Monday, August 17, 2009

Mary and the language of symbol

So, this past Sunday was the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin. I took a non churchy friend of mine with me, because the service promised to be fairly spectacular. It's an ultra High kind of church, and this kind of feast day lends itself to an explosion of ceremony.

We had the usual bells, whistles, incense enough to choke on, white vestments. Did we stop there? No - we had a full orchestral Mass with 4 soloists singing the Haydn Missa in honorem Beatissimae Virginis Mariae, commonly known as the Grosse Orgelmesse. This was all followed by a fundraising lunch in the hall. (They don't do things in small measures in my church, I can tell you.)

But when my friend asked me, innocently, what it was we were celebrating - I had to pause for a moment or two. "The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary" - I answered brightly. She looked at me quizzically, waiting for the punch-line. "Er...", I stumbled on, "that is about when the Blessed Virgin Mary was assumed into heaven."

"Assumed"? she asked - "Who assumed? Did someone assume that is where she went?" Mercifully, at that point the priest started speaking - uncharacteristically, at the beginning of the service to say that one of the orchestra had an "episode" - (I think was the word he used) - and that explained the ambulance outside.

In his sermon, the priest started by drawing attention to the sheer oddity of the feast:

"When was the last time you saw a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon beneath her feet and on her head a crown of twelve stars? Not even in the Cape Quarter at New Year would you see such a sight, unless you were high on something. Yet this woman is the person whom we encounter in the Introit proper of today’s mass, which is quoting from the Revelation of St John the Divine: A woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and on her head a crown of twelve stars. With this language, strange and unworldly, we enter into the world of the apocalyptic.

An apocalyptic world view pushes us to edge of the symbolic world, a world where image defines a deeper reality and where flights of fantasy take us into a new world. It is a world of hopes, deeper than the power of the human imagination..."

Yes, indeed. This is the world of fantasy. It cannot be literal. It cannot be real. It is as camp as a row of pink tents! The word Apocalypsis in the Greek, means the act of revelation - but really, we have lost that ability, that apocalyptic ability these days. And it all just comes out weird, strange, extraordinary and... well ... colourful, to say the least!

Does that, or should that stop sensible people from going to Church? I am sure it is a barrier to some - and so be it. The stuff my children understand, like Bakugans - the strange things my six year old demanded for his birthday - is pretty opaque to me, I promise you. They inhabit, in many ways, as different a universe to mine, as mine is to that which clothes the Blessed Virgin Mary in moons and stars. It is just bits of a lost language. It meant something important once, and all we can get of it now, is a kind of feint residue - an echo - a mist.

Undoubtledly, motherhood is a powerful image. But we denude it of its essential value, if we simply accord it to all mothers. There are, after all, terrible mothers - mothers who don't give a damn; mothers who should be in jail; mothers who damage and hurt and destroy. Not all mothers are good.

The symbol of Mary points all of us - in the strange, curious imagery and iconography to another form - a perfect form, a form, if you like, taken appropriately into "heaven" (which is, of course, yet another symbol).

For Gay and Lesbian Christians, the symbol of Mary is one for those of us who are outsiders in a patriarchal (and heteronormative) church, where the phallus holds eternal sway. It speaks to the downtrodden, to the milked, to the millions of women in the world who are controlled by men - and by inference the millions of us who are controlled by heterosexuals. It is a powerful symbol. because it says - this is a picture of what could be, what should be.

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