by Fr Martin Sirju, Vicar General
Some of the titles which describe Mary are “virgin most pure”, “virgin most chaste”, “mother inviolate”, “mother undefiled” etc. ‘Virgin’ itself abounds with associations of the pure and untouched above all else, or as Woodsworth put it—“tainted nature’s solitary boast”.
This emphasis on the perfection and holiness of Mary is quite understandable from a certain point of view. The purity and sinlessness of the Mother of Jesus is attested in both East and West.
When people go on pilgrimage they bring back statues of Mary—beautiful, petite or large, unblemished, with well-defined features that evoke perfection. This is quite natural—people need exemplars, saints, who can convince them that a life not dominated by sin is possible.
Her shrines are usually well kept and clean in keeping with the saying “cleanliness is next to godliness”. In Siparia, La Divin’s offering table is cleaned every day, wilted flowers and their droppings thrown away, pieces of paper removed.
Inside the shrine the flowers are also changed regularly since most of them are fresh flowers. Even though in an air conditioned room, the dress of La Divin is changed regularly since dust, unseen to the naked eye, settles and the dress must be laundered from time to time. I’m sure these apply to other Marian shrines as well whether locally, regionally or internationally.
At the same time, an argument must be made for a dirty Mary; not a Mary dirtied by sin personally, but dirtied by the ‘sin of the world’. We recently completed the 100th anniversary of the Marian apparition and little details of the 1917 apparitions at Fatima are very important.
Mary appeared to poor children, as she often does, whose lives were surrounded by goats, sheep and donkeys. Poor children are often dirty, as vividly portrayed either in movies or news reports.
In his wonderfully reflective book filled with gems of ancient Christian history, Jesus – A Pilgrimage, James Martin, speaks of Stone and Dung, Oil and Spit, a book by Jodi Magness, an archaeologist and professor of early Judaism who remarks that westerners tend to view the ancient world through a “highly sanitised lens”.
He writes: “In even the most sophisticated cities conditions were ‘filthy, malodorous and unhealthy’.” Nazareth being a “backwater of a backwater” made things there even worse.
Historical Jesus scholars John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan Reed sum up conditions in Nazareth: “Most skeletal remains predictably show iron and protein deficiencies, and most had severe arthritis. A case of the flu, a bad cold or an abscessed tooth could kill.”
The pristine, neat, clean representations of the Holy Family are a far cry from the historical reality. And if Luke’s emphasis in the Magnificat on Mary as a woman of justice is to be taken seriously, she must have often been a dirtied woman as she got herself involved in the daily sufferings of poor, dirty villagers who hardly lived beyond their 30s.
Martin also notes that Gehenna, a word used by Jesus to symbolise hell, was really a place where the large piles of rubbish were burnt. We can therefore argue for a Slumdog Mary or Our Lady of the Dumps in relation to the Beetham.
The Lourdes story also gives us some interesting details. The place where Mary appeared to Bernadette was near a rubbish dump of sort. Pigs often rummaged through the garbage there. What would Jews or Muslims think about this young Jewish maiden appearing in the vicinity of pigs—an animal Mosaic law forbids them to eat?
Furthermore, Our Lady asked Bernadette to scrape through the mud and grass in order to drink of the water that would eventually emerge pure. Would you put your mouth to the ground in an area where pigs are known to gather to shelter the cold?
The ever-popular biblical genre of paradox comes to mind. We are to enter into what is dirty, smelly, muddy, cold and bring forth what is clean, fragrant, clear and warm, personally and socially.
Here “Golgotha”— “the place of the skull”—is potent with Marian symbolism. From the point of view of the synoptics Mary was nowhere near the cross of Christ. Not so in John, that gospel of paradoxical imagery.
In John, Mary enters the ‘place of the skull’, the burial grounds of the tortured innocent, to receive the dead body of her son. Since crucifixion was a common form of punishment in Roman times, including for non-capital crimes, it is hardly likely the bodies of Jesus and the two thieves were the only ones there. There must have been skulls strewn all over the place.
According to Crossan, it was quite common for the Romans to leave the bodies on the crosses until they rotted and fell down. Amidst that stinking and haunting scent of death and skulls Mary came to receive her son.
The paradoxical imagery applies to the body of Jesus as well—dead, dirty, scared and broken, yet it yielded forth life—blood and water—the font of sacramental life in the Church, the sacramental well that refreshes humanity.
This Marian and Christic redemptive mystery shows up the ignorance and vanity of world leaders and all who think like them. They need to be taught Mother and Son, the pure and the holy, are quite at home in the “s***holes” of the world.