The Virgin in the Sun

A great sign appeared in the heavens this morning. At sunrise, the sun sat at the head of the constellation Virgo, while the moon lay at her feet. As Virgo rose, the planet Jupiter passed out of her “womb,” while above her head three planets (Mercury, Mars, and Venus) were in alignment with Regulus, one of the nine stars the ancients identified in the constellation Leo.

This is not the first time this sign has appeared – the constellation Virgo is in the Sun every September – but it is remarkable for the other planets and stars to align in this way.** So remarkable, in fact, that the author of Revelation took it as the sign which would herald the beginning of a new age with the return of the Lady and her Son:
Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant was seen within his temple; and there were flashes of lightning, voices, peals of thunder, an earthquake, and heavy hail. And a great portent appeared in heaven, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars; she was with child and she cried out in her pangs of birth, in anguish for delivery. – Revelation 11:19-12:2

I have spent the last thirty-two years waiting for this sign. No, not directly. I only learned this week about the conjunction with the sun, moon, planets, and constellations from a friend whom I know from college. But I have been waiting for it ever since college, when I started working on the history of the medieval devotion to the Virgin Mary.

At that time, I was greatly interested in feminist theology and spent a good year or so reading such theorists as Rosemary Radford Ruether and Mary Daly. I thrilled, as I suspect young women do to this day, at the way in which they talked about the power of female sexuality. I was young and nowhere near as conscious of what that sexuality meant as I am now, in the twilight of my own fertility. But even then, what Ruether and Daly were saying about the Virgin Mary seemed not just wrong, historically and theologically, but evil.

Here was Rosemary Radford Ruether, in her Sexism and God-Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology (Boston: Beacon Press, 1983), pp. 149-50, 151-52:
The Mariological tradition functions in patriarchal theology primarily to reflect and express the ideology of the patriarchal feminine. The Virgin Mary becomes the theological personification of Psyche and Mother Church as Virginal Bride and Mother of Christians. She is the font of grace and, ultimately, the resurrected body and glorified Church ascended to Heaven and reigning at the side of Christ. The linking of Mary, Jesus’ mother, with this theology of the Church is begun in Luke’s infancy narrative, the primary source of Mariology in the New Testament. Here Mary becomes the “first believer” whose assent to God’s will makes her the means of God’s messianic redemption. Second-century Mariology develops this into the theme of the New Eve. Mary is the obedient female who reverses the disobedience of the First Eve and thus makes possible the advent of the New Adam, Christ...
In this theology of the male feminine, we sense the hidden and repressed power of femaleness and nature as they exist both beneath and beyond the present male dualisms of matter and spirit. Precisely for this reason we cannot accept this theology on male terms. We must question the male theology of female “disobedience” and sexuality as the cause of sin, and mortality as the consequence of sin. This very effort to sunder us from our mortal bodies and to scapegoat women as cause of mortality and sin is the real sin. This sin has alienated us from that fruitful unity of mind and body that we have lost and that we seek in our redemptive quest.
I don’t seem to have made much of this passage the first time I read it; my book has no markings at this point, although I have annotated freely elsewhere. Sexism is wrong, I seem to have got that. But niggling there behind all my underlinings and marginalia, there is an unease – a dis-ease. How does it help to label sin as something men blame on women, when the whole point of the story in Genesis is that both Adam and Eve sinned? Is it not just as dualistic to talk of “male” theology and “female” theology as it is to talk of matter and spirit as a duality, rather than both as constitutive of person? What did it mean to reject the tradition on which our civilization was founded as distorted beyond redemption by “patriarchal theology”? Particularly when, as even the talk of the “patriarchal feminine” suggested, it had in fact had a place for the feminine? My questions were clumsy, but my discomfort was real.

What Mary Daly said in Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism (Boston: Beacon Press, 1978), pp. 84-85, was even worse:
The rape of the Goddess in all of her aspects in an almost universal theme in patriarchal myth. Zeus, for example, was a habitual rapist. Graves points out that Zeus’s rapes apparently refer to Hellenic conquests of the Goddess’s ancient shrines. The early patriarchal rapes of the Goddess, in her various manifestations, symbolized the vanquishing of woman-identified society. In the early mythic rapes, the god often assumed a variety of animal forms; the sense of violence/violation is almost tangible. In christianity [sic], this theme is refined – disguised almost beyond recognition.
The rape of the rarefied remains of the Goddess in the christian [sic] myth is mind/spirit rape. In the charming story of “the Annunciation” the angel Gabriel appears to the terrified young girl, announcing that she has been chosen to become the mother of god [sic]. Her response to this sudden proposal from the godfather is totaled nonresistance: “Let it be done unto me according to thy word.” Physical rape is not necessary when the mind/will/spirit has already been invaded. In refined religious rapism, the victim is impregnated with the Supreme Seminal Idea, who becomes the “Word made flesh.”
Nothing in this description of the Virgin matched what I was reading at the time. Not Bernard of Clairvaux’s eloquent call for Mary to speak her consent at the angel’s approach, the whole world lying prostrate at her feet. Not Christine de Pisan’s elevation of Mary to the role of Queen in her City of Ladies. Not Mechthild of Magdeburg’s description of her as “goddess” seated on the throne of heaven next to her Son, the one who had given birth to the Redeemer through whom the world was healed by grace. And yet, here was Mary Daly insisting that that goddess had been raped. And you wonder that my academic colleagues are inclined to read my scholarship on and devotion to the Virgin Mary as supporting rape.

As I said, evil.

In my first book, From Judgment to Passion: Devotion to Christ and the Virgin Mary, 800-1200 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), I set out to show the way in which devotion to the Virgin Mary was entwined with devotion to Christ. Not, you might think, a very novel argument, but oddly one that few recent scholars had made, so set had the feminist theologians become on separating devotion to Mary from worship of God.

In my second book, Mary and the Art of Prayer: The Hours of the Virgin in Medieval Christian Life and Thought (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017), I show how medieval Christians understood Mary as the one who made God visible through the psalms and other chants they sang in her honor at her feasts and in her Hours.

In both books, I attempt to recover not only the complexity of the way in which medieval Christians understood Mary through their exegesis of the Scriptures and the chants of the liturgy, but also what effect this imagining of Mary had on their understanding of God. What I have found is not that medieval Christians subordinated Mary to God, as a rape-victim to her rapist, but rather that they elevated her as the human being in whom the image and likeness of God was most perfectly reflected, as in a shining mirror. They believed not only that she was the most perfect human being – and a woman – but that it was she who, through her consent, brought God into the world. Mary was the temple in whom God became present – the most perfect creature ever made.

This is what one of the colleagues who has been leading the SJW attack on me this week said about my scholarship on Mary:
...so here’s the thing, RFB [don't you love how they cannot call me by name, even when they are talking behind my back?]: you’re not necessarily a racist nor a white supremacist, but your blog writings, and even some of your scholarship, is definitely “ethnocentrist” in about fifty shades of pale. And that can be carefully documented... 
Ethnocentrist, by the way, is the new way that racists describe themselves [oh, so I am racist, even though I have never described myself as “ethnocentric,” only “Christian” and “American”] when they’re trying to be vague/more acceptable, because it allows them to say that they respect the right of *other* groups of people who have certain shared identity features (cultural, ethnic, religious, etc.) to inhabit certain spaces (including states and nations) however they like, as long as those other groups also recognize the desire and right of whites to gather and have spaces of their own in which they can blather on about the superiority of white culture while not actively directing hate or otherwise negative commentary against Others.... [I believe this colleague did her early work on Beowulf. Not sure how that fits in here.]  
The anomie that jumps off the page in RFB’s blog and FB writings, as well as from the “friends” who serve as her Chorus [my angels!], feels like the direct result of something that Greg Johnson once wrote (white-nationalist editor-in-chief of Cross-Currents): “White Nationalism emerges when whites realize that we share a common destiny and that it is impossible to drop out of a system that wants to destroy us.”*
All this for trying to argue that medieval European Christians did not champion rape and that they believed Mary had been dark.

I have been not a little spooked all year at how Milo’s journey has mapped onto narratives that seem to have a mythological force. First his tour round the country in his “Dangerous Faggot” bus, then his shaming, return, and success with his book. Some of it is Milo’s doing. He just comes up with the costumes and stunts and they work. Some of it is my propensity to see reality through a mythological lens. I cannot explain why the story that he has been living fits the story of our Savior so well. I am convinced that it has to do with his education as a Catholic as well as his flair for the dramatic. If what he does seems right, even when he himself cannot always articulate it, it is because he is so sensitive himself to the power of myth.

As, it would seem, am I. Somehow or other, over the year, my story became entwined with his. And, yes, I see myself as Mary in the narrative, standing beside him back in February as my fellow conservatives fled. (You know what I called them.) That this next year is the year in which my second book is going to be published is striking, to say the least. I have spent, indeed, Milo’s lifetime working on this project, and here, when I most needed someone to help me make Mary visible again, he appeared.

I refuse to believe that it is only a coincidence. I take it as a sign.


Images: Book of Hours, Use of Geert Grote, ca. 1475, Chicago, The University of Chicago Library, Special Collections MS 347, fols. 119v-120r.

*[UPDATE: Eileen A. Fradenburg Joy, whose comments these are, has left this comment on my Facebook page:
Incidentally, all of my FB posts are set to Public, as are yours, which I admire you for. One of the things I don’t like about the Internet is how much happens behind anonymous profiles and the like. So anything I write that references you is not meant to be private or behind your back. And the only reason I use acronyms in my FB posts (which you can see for yourself I do a LOT to identify all sorts of people) is to save time typing. It’s not personal or meant to be belittling or...anything like that. I appreciate that you would want to argue back, and I support your right to do so, but again, nothing I write is behind anyone’s back and acronyms are just time-saving devices for me, especially as I tend to over-write a lot. I am making this comment here just for the sake of factuality and politeness relative to your most recent blog post. You are also free to name me (if you want) as Eileen Joy, EAJ, etc. I won’t be offended.
Fencing Bear salutes! And thanks our Mother Mary mediatrix for her first miracle on her behalf. Collegiality returns!]

**[UPDATE: According to astronomer Christopher M. Graney, it has only happened four other times in the past 1,000 years: 1056, 1293, 1483, and 1827. Pretty lucky that it happened this year, eh?]

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