MARY – SESSION 8

INTRO Matthew has given us this colourful story rich in symbolism – the Visit of the Wise Men. Having met Wisdom made Flesh in Jesus, they discover a deeper Wisdom and live their lives ‘by a different way’. It is worth noting here that in John’s Prologue, the ‘Word made Flesh and dwells among us’ is rooted in the the text of Ecclesiasticus 24: 8  part of Wisdom literature of the hebrew Scriptures. And in Hebrew ‘Wisdom’ is feminine is so closely related to God that in some ways approximates the Holy Spirit. John’s allusion suggests the ‘feminine’ dimension of God that until recently we seem to have lost in our thinking and spirituality, although it was strong in the English mystic of the 14th century, Mother Julian of Norwich. It is also very interesting  before we leave the Wise Men that Christian tradition has turned seekers of wisdom and scholars into Kings – These ‘wise ones’ have been institutionalised into figures of power! We are more used to being ruled by power rather than by wisdom. God is wisdom whose power is the foolishness of love. Is that our power as disciples – is this the only power the Church seeks?

[1] ‘Take the child and his mother … and escape!’ (Matthew 2: 13). The dark shadow of the Cross falls upon the Bethlehem home of the Holy Family. The suffering and death of Christ is foreshadowed in the tyranny of Herod and the massacre of the ‘innocents’, as well as the suffering of the Hebrew people in Egypt in the time of Moses. Jesus is a New Moses (an especially important theme throughout Matthew’s Gospel) who is rescued from death at the hands of Herod, rescued to become the ultimate liberator and saviour of not only his own people but all humanity. And like to sons of Jacob (who fled to Egypt to escape famine), the family find safety in Egypt. Joseph, like the ancient Joseph of Genesis, hears God in the dream and saves his family. God’s ‘dream’ is for all humanity to be ‘saved’ – saved from slavery, poverty, injustice, oppression and war, saved from addiction and the destruction of the person and their dignity. Do we like Joseph and Jesus share the dream of God and act accordingly? Constantly Jesus shares God’s dream with us, calling it the ‘Kingdom’ where ‘I make all things new’ (Revelations 21: 5). Matthew cites two prophetic texts: ‘I called my son out of Egypt’ Hosea 11: 1 where Jesus is deliberately associated with the whole people of the Covenant in their suffering and their liberation (and remember that Jesus dies the death of a slave in Roman crucifixion and Paul speaks of Jesus emptying himself to be a ‘doulos’ – slave (Philippians 2: ). It also underlines the Christology that Jesus is the Son of the Father. He also cites Jeremiah 31: 15 (Rachel weeping for her children) which speaks of the suffering of Jerusalem in the face of the onslaught of Babylon on the Holy City, evoking the great cataclysm that was destruction of Judea and the forced Exile (slavery) in Babylon. This was the great watershed event of enormous suffering for the People, yet God was faithful and after a period of purification returned them to their land – an incredible moment of unheard of liberation. Jesus gathers both experiences of suffering and liberation into himself (Egypt and Babylon) – this Gospel is assiduous in expressing Jesus as recapitulating Jewish history, the People of the Covenant’s  story of salvation , into Himself.  

[2] ‘Herod was furious … (and)…had all the male children killed’ (Matthew 2: 16). This section of the narrative, the killing of the children of Bethlehem, looks two ways. It evokes graphically the killing of the new-born males by Pharaoh and the ‘miraculous’ escape of the infant Moses, destined to be the liberator of His people (Exodus 2: 1-10). It also fore-shadows the Passion and death of Christ and the persecution of the early Christians. As with Luke, so with Matthew (but in a very different manner and using a different oral tradition), the Cross overshadows the infancy of Christ. He is born  to die and to rise victorious – as Moses was born to rescue his people from the ‘passion’ of slavery and lead them victorious over Pharaoh and the his forces that would kill. As Moses liberated the people and led them dry-shod through the waters into a new life, so Jesus rises victorious from the Tomb and leads new-born disciples to a new life through the waters of Baptism. Did the massacre actually happen: we simply do not know, although we do know from external contemporary historical records that Herod indulged in a number of vicious massacres of whole villages – men, women and children. It is in character! The point (as often in Scripture) is not the historical accuracy or otherwise, but the profound meaning, the teaching about Christ that is being expressed in the story. The Hebrew mentality is very ‘concrete thinking’, shaping a story-telling culture – telling a good story that expresses a theological truth; the Greek mentality (which Western culture has inherited) is abstract thinking, speaking in concepts. So ultimately it is not important whether there were actually wise men from the East searching for the infant Jesus, whether there was a star to guide them and whether Herod did massacre these children: what matters is the Mystery of Christ’s identity and mission, His Passover from death to life which liberates us for a New Life and new Humanity, and gathers together a New People of the Covenant. Let us remind ourselves that Matthew seeks all the time in this Gospel to address the issues of excommunicated Jews who are suffering for their belief in Jesus as the Messiah they and their people have for so long yearned to see come and yet most have rejected. The Gospel seeks to encourage, explain and strengthen their faith. 

[3] ‘The angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt’  (Matthew 2: 18). Once more an identification of the story of Jesus with Hebrew origins and one of the great ‘saviour’ figures in their history – the Patriarch Joseph, son of Jacob, the man of dreams. Again the silent but obedient Joseph, husband of Mary and adoptive father of the child Jesus, ‘wakes up’ and leaves Egypt for Israel. In the story of the infant Jesus, the fundamental experience of the liberating God is expressed. Perhaps also the mention  of Mary in this passage might echo Moses’ sister, Miriam, who shares the journey of her people’s liberation from slavery and sings of the Victory (as does Mary – Miriam – in Luke’s Magnificat). But they return not to Bethlehem, but to the impoverished village of Nazareth for ‘He will be called a Nazarene’ (Matthew 2: 23), citing an text unknown in Scripture but evoking a Jewish ascetic tradition associated with Samson, Samuel and John the Baptist. A ‘nazir’ is a consecrated person, abstaining from alcohol from the womb, called to be strong for the Lord and His People. Nazareth is a ‘nowhere place’ of no significance at all (not mentioned in the Old Testament). A place of poverty with manual workers employed in building nearby Sepphoris, the great capital that Herod Antipas was constructing. As Nathaniel said (John 2:), nothing good comes from that place. Perhaps Joseph settled there in order to find work (low paid and exploited of course!). To be called a Nazarene (one from Nazareth) was used as an insult!

[4] What do we learn of Mary in Matthew’s infancy narratives? The focus is on Joseph rather than Mary (the major difference compared with Luke). Mary is powerless, locked in a severely patriarchal society, like women in most ages and most societies, and still predominant in our world globally today. It is the powerless one who gives birth to the saviour, the messiah. She is a displaced mother, victims of a refugee journey because of vicious repression – like so many refugee mothers today, fleeing Syria, Myanmar, Darfur and the like. She is locked into the poverty of Galilee, the misery of Nazareth. And she is ‘Miriam’ the ‘Exalted One’ whom God exalts (in the Assumption), and with her the poor, the refugee, the displaced women and children of the world. When will we exalt them, raise them up, have a spirituality and a devotion to Mary that empowers us, engages us with the suffering of women and the 67 million refugees of today’s world. When will we look on the news footage of overcrowded refugee camps with despairing struggling mothers in tents and shanty towns and see Mary, loving her child Jesus among them? Mary in Matthew is the hidden one who gives everything she is, providing stability and love (along with Joseph) enabling Jesus in his humanity to grow into the courageous, secure, loving, revolutionary prophet and healer – the saviour of the world.

AFTERWORD What are the  implications for our devotion to Mary,  to make it an empowering and relevant devotion that connects us to the real world of suffering women and children today? What are the implications for the Church when we collude with oppressive patriarchal attitudes and given them pseudo theological justification? What about our praxis as a Church in regard to the role of women among us and their leadership today?    

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