(Warning: This may be the most personal post yet. Don’t worry, I won’t take it too seriously.) Recently I signed up for a class titled Great Religious Art: From Sacred to Spiritual. It would not be possible for me to pass up a class with that kick-ass title. It’s got art! It’s got religion! It’s got a professor who drinks wine in class (not joking)! It’s about to have a student who drinks wine in class (that’s me)! In the class we have discussed Medieval and Renaissance Christian art. The Virgin Mary plays a huge role in art during both those time periods in Europe. She was kind of the Kim Kardashian of religious art and the Catholic Church was like Us magazine, providing a glimpse of her daily. (Be aware, I am in no way comparing KK to the mother of the Lord; I am merely saying her image was prolific.) While the stiff Mary and Christ child of the Byzantine style gave way to more naturalistic figures in the Renaissance, another element was added. That element was narrative.
The Annunciation story from the Golden Legend was a subject of many artists in the Renaissance. The tale is told like this: the Virgin Mary is reading at home when the archangel Gabriel comes to tell her that she will be carrying the savior. Actually, she is asked if she would carry Jesus. Knowing how Old Testament God was into smiting and because she was very devout, Mary said yes. In many visual depictions of the Annunciation, there is a golden line going from the sky into Mary during the event. In a way, God made Mary both a surrogate and adoptive mother. She was somewhat a surrogate mother in terms of giving birth to a child for someone who couldn’t and she was also an adoptive mother because she knew Jesus was not hers alone; in a way, she was raising her son for mankind as well. The Virgin Mary and Marian iconography have always fascinated me. Mary represents mothers- not just mothers but especially strong mothers. She took on the job of carrying the Savior and of birthing him in a not so ideal locale. She brought him to temple to be taught while also raising Jesus’ siblings. She kneeled at the cross and even helped take him off it after he died. But none of this was a surprise to Mary; according to the legend, Gabriel revealed to Mary the entire story of her son, including his death.
This makes me wonder a few things. Did Mary know the full impact of what Christ’s death would mean? How did she mentally prepare for the massive responsibility on her shoulders? Did Mary tell Joseph about the coming savior immediately after Gabriel returned to God or was Joseph alerted to Jesus’ status when the newborn’s halo blinded him at birth? The image of Mary as a sort of surrogate and yet also as a parent of an “adopted” child stuck in my head after class. Having a child for someone else can be especially tough; I have firsthand experience with this. Sixteen years ago, I had a baby girl who I put up for adoption and it was the single most conflicting decision I have ever made in my life. My age was 21; my mentality was 13. I knew I couldn’t handle the responsibility of motherhood. The adoption was a closed one so I was forced to wonder every day what was happening to that little girl. Was she happy? What kind of home did she go to? Would she grow up to resent me? The not knowing about her life was so tough. Needless to say, there was a brief period after the adoption that I believe psychologists would call “self-destructive behavior.” I called it “bar hopping.” I started to get my life back in order when I met my husband, who helped me see the adoption not as a failure on my part as a mother but as a blessing to another family. The little girl was around 3 years old when I married Mark and I often caught myself wondering if maybe I should have just toughed it out for those years and raised her the best way that I could as a single mom. This would be coupled with the guilty thought of: “What if I had kept her? What if her parents never got a baby because they gave up waiting when she should have gone to two people ready for the responsibility of a child?” The good news is that two years ago, her parents found me on Facebook. And I am enjoying motherhood with my two little ones now that I am a (hopefully) more wise and mature woman. Her parents are wonderful and she is an incredible person with an amazing future ahead of her. (There is a great story with how she got my name to contact me, but I need to wrap up this blog.) I guess sometimes when I look at the Virgin Mary I think of a woman who raised a child, a child not fully her own but one for her and the world. And I thank God for those who are willing to take care of a child who needs a home- whether that is through birthing, adopting, fostering, or even mentoring.
Parenting is never easy, even when the chances of your child being crucified by religious and political leaders are pretty slim.
Here are some paintings of the Annunciation: