“We do not own stories, and when we try to limit them, squeeze the life out of them, lose the love that gave them to us and fall back into that fatal human flaw, pride, hubris, we’re right back to Adam and Eve who listened to the power of the snake instead of the creativity of God.” Madeleine L’Engle, Bright Evening Star: Mystery of the Incarnation.
The Virgin Mary has had an outsized influence on my life, which is remarkable if you consider that I’d never really heard her story until I started going to church as a teen. More precisely, Mary has been the bane of my existence since I converted and learned her story and, more importantly, that I was subject to it. What I learned, what was imprinted on me in too many ways to mention, was that Mary was a virgin, Mary was meek, Mary was mild, Mary was a mother above all, Mary was who I was supposed to be because I was a girl. I was not any of those things, even when I tried. I was not like Mary, but I learned I should be.
The Mary that was taught to me—as I wrote about last Advent—was a caricature, an idealized role model. That Mary is a mute, sweet mother who can only stare adoringly down at her child. That Mary had her humanity taken away from her, her strength, her bravery, the way she was afraid but stepped forward in faith anyway and answered God’s call. Frankly, this is bad storytelling. You only have to read the Magnificat in its entirety to see that Mary had more than a little fierceness in her, and better writers than I have celebrated her for it. And yet that is a version of Mary I never got to know.
I know a lot of women find empowerment in Mary’s story and consider childbirth and motherhood in a sacred light. I don’t want to discount that. I feel that, sometimes, I do. As I’ve made my way into motherhood, I’ve gotten glimpses of grace, places where Mary’s story and mine intersect. I cherish those glimpses and the ways in which giving birth has given me a new understanding of the gospel. In a way I didn’t before, I understand the ordinary and the extraordinary intertwined in that manger. I can feel the messy and embodied glory of the incarnation in a visceral way now. I cherish those glimpses and new understandings, and yet I find myself wanting more.
Patriarchy aside, it’s not the centrality of motherhood or even virginity that gives me pause. Motherhood is a radical act and if you loosen the bonds of patriarchal discourse, virginity can be read the same way. It’s that Mary is so often only allowed to be those things.
Mary embodies all my anxieties about being female. She gives a face to all my fears that because I was born a woman, because I am a mother, I will not be allowed to flourish outside of those spaces. That I will always be “woman” and “mother” first, and myself second. That my gender will forever determine what I can do, how far I am allowed to go, and it will never be as far as I want. And worse yet, that there is something wrong with me for wanting more than my family can give me or society says I can have. And so every time Mary is reduced down to her womb by a careless preacher, that message sinks in a little deeper. Every time Mary is relegated to women’s spaces, as if she doesn’t have something to teach the whole church, I become a little smaller.
Each year during Advent, I sit in the pews and want more for Mary. I sit in the pews and want more for myself, too. I want us all to be able to look towards her and see ourselves reflected in her. I want us to recognize the bravery and strength she possessed, and recognize that she expressed that bravery and strength first through childbirth and motherhood, but it–and she–was by no means limited to that sphere. Mary as much as any other disciple can teach us to take our own step forward in courage and say yes to God. If only we would let her.