The Virgin Mary, or, Awkward Conversations After Mass

Last night, besides New Year’s Eve, was also the vigil of Mary, Mother of God. Mass was over, as was our rousing piano-accompanied recessional of “Hail, Holy Queen Enthroned Above.” I was dropping my missal in the rack, preparing to give myself a glancing blow with the holy water and depart via the side door.

An elderly woman stopped me. She is the one who invariably sits three or four rows ahead of me–while Catholics no longer rent pews, it seems we surely do own them–and who always insists on a bear hug, even though I barely know her name and she thinks mine is Jeff.

“Can I ask you a question?” she said. “Maybe you know and maybe you don’t.” I said shoot.

Seeing as it was a feast of Mary, and seeing also as she’d only been Catholic for a year and maybe didn’t know these things, and further seeing as how the church teaches Mary is a perpetual virgin–correct? Yes, I nodded, that’s the official teaching–she wanted to know why Jesus has siblings.

Her face was very intent and very concerned.

Well. Yes. Sooner or later you discover those inconvenient parts of the New Testament in which James, the “brother of the Lord,” is running church business in Jerusalem, and in which Jesus’ “brothers”–and his mother for that matter–want to bundle him up and take him home because with all his yammering about the kingdom they’re sure he’s lost it.

I kept nodding. I once suspected I’d end up a priest, and I noticed that priests nodded a great deal in conversations like these, and so I picked up the habit. And then, in my Authoritative Priestly Voice–the one I thought went away at the end of high school with my long hair and unfashionable glasses, but apparently not–I explained that some scholars said the Greek word for “brother” could also mean “cousin.” (That is, however, a stretch.)

I also uttered something about how in all the iconography Joseph is a middle-aged and even old man. So perhaps he was a widower and these were Jesus’ half-siblings from his first marriage.

The woman seemed somewhat satisfied. But not totally. “I’m not asking about Mary’s virginity because I have a dirty mind,” she emphasized. “But I’m seventy-one. I’m a great-grandmother. I’m not naive.” And when you’re not naive, you notice the word “brothers.” You remember how “brothers” are made.

We said Happy New Year and took our leave. I wasn’t satisfied either. I hadn’t said a word I wanted to say.

In theology classes in college, I was taught that infancy narratives were, in the ancient world, a genre. They weren’t about being literal. And so the stories of Mary and Gabriel and being “found with child through the Holy Spirit” likely weren’t either. They were a way of saying Jesus wasn’t quite like the other kids, and not quite like the rest of us either.

The four Gospels, I wanted to say, were not about fact, but truth. The writers believed in the truth of Jesus as Messiah, Son of God, Savior–with John, out of the four, having the most exalted interpretation of Jesus’ identity–and then they built their narratives to make the point. They did not practice modern journalism and history-writing and would have found them odd.

Then, of course, there’s my admitted social and theological liberalism, which is irked that virginity–whether Mary’s or anybody else’s–still has mysterious power to make or break one’s relationship to the faith and the church. And this I was especially careful to not say.

As I walked through the snowy parking lot to my car, I wondered at my timidity. When I write about faith, I’m upfront. Maybe a little too much. Yet in person, not so much, and sometimes not at all.

Driving home, I found myself constructing a Latin sentence in my head. Noli turbare fidem. “Don’t you disturb their faith.”


Later, I pulled out a book I read about two-and-a-half years ago, seeking one of the many passages from many books that I keep on thumbnail reference in my head. It is from A Church of Her Own by Sarah Sentilles:

One of the challenges faced by recent divinity school graduates–and the communities they serve–is the disjunction between the theology they learn in school and the theology being preached in and professed by churches. There is a vast difference between what denominations claim as official doctrine and what students learn in graduate school. In many master’s programs, students are encouraged to think to the edge of things, to question fundamental beliefs, to critique theological concepts, to recognize the effects of their theological constructs, to challenge the symbols and stories of their traditions. This critical work is understood as part of faith, not separate from it. Many church communities have not been encouraged to do the same. With lazy preaching and simplistic adult and children’s education programs, we have done our congregations a disservice. Many congregations can handle–in fact they crave–complicated, challenging theology. This is not easy work. Challenging people’s long-held beliefs–and having one’s own challenged–can be frightening, uncomfortable, even devastating.

I only have a bachelor’s degree and two graduate hours, but this has described my experience for years and years.

Yet when I’m interacting on a face-to-face level, when I don’t really know you and you don’t really know me (“It’s Jeff, right?”), I incline much less toward “they crave challenging theology” and much more toward “challenging beliefs is devastating.” I was born Catholic. I had a thirty-year journey to get to my own peculiar place. My interlocutor only recently went through RCIA. She found Catholicism appealing at a time when our main P.R. person was Pope Benedict XVI. I don’t know, not yet, what need the official teachings fulfill in her life, why she needs our structure and not some other.

And so, quite unexpectedly for me, I found myself asking: “What would Ratzinger do?”

Noli turbare fidem.

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