Monday, November 19, 2012

El Alma de Maria: Theological Implications of Jesus's Taking Flesh from Mary

The photo is one Steve snapped recently, of a depiction on a tile of an icon much loved in Spanish-American Catholicism.  Icons depicting the Virgin Mary with a dove as she says her fiat to the angel announcing the divine birth to her or as she holds her holy child are called, in this tradition, El Alma de Maria, the soul of Mary.

Notice anything about this particular icon?  You're right: Mary's face is replicated in the face of Jesus.  The icon struck Steve and me as theologically noteworthy for that reason.  The human flesh of the incarnate Word of God is not just any human flesh.  It's quite specifically the flesh of his mother Mary.

In one sense, this is hardly a new or revolutionary insight.  Christian traditions that recite the Nicene Creed take note, every time they recite the creed, of how Jesus received his flesh from the Virgin Mary.

I think, however, that some of the theological implications of that credal affirmation have not been as apparent to us over the course of Christian history as they might have been.  Jesus receives his humanity from a mother who, in Luke's gospel, sings about her impending birth-giving and that of her cousin Elizabeth with a theologically rich hymn that praises God for putting down the mighty and lifting up the lowly.  And for sending the rich away empty while the hungry are fed their fill.

The spirituality of the Incarnate Word of God was forged in a household in which the mother who gave birth to him makes a preferential option for the poor, and sings hymns woven together from her Jewish tradition's prophetic scriptures that speak of God's overweening love of the lowly and the outcast.  This should mean something to us theologically, it seems to me.  It should mean something very pointed about who Jesus himself was, and about the direction in which our discipleship of Jesus is oriented.

And there's more that Steve and I see in this icon: because the face of Jesus is the face of his mother, it's a "female" face.  The icon bends Jesus's gender, or, perhaps it mixes the gender of mother and son so that it becomes difficult to determine who is male and who is female.

That, too, seems to be an important theological implication flowing from the enfleshment of God's Word through Mary at a point in Christian history when many Christians have chosen to make the biological distinction between male and female into a kind of shibboleth--an idol, to be honest--that has nowhere near the central force in Jewish and Christian scripture or tradition that they'd like to imagine it has.

P.S. I'm trying to track the name of the artist who created this particular version of El Alma de Maria.  I seem to recall seeing a card with the name of an artist, but, if that's the case, I didn't record her name, unfortunately.  If I can retrieve it, I'll post it here for any readers who may be interested in this particular work and the artist's work in general.

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