I never used to understand some people’s fixation with Mary.
That is, until one Christmas when I was at theological college. One of the other students had written a really rather good and thought-provoking nativity play, and I went along to the first read-through as I thought there might be some stuff to do with music that I could help with (I was chapel musician at the time).
The parts were dished out, and by the time it came to me, only Mary was left, so I said I’d read the lines. By the end of the read-through I actually wanted the part, and I got it. It was in that moment of being chosen for something that I hadn’t expected and hadn’t asked for, and then a second, separate moment, of realising that I really wanted it, that I got an insight into why people are so fascinated with Mary and why they venerate her.
Then, on 21st December 2003, which happened to be the fourth Sunday of Advent, I took a pregnancy test first thing in the morning, and then went to church, and, as deacon, read the gospel set for the day: Luke 1.26-38 (the Annunciation), full of the fresh knowledge that I, too, was with child.
I sometimes wonder whether Mary’s been so esteemed by the Anglo-Catholic wing of the Church of England, that the rest of the church hasn’t really known how to honour her.
Her being a virgin has been made into something moral – as if sex is sinful, and as if virginity was somehow an idealised state of womanhood. All this even when a good few commentators tell us that Isaiah’s prophecy was merely about a ‘young girl’.
Mary’s youth and unquestioning obedience may also elevate her to the status of beautiful-doormat-on-a-pedestal, whereas the real Mary that we read about in the gospels is anything but: she’s thoughtful, courageous, and a prophet of social and political change.
In iconography Mary almost always appears holding the Christ child. Quite rightly, she is often pointing at him, too, as if to say, ‘Don’t look at me, look at him’.
But there are a few images that break the mould – works of art that dare to see Mary as a person in her own right, whose vocation went far beyond being an innocent vessel, and who had a role to play in the growth in body, mind and spirit of the Son of God.
One is the ‘Walking Madonna’ outside Salisbury Cathedral, striding purposefully and full of strength.
The other is Ely Cathedral’s statue of Mary who appears above the altar in the Lady Chapel, hands raised not just in praise of God at the magnificat, but also as Eucharistic president.