My CNEWA colleague Father Elias Mallon just posted these insights on the feast the Church celebrates on Saturday:
The month of December features two feasts of Mary — the Immaculate Conception (8 December) and our Lady of Guadalupe (12 December). Additionally, the first day of the New Year is the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. Given the huge role Mary has played and continues to play in the piety of both the Catholic and Orthodox churches, Christians are often surprised at how little attention she received in the New Testament.
Although “his (i.e., Jesus’) mother” appears in the Wedding of Cana narrative (John 2:1) and at the foot of the cross (John 19:25-27), Mary is never mentioned by name in the Gospel of John. In the Gospel of Mark, considered the earliest Gospel, Mary appears in Mark 3:31-15 and 6:3 when his fellow townspeople ask, “Is this not the carpenter, the son of Mary?” Paul mentions that Jesus was “born of a woman” (Gal 4:4) but does not see fit to mention her name. All told, the name of Mary, the mother of Jesus, appears 19 times in the entire New Testament. In the Gospels, the name of Mary appears 5 times in Matthew (four of which are in the Infancy Narrative); 12 times in Luke (all of which are in the Infancy Narrative); once in Mark; and, as is noted above, not at all in John’s Gospel.
Perhaps it is precisely the lack of a detailed, biblical memory of Mary and details about her that makes her a relatively pliable figure in Christian piety. Interestingly, Marian apparitions (which are a recent phenomenon, especially in Western Christianity) show various “inculturations” of the mother of Jesus. In these apparitions Mary is sometimes dressed like a local woman (Our Lady of La Salette) or as she is portrayed in medieval art. She is never portrayed as a woman of clear Semitic origins, but most often (with a significant exception — Guadalupe) as a northern European woman. Of course, she speaks in the languages of the visionaries.
This pliability has led to an understanding and portrayal of Mary that some theologians find one sided at best. In devotion to Mary, great stress is placed on her virginity, purity, humility and obedience. There is a certain give and take here. The dominant cultural understanding of what it meant to be a woman at any given time in the history of Christianity was read into Mary. Her figure is, therefore, to a great extent determined by contemporary expectations. As the ideal woman, however, Mary’s characteristics were then often re-projected on women as being normative. Thus purity, humility, silence and obedience — relatively passive characteristics — became “normative” for the Christian woman, whose model was Mary.
Advances in biblical theology, church history and the work of women theologians have provided a corrective by showing aspects of Mary that have been overlooked.
The Gospel of Luke is often referred to as the Gospel of Women, since women, including Mary, play a significant role. If in Matthew, Mary is simply “found to be with child” and the explanation/annunciation is made to Joseph, in Luke’s Gospel the annunciation is to Mary and requires her consent, a consent she gives only after asking some questions. She is not merely a passive agent in the Incarnation.