to the formal existence of doctrines in the Scriptures, in the “early Church”, or in the continuing Tradition, etc. this is an old set of divergences that mark the Protestant, Anglican and Catholic/Orthodox traditions.

      I only used the word “created” in quotes to indicate to cw that it is an inappropriate word. I agree, with MJO and Newman.

  13. No, Anne Bancroft played Mary Magdalene in Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth. It was Olivia Hussey (she of Zeffirelli’s Juliet) who played Mary the mother of Jesus; they aged her up a bit for her affecting Pieta scene.
    Oh. You’re right. Thanks for the correction.

  14. Why? I am asked!
    Because Mary lived a perfect life, free from original sin, had the strength and maturity to prepare her Son for his mission, and was an intelligent, holy, strong and sinless person of great moral fortitude.
    The ambitious politician lady from Alaska is none of the above!
    This declasse ‘comparison’ with the Mother of God is one of ridicule and defamation of charachter.

    The lady from Alaska HAS been observed as an ill-informed and self-styled hick, and is a social climber with a rather unfortunate family situation, isn’t she?! Certainly no comparison to the BVM

    1. I asked because “politician ladies” Golda Meir and Indira Ghandi were not summarily ruled out of court as obviously inappropriate and yet they are, just as much. What is wrong with all these comparisons is, even if one, mirabili dictu, does not share your contempt for Gov Palin, that these are women of societal worldly power. And while traditional Christianity East and West exalts the spiritual power of Mary, the historical woman was never anything close to a politician, unless you count the Wedding at Cana. In fact, she might have been considered a declasse character from uncouth Galilee and Nazareth hick with her own rather unfortunate family situation (Mt 1.19).

    2. “a rather unfortunate family situation, isn’t she?! Certainly no comparison to the BVM”

      I’m sure there were some smug, self-righteous observers of the fact that Miriam was pregnant outside of marriage and thought of her in similar terms.

      She was a Middle-Eastern woman, not a Western belle.

      I have come to the conclusion that M.J.O.’s views are a parody and that someone has their tongue firmly in cheek and is laughing frequently at the reactions their post elicits.

  15. BTW, speaking of movie Marys, I like the Mary in the film Jesus very much. She’s played by Jacqueline Bisset and she gets a lot more film time than Olivia Hussey did in Jesus of Nazareth – she’s shown living with him before he goes off to get baptised, goes along with Jesus on his preaching travels, and makes friends with Mary M 🙂

  16. Thomas Aquinas did not believe in the immaculate conception of Mary.

    If he were a bishop in Australia today, he’d be out of a job.

    1. Aw, c’mon, Father. If you’ve read Aquinas then you know very well that if he were a bishop in Australia today, he’d believe in it.

  17. Well, this is going off into more areas than a comment thread, or me, has time and room for. If you don’t accept original sin, in some form. then the bedrock assumptions of orthodox Christianity will eventually not hold together very well, IMHO. And if you have a Marina Werner-like attitude toward Mary and the Church, even moreso. I’ll just end with this thought: any issues you have with the Catholic Mary’s real humanity or femininity you should also have with the Catholic Jesus’ real humanity or masculinity.

  18. Sorry – I don’t know who Marina Werner is. I don’t mean to beat a dead horse but I think there are many who don’t believe in original sin in the Augustinian sense, especially as genetics seems to say we could not have had a single couple as the parents of all humanity, and evolution seems to show there was never a time when the creatures of the earth lived in some primordial peace and harmony. But that only messes up the bedrock assumptions of orthodox Christianity if one believes in atonement theory – there are other views of the reason for the incarnation. At American Catholic, there’s this article, for instance – The Incarnation: Why God Wanted to Become Human by Kenneth R. Overberg, S.J.

    1. Fr. Ken takes the position (as stated in many of his homilies) that Jesus’ crucifixion was not part of God’s plan, which is in direct contradiction with much of the New Testament. I’m not saying that Fr. Ken’s essay does not make valid points, but I don’t think he gives the crucifixion the attention it deserves in God’s plan for Jesus.

      1. To argue that God planned the crucifixion and death of Jesus is profoundly unchristian. Have you any idea of what you are saying? What image of God are you living out of and putting forward?

        Jesus’s death was evil – in the moral and the ontic sense. His willingness not to avoid going to his death was probably the most influential factor in furthering the kingdom of God. Sure, he could still have saved us if he had died in his bed of old age. He wouldn’t have needed to shed even a drop of his blood in order to do so.

        Please substantiate your view from the N.T. that God planned the crucifixion!

        I sincerely hope that you are not teaching, or if you are in holy orders, preaching that.

      2. “You who are Israelites, hear these words. Jesus the Nazorean was a man commended to you by God with mighty deeds, wonders, and signs, which God worked through him in your midst, as you yourselves know. This man, delivered up by the set plan and foreknowledge of God, you killed, using lawless men to crucify him.”

        Acts 2:22-23

      3. The text is well selected and requires some nuance of interpretation.

        In the larger context of Peter’s speech, Luke clearly conveys the fact that the crucifixion and death of Jesus by the ‘men of Israel,’ the addressees of the speech, were an evil, which God bested.

        An analysis of the text makes it clear that it was the giving up, ἔκδοτον, and not the execution of Jesus which was according to the determined purpose τῇ ὡρισμένῃ βουλῇ and foreknowledge καὶ προγνώσει of God.

        Luke is saying that it was the giving up of Jesus into the hands of his enemies which was done with God’s foreknowledge and according to God’s counsel. That is not to say that God planned or caused or wanted Jesus’ death.

        Luke’s purpose in referring to God’s foreknowledge and plan, in so far as it can be arrived at, is to avoid the notion that the suffering and death of Jesus meant that God had abandoned him, or that God had fallen into the hands of human beings.

      4. Luke’s purpose in referring to God’s foreknowledge and plan, in so far as it can be arrived at, is to avoid the notion that the suffering and death of Jesus meant that God had abandoned him, or that God had fallen into the hands of human beings.

        Which seems perfectly compatible with what Jeffrey said above — acknowledging that all talk of God “planning” is metaphorical (i.e. an eternally being cannot literally “plan”), so perhaps “according to God’s providence” would be a more philosophically felicitous phrase.

      5. Didn’t God, though, “fall into the hands of human beings” through the incarnation and thus the reason for the marvelous dogma and celebration of the “Assumption?”
        Blaming Jews or a particular group of people at the time for the reality of what occurred to Jesus is rather black and white. There were justifications for what occurred given the limited knowledge of the people at the time and their understanding of faith realities and yes, politics. That’s the mess of the human reality that God “fell into,” and by His own election. I think sometimes we emphasize too much “Augustinian theology” that blames humans for being totally depraved and evil, which Martin Luther and John Calvin took to a even higher excess.

      6. Fritz, thanks for the first reply.

        Gerald, in the following references, I’ve tried to avoid the more oblique typological verses. If some of them are still a little thin, I apologize. Some of them deal with Christ’s suffering as part of God’s plan, others deal with Christ’s foreknowledge of His suffering.

        Isaiah 52:13-53:12
        Matt 16:21-23
        Matt 20:18-19
        Matt 21:33-43
        Matt 26:2, 24, 39, 42, 54
        Mark 10:45
        Luke 2:34-35
        Luke 24:26-27, 44-46
        John 2:19-22
        John 3:14, 16
        John 8:28
        John 10:18
        John 11:50-52
        John 12:23-24, 32-33
        John 13:1
        John 16:28
        John 19:11, 36-37
        Acts 2:23, 31
        Acts 3:18
        Acts 4:11
        Acts 8:32-35
        Acts 17:2-3
        Acts 26:22-23
        1 Cor 1:17-18
        Gal 1:4
        1 John 4:10

      7. F.B.

        No. It’s not at what J.P. has posted. Theologically, Luke’s use of the word ἔκδοτον, conveys the mystery of the incarnation, namely, God’s giving of Jesus. In Peter’s speech, Luke makes clear that it is Peter’s addressees who are responsible for the crucifixion, not God. This is how God’s gift was received.

        You’re crossing wires when you throw in the objection of anthropomorphic language and its limitations. The biblical writers didn’t think of God in terms of Greek absolutes such as impassibility etc.

        The trope of foreknowledge is a literary device used by biblical authors liberally, both in the context of prophecy and prediction and in other contexts.

        Of course the human Jesus had no foreknowledge of the future in any supernatural sense. Having emptied himself of the ramifications of equality with God, he was, as historical Jesus research makes clear, limited in his humanity.

        The bottom line is that to say that God either planned or desired the execution of Jesus of Nazareth reflects a deficient and perverted theology, and, in fact a travesty of theology in the literal sense of that word. One wonders how anyone could pray to such a person.

        You’d be better resorting to such interesting questions as speculating on the number of angels can dance on a pinhead

      8. Gerard, you speak very confidently of the meaning of ἔκδοτον, even though this is the sole instance of its use in the New Testament, and its use in secular Greek literature typically implies handing someone over to a less-than-pleasant fate.

        As to my “crossing wires” in evoking divine eternity: all theologians seek to interpret the Bible in light of some larger schema. You are clearly interpreting ἔκδοτον in light of your conviction that Jesus’ crucifixion is in no sense part of God’s “plan.” You are free to do that. And I am free to point out that this is what you are doing.

      9. F.B.

        The problem is not that you are working within an over-arching paradigm, but that you are mixing paradigms – Jewish/Israelite and classical Greek. They’re not congruent. They don’t mix.

  19. Good point above about the first parents having the ability to choose wrongly though they were without original sin. I need to read more about what original sin actually means.

    I guess I would rather accept Ken Overberg’s (and others) idea that the writers of the gospels adopted the idea of atonement as a way to give meaning to Jesus’ unexpected execution, than believe that God was angry with us and sent Jesus here to die in our stead.

    1. I would never characterize the crucifixion as God taking out His anger on His Son (which is what “God was angry with us and sent Jesus here to die” sounds like to me).

      The crucifixion of Jesus may have been unexpected from the perspective of His disciples, but God wasn’t surprised.

      And the idea of atonement is an old Jewish one, one that is quite fitting for Jesus to have fulfilled (along with a host of others).

    2. God’s self giving is certainly the point behind the Incarnation. That does not mean that we are redeemed by the Incarnation rather than the Paschal mystery.

      If we cannot accept this hardness in God’s heart, what could be the cause of the Crucifixion? The obvious answer is the hardness of our own hearts. ‘Original sin demands the crucifixion’ does not mean ‘God demands the crucifixion’. Rather it means our hearts are so twisted, hard, whatever that only the Crucifixion can reach into them to save us. We are “lawless men” who take what we have been given and defile it. We get almost the whole world, and eat the only thing we were not given. That compounds until we receive God’s son, and subject him to the most shameful death.

      Mary’s acceptance of her child from God is the opposite of that sin. And it is reflected in the hearts of other parents.

      1. Actually the emphasis in Eastern patristics is that it is the Incarnation which is in fact salvific. The Western emphasis on crucifixion and death is more forensic, the Eastern more mystical.

        There is no hardness in God’s heart. God does not demand the crucifixion of his innocent son or anyone else.

      2. I would have to have a clearer idea of what you mean by “salvific” before I accept your assessment of Eastern patristics. Not that I disagree. I do not know enough to do that. You make a bold assertion that I would like to understand better before accepting.

        I am inclined to think about this in the terms of the hymn in Philippians 2. But that blurs the Incarnation into the Redemption: “taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.” The emptying does not stop at coming in human likeness but continues to death on a cross. I am guessing most Fathers similarly blur incarnation into redemption, but it is probably possible to find some who understand their writings as lacking such a blur.

        Mostly I agree with you. I think Easter is different from Christmas, and more fundamental, but that is just my opinion. There seem to be plenty of people willing to disagree with me. I hope to learn from you, and them.

  20. In the discussion about the ideas of Fr. Ken Overberg, I am rather surprised no one (including Fr Ken) has mentioned a ‘key player’ in the development of the theology of the atonement etc. , that is, St. Anselm of Bec and Archbishop of Canterbury and the author of “Cur Deus Homo?” If I remember correctly, Anselm puts emphasis on the Incarnation but also takes into account the ‘redemptive work’ of the Lord Jesus. He is of course the source of a fascinating ‘proof of the existence of God’ which has bothered philosophers and others for centuries.

  21. As a young man, I grew up in Texas (El Paso). Maybe it was the hispanic influence or maybe it was the fact that I was surrounded by intelligent, well grounded, and highly spiritual role models in the Church, but I did not have the same “post-Vatican II religious education” as Pat mentions. My religious education had lots of punch and none of it excluded Mary. My Vatican II experience included daily rosary, weekly confession, Eucharist during the week, constant reading of the lives of the saints, and a strong devotion to Mary. That devotion was always encouraged by my pastor and all of the sisters I knew. Mary was presented as the perfect model of a complete woman, an obedient and liberated woman, the most powerful of women. That view had such an impact on me that when I was teaching 1st grade CCD (as an 8th grader – I had 40 kids in my class) I started a devotion to Our Lady of the Dawn. Now, as an adult, my favorite Marian hymn is Mary The Dawn, “Mary the dawn… Christ the perfect day”. Mary saved me through my parents divorce, my mother’s chronic paranoid schizophrenia (she died in a mental hospital), and a boat load of bad experiences as I matured. She has taught me how to keep my eyes on heaven while my feet are firmly on earth.
    My toungue-in-cheek comment to my protestant, evangelical, and/or fundamentalist friends was always, “The feast of the Assumption is the day we Catholics celebrate the historical ‘assumption’ that Mary was taken into heaven body & soul.” I then explain that unlike some other weak assumptions, this one is based on a most ancient and venerable gift of faith.

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