01 March 2007

To Know Her Is To Love Her.

Frederica Mathewes-Green has a new book out examining early Christian devotion to - and especially one extra-Biblical line of tradition about - the Blessed Virgin Mary. The book is called The Lost Gospel of Mary: The Mother of Jesus in Three Ancient Texts. She explains,

I know "Lost Gospel" sounds like a surprising title. One of my goals is to recover for Christian use a few of the wide range of documents that Christian believers cherished in the early centuries. These works weren't regarded as Scripture, but they filled a worthy supplemental role. They can be compared to the sort of thing found in a Christian bookstore today: commentaries on Scripture, histories, prayer collections, inspiring letters, hymns, poetry, and life-story narratives (or "gospels") of heroic Christians.

The one I'm calling "The Gospel of Mary" is a narrative about the Virgin Mary that seems to have been passed along orally for some time before taking written form prior to AD 150. So it is surprisingly early, especially if you think that interest in the Virgin Mary began around the year 1200. In fact, this story was *extremely* popular among early Christians in Asia and Africa, and scores of ancient copies have been found, in 8 languages. (Not in Latin, however, till the 16th century; it was rejected by a pope and so got "lost" to Western Christians.) It's a charming tale, simply told, with a "folk" quality. It begins with Mary's elderly parents mourning their childlessness, and concludes soon after Jesus' birth. It's natural that the first followers of Jesus would want to know more about his background and earthly life, and this "Gospel of Mary" provided what we could call a "prequel."

Is it historically reliable? Some of it is, no doubt; in a culture that laid so much emphasis on preserving genealogy, for example, there's no reason to reject the information that her parents were named Joachim and Anna. And, given how many miracles are in the biblical Gospels, it's reasonable that miracles could have begun even earlier, just as they continued later and even till this day. Nevertheless, even though the early Christians cherished this story, they didn't include it in the New Testament (even though they did accept the Epistle of James, and the author of this gospel claims to be the same James. Early Christians must have had some doubts about that authorship.) But, questions of historicity aside, it was loved for depicting the many ways Mary fulfilled elements foreshadowed in the Hebrew Scriptures, for example, that she becomes the new "Ark of the Covenant," holding within her body the salvation sent by God.

So my book provides a fresh translation of this "Lost Gospel," along with an introduction and commentary. Two other early Christian documents about Mary are also included. The prayer "Under Your Compassion" was found on a small scrap of papyrus and dated at AD 250; it is the earliest recorded prayer addressed to Mary, and still used in Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches (we'll sing it tonight night at Vespers). And the "Annunciation Hymn" (also called the "Akathist Hymn"), written by the Syrian poet St. Romanos around AD 520, pours out praise and wonder at Mary's role in Christ's Incarnation. These three texts show us 3 ways that the early Christians saw Mary: they felt great affection for her, they valued her as a prayer warrior, and they celebrated her role in God's plan of salvation. I hope by understanding how they saw her, you will get to know and love Mary better, too.



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