Hail, Mary

She was there at the Cross. Yet Protestants seldom talk about Jesus' mother at Easter — or at most other times. But they are starting to now

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Gaventa also focused on the Magnificat. At a minimum, the song would establish Mary as rhetorical heir to the Old Testament prophets, whose voice and social concerns it reflects. But Gaventa claims it makes the Virgin a prophet herself, both by her eloquence and in the enunciation of the idea that "in Jesus, God is overturning things as they are," which will be one of Christ's major subsequent themes. Scot McKnight, an evangelical moderate, has devoted a chapter of his own book, The Jesus Creed, to suggesting that the Magnificat contains "virtually every theme in Jesus' teaching and ministry." He imagines a kind of 1st century red-diaper baby: "I think she sang him to sleep with these kinds of songs and had a profound influence on him."

Gaventa's example has emboldened other writers. Her collection Blessed One: Protestant Perspectives on Mary (co-edited with Cynthia Rigby) presents a variety of feminist approaches. One slyly contrasts Mary's situation with the standard conservative concept of "family values," and another reinterprets the biblical refrain that "Mary kept these things to herself and pondered them" from a model of housewifely passivity into a deep mode of reflection and prayer specific to motherhood. A more conservative collection, Mary, Mother of God, edited by Braaten and Jenson, features several evangelical scholars striving to rehabilitate that Ephesian title. They believe Matthew and Luke fully support the description. But they also hope that calling Mary Mother of God reminds people that Jesus was God, refuting the modern tendency to see him as simply a wise man or teacher. Baptists, says George, should no longer fear common cause with conservative Catholics: "We face a common enemy-- secularism and radical pluralism and the demotion of Scripture."

Almost all the revisionists find Mary's presence at the Crucifixion inspiring in a way that their denominations seldom acknowledge. Without elaborating on the Gospel stories (as even Michelangelo's Pietà does, since the Bible doesn't mention Mary's reception of Jesus' body), they explore the late-medieval notion that Mary's excruciating presence during her son's death kept Christian witness intact almost single-handedly through its darkest moment. Some focus on the absence of most of the male disciples. "She's not just alongside the Apostles. She's ahead of the Apostles," says Braaten. Others are reconsidering Jesus' words from the Cross to his mother and John. Protestantism has traditionally rejected the Catholic interpretation that in naming Mary John's mother, Jesus transmuted her into the "mother of all believers." But readers like George think it equally strained to conclude that he was merely looking after Mary's extended care. "I think that John does to some extent represent the church and that the scene indicates that Mary is to be honored and given a kind of recognition in salvation history," he says. "And I don't think you have to be Roman Catholic to say it."

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