Though a glass darkly – 31

Hail Mary, full of grace

I see that COVID restrictions in France have caused the cancellation of Lyon’s Fête des Lumières this year.  Normally the Festival is held each year on December 8th, the feast day of the Immaculate Conception.

Fête des Lumières, Lyon

Lyon thanks the Virgin for saving the city by lighting hundreds of candles which are placed in windows across the city. And there is a candle-lit procession from the Cathedral in the old town up the steep hill to the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière, a huge, vaguely Byzantine, 19th century church which dominates the city.  The festival gives thanks to the Virgin for saving the city of Lyon from the bubonic plague that swept across France in 1643. And for saving the city again from a cholera epidemic in 1832. And from the Prussian invasion in 1870. Or possibly just for ensuring victory over the socialists and in expiation of the sins of modern France.

When I was clearing out my collection of biblical commentaries, a few weeks ago, I came across a copy of Marina Warner’s book, Alone of all her sex: the myth and cult of the Virgin Mary. Warner was at Oxford at the same time as me; she was Editor of Isis, and I once saw her at a party, sitting on a sofa next to Emma Rothschild. They both looked classier and better-dressed than the rest of us. [Her grandfather, for those who need to know, was Sir Pelham ‘Plum’ Warner, captain of the England cricket team before the First World War, and thereafter an august and much respected member of the MCC. Jack Fingleton is scathing about his two-faced behaviour over the Bodyline controversy.]  Dame Marina Warner is not a cricketer. But she has eleven honorary degrees and is a respected academic and a wide-ranging cultural historian.

Alone of all her sex

Warner is from a Catholic background and confesses that invocation to the Virgin Mary marked out the days of her childhood. “On February 2, the feast of the Purification, we wore starched white veils of tulle that stood out around us like a nimbus … “. On the same day her school laid lilies at the Virgin’s statue. Warner created a grotto for prayer under a rhododendron bush. The Virgin was faithful and steadfast, but she demanded purity; which was most often understood as sexual chastity.

Alone of all her sex

This book does not pursue the historical Mary; of whom we know little. But it traces the evolution of the four Catholic dogma: her divine motherhood and her virginity, both proclaimed by early Councils of the Church; the immaculate conception, proclaimed in 1854; and her assumption, body and soul, into heaven, proclaimed  by Pope Pius XII in 1950. The book explores the aspects of her person and her cult. “Whether we regard the Virgin Mary as the most sublime and beautiful image of man’s struggle towards the good and the pure, or as the most pitiable product of ignorance and superstition, she represents a central theme in the history of western attitudes to women.”

Mary in the Gospels and in the Apocrypha

Our knowledge of Mary in Scripture is largely limited to the infancy narratives in Matthew and in Luke. Which Warner assumes to be later additions, and not historic. Thus Matthew’s gospel is a reworking of Old Testament themes with Jesus as the new Moses. “Luke’s infancy Gospel is the scriptural source for all the great mysteries of the Virgin”; she is at the centre of the Lucan narrative. Of the four declared dogmas, her divine motherhood, her virginity, her immaculate conception, and her bodily assumption into heaven, only the first can be attributed to Scripture. 

The myth of the Virgin owes much to two eastern, apocryphal books, Pseudo-Matthew and The Book of James. The eastern church received The Book of James as authentic. But it was not translated into Latin until the 16th century. Since when Mary’s mother, St Anne, has become a historical woman with an official cult; as late as 1954 Pope Pius XII was recommending pilgrimage to her shrine in Brittany. The book, and the subsequent apocryphal books which it influenced, focussed attention on the miraculous virginity of Mary; and thus played a crucial part in shaping the story of the Virgin Mary as we receive it today.

The Virgin Birth

In the pre-Christian Roman Empire virgin birth was a sign of a man’s divinity. Christians are worried about the parallel between Christ’s birth and the dozens of virgin births of classical mythology. Warner notes that Pythagoras, Plato, and Alexander were all believed to have been born of a woman by the intervention of a divine spirit. Catholic orthodoxy, e.g. the Council of Trent, continued to uphold the virginity of Mary both during and after the birth of Jesus. But the Second Vatican Council of 1964 refrained from proclaiming this as an article of faith. 

The belief that sexual intercourse was linked to original sin is the reason for the belief in the virgin birth. “The son of God chose to be born from a virgin mother because this was the only way a child could enter the world without sin.” From the 3rd century Christians retreated up the Nile valley to lives of solitude and abstinence. Augustine, Ambrose, and Jerome all equated chastity with holiness. 

The virgin martyr is one of Christianity’s enduring types. In Christian hagiography the sado-masochistic suffering of both male and female martyrs is startling. The female martyrs are assaulted in a variety of ingenious and often sexual ways.  Perhaps because virginity was associated with wholeness, and with power. Warner suggests that the nun’s vocation is both oppressive and liberating; founded in contempt of, yet inspiring respect for, the female sex. According to St Augustine, the marriage of Joseph and Mary, in which there was no sexual intercourse, was the model marriage; a relationship bound by a mutual vow of abstinence.

The Immaculate Conception

In December 1854 Pope Pius IX officially proclaimed the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary; the only human creature free of the taint of original sin.  In doing so he proclaimed as a dogma something that had been discussed since the 12th century. This doctrine is a significant barrier to the ecumenical movement; the Reformed churches recoil from the superhuman exaltation of Mary that the doctrine implies. [Quite right too !] The Immaculate Conception was anathema to the Reformers. But the Jesuits, founded in 1534, were particularly zealous in their teaching of the doctrine. When Pius IX proclaimed the doctrine in 1854, it was the culmination of a lengthy struggle within the Catholic Church. Four years later, Warner suggests [tongue in cheek ?],  the doctrine was ratified by the appearance of the Virgin at Lourdes.

The Assumption

The Feast of the Dormition arrived from the eastern church in the 7th century, and the name changes to ‘Assumption’ in 9th century liturgical calendars. Mary’s bodily translation into heaven inspired a host of Renaissance painters, notably Titian. The Catholic dogma of the Assumption was not proclaimed until 1950, when the announcement was made on a balcony at the Vatican and was greeted by thunderous applause from a crowd estimated at nearly a million. It was the climax of centuries of tradition. The underlying theological justification depends on the Christian equivalence between sex and death, and by extension between the Virgin’s purity and her freedom from the dissolution of the grave. At least, I think that is the argument.

A bit confused

I must confess that this book leaves me a bit confused. Warner’s scholarship is impressive. And her observations are backed up by a huge array of artistic and literary references. And she occasionally comes out with some striking phrases. In the conclusion she suggests that any goddess is better than no goddess at all; that “the sombre-suited masculine world of the Protestant religion is altogether too much like a gentleman’s club to which the ladies are only admitted on special days.” But that of course was before these days of woman priests and woman bishops.

Our Lady – Intercessor

The taxonomy is a bit confusing; the section headings – Virgin, Queen, Bride, Mother, and Intercessor – do not fit tidily with the four Catholic dogma. Which makes for quite a bit of repetition.  And there is this centuries-old hang-up about sex. Warner concedes, after a chapter on Dante, Beatrice, and the Virgin Mary: “sometimes this long and durable obsession with chastity perpetuated by the Church appears to be an incomprehensible attack of mass lunacy.”

A later chapter acknowledges that the one biological function allowed to the Virgin was that of suckling. In the Old Testament milk and honey are symbols of the promised land. Milk was a crucial metaphor for the gift of life. The Romans also connected milk with the heavens; Juno’s milk, when she was nursing Hercules, sprayed across the heavens to give us The Milky Way. Mary’s milk was an emanation from heaven; and St Bernard believed he had tasted it with his own lips. But as the Renaissance advanced so the image of the nursing Virgin waned in popularity. The wine Liebfraumilch is one of the reminders of this once common image of the Virgin’s lactation. I may never be able to drink German wine in the same way again.

Role models

The Church needed role models of sinners who repented. Clearly the Virgin was not eligible, as someone who was pure and without sin. So – this role was played by Mary Magdalene. For the Catholic church Mary Magdalene is the prototype of the penitent whore; who neatly combines Christianity’s fear  of women, its identification of physical beauty with temptation, and its practice of bodily mortification.  Warner summarises: “Together the Virgin and the Magdalene form a diptych of Christian patriarchy’s ideas of woman … there is no place in the conceptual architecture of Christian society for a single woman who is neither a virgin nor a whore”.

Update in 2013

Warner’s book was first published in the UK back in 1975. But there is a revised edition published a few years back by Oxford University Press. Writing in the Church Times in 2013, when the new edition appeared, Warner noted that the Virgin Mary continues to be loved and revered, invoked and depicted even well outside the sphere of the Roman Catholic church. Instead of being the figurehead of the long crusade against Communism, and the emblem of kings and Fascist dictators from Europe to Central and South America, she has evolved into a counter-cultural peace symbol. Warner sees links with the voodoo goddess Erzulie, or the candomblé (an African-originated or Afro-Brazilian religion) figure of Iemaja as distinct from the traditional Madonna. It isn’t that her myth has died – far from it; but it has changed with regard to its historic meanings, alliances, and effects.

The House of Mary in Ephesus

In 2013 Warner suggests that the miraculous virgin birth is now a less prominent issue. Instead ethical questions about the relations of Church and State, justice, equality of means, of women and children’s survival, and stewardship of nature – have crystallised around the traditional figure of Mary in her aspects as the Mother of Mercy, and advocate and protectress of the poor. And it is not only the self-professed faithful who find this Mary an inspiration. “It is a long time since I lost my faith in Mary”, she writes “…  but I find that the symbolism of mercy and love that her figure has traditionally expressed has migrated, and now shapes secular imagery and events. Roman Catholic worship and moral teaching no longer monopolise it, or control its significance.”


There was stuff here that was new to me. But I guess that I won’t be reading the book again.  The story of Mary has undoubtedly inspired artists and story-tellers down the centuries. And I think that her story, and that of Joseph too, can speak powerfully to us about collaborating with God in order that his purposes may. be fulfilled. And that the story can speak to us too about Christian parenting. But I find the whole emphasis on the virgin birth [and the immaculate conception too] distinctly unhelpful. Such dogma seems to me to totally undermine the real miracle of the incarnation, the  physicality and the earthiness of the Word made Flesh, Was it Selwyn Hughes who used to say that mud and blood were very close in the Bethlehem stable ?

December 2020

Published by europhilevicar

I am a retired vicar living on the south side of Edinburgh. I am a historian manqué, I worked in educational publishing for 20 years, and after ordination worked in churches in the Scottish Borders and then in Lyon in the Rhône-Alpes. I have a lovely and long-suffering wife, two children, and four delightful grand-children

2 thoughts on “Though a glass darkly – 31

  1. Thank you once again for a fascinating read! I shall never forget our vicar in blackheath getting into the pulpit that day in great fury when the assumption was made a dogma.! Probably wouldn’t have noticed it particularly otherwise. I always like to think of Jesus. having brothers and sisters… I do so enjoy your blogs. Love to you both. Virginia


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