Palms

I have had a couple of really interesting and divergent thoughts about palms this week. To me, they have only ever been symbolic of two things: Palm Sunday hosannas and the beach.

This morning was all about the palms of Holy Week. Our Sunday morning service started outside with (mostly) children waving palm fronds up in the air. There was the annual whispered warning from parents that palms fronds are not swords – although as the story of Holy Week unfolds we find that, indeed, they are. Palms held up in praise and welcome are soon fists in the air. While you are marching in the Palm Sunday parade, it is easy to get caught up in the celebration; but before you know it you end up at the courthouse calling for blood.

A pile of palms

And then there is this: Before Holy Week even started, I had become part of a discussion about palms in a completely different context. With a group of women – half of us Muslim, half Christian – I have been  learning about Mary/Maryam in the Quran. The mother of Jesus is highly revered in Islam and is, in fact, the only woman referred to by name in that holy book.

When she gives birth to Jesus, Maryam is under a date palm tree. It turns out that in Islam and in Arabic/desert culture, the date palm is considered a very special plant. My friends in the group explained that date palms are thought to be more like humans than any other plant. Not only are the trees differentiated as male and female, the “baby” trees are sort of born from the mother. Here is a photo of a little palm pup:

Mother and Child

Growers (and legend) say that the baby palms must stay near the mother tree for 6 to 8 years or they will die. (I looked it up online – it is true!) The fruit of the date palm contains a number of essential nutrients and is eaten to break fasting during Ramadan, and many of my study companions gave a taste of date to their newborn children even before giving them milk.

These images have been swirling in my mind as I try to reconcile them into a single metaphorical holy image. That hasn’t happened. But I know that the crowd that raised palms for Jesus came from a culture in which the palm was highly symbolic for multiple reasons – all of them in some way affirming of life, victory, peace, and hospitality. Under the shadow of this symbol a most horrific act of betrayal occurred on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.

Learning about Maryam and date palms gave me a little comfort for the hard week ahead. In the Quran, palms provided Mary shelter and nourishment as she gave birth alone in the desert, and I think of her keeping the treasured child close until he is old enough to be planted in his own soil. It is a very feminine metaphor for the divine. This week, I imagine God is holding Mary close as she stands at the foot of another tree watching her son suffer and die. Birth, life, death, renewal. Fruit from the same tree.

Maryam

Persian Mary and Jesus

Yesterday, I met with an interfaith group of women–half Muslim and half Christian– to study Mary/Maryam in the Quran. My participation came as kind of a fluke – another woman in the group had to drop out, so a friend invited me to fill in. But it touches so many things I am interested in that I could not resist. And, you know, Mary. I need no other reason.

I knew that Mary was important in Islam, but our first meeting reminded me just how much. (It’s been more than 20 years since my class with Lamin Sanneh. Mea culpa for forgetting so much!) She is not only the mother of Jesus – a major prophet in Islam – but the only woman mentioned by name in the entire Quran.

Each woman introduced herself to the group by saying what they most admired about Mary, each coming from her own tradition and life experience. Without exception, the Muslim women cited Mary’s chastity and strength as her most admirable qualities. The Christian women had a bit more variety, but tended more towards strength, bravery, and loyalty. Our inspiration is most certainly rooted in our own scriptural traditions.

The stories about Mary have common elements in Islam and Christianity, but they are not the same. Already some differences in belief and tradition are surprising us. Mary lived in the Temple? And gave birth under a date palm tree? Say what?! No, she was a poor woman from a backwater town. And she married a guy named Joseph. Really! You can read what the Quran and the New Testament report about Mary pretty easily on the Internet. But what you won’t get are the individual expressions – verbal and facial expressions – as women meeting face-to-face try to articulate just what it is about Mary that stays with us.

Over the coming weeks, we will read some passages from the Quran and discuss their significance, as well as share our various beliefs about Mary. Those traditions are quite different in some respects, and yet there is something about this long-ago Mary that catches our attention and keeps it. She accepts the unexpected–a pregnancy, a miraculous child, a public life — with grace. Can’t wait to learn more.

Guadalupe

Maryology has been pretty Mary-free lately (other than me, of course) but there can be no better occasion to Mary-up than today. December 12 is the Feast Day of Our Lady of Guadalupe – and on Sunday we remember Mary-the-about-to-be-mother-of-Jesus’ reaction to being told she was pregnant.

What I love about these two visions of Mary is how bold she is. Most of the time, Mary is a quiet statue or painting humbly gazing at the ground. But how did she react at probably the most overwhelming moment of her life? She burst into song! How did she reveal herself to Juan Diego? With out-of-season flowers that made an ornate portrait of her on his cloak.

Virgin of Guadalupe

I’m telling you, this woman is no wallflower. She is flamboyantly faithful and ostentatiously gracious. Which saint appears on more tattoos than Mary? None.

Today, I induct the Virgin of Guadalupe into the Hall of Marys. She’ll be there with Mary of Nazareth, which might be confusing for mere mortals, but I think they will figure it out. Our Lady of Guadalupe has her own amazing place in the life and culture of Mexico and the American Southwest – she is a cultural and religious unifier and, to some, a feminist symbol of power. She is simultaneously plain and radiant, simple and complex, gentle and strong.

She’s not gazing at the ground, she is standing on the moon looking at you. Ave.

My Mom

Today, August 16, is my mom’s birthday, which makes it a perfect day to think about how completely amazing she is. And therefore to invite her into the Hall of Marys where her mother has gone before her and probably will welcome her with some pickled shrimp and a spicy Bloody Mary. The official drink of the Hall of Marys.

Me, my daughter, and my mom. The 3 Ms.

I’m starting to get off on a tangent. Here’s the point: My mom is awesome and has taught me a lot about family, honesty, patience, and faithfulness. She is the kind of person who raves about everything I do as if I am the most creative person she has ever met, even though she taught me almost everything I learned outside of a classroom. It is because of her that my sisters and I are carrying on the family tradition of ridiculous frugality, including  saving even the tiniest leftovers for…soup. (Out of love for my mother, my husband needs to accept this and move on. We will not change.)

The youngest of three and mother of four, Mom has made fairness an art form and her life’s work. All of her children have agreed that she did not play favorites–she made us each feel equally loved (or put-upon, depending on what we had been up to.) No one ever divided a cake as evenly as my Mom. She had to, it was a matter of world peace and personal sanity.

She’s a Mary who grew up in a small town, but lived in at least 7 different cities with my father, and yet maintained her North Carolina accent. Which makes her either loyal or stubborn or both. They are family traits as far as I can tell.  Also, she doesn’t put up with bullshit, because who has time for that?

I love you, Mom!

The Mother of Marys

Today is the feast day of Mary of Nazareth, the mother of Jesus, the Blessed Virgin. Some might think that it is about darn time that a blog called Maryology had something to say about this particular Mary. And, of course, I do.

As a Mary, I have grown up feeling a little weird about Mary of Nazareth. Maybe some of you non-Marys have had the same experience. She always seems so aloof when depicted in art, all alone and stone cold. In hymns and sermons she can come off as simultaneously superhuman and inhuman–a role model that is impossible to emulate. A lot of it has to do with the emphasis on her virginity, her purity. The untouched and untouchable mother. A contradiction.

Perhaps I should have just focused on the Mary in the Bible, because there she is not alone or cold at all. The biblical stories about Mary tell us about a woman–a girl in the beginning, really–who is never alone. She is with angels, her cousin Elizabeth, Joseph, shepherds, wise men, animals, children, and all the ragtag followers of her son, Jesus. Luke tells us she gave birth in a barn, for goodness sake.

Becoming a mother myself made me think about her in a new way–there is really nothing very aloof or pure about giving birth or raising a child. There is a reason the Magnificat comes BEFORE the nativity. But what really thaws my feelings about Mary of Nazareth, is thinking about her as a middle aged woman (well, in her day late 40s might have been old age) following her 30 year-old son around the country as he preached and healed and taught. Walking for miles and miles on the dusty road with the disciples is not much at all like being perched on a pedestal. Neither is watching the execution of your child. It might have made her feel isolated, but at Jesus’ crucifixion Mary was not alone. She was with his other followers, all supporting one another and no one knowing what would happen next.

As I induct her into the Hall of Marys, I am kind of glad that I waited this long to have Mary of Nazareth join this illustrious group of women. It wouldn’t have been right to have her there all by herself.

Mary having a little bit of fun

The Bethanys

So, I am sure at one point in your life, you have wondered which Bethany sister you were most like, Mary or Martha. No one ever asks if you are more like Lazarus. Today, July 29th, is their day and to commemorate the occasion I want to induct ALL THREE of them into the Hall of Marys because they were great hosts and even better friends to a pushing-the-envelope rabbi that I follow. Also, they lived together and seemed to get along, which, despite any complaints on Martha’s part, is an amazing thing that anyone with a sibling can admire. (Technically, I guess, Mary will be in the Hall of Marys and her siblings will be Honorary Marys.)

When it comes to identifying with one or the other, I have to say I am torn. My name is Mary and I like to think I am a good disciple. But I am also the one who is most often muttering under my breath in the kitchen while everyone else is still partying. I am guessing that I am not the only one in the world who feels like this:

Mary-Martha. (This was harder to write than you’d think.)

The red egg

image by Janet McKenzie

Today is the Feast of Mary Magdalene, a great day to induct my favorite saint into the Hall of Marys. She is perhaps my favorite follower of Jesus for so many reasons that I cannot list them all here. Suffice it to say that my daughter is named for her and I hope she grows up to be as loyal, caring, strong, persistent, and pioneering as the Magdalene, but without all the strange rumors.

Among the strangest stories about Mary Magdalene is this: after the death and resurrection of Jesus, she was spreading the Gospel and managed to visit the Emperor Tiberius in Rome. She greeted him with a plain egg in her hand and the Easter greeting, “Christ has risen.” The Emperor laughed and said that Christ was no more risen than the egg in her hand was red. Immediately the egg turned blood red.

Red is Mary Magdalene’s color. It is the color of prostitutes and adultery for women–one of the rumors about her. Red is the color of blood–Jesus blood given for us, Mary’s blood coursing through her veins, a source of nourishment. Red is the color of love and passion–Mary’s passion for Jesus, his mission, and his followers. In the church today, fiery red is the color of the Holy Spirit present in burning bushes and Pentecost flames.

Mary was the Apostle to the Apostles, the one who went to the tomb to carry out the saddest duty one friend can do for another: anoint them for burial. She unwittingly became the witness to the miracle of resurrection, the first to believe the unbelievable. She became the first to share the good news. Mary Magdalene was aflame with love for God and spread that love far and wide. It is for this that she is known, not for her relationship to a husband, father, son, or brother. She is known as her own self and for her own passionate, spirited love.

Go and do likewise.

 

 

Haven’t we all felt like this Mary at one time or another?

May 25 is the feast day of Mary the Mother of James. Yea, Mary!!! But here’s the thing: no one really knows much about her. The only reason we know anything at all about her is because one of her sons became a follower of a radical rabbi in the 1st century. She ended up following them both around, sharing their work and helping to pay their way. So if you read about them, you will see her mentioned a couple of times.

Who hasn’t felt like this Mary before? She’s the “other Mary.” Not that she wanted it, but she didn’t get as much attention as her son or even the other Mary’s in her crowd. But would they have gotten as much accomplished without her help? Probably not. And when things started to come apart and her son’s friends were too afraid to deal with the fallout, she was there to help pick up the pieces.

There are not as many portraits or stained glass windows or even tchotchkes of her. So, today, I’m gonna give Mary the Mother of James her props by welcoming her to the Hall of Marys.

Can a sister get her own portrait?

Mary Cassatt inducted into the Hall of Marys!

It has been too long since my last post, and way too long since I inaugurated the Hall of Marys. Today is Mary Cassatt’s birthday and I can’t think of a better reason to break my online silence!

Mary Cassatt self portrait

Here are the reasons that Mary Cassatt was nominated (by me) and elected (by me) to join my sainted grandmother in the Hall of Marys:

1) She pursued her career in art despite objections from her family and the sexist attitudes of her male peers.

2) She once said, ” I am independent! I can live alone and and love to work.”

3) She was one of 3 women and the only American to exhibit with the Impressionist group in late 19th century Paris, which members included the likes of Degas, Monet, Renoir, and Pissarro.

4) She was a badass feminist who didn’t conform to the expectations the male dominated art world at the time–didn’t flirt her way into art shows, didn’t get married, and supported her art through her own work.

5) and too many other reasons, which you may feel free to add!

Welcome to the Hall of Marys

Image

Mary Livingston Haden

On December 8th 102 years ago, my grandmother Mary Eliza Livingston Haden was born and became the first Mary in our family. My mom and I both carry the name forward as best we can; the original is a hard act to follow.

When she was a tot, my grandmother contracted polio, which colored the rest of her life. Her childhood included more than a dozen surgeries, being pushed by her mother to exercise and do things on her own, looking different with her clubbed feet and uneven hips. When she was in her 80s she told me that she thinks the experience made her more compassionate towards other people who were different. Indeed, during the civil rights era, she was the privileged white lady who pushed others to think inclusively.
A faithful Christian, she served her church and mentored many would-be priests. I am certain that if she had been born 30 years later she would have been a bishop. She didn’t have a lot of patience with people who clung to tradition for tradition’s sake and was usually leading the way when it came to liturgical updates, gender equality, or even LGBT inclusion. (She was Carter Heyward’s godmother.)
She did a lot of things she was not supposed to because of her health. She danced, drove a car, had three children. I guess the risk proved worthwhile because she later was Gaga to seven grandchildren and got to meet three of her nine great-grands.

Gaga had a good sense of humor and was sometimes funny without meaning to be. After a particularly bad illness she told me her electrolytes almost went out. A sharp wit was a good trait if you were married to Bob Haden, a character in his own right. (Really, he could be an honorary Mary with the stories we have on him.)

For this reason and so many more, Mary Livingston Haden is the first Mary to be inducted into the Hall of Marys. Others will follow, some more well known, some still living. I know she will welcome them all with Southern hospitality and her famous pickled shrimp.