Christmas and Mary

1 And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars: 2 And she being with child cried, travailing in birth, and pained to be delivered.

3 And there appeared another wonder in heaven; and behold a great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his heads. 4 And his tail drew the third part of the stars of heaven, and did cast them to the earth: and the dragon stood before the woman which was ready to be delivered, for to devour her child as soon as it was born.

5 And she brought forth a man child, who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron: and her child was caught up unto God, and to his throne. 6 And the woman fled into the wilderness, where she hath a place prepared of God, that they should feed her there a thousand two hundred and threescore days. Revelation 12:1-6

This is the less well-known version of the story of the birth of Jesus Christ in the New Testament. One of the reasons that it is less spoken about is because it is wrapped in mythological language. The story begins with the familiar elements of a pregnant woman, whose child is threatened after it is born. The child is prophesied to rule over all the nations, both Jew and Gentile. He is finally taken up to God and the woman is cared for.

Though there are valid alternative interpretations, the characters are more or less transparent as an account of Jesus’ birth. Mary is the woman and Jesus is the child. The dragon, which elsewhere figures as the Roman Empire, threatens Jesus using its vassals, either through Herod the Great in his infancy or through the high priesthood at the end of his life.

The text describes Mary as clothed with the sun, standing on the moon, with a zodiacal crown of stars. We know from ancient material evidence that this was very similar to the costume of the Hellenized Egyptian goddess Isis. (Isis wears the crowned moon on her head, instead of her feet.) Isis too is miraculously impregnated by a God (long story) and gives birth to the living King, Horus. She also must flee the dragon Typhon who persecutes her and her child.

In the iconography, Horus is depicted as a small child sitting in her lap, sometimes nursing. The image should be familiar to those who have seen the images of Mary and Child in Christian art. In the surviving documents about Isis, she is described as the foundation to the creation and ruler of the universe. Such a comparison between Mary and Isis is not without significance.

Isis and Horus
Isis lactans

In recent decades, some have debated the agency of Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ. They have questioned the view of women in such an account where the silent, submissive women is used to produce children without her consent. One gets the impression that Mary’s body is simply a tool of God. Such a situation is most evident in Matthew where Mary’s voice is completely absent. Yet such a view of Mary as the passive agent who has no will is resisted by Luke, who suggests that Mary accepts the call as a prophet when she announces, “Behold, I am a servant of the Lord.” (Luke 1:38). In other instances, Mary is so important that she is known by name to the prophets of the Book of Mormon, among a handful of prophetically named persons and the only woman.

Mary’s role is not often emphasized by Latter-day Saints for various theological and historical reasons. These scriptural images of Mary tell a different story about her crucial role in the plan, compared to a goddess and prophet. This Christmas season, let us not only remember Christ, but his mother Mary, and the cooperative role of both men and women in bringing salvation into the world.

10 Replies to “Christmas and Mary”

  1. “One gets the impression that Mary’s body is simply a tool of God.”

    I have been wondering whether the passive role given to Mary is part of the removal of women from importantance in the bible that took place over time.

    Your post makes me think of the popular Christmas song “Mary did you know?” It treats her as being a clueless character in an important story. Yet, the Bible itself says that she was visiting by heavenly messengers.

  2. Question for my bible dork friends:

    Is it possible that referrences to Mary as a virgin have more to her being a young first time mother rather than actully being a virgin? I think that the virgin idea seems rooted in the belief that sex makes one no longer pure and therefore the Christ could only be born to a Virgin. I reject that concept of sexuality and therefore am having trouble buying the virgin birth idea, largely because I do not view it as needed.

  3. Thanks Matt for the link!

    I think that the question of “time” or “development” are not quite the best way to think about this issue of Mary’s virginity. The problem is that we just don’t know. Instead, we can speak of different traditions that are more or less contemporary. Luke and Matthew seem to speak of the virgin birth independently since the stories are so different, but her virginity is an important element in both. No other NT text mentions it, and if I am right that this Rev passage is a reference to the birth narrative, virginity is not an important element at all. So, when we see the theme of virginity, it is always in terms of her sexual status, not her youth. However, this theme is not important in other contexts.

  4. OK, thanks. This is what happens when ones biblical studies is more Davinci Code than ancient studies. I am now back to politics. I appreciate your response and expertise.

  5. “…among a handful of prophetically named persons and the only woman.”

    Aren’t Eve and Sarah (Abraham’s wife) prophetically named in the Book of Mormon?

    (They are made known to the Nephites by their scriptures, which is sort of prophetic, but perhaps not the kind you were talking about.)

    Thanks for the interesting post!

  6. I wonder if Mormonism actually does devalue the role of Mary. I think there is a worry about elevating her too much, as some see Catholics doing. Thus there’s a reaction the other way.

    Yet at the same time look at 19th century LDS writings who see Mary married to God the Father. Further there is this image of the mythic of Eve in how Mormons see Mary. Perhaps more during the era when Brigham Young’s theology was still prominent.

    Now today there’s this oddity, perhaps due to skepticism and worry about feminism and our repression of BY’s speculations on Adam and Eve theologically. The female divine is on the one hand tremendously important to us while on the other little is revealed the the tendency in the past to move beyond revelation (which is how the modern Church views BY’s A/G theory) is seen as dangerous. There’s this weird tension that perhaps applies to Mary as well.

    BTW – the Revelation passage is interesting since I think it’s a symbol with multiple layers. That is the woman isn’t just Mary but also the Church.

    Also compare Rev 12 with 1 Ne 11. There are some who see the two visions as tied together in some ways. Yet I think 1 Ne 11 is one of the more important texts in Mormonism. The tree of life vision of Lehi/Nephi tends to have a great place in our thought. The really weird bit in 1 Ne 11 is the tying together of Mary and the tree. Nephi sees the beautiful fair tree and asks for an explanation and what does he get? A vision of Mary who is also described as fair and white. I notice that when this gets described the connection between Mary/Jesus and the Tree/Fruit doesn’t get mentioned even though the one vision is the explanation of the other vision. Further the connections to Rev 12 get missed a lot as well.

    Great post.

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