Something About Mary

If Christmas marks the birth of Jesus, then you know who deserves most of the credit. As interest in Mary increases among the unwashed masses, the Church has more trouble trying to manage her image, her meaning, and her legacy.

Anne and Joe were a typical couple. They married young and drove hard for success, and Joe’s career in animal husbandry eventually made them wealthy. After two decades of marriage they were still so in love that friends could only envy them. All but for one thing: Their marriage was infertile, and they ached for a child. There were no effective medical interventions, so they had little more than a hope and a prayer of parenthood. When Joe overheard a client’s off-color joke about his sterility, he finally hit the breaking point, and instead of returning home from work that night, he took off toward the outskirts of town and collapsed on a dusty hillside. He lay there for days, broken and wild with grief, blaming himself.

Meanwhile Anne grew frantic. Joe often traveled for work, but she’d been expecting him home days ago. She stared outside at the birds building their spring nests and felt numb with sorrow. It was in that moment of utter despair that she was seized by a sort of paranormal vision that left her with hope for motherhood and a desperate urge to go looking for her husband. Joe had a similar experience on the hillside, and he immediately sped home. The two met up at the city limits, where they were stunned by each other’s accounts of what they could only describe as a divine message. Flushed with the heat of hope and desire, they raced home. The next morning, Anne was pregnant.

Nine months later she had a healthy baby girl who proved to be exceptional. She could walk seven steps by six months of age, and when she was three, Anne and Joe presented her to their priest. He predicted big things for the girl.

Sometime between her 12th and 14th birthdays, the girl was ready to follow in her mother’s footsteps toward an early marriage. The priest summoned a handful of eligible bachelors. One of them was a carpenter named Joseph, an older man and a widower. As the group convened, a dove somehow emerged miraculously from Joseph’s staff, and perched on his head. The priest pronounced Joseph to be the one God had chosen to be the husband of the young woman.

Unfortunately, Joseph had doubts about the marriage. He worried that friends and family would ridicule him about his youthful bride. Furthermore, he already had two sons of his own. But he took her in, reluctantly, and then left for a neighboring town to go about his trade. Months later, when his wife told him about her unexpected pregnancy, Joseph was unhappy and incredulous, and she cried bitter tears. It took a visit from an angel to declare Mary’s virginity and the immaculate conception of Jesus.

The rest of the story is well worn. Mary’s name is now known the world over—despite the fact that accepted scripture actually makes very little mention of her, and apocryphal texts and legends fill in only a few more blanks. Regardless of this spotty historical knowledge, public interest in Mary—on the popular and scholarly level in Catholic, Protestant, and even secular circles—has existed ever since Jesus was born and died. And after several decades of increasing popularity, attention to Mary is reaching a crescendo and igniting this question: To whom, precisely, does Mary belong? Of and for the people, Mary is attractive to the masses specifically because of her humanity, and because there is so little concrete information about her. She can be whoever you need her to be.

Yet certain institutions, most notably the Catholic Church, have a fervent interest in defining and protecting Mary and her likeness. If religious scholars riff on whether Mary’s mantle should be red or blue—and they do—then it’s easy to see why they’d recoil at the collection of irreverent plastic Mary memorabilia at places like Sister Fun, the oddball gift shop on Lake Street. There, on any given day, you’ll find the image of the Virgin emblazoned on everything from key chains to ashtrays—displayed right alongside the fart powder and hairy soap bars. But taste is a matter of opinion, and the gap between one person’s and another’s is really all that divides the merchandise at Sister Fun from the “relics” at the Marian Library, a service of the International Marian Research Institute at the University of Dayton. The library’s collection includes “nearly 100,000 cards depicting Mary in the art of all ages and numerous Marian shrines, attractive collections of statues from around the world, Marian postage stamps, recordings of Marian music, Marian medals, and rosaries.”

Legally and poetically, Mary sits squarely in the public domain, where people are free to make what they will of her, including a profit. As much as the Church may want to be the primary beneficiary of Marian interest, the reality is that more and more people are wanting a piece of Mary for themselves.

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