Mary, The First Theologian


No theologian should have the temerity to rewrite revelation. It can’t be edited for two reasons. First, because we confess that revelation is divine in origin. The creature cannot correct the creator. Secondly, revelation can’t be redrafted because revelation is more than a text. It’s the living presence of God in the community that we call the Church. Indeed there would be no written text without the Church, ceaseless pondering in her heart the meaning of Emmanuel, God among us.

No theologian should have the temerity to rewrite revelation, but all good theologians reset it. One “resets” revelation by changing the community’s avenue of approach. This is done by asking new questions, bringing revelation to dialogue with new partners, or enlarging our understanding of the original reception of revelation.

And no one can stop this process. As it moves through time, revelation, the gift of a living God, resets itself. A theologian is someone who acknowledges this fact; a fundamentalist, of whatever denomination, ignores it.

In his new work The Infancy Narrativesa master theologian, Pope Benedict XVI, resets the stories of Christmas against the backdrop of inquiry that must have existed in the minds of the first believers. Benedict begins his work with a scene never associated with Christmas. In Saint John’s Gospel, Pilate asks Jesus, “Where are you from?” As the Pope points out, it’s the question that humans immediately ask when they try to understand the stranger, because, as creatures of history, we know that our stories make us who we are. That’s the impetus, says the Holy Father, behind the Christmas stories. He writes:

Jesus’ provenance is both known and unknown, seemingly easy to establish, and yet not exhaustively. In Caesarea Philippi, Jesus will ask his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?...Who do you say that I am?” (Mk 8:27ff). Who is Jesus? Where is he from? The two questions are inseparably

The four Gospels set out to answer these questions. They were written in order to supply an answer (4).

It is inexorable inquiry. We’ve watched it play out again in Newtown, Connecticut. First the event that astounds us and then, immediately in its wake, the need to comprehend the history that produced the protagonist: Who was this man? Tell us about his friends and family. Recount the salient details of his childhood.

Of course, we don’t do this only in the face of tragic evil, when despairing dispatch drives the inquiry. We do the same, more slowly and with greater satisfaction, when we write one more book about the boyhood of a hero like Jefferson, Lincoln, or Roosevelt. We want history to explain our humanity.

The animals around us are creatures of nature. Understand biology, and you know what to expect of them. We are creatures of history. Our stories seethe with an inexhaustible energy that cannot be predicted, which is why the only way to understand history is ceaselessly to question it. When we ask, “Who are you?” we mean, “Where do you come from? Tell us your story.”

Of course humans are also animals. As mammals, biology dictates that the first years of our existence — in the womb and out of it — will evidence a profound attachment to the mother. She is biologically and biographically the key that unlocks the human cipher. Of course, as creatures of history, we can challenge biology itself, but it remains to be seen whether we can ever fully rewrite it.

Benedict the theologian is versing us in the sole maxim history acknowledges: the only way to understand history is to question it. In this light, he helpfully resets the Christmas stories, back into their larger, resurrection frame: if this man rose from the dead, if death and sin have truly been conquered in his life, then we must know the origins of that life. We need to hear and to ponder. He asks:

[H]ow did Matthew and Luke come to know the story that they recount? What are their sources? As Joachim Gnilka rightly says, it is a evidently a matter of family traditions. Luke indicates from time to time that Mary, the Mother of Jesus, is herself one of his sources, especially when he says in 2:31 that “his mother kept all these things in her heart” (cf. Also 2:19). Only she could report the event of the annunciation, for which there were no human witnesses.

Naturally modern “critical” exegesis will tend to dismiss such connections as naive. But why should there not have been a tradition of this kind, preserved in the most intimate circle and theologically elaborated at the same time? Why should Luke have invented the statement about Mary keeping the words and events in her heart, if there were no concrete grounds for saying so? Why should he have spoken of her “pondering” over the words (Lk 2:19; cf. 1:29) if nothing was known of this? (16)

In the Gospel of Saint Luke, a theologian, a woman named Elizabeth, is given the grace to acknowledge what all the Church has come to profess. “Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled” (1:42-45).

Every Fourth Sunday of Advent, as the Church begins to ponder the mystery of Emmanuel — God in our midst— she naturally turns to the first disciple, the first believer, the woman of faith who “kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart” (Lk 2:19). She prayerfully pondered, and so must we. That’s why there is one more, humble title she should have. Mary, the first theologian.

Micah 5: 1-4a Hebrews 10: 5-10 Luke 1: 39-45

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