Intermezzo – Sharing Mary

Sharing Mary – title essay

Intermezzo by Marlies ter Borg

  My favourite story is about the meeting between Mary and Elizabeth, a young and an elderly woman, both pregnant. Mary was visited by the angel Gabriel and became with child although she had never ‘known’ a man.  Elizabeth’s pregnancy was also a miracle. Her husband Zacharias was told by the angel that his wife would become pregnant, in spite of her age.  What is the truth of this story? Well, the factual truth doesn’t interest me. That is about biology, about rape, about lost virginity. Who cares? It’s the spiritual truth that counts. The celebration of a wonder. Isn’t any pregnancy a wonder?  I like the way the Qur’an celebrates pregnancy with beautiful words showing the careful attention God gives to pregnant women.

“And no female conceives, or lays down (her load), but with His knowledge.”35 The Originator of Creation, 11

A desired pregnancy really can fill you with joy, with feeling special, as if you are receiving Divine attention. In the Qur’an God calls for respect for the mother in whose womb we were created.

“He makes you, in the wombs of your mothers, in stages, one after another, in three veils of darkness.” 39 The Crowds, 6

So the story about Maria and Elizabeth gives me that sense of wonder about creation, that I lost in the rat race of life. It fills me with pride because of the special role we women play in creation. I’m from a Christian background which I left behind me in my late teens. It was only about five years ago that I discovered that Mary and her son Jesus also figured quite prominently in the Qur’an. When I really began to study the text for this book, I made another discovery. The Qur’an tells us the story of Mary’s childhood, of how she grew up as an orphan fostered by Zacharias and Elizabeth. So the meeting was no coincidence. Mary went straight to her (foster) mother with the news. What is more, Maria had received from the hands of Zacharias, an excellent education. When her own mother lost her husband, while she was already pregnant, she pledged the fruit of her womb to God. She expected to have a son, a boy who would become a priest just like his father ‘Imran. But the child turned out to be a girl. Well, in Muhammad’s time baby girls were frowned upon, sometimes even buried alive. But Mary, an orphan herself, had the courage to take her girl to the temple.

“Right graciously did her Lord accept her: He made her grow in purity and beauty: she was assigned to the care of Zakariya” 3 Al-‘Imran, 37

The Qur’an gave me a completely new image of Mary. I had always imagined her merely as a beautiful, sweet and loving mother. According to the Christmas carol, she was a ‘lowly maid’. And here she reappears, as the best educated woman of her day. For it is highly probable that no other girls were allowed in at the Temple school. Only this special girl for special reasons. The mother who knew the Hebrew Bible and discussed it with her precocious son. How else would Jesus have known all these things, brought up by the wife of a carpenter, as the Bible tells us. The Qur’an paints a picture of Maria as a highly intelligent and well-educated woman, bearing and bringing up her child alone. Looking again at pictures from the early Christian renaissance – stimulated by the discovery of Islam culture in the Holy Land and Andalusia – I suddenly realized that Mary was often painted with a book on her lap. I had seen and admired these paintings before. But I had never noticed the book. I interpreted it as a rather odd way of showing Mary’s holiness, not for one moment assuming that she could read.

Now suddenly, thanks to the Qur’an, I realized that Medieval artists, such as Fra Angelico, were depicting Mary as an intelligent, highly-educated woman. She was familiar enough with the power and the grace of words to be able to receive the word of God which became flesh and lived among us. Angelico actually paints the words flowing from the angel to Mary.

This is what I like about the Qur’an and Bible stories side by side. There is often a surprise just around the corner. Some new insight springing from the comparison, an enriching moment, like the story behind the meeting of Mary and Elizabeth. And a sense of humility, that one never knows the whole story.