PART II – Mary: The Hebrew, Islamic and Christian Traditions

(Part II of a potpourris of perspectives of our Blessed Mother Mary — prepared for discussion at a pre-concert lecture for Polyhumnia, St. Ignatius of Antioch Episcopal Church, NYC) . . . more reflections to follow:

Mary: The Hebrew, Islamic and Christian Traditions

The name Mary comes from the Roman Maria – a Roman adaptation of the Aramaic/Hebrew Miriam; in Arabic the name if Maryam.  The woman commonly referred to as “Saint Mary”, “Mother Mary”, the “Virgin Mary”, the “Blessed Virgin Mary”, or “Mary, Mother of God” in the Christian tradition was a Jewish woman of Nazareth in Galilee.  Christians of the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, Oriental Orthodox Church, Anglican Communion, and Lutheran churches believe that Mary, as mother of Jesus, is the Mother of God and the Theotokos, literally God bearer. Mary has been venerated in Christianity since the Apostolic Age of the early Church. Throughout the ages she has been a favorite subject in Christian art, music, and literature.

This same Mary is identified in the Quran as Maryam, the mother of Jesus through divine intervention. A few Islamic scholars see Maryam as a nabi or a prophetess, since God sent her a message via an angel. The Quran, however, does not explicitly identify her as a prophet. Islamic belief regards her as the holiest of women, but not generally as a prophet.

There are striking similarities between the Quran and Lukan scriptural accounts of the promise to Zechariah and the Annunciation. The scenes in both are nearly identical and share the same interplay of the circumstances of the miraculous births of Jesus and John the Baptist. The Quran’s account of Maryam’s childhood, which is not part of the Christian canon, corresponds very closely to accounts in The Protevangelium of James, a 2nd-century apocryphal gospel.

There are, however some differences between the Christian and Islamic scriptural accounts:

In the Quran, Maryam does not assent to her pregnancy; it is decreed.  Joseph does not appear in the Quran. Mary is totally alone during childbirth except for the voice that assures her of food and water while she is in labor. The physical need for human comfort and support is supplanted by divine aid.   There are different emphases in the overall plot lines as well.

In the Catholic story, Mary plays a role in the establishment of a new community. Her Son saves humanity from its sins, offers humans adoption as sons and daughters of God, and starts a community that will continue his work of salvation. The events of Mary’s life are tied to the events of her Son’s life, and then continue with the arrival of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.  As the early church cones into being it operates within a familial paradigm and looks to Mary as its mother. Part of Mary’s role is to show a continuity with the historical Jewish community as well as with Christ as the Son of God.

In the Muslim version of the story, the focus of Mary’s mission is the Annunciation and subsequent virgin birth. She is an obedient and sinless believer.  God sends a divine message to her for others to hear, believe, and be saved. The emphasis is on God’s sovereign power and Mary’s individual submission.  The focus of Mary’s activity is on her solitary prayer which nourishes her personal relationship with God before and after the birth of her son.

Jews, Muslims and Christians alike worship the one, all-powerful God who is sovereign over creation, who shows mercy and compassion, and who invites human faith in divine truth. However, the differences in the Muslim and Christian Marian doctrines are clear. The Christian understanding of Mary has a familial dimension that shifts the emphasis from power, submission, and individual responsibility  — to love, cooperation, and collective responsibility.

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