The Christmas story was just the beginning.
Two thousand years later, there is something about Mary, the mother of Jesus, that continues to inspire and empower Christians around the world.
Churches from Albania to Arkansas, from Catholics to Lutherans, bear his name, as do religious orders.
The accounts of his appearances and his miracles are legion. Entire cultures have been affected, spawning commemorations that still fill our streets – like the one last weekend by the Catholic Diocese of San Diego in honor of the Mexican apparition of Mary, Our Lady of Guadalupe.
So what about Mary?
Let’s start with an iconic song written by a Baptist from Texas – and a little theology.
Did she know?
In the 1980s, Mark Lowry, a popular evangelical singer and comedian, wrote a series of questions about what this young mother knew about Jesus’ future.
“I thought if I could have a cup of coffee with Mary, what would I ask her?” Lowry remembers. The result was the lyrics to “Mary Did You Know”, which after being set to music by Buddy Greene in 1991, exploded onto the Christmas music scene. Hundreds of people have recorded it – from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir to a duet of country singers Kenny Rogers and Wynonna Judd and an a cappella arrangement by pop group Pentatonix.
“It obviously hit a nerve,” Lowry admits over the phone from Houston. âEspecially with a lot of young mothers. They tell me they love this song.
But it touched another nerve, especially among some Catholics, who call the words naÃ¯ve. Of course, Mary knew the divinity of Jesus, the critics laugh at it. After all, an angel told the young virgin that she would perfectly conceive and give birth to the Son of God, who would do great things.
Lowry says they also didn’t like the line on how the child she gave birth would deliver.
âIf I understand correctly, they do not believe that Mary needed the forgiveness of sins, that she was born without sin. I do not (believe). I believe she needed Jesus just like me.
The songwriter had entered a theological divide between most Protestants and Catholics – and the special status the latter give him.
The Catholic Church teaches, for example, it was sinless, says Father James Heft, a professor of religion at USC and founder and president emeritus of the university’s Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies. But, adds Heft, “she needs to be saved by Jesus like anyone else.”
Catholics (as well as Orthodox Christians and a handful of Protestants) also believe that Mary remained a virgin throughout her life.
“The perpetual virginity of Mary is not a declaration against the sexual life”, declares Heft, priest of the religious order of the Society of Mary. “It is best understood as a kind of recognition of the unique role of Jesus and of Mary’s dedication to it.”
The conversation turns to Our Lady of Guadalupe, the namesake created by a series of appearances allegedly made by Mary in December 1531 to a native of Mexico named Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin. Mary reportedly sent Juan Diego, a recently converted Catholic, to the local bishop to tell him that she wanted a church built on this site. The bishop didn’t believe her, so on her second appearance she imprinted a piece of evidence on her clothing: the now famous image of herself, framed in a bright light.
Heft credits Our Lady of Guadalupe with becoming a sense of identity for an entire country – and creating a special relationship with Hispanics around the world, including in San Diego.
But as Michael O’Neill “Miracle Hunter” will tell you, it wasn’t the only reported appearance of Mary – by far.
The record holder
Mary was a busy saint.
“In fact, it has been claimed that Mary appears more often than Jesus, angels or saints throughout history,” says O’Neill, a Stanford-trained engineer in Chicago who makes a living studying “mysteries and wonders. “of his Catholic faith. .
âI think people connect with Mary as a mother figure through humanity,â he suggests. “And I think these apparitions, thousands claimed throughout history and a smaller number officially recognized by the Catholic Church, show Mary as a loving mother and it shows her concern for children – enough to walk among us and intervene. with us throughout human history. “
O’Neill, whose radio and television programs – dubbed “The Miracle Hunter” – air weekly on the Catholic network EWTN, outlines how his appearances are tailored to each location. For example, Our Lady of Guadalupe, spoke as a native, while in her reported appearances in Rwanda in the 1980s, Our Lady of Kibeho (her appearances tend to collect accompanying names) remained for hours, because “culturally this would be expected of visitors.”
The vast majority are not on the Vatican’s list of trustworthy persons. The church, according to O’Neill, “is very reluctant to endorse these cases because there must be proof or moral certainty of a miracle.”
There is much less reluctance on the part of people.
âI think she’s played a huge role throughout history,â he says. âPeople have looked to her in times of war, famine and pestilence. “
Maria Del Socorro CastaÃ±eda got a glimpse of this role when she interviewed Latinas for her book “Our Lady of Daily Life: The Virgen de Guadalupe and the Catholic Imagination of Mexican Women in America”. She was not prepared for what she heard.
Profiles in courage
CastaÃ±eda, who wrote the book under his former married name, CastaÃ±eda-Liles, holds a doctorate in sociology and is a former assistant professor at the University of Santa Clara. She now runs “Becoming Mujeres”, co-founded with her teenage daughter to help Latinas turn cultural expectations into opportunities.
On Zoom from San Jose, CastaÃ±eda talks about two women she interviewed who turned to Our Lady of Guadalupe to fight violent husbands.
In one case, a mother had endured years of physical abuse until one day her husband became angry with their teenage daughter. She said that she had prayed to Our Lady of Guadalupe and that something miraculous had happened: she intervened between them and threw him to the ground.
âYou are talking about a man who weighed around 170 pounds and this woman was very short, around 4 feet 11 inches, and she was pregnant at the time,â says CastaÃ±eda.
Another woman woke up from a nap on the sofa to find blood covering her pregnant belly. Her husband stabbed her with a knife. âAll I had time to do was put my life and the lives of my children in the hands of Our Lady of Guadalupe,â said the woman who was carrying twins.
Suddenly she remembered the handgun she kept under the sofa for protection while her husband was at work. She told CastaÃ±eda: “I asked Our Lady of Guadalupe for strength and she gave me the strength to pull the trigger and I pulled her on.”
Mary was not a wise figurine tied to patriarchal submission. She was powerful, courageous. It was a theology of life in our real world.
CastaÃ±eda says: âWhat I have learned from them is that Our Lady of Guadalupe is not someone who teaches us to endure a situation, but calls – and I would say, demands – that they act accordingly. “
Today is the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. CastaÃ±eda, like other faithful, will pay homage to its parish church. (Among the many services here, Masses in Spanish and English at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Logan Heights began last night and continue until tonight.)
What inspires such devotion? She reads a passage about an older woman who, watching CastaÃ±eda mix the milk in her coffee, asks her to withdraw the milk.
âI looked at her and told her it was impossible because the coffee and the milk were mixed,â she reads. The woman replied in Spanish: âExactly, my dear. Mexico is like coffee and milk. You cannot separate Our Lady of Guadalupe from religion and culture. Everything is mixed up. “
Songs. Apparitions, Intercessions. And whether it arouses appreciation or adoration, its place in religious history is decidedly special. Maybe there is no Something about Marie. Perhaps this is all.
USC academic Heft recalls a conversation with someone who asked him what was so good about Mary.
âI said, ‘Well, she was the mother of God.’ It’s a little hard to beat.
Dolbee is the former religion and ethics editor of the San Diego Union-Tribune and former president of the Religion News Association. Email: [email protected]