Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Virgin Mary: The Original Wonder Woman

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16 Canticle 3 or Canticle 15 or Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26 Romans 16: 25-27
Luke 1: 26-38

        The Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, is perhaps the most well known and influential woman in the history of the world. She has been celebrated in painting, sculpture, music, and poetry and continues to be an inspiration to both men and women all over the world. One rather notorious Bishop, however, has suggested that the comic book heroine Wonder Woman is a better role model for young women than the celebrated mother of Jesus.
        He argues, Wonder Woman is an icon of female empowerment and liberation that inspires young girls with self-confidence while “The clear message of Mary” he says “was that both the body and the sexuality of a woman were evil. The ideal woman was not a flesh and blood woman, she was portrayed as sweet, passive, docile, compliant, obedient, virginal, and unreal, hardly the qualities that would empower younger females today to break out of their stereotypical expectations.”
        In response to the Bishop’s controversial remarks, one Christian author, Frederica Matthews Green, wrote, “As a believer…I prefer a relationship with the Virgin Mary, whom I consider my own Mother in Christ and an historical figure. Plus, she doesn't advocate the Wonder Woman hot pants outfit - which fits only imaginary women!”
She does insist however, “Wonder Woman and the Virgin Mary don't have to be rivals. The legends and traditions surrounding both them speak to a feminine battle against treachery and evil.”
        The image of the Virgin Mary that emerges out of the Gospel of Luke is of an intelligent, deeply thoughtful, and courageous young woman with a passion for justice and a powerful faith in God.  Perhaps the Bishop is right about one thing, our picture of the Virgin Mary has indeed been sanitized. One need only read the Magnificat, the song of praise attributed to her in Luke’s Gospel, to see that the shrinking flower on the Christmas cards doesn’t quite do her justice. She sings,

He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, *
    and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things, *
    and the rich he has sent away empty.

These words are more revolutionary than docile! The words of her song are so inflammatory that during the 1980’s the government of Guatemala banned their public reading as a subversive act!
        I don’t see Mary’s Obedience and submission as the negative thing the Bishop suggest that it is. Mary’s obedience is in fact extremely courageous. She is more like a soldier who accepts a highly dangerous mission that requires tremendous sacrifice and fortitude. Carrying a child to term is of course always an act of great courage that should be commended, but carrying this particular child was especially dangerous.
This was not a culture friendly to unwed mothers. She faced rejection, banishment, and even death, the loss of her betrothal, her family, and people. Moreover the powers and principalities trembled with terror at the child her womb. King Herod sent out his troops to seek and destroy the child leaving death and destruction in their wake. Mary and her son just barely escaped his wrath.
       Mary’s self-sacrificial obedience is the place where she bears most clear family resemblance to her son. In a world consumed by self-interest, Mary inspires us to go against the grain and to open our lives to something greater than ourselves. This kind of humility and service is in fact the only true path to liberation.

We now turn to the claim that Mary’s story teaches us that the bodies of women and sexuality are evil. This cannot possibly be farther from the truth! What greater affirmation of the human body and the bodies of women in particular can there be than this story in which the mighty God—the Word through whom all things were made and who sustains all creation—takes on flesh and comes to dwell in the womb of a woman? Far from denigrating women this bestows on them great honor, for the body of woman has been the temple of the most high God, the ark of the new covenant, and the gateway of divine grace into the world.
       If God is indeed the creator of all things and if he did indeed affirm the goodness of his creation by becoming incarnate to sanctify and redeem it, as Mary’s story tells us, than it is just silly to say that God is anti-sex. The whole thing was his idea to begin with. He invented it!
      If not because he thought sex something too impure to be involved in, why did God choose to be born of a virgin? I agree with Joseph Ratzinger—also known as Pope Benedict—there is no biological necessity for the Virgin Birth as if Jesus was the natural son of God and Mary carrying DNA from each. I think that confuses the incarnation. Jesus isn’t like Hercules, half man and half god. He is one hundred percent God and Man.  I suppose it is even possible that Jesus could have become incarnate as a result of a normal marriage, but his birth to a virgin serves as a divine sign.
       A clue to what is signified by this sign is provided in the Angel Gabriel’s answer to Mary’s question, “How can this be?” He tells her, “nothing will be impossible for God.” Mary’s virginal conception in the consummation of what God has done throughout the Old Testament and with her cousin Elizabeth in bringing life out of the barren and aged. Just as in the beginning, God brought creation from nothing, so he can bring new creation from the virgin.
         If God affirms the goodness of creation in becoming flesh and being born of a woman, he reveals the depth of our falleness by being born of a virgin. Human life in its sinfulness had become barren and fruitless, but God can bring life even from death.  
        The theologian Karl Barth writes, “The Virgin birth at the opening and the empty tomb at the close of Jesus’ life bear witness that this life is a fact marked off from all the rest of human life.” In being born of a virgin, God shows us that he is doing something new and unprecedented in Jesus. He is a new Adam. Just as sin entered the world through the first Adam, life and salvation has entered the world through this new Adam.
         If Jesus is the new Adam, the Early Church Fathers suggest that the Virgin Mary is the New Eve. The first Eve doubted God’s goodness and believed the lie of the serpent, and therefore brought death to the world. The second Eve believed God, obeyed him, and brought life to the world through her son. St. Irenaeus (d. 202) wrote the following, “The knot of Eve’s disobedience was loosed by the obedience of Mary. The knot of which Eve tied by her unbelief, the Virgin Mary opened by her belief.”
In her total abandonment to the will of God, Mary is an example to all of us and the greatest heroine of the Christian faith. Her greatness consist precisely in the fact that she always points away from herself to her Son Jesus Christ. Her greatest power is in being a vessel for the love of God in Christ, a power we too possess albeit in a different way.
          So what about Wonder Woman? I’ll admit I am a fan. I agree with the Bishop that she is a great role model not only for young girls but even grown men like myself. Her heroism comes not from the ways she is different from the Blessed Virgin Mary, however, but rather in the ways she is like her.
          My friend and fellow comic book enthusiast, Father Jonathan Mitchican—who many of you met when he was here to preach at my ordination—wrote a blog post last week called “Wonder Woman and the Power of Truth.” In it he suggest that Wonder Woman is an icon of Christian discipleship. This is what he writes,

“Wonder Woman is able to be a great hero because she has encountered and accepted the reality of her own flaws and sins. Though fashioned out of clay by a god, she is all too aware of her own imperfection and her inability to do good by her own power alone. She relies on the gods to give her grace and strength. She finds her heroism in repenting of the darkest and most uncharitable parts of herself and instead sacrificing herself for the sake of others. Unlike Superman, who is sometimes misconstrued as a Christ figure because of his god-like power, Wonder Woman realizes that despite her amazing abilities she has no real power but that which she has received by grace, not merely for her own wellbeing but for the sake of the world. Wonder Woman only ever understands herself when she is finally able to look away from herself and towards the needs of others. Would that all of us, male and female, young and old, could follow the same path towards holiness.”

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