Two years ago, there was an almighty rumpus around the RTE New Year’s Eve TV sketch of God the Father as a ghoulish godfather in the matter of Mary’s pregnancy. It’s not by any means a new joke. There’s even a jibe about Jesus’ paternity in the Talmud.
Rather more recently, in the tabloids, some conscience- stricken secularist thought that teaching the Annunciation narrative to Irish primary school pupils might inhibit them from reporting adult sexual violence by mystifying their strange, endangered minds; while, two millennia farther backwards, the second-century Infancy Gospel of James has the midwife’s hand bursting into flames as a punishment for the sheer cheek of her touching Mary’s inviolable labia.
There are always going to be humourists and head-bangers in God’s people, so here’s my tuppence worth of either as a roaming Catholic in this, the third sorrowful decade of our national Kulturkampf. I’ve worn a miraculous medal from Simon Peter monastery on the cliffs of Athos to the Tenderloin’s ravines in San Francisco. I’ve power-showered with it, (the rust is proof), sun-worshipped too (a ghost oval on tanned skin) and made love as well (didn’t my own parents produce a platoon of cherubs under a life-size Sacred Heart?).
So I have a take on the whole thing which is, I hope, Marian and merry. Christmas is, of course, more about childbirth than conception, yet the nine months that elapse between March 25th and December 25th in the Roman calendar serve to signal the three surging trimesters of a legendary pregnancy that link the promise of fertility in spring with the consolation of survival in winter.
The Nativity narrative is, in that sense, the end-stage of a more prolonged and pagan myth that reads the curve of human experience in the annual cycle of the seasons. So let’s leave the winter solstice for the vernal equinox.
Luke the evangelist, a Greek and a gentile, is Our Lady’s main man in the New Testament. In the gospels of Mark and Matthew, she’s sometimes more of a pest (“Your mother is looking for you!”), and, in John’s, she seems to stand for Sion both at Cana and the Cross. “Mother, behold your son” is not about living arrangements for a helpless widow.
Whoever wrote the theological Gospel inserts these words in the mouth of the crucified Christ to underscore the genetic bloodline between traditional Judaism and the messianic cult of Jesus. But Luke, a bridesmaid among best men, is immersed in the mystery of Mary, which is why early Christian folklore came to believe he had painted her true likeness in the very first icon.
“No Mary without Ann,” the nuns used to say to the orphaned namesake who raised me in the 1960s, referencing the Virgin’s invented mother. In fact, there’s no Mary without Luke. Just like the second annunciation to Joseph in the Gospel of Matthew, Luke’s lovely tale isn’t shorthand reportage of an historical occurrence.
It’s a timeless theological fable. Saturated since his birth in the dreadful divine-human encounters of Mediterranean myth, which are animalistic and dehumanising (think Ovid the Divo, with all the bestial atrocities he catalogues so candidly in his Metamorphoses), Luke offers instead gentility and courtship as the model of the meeting-place between Mary and God.
The only non-Jew among the four evangelists, one who can quote a line in Euripides’ Bacchae (albeit its recent English translations turn those infamous pricks into mere goads) in his sequel account of Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, Luke knows his classical masterpieces by heart, and is, for that matter, their literary equal.
He knows the Hebrew Bible too in the Greek of the Septuagint, and so he counterpoints the fertility of new beginnings in a girl at the menarche to the precursor pregnancies of post-menopausal women of faith in the Israelite legends, with Elizabeth, like her Baptist boy John, as a bridge figure between the two.
Yet his emphasis is on Our Lady’s courage, not her chastity. In strict historical actuality, Mary’s belly will broaden from moon to moon in Taliban territory where unmarried mothers face summary death by stoning. (Lapidation, incidentally, can still be viewed on YouTube videos which enjoy multiple hits.)
Licenced or otherwise, pregnancy itself is a co-morbidity in biblical Palestine. The girl from Galilee would be lost without Joseph, a co-conspirator. But the Lord likes to send out his disciples in twos.
Luke’s Mary, then, is no Diana of the litanies. She is a Venus of the usual. A kink in our incarnational thinking has skewed her heroic ordinariness, literally for ages, and we have to sidestep Latin Mariolatry – Mary as idol and as Isis-figure, more phantasm than prophet – to recover Luther’s maid of Nazareth in his meditation on the Magnificat, the prayer Luke himself retrieved from the same Jewish scriptures that illiterate Mary would have listened to in hillbilly Galilee.
But a glance at the masculine fissions of the more drastic Reform churches should also show us, as Erasmus saw in the earliest stages of modernity, that we cannot have the son without the mother. In like manner, the last of the Magi, psychologist Carl Gustav Jung, while himself a vigorous Gnostic, understood that the body of Christ must have a belly button.
After all, the physical Jesus was more of a problem for the early churches than the metaphysical Christ Thus, in the fullness of time, there emerged one of the most beloved motifs in western art: the call and response of the Annunciation motif; cor ad cor loquitur, heart speaking to heart, in Cardinal Newman’s motto.
On tile and tesserae mosaic, on plaster and wooden panel, on fresco and oil canvas, the same scene renews and reiterates an exquisite visual equivalent of prayerful attentiveness in the happy anagram of silent and listen.
Nowadays, the surveys show that more people believe in angels than in God, and the shy scholar Cardinal Des Connell, who taught me Plato, did a doctorate on these good go-betweens; so I’m not going to shoot the messengers, still less the message.
After all, they are both mediums. In fact, antiquity’s conduits are today’s couriers, as all images are; and the lot of us live and move and have our being in the shape-shifts of similitude, just as we depend upon Deliveroo cyclists in a Covid curfew.
The Brazilian with a pizza in the porch is this evening’s Gabriel in gauntlets. Metaphor is higher than high maths and as sensible as science. The parable of the sower and the seed in the synoptic telling is altogether more seminal, because more subtle, than the élite, coded exposition Jesus afterwards confides to his proto-clericalist circle of those who are entirely in the know.
That’s why the second council of Nicaea, which roundly authorised human representation in opposition to the inflamed aniconic faction, should be as consequential to us as the first one, which itself fell back on human analogy to figure the Trinity, until the mooting of that mystery became all Greek to everyone.
It had largely degenerated into an equilateral triangle, with the third person as the hypotenuse of two right angles, by the time I was catechised. God, of course, is unimaginable, yet the imagination largely knows its proper place: it’s in the here and now, our necessary sensorium, the see-hear-touch-taste-smell of our five senses, our five sensei.
Mischievous Newman, in a sermon in St. Mary’s, Oxford, remarks that even the Trinitarian formula is “greatly inferior to the Divine verities”. We are left, then, to beachcomb the cosmos on the gritty strip of our own lives’ slow, eroding coastline, hoping that Newton’s pebble – slyly, a calculus in Latin – may prop our poetry and our prose as well, making the material matter more and more.
I ponder the person of Mary. I did so as a pupil. I do so as a pensioner. And I pray about her. I say prayers to her. I even love as problematic a petition as the ‘Hail, Holy Queen’, because it tells a huge part of our story, its melodic desolation, so consolingly. I have told my daughters about this daughter of Sarah, the Mother of God, and they are telling theirs.
Faith in the female line may be more reliable: closer to Mary because closer to Martha, to the bloodshed and breastmilk of bodily life. I am looking up at a little carving of the Madonna and Child as I tap this sentence on the keyboard. It has a hairline fracture from a house-move, when it was wrapped in newsprint in a tea-chest, but it’s still beautiful, perhaps more so.
If the Orthodox image of the Dormition, say, speaks to me in a way the Roman Assumption doesn’t, it’s because human beings are only fully and finally complete, under the sign of their own species, when they die.
Risenness and the Resus ward are not, alas, the same thing. Then again, the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is an alien, not an enabling, notion to a Semite-by-descent such as myself, who looks to Abraham and not to Adam as a father in faith bypassing the bothersome, binary Eve.
This is not, mind you, to disavow the serpent in the legendary garden altogether: my brainstem is as reptilian as any other reader’s, and the many sediments of the story of Eden are still being mined for their precious platinum.
Instead, it’s an attempt to identify the imitative nature of human desire – precisely our lack of originality, our uncontrollable, copycat instincts – as the source of our criminal, eliminating community. Peckish coquettes are not the point. The blame-game is the bull’s eye.
Even the Enlightenment atheist Denis Diderot said that we should speak to the living as if they were dead and to the dead as if they were living. This is excellent theology, and I practice it. But, when Lucan metaphor deteriorates into mannish doctrinal minutiae, I can’t blame the schoolboys (or the teachers) who sneer at it. They miss the point. They miss the poetry. We shouldn’t. We mustn’t.
Besides, I don’t mind blasphemy. I mind blasphemy laws, which are the last refuge of the iconoclast, of the heretic for whom the clarity of definition outweighs the charities of wonder. After all, blasphemy was the charge that nailed Jesus.
Aidan Mathews is an Irish poet and dramatist from Dublin.