In the Roman Catholic tradition, we celebrate the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God on January 1st. While looking around for possible greetings and materials for the new year, it occurred to me that perhaps this can also be an opportunity to share some insights on religion, art, history, and perhaps religious education and international relations.
Earlier, I was going through some readings and resources available on the Harvard Library system. I stumbled upon a mid-14th century manuscript collection named Meditationes vitae Christi, that is part of the digital images collection of the Harvard Fine Arts Library. In it are several pages of great artwork, reflective of the environment and times of Italy in the 1300s. We must note, however, that the 1350s were trying times for Europe as the black death wiped out a third of the population.
One page caught my attention. It showcased the circumcision of the Christ child, with Mary, His mother, performing the act while St Joseph watches on.
The last part of the Gospel reading for today reads:
When eight days were completed for his circumcision, he was named Jesus, the name given him by the angel before he was conceived in the womb. (Lk 2:16-21)
Perhaps this is the right scene for today!
What struck me with this image is that traditionally among the Jews, a mohel (מוֹהֵל), who’s more often than not a rabbi, is the one tasked to perform the circumcision. Biblically, the father of the infant is the one that performs the act. However, often case, the father is not comfortable doing it so he designates a mohel to do it.
In this image, however, it is Mary, Jesus’ mom, who does it. This image begs us to ask: Who is Mary? How and why was she enabled to perform the act of circumcision, one of the highest Jewish rituals as prescribed in the Torah, on no less than the Son of God?
Perhaps this tells us a lot. From a religious and theological perspective, Saint Pope John XXIII hails Mary as the star of morning, the gate of heaven. That is, we Catholics see Mary as someone completely human, yet able to be in constant communion with God. In a sense, she enables us to make God more reachable. The image above further expounds on this with the Lord being circumcised — something that’s ultimately human both for Jesus and for Mary. With this image of Mary, we see her as most bright a light who can guide us, lead us and become a gateway to Christ. This reminds me of an old adage — to court someone, be sure to court his/her mom!
On a more social perspective, over the years, this notion of Mary has extended globally. National Geographic recently hailed Mary as the world’s most powerful woman. Mary’s standing and influence transcends religions. In Islam, for instance, Mary is mentioned as a righteous woman in the Quran, and is the only woman mentioned by name in the said holy book. In fact, she’s given the titles Sai’mah, Mustafiah, Rāki’ah, Sājidah,Qānitah, Siddiqah, Tāhirah (Virgin, The Purified, The Exalted, Mother of Isa, Keeper of Chastity, Mystic, Female Exemplar, Maternal Heroine, Queen of the Saints). We later see Mary as the first teacher of the Teacher, who also teaches us through her ways.
As Mary, her image, her identity, and what she stands for, becomes even more pervasive in an increasingly globalized society, perhaps she is able to enable everyone in the world to realize the position of mothers, the value of mothers, and ultimately, the value and the dignity of women.
The image above is a derivative work from a secured image of the Harvard University Study Collection of Digital Images care of the Harvard Fine Arts Library. The original physical source is at the Bibliothèque nationale, Paris, France Ms. ital. 115. This post is for exclusive noncommercial educational purposes under fair use.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.