Sing of Mary, 4b: Everything there is to know about the Mother of God, Part 2
Having introduced Michael Hesemann’s remarkable book last week, I’d like to complete my consideration, as promised, of Mary of Nazareth: History, Archeology, Legends. The pervious installment closed after considering the Holy House of Loreto, where Mary lived with Joseph. Let us press on from there.
Hesemann expends considerable space in probing the textual, archeological and even astronomical evidence for the astonishing events from the Annunciation through the flight into Egypt. He does a superb job of identifying the key locations: The grotto of the Annunciation, the home at which Mary visited St. Elizabeth (pregnant with John the Baptist), the cave of the Nativity, and the route taken by the Holy Family as they fled into Egypt.
The author also does a fine job of interpreting the various prophecies, fleshing out the circumstances and determining the relevant dates. We must remember that there were strong ties of kinship among the Jews in this region. Since John the Baptist’s father, Zechariah, was Mary’s uncle, it was perfectly natural for her to spend some time helping out the elderly Elizabeth during her pregnancy—a pregnancy which also served as a confirmation of the Angel’s message to Mary herself. All of the details of what Zechariah and Elizabeth were experiencing would have been well-known to the young Virgin.
One point I found particularly interesting was Hesemann’s explanation for the lack of space at the inn in Bethlehem. It is true that there would have been many people travelling back and forth for the census (which the author identifies from historical records), but the main problem was most likely that Mary was pregnant. Jewish customs and laws demanded separate accommodations for pregnant women, not only out of respect but so that others could avoid ritual impurity through close contact with her. Thus, as Luke reports in his gospel, there was no “place” (of the necessary kind) at the inn.
In addition, Hesemann explains the use of caves as stables in cold weather, and he places the Nativity in the Spring after the sheep would have been moved to the surrounding hills for grazing. He thinks it likely that the cave-stable where Mary gave birth was actually her own property. Whatever the case, the archeological evidence from the various sites in the gospels is fascinating. Invariably, once a researcher locates the correct site, he finds a church has been built over the top of it. Therefore, the best opportunities for excavating down to evidence from earlier uses typically arise only when a church is undergoing extensive repairs, or has been destroyed.
Also of note is the author’s painstaking research to trace routes—that is, the route followed by the magi, and the routes followed by the Holy Family into and out of Egypt. The study of the former begins with evidence supplied by Marco Polo. The latter depends on a thorough knowledge of local circumstances, the location of Herod’s forts (which had to be avoided), old traditions still remembered today at various stopping places, and so on. Finally, between chapter 8 on the Nativity and chapter 9 on the flight into Egypt, Hesemann devotes a “Digression” of three-and-a-half pages to establishing the date of Our Lord’s birth, which I noted in Part 1.
From Crucifixion to Assumption
Hesemann considers Mary’s “interim” appearances—losing Jesus and finding him again in the Temple, and the wedding at Cana where she triggered Our Lord’s public ministry—in the chapter “Beneath the Cross”. That is appropriate, for these instances do not require extensive treatment and they are clear harbingers of both the sufferings and the revelations that were to follow. It is here also that he treats Our Lord’s entrustment of His mother to St. John and the Church. It is not known whether Mary was with Jesus when his own “brethren” in Nazareth tried to throw Jesus over a cliff, but there is a chapel there that commemorates “Mary’s Fear”. The local tradition holds that Mary was present, and that “she ran after the homicidal mob until she broke down in tears on the ridge of a hill” (p. 203).
I can do no more than touch on the themes of the last three chapters. The eleventh chapter, “Daughter of Zion”, seeks to determine Mary’s role in anchoring the disciples in the days, months and years following the Resurrection. Where did Mary live with John? Where were the homes in which the disciples broke bread and “partook of food with glad and generous hearts” (Acts 2:46)? Hesemann also explores Mary’s identity as the quintessential icon of Judaism, through whom the old law is completed and transformed into the new law of love. She was indeed the Daughter of Zion.
In “Mary at Ephesus” (chapter 12), Hesemann tests the visions of Anne Catherine Emmerich, who described in considerable detail the location in which Mary lived when St. John was ministering in that city. In the late nineteenth century, several priests were able to identify the site from Emmerich’s precise description, though she had never been there. However, Emmerich’s understanding that Mary died in Ephesus appears to be demonstrably false. As head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, the future Pope Benedict XVI explained how errors can arise even in authentic visionaries owing to limitations in their receptivity and erroneous personal conclusions. But this did not stop him from visiting Ephesus in 2006 as pope, to pray at the site where Mary may once have lived.
Finally, in “Body and Soul” (chapter 13), the author follows the various traditions concerning Mary’s Dormition (death for Mary would have been like falling asleep) and her Assumption. Again, Hesemann excels at examining the alleged site and parsing the various legends. There is, of course, significant evidence for her Assumption of what we call the negative sort. In other words, there are innumerable alleged relics of stones from Mary’s house and from her (empty) tomb, and from her clothing, and even her hair. But there is not one relic that purports to be from her bones. Hesemann concludes that the Assumption took place in 48 AD, when Mary was 65 years old.
The Epilogue is appropriately entitled “We Fly to Your Protection…”. Here Hesemann dispels the myth that devotion to Mary began belatedly at the Council of Ephesus in 431. He points out a great deal of far earlier evidence, including words used in Scripture itself by Paul, Luke and John. There are also paintings in catacombs which date back at least as far as the very early 200s, and perhaps to the 100s. Significantly, from the earliest times Mary was depicted not only as the Madonna but as the Advocate, with her hands raised to Heaven in prayer. She was understood as constantly praying for the Church. She was understood as praying for you and me.
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