Mary of Nazareth: archetype for our time

March 19, 2019

These recent weeks of reflecting on Jean Houston’s teachings about Archetypes may have awakened memories for us, shaken free long-forgotten thoughts and experiences in our lives. This morning, as I considered how we might continue our exploration, I suddenly remembered a day when I was perhaps eleven years old.

Each afternoon, walking home from school, I passed our parish church. On this day, I was drawn to go inside, as I sometimes did. I remember glancing at the green-robed marble statue of Mary, standing to the left side of the altar. Her stonewhite face was shuttered, her eyes downcast. The statue radiated coldness. Though I did not understand what her title of “Virgin” signified, I associated the word with an absence of what I longed for most in my life: warmth, caring, love.

 I turned away from the statue, and noticed a small booklet on the bench where I was sitting. It contained the Scripture readings for the Sundays of each month, with reflections. On the inside front cover, someone had written of Mary, creatively presenting ideas in the form of a letter as though it had been written by her. I have now no memory of the letter’s content. Perhaps I did not even read it. I was transfixed by the words at the end, “Your Loving Mother Mary.”

In that instant, my life shifted. A loving presence entered into my existence and has never left me.

As Jean has written, “Whenever they move into our awareness, both personally and collectively, archetypes and the old and new stories that they bring with them announce a time of change and deepening.”

Sanctuary of Isis on the island of Philae in Egypt

To grasp the true significance of Mary as Archetype, come with me now to the tiny sanctuary dedicated to Isis on the Island of Philae in the Nile River. Crowded into a space never meant for a group as large as ours, stand here with the other travellers on this spiritual journey to Egypt, led by Jean Houston.

Listen now to the words Jean is reading from the writings of Apuleius, a second century Roman, not a Christian. In the story, a hapless magician named Lucius has cried out to the goddess for help. Isis responds.

 The way the Sacred One identifies herself to Lucius may startle you:

“I, the natural mother of all life, the mistress of the elements, the first child of time, the supreme divinity…. I, whose single godhead is venerated all over the earth under manifold forms, varying rites, and changing names…

 “Behold, I am come to you in your calamity. I am come with solace and aid. Away then with tears. Cease to moan. Send sorrow packing. Soon through my providence shall the sun of your salvation rise. Hearken therefore with care unto what I bid. Eternal religion has dedicated to me the day which will be born from the womb of this present darkness.”

After the reading, listen as we call out all the names by which we have known the Sacred Feminine. Listen as voice after voice calls out wonderful names. Many of these names are familiar to you, titles you may have learned as a child, referring to Mary: Mystical Rose. Tower of Ivory. Gate of Heaven. My own voice calls out: Star of the Sea. Jean’s voice, strong, certain, proclaims: “Mary in all her forms.”

The human heart longs for a divine mothering presence. Ancient cultures honoured a feminine divine who over millennia was called by many names: Isis in Egypt; Inanna in Sumeria; Ishtar in Babylon; Athena, Hera and Demeter in Greece, Anu or Danu among the ancient Celts; Durga, Kali and Lakshmi in India; for the Kabbalists, Shekinah; for the gnostics, Sophia or Divine Wisdom.

In the early centuries of Christianity, Mary of Nazareth became an Archetype of a Loving Mother. Christianity had no “Mother God” to put in the place of the Goddesses whose worship it was determined to eradicate. In his book The Virgin, Geoffrey Ashe writes of his theory that Mary’s gradual ascension in Christianity was not an initiative of Church Leadership, but rather a response to the hunger of the early Christians for a sacred feminine presence.

Mary became for Christianity a portal for that sacred presence. Or, put another way, a sacred presence responded to the cries of her people when they called her “Mary”, just as that presence had responded over the millennia to other names cried out in love or sorrow or desperate need.

And yet, before any of that happened, Mary, a young woman living in Nazareth, a town despised in Israel, was already a luminous presence who made a choice to say “yes” to a call that held mystery, uncertainty, unimaginable risk, a call to mother a child with a love that would ask of her everything.

When we first meet Mary in the Gospels, she is being offered that invitation. The Christian calendar assigns a day to honour her acceptance: March 25th, Feast of the Annunciation.

Here is how John O’Donohue imagines the scene:

Cast from afar before the stones were born

And rain had rinsed the darkness for colour,

The words have waited for the hunger in her

To become the silence where they could form.

The day’s last light frames her by the window,

A young woman with distance in her gaze,

She could never imagine the surprise

That is hovering over her life now.

The sentence awakens like a raven,

Fluttering and dark, opening her heart

To nest the voice that first whispered the earth

From dream into wind, stone, sky and ocean.

She offers to mother the shadow’s child;

Her untouched life becoming wild inside.

Where does our story touch Mary’s? Where are the meeting points? What are the words waiting for the hunger in us “to become the silence where they could form”? This might be a question to ask of our hearts. Will they also become a nest for a new birthing of the Holy? The urgent needs of our time require a “yes” to the conception, followed by the birthing, of newness.

Mary’s story gives us the courage to say “yes” without knowing where that “yes” may lead. It is enough to know that certainly our own life will become, like Mary’s, “wild inside”. Mary comes as Archetype to each one of us who carries the Holy within us, seeking a place of birth. We walk the dark road, with Mary, in trust. We walk companioned by one who knows our struggles to maintain our trust in the face of inner doubts and outer calamity. We walk with one who loves us and encourages us, prepares us, to welcome “the day which will be born from the womb of this present darkness.”

2 thoughts on “Mary of Nazareth: archetype for our time”

  1. Mary has touched my life too even though I am not a practicing Christian. It was when I was an adult. In 2012 I travelled in Turkey. One place I went was Mary’s House on the mountain top above Ephesus – the place St John is said to have taken her after the crucifixion. It is a place of pilgrimage for many people and there is a prayer wall where you can write your prayer and pock it into the wall. I knew I had to stop travelling sometime soon and return to Australia but I didn’t know where I was going to live. I wrote a prayer for a home. When I came back to Australia I was drawn to visit an area I knew only slightly. The place really appealed to me and I quickly found a little cottage which gave me refuge for a couple of years while I established myself back in Australia.

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  2. AK, this is a deep and engaging reflection. I feel pulled in, echoes of what you write about here sounding in a deep part of my own being. Thank you. I will continue to be receptive to what this awakens in me, as you did when a child, recognizing Mary for the first time…

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