Mary, the mother of Jesus, is hands-down one of the most fascinating people in all history. Praised and doubted, her integrity questioned not only in her own life time (Matthew 1:19) but also in ours, Christmas is the time of year when the Church ponders her the most. However, in a special pre-Christmas post, Sarah Degner Riveros shares with us levels of tragedy and depth that one too easily misses in the story of Mary – a depth that many would rather be ignored. Read, comment, and share friends.
Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor – “We Talk. We Listen.”
TW: virginity, rape, oppression
The last time I spoke in church was to read the Scriptures on Christmas Eve.
I was 20 years old. It was a service of Lessons and Carols. I was invited to read the part about going to Bethlehem to register with Mary, who was expecting a child, and the baby being born and laid in a manger, and the angels of the Lord appearing, and the shepherds being amazed. But when I got to the line “But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart,” my angry heart froze, my voice cracked and I started to lose it. There I was, the pastor’s kid, home from college on Christmas Eve, honored to have been chosen to read in a congregation where mostly male elders read the lessons, with hundreds of worshipers staring at me to finish the story of Jesus and his Mother.
My throat swelled up and my voice was tight. And I kept reading the lesson, but my voice was squeaky.
After church at dinner, my family asked me what happened. I looked up, and I choked again. I couldn’t talk about it. At the dinner table. At Christmas dinner. I’d just come home from a year in Spain where I’d experienced three sexual assaults, one in my dorm in Madrid; one in my apartment in Barcelona, and one in a parking garage, along with two punches to the head, and three forcible rapes, and two pregnancies and losses. I learned Spanish from some excellent teachers, I traveled around Europe, I experienced cultural immersion–but I paid for it with the bodily harm I endured. So I was still kind of angry. Angry at the men. Angry at sleep. Angry at the system. Angry at not having the words. Angry at patriarchy. Angry at what I could and couldn’t do. Angry at my body. Angry at God.
These memories and feelings emerged after reading a courageous article in the Washington Post by Rev. Ruth Everhart, exploring the relationship that the author has with the Virgin Mary’s cultural image as she grapples with the emotional aftermath of being raped at gunpoint. For me, reading her story brings up a lot of big feelings, and since I can’t afford counseling because of a high deductible, I’m writing so that I can get these feelings out and get some sleep. That was a difficult Christmas when I was 20, and for some reason this year, I keep flashing back to it.
For vulnerable bodies, there a high price to pay for being educated – take Eve who paid the price for the knowledge of good from evil. Sometimes there isn’t much choice in the matter – just ask Malintzin aka La Malinche, who, around 1519, was sold into slavery and used her Mayan and Nahuatl along with Spanish, serving as Hernán Cortés’ concubine and translator to broker colonization.
La Malinche embodied a bicultural identity that comes with the curse of never quite fitting in while belonging to everyone. Sometimes La Malinche symbolizes the Mother of the Mexican people, yet she is still blamed for betraying her people in the conquest of the Americas. But I’m sure the loss she actually felt was that of her own freedom. Did she know how their compounded traumas would play out over a lifetime and through history?
Mary, Eve, Malintzin, did you know?
That Christmas, having just returned from Spain and completed a Spanish major, I wanted God to redeem Spanish for me so that I could get a job, use my degree, and do something useful in the world. I prayed for that opportunity. That same Christmas break, I took the GRE and finished my applications for graduate schools to study Spanish literature. I also graduated from college, skipped commencement, and had an interview for my first full-time salaried job. In fact, that very day that I last read the Scripture in church, that same Christmas Eve afternoon, my dad’s friend stopped by the house to ask me if I wanted to work for his law firm in downtown Chicago. So it was kind of an emotional day since I was nervous about work and needed a job. He offered an interview at a civil rights law firm specializing in employment discrimination.
I got the job and spent 9 months answering phones in a class action sexual harassment case against some financial firms that had discriminated against women. Those companies had enabled wealthy men in power to do some very yucky things to women’s bodies, women’s ears, and women’s professional lives. I took the train downtown every day and took notes as women who were vice-presidents and financial advisers, who had fought hard for their careers, called in to detail their experiences with misogyny in the financial firms that are the crown of our nation’s capitalism.
But after 9 months of mostly taking a break from Spanish, I hadn’t given up on the humanities, nor on European and Spanish culture, so I moved to NYC and eventually wrote my dissertation about the Virgin Mary in the Middle Ages. I examined portrayals of parents and children and the Virgin Mary in the text and images of the Cantigas de Santa María by Alfonso X (King of Castile-Leon from 1252-1284). Alfonso gathered stories about the Virgin Mary to create an illustrated collection of songs in her honor. Her Holy Mother image in those medieval songs is the portrait of a loving advocate and defender of the people.
The Mary painted in the Cantigas wasn’t demure–she more like a badass community organizer, a pro bono human rights lawyer, a Jewish mother, a vigilante peacekeeper for orphan’s and widow’s rights. Santa María exhibited agency as she defended the weak by casting spells and slaying evildoers. She filled in during choir practices for a pregnant nun to cover for her as she hid her pregnancy, and she raised the baby for her. She went after the devil with the broom, she gave a skin disease to a guy who had slapped his mom, and she threw a child abuser into the fire. The 427 miracle songs are divided up like a rosary, with a formulaic song of praise punctuating every 10 stories. But the stories themselves are transgressive and earthshatteringly feminist, — or at least that’s how they seemed to a Lutheran rape survivor who had been raised in 1990s Texas purity culture.
Like Ruth Everhart, I have approached marriage and motherhood as acts of faith and as ways to redeem my experiences and to get back my trust in God who created the heavens and the earth and who formed me in the womb, and who let horrendous things happen to my body. I am in no emotional shape to be called into the ministry, but I admire her courage and willingness to serve, and to be open in speaking truth to the rape culture we have created.
It’s hard to write and to talk about virginity, sexual violence and gender-based abuse, especially as internet trolls prowl around like roaring lions. Like that 20-year-old me, my voice still cracks when I speak of these things. I continue to treasure up a lot of things and ponder them in my heart, but sometimes my heart feels like a chasm, the murky depths of the abyss, or heavy like a stone. To be honest, after the things that I have lived and seen, I like to keep it that way.
But sometimes during Advent, when I see Mary tilting her sweet head toward that tiny baby, I start to cry. And now, this Advent, I am back in the same emotional place.
The pregnancies I lost would have been 19 year old college kids this year, the same age that I was when I was raped, and my heart holds space for them, even as I hold myself together for my children and my students.And when I see how we treat refugees, and pregnant teenagers, and babies born in poverty, the rage still chokes me and I scream at God to rend the heavens and come down to earth.
Rend the heavens and come down – and God sends us angels disguised as refugees who knock at our door seeking a warm shelter for the night. Rape survivors know like no one else that staying alive requires learning again how to trust strangers, and how to believe and be believed by family and friends.
God rends the heavens and shows up late at night in homeless shelters, on busses in the city, on rape crisis hotlines, in nursing homes, on street corners, in prison cells–in places where virginity isn’t touted or even mentioned. God hangs out in places that the mighty and powerful have forgotten.
God enters the world through the open hearts of the poor when, amid terror and evil, we trust each other, we lean on each other, and we hold sacred space in our hearts for God to still be present when it all hurts.
Sarah Degner Riveros lives with her family in Minnesota where she writes, mothers children, raises chickens, and teaches Spanish.