Jesus' mother gains spiritual, iconic import
Saturday, August 12, 2006
NANCY HAUGHT The Oregonian
For Hollywood screenwriters, it's all about character. Even when you're writing about the mother of Jesus. "Character drives the story," says Mike Rich, the Portland screenwriter whose films include "Finding Forrester," "The Rookie" and "Radio." "All my movies follow ordinary people doing extraordinary things."
His latest, "The Nativity Story," recounts the circumstances of Jesus' birth, mostly through the eyes of his mother, Mary. Played by 16-year-old Keisha Castle-Hughes, the radiant heroine of "Whale Rider," Mary is extraordinary enough, according to the New Testament, that God chose her to bear his son. She also is ordinary enough, according to many Christians, that she is the shining example of how to live a life of faith.
As Rich worked on his screenplay, he says he thought about Mary's youth, her place in culture, her personal courage and her faith. She trusted in God, in Joseph and in the child she carried, he says. Another Mary -- Mary Magdalene -- has been queen of pop culture since Dan Brown wove her into his best-selling novel, "The Da Vinci Code." But interest in the Virgin Mary is growing again, even as the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches prepare to celebrate her Assumption into heaven or Dormition ("sleeping"). Both feasts are Tuesday.
Elaine Park, a professor of biblical studies at Mt. Angel Seminary in St. Benedict, sees a resurgence of interest in Mary, the mother of Jesus. In part, she says, it's because of Pope John Paul II and his habit of openly sharing his devotion to Mary and to the Rosary, a traditional set of prayers dedicated to her. His experiences appealed to a younger generation, hungry for the mystical comfort that he had found in her.
Older Catholics remember hymns and devotions that honored Mary as the Queen of Heaven, Queen of Peace or Our Lady of Sorrows. They have been reluctant to let go of their devotions even as, they say, the larger church has seemed to move away from Mary. Pilgrims continue to visit Marian shrines in staggering numbers. In 1999, more than 5 million people traveled to Lourdes in France and at least that many to Fatima in Portugal, according to a 2000 study. And Mary, who is revered in Islam as the mother of the prophet Jesus, has been finding her way into Protestant churches, too. In recent years, many non-Catholic Christians have reclaimed parts of her tradition that had once seemed too Catholic to consider. They remember her as a witness of Jesus' crucifixion, perhaps as one of the women who found the tomb empty on Easter morning. Many who saw the film "The Passion of the Christ" were touched by scenes of Mary remembering her son as a child.
Now Rich hopes that Mary will be the lens of faith through which families will see and appreciate the story of Jesus' birth. "Over time, Mary has become an iconic figure," Rich says. "I followed a kind of reverse process: taking Mary the icon and stepping back to Mary the woman and stepping back again to Mary the child."
That is similar to what the Catholic Church has done since the Second Vatican Council, Park says. The council's decision not to devote an entire document to Mary, but to include her in a broader document on the church, meant that for many Catholics, the church "lost" Mary, she says. Charlene Spretnak is a Catholic writer who agrees with all the decisions of Vatican II, "except the ones that radically de-emphasized the meaning and presence of the Virgin Mary." Spretnak, who teaches at the California Institute of Integral Studies, wrote "Missing Mary: The Queen of Heaven and her Re-Emergence in the Modern Church" (Palgrave McMillan, $14.95, 280 pages). She laments the loss of Marian statues from prominent places in churches and the disappearance of hymns and prayers from many modern liturgies. The result, she says, is "a sadly reduced female presence in Catholic worship." "Most importantly," she adds, "allowing only the historical, literal understanding of Mary, while denying the symbolic, cosmological, mystical sense of her full spiritual presence known to traditional Catholicism, reduces the range of our spiritual lives."
The loss of Mary's larger spiritual significance "has made the Catholic Church more rational and more modern but has left Catholicism less spiritually rich," she says. Park disagrees, arguing that an emphasis on the real flesh-and-blood Mary makes her more accessible to flesh-and-blood Christians. "In my own experience, I dropped my devotion to her for a time," she says. Mary seemed too perfect, too idealized for her to connect with. "But it has been renewed in recent years by coming to see her as a real person, a real woman who lived in concrete, historical circumstances, rather than looking at the art and glory that made her look so different and so beyond us." The circumstances of Mary's life speak to believers, she says. "She was a young woman who lived in Nazareth -- a small, insignificant, very poor village. She was a woman who had to deal with political oppression, poverty, uncertainty. "We easily forget one of the first times we see her in Scripture, going to visit her cousin Elizabeth. She is going to be there with another woman who is pregnant, who was much older, to be with her in loving support," Park says. "And our last image of her is in Acts of the Apostles, being there in the community before and during the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. She is present with all of us, people in need, people who are praying, people who are celebrating."
After months of research, writing and filming "The Nativity Story," Rich, from his Protestant perspective, sees Mary no longer as an icon but as an ordinary human being of extraordinary character. "Not much anymore in our lives is black and white," he says. "But this is a young woman who made a black-and-white decision: She was willing to have the faith to follow the most remarkable of directives."
Nancy Haught: 503-294-7625; email@example.com