Maternity and Revolution
Friday, 19 July 2024 21:47

Maternity and Revolution

Published in Religion

Professor Terry Eagleton discusses the revolutionary politics of the meeting of Mary and Elizabeth, the mothers of Jesus and John the Baptist. Image above: The Visitation, by Lorenzo Maitani and Associates, Orvieto cathedral

The dramatist Edward Bond speaks in the preface to his play Lear of the ‘biological expectations’ with which we are born - the expectation that the baby’s ‘unpreparedness will be cared for, that it will be given not only food but emotional reassurance, that its vulnerability will be shielded, that it will be born into a world waiting to receive it, and that knows how to receive it’. This, Bond suggests, would signify a true culture, which is why he refuses to use the term of contemporary capitalist civilisation. Politics begins in the maternity unit.

The beginning and end of life are linked in various ways. There are, for example, those who are born for death. In an astonishing scene in the first chapter of his gospel, Luke stages an encounter between Mary and her cousin Elizabeth. Both women are pregnant, though neither is an image of conventional domesticity. Elizabeth is beyond the usual childbearing age, while Mary is a virgin who has conceived a child. This has happened, so the gospel of St. John tells us, ‘not by the will of man’, so that Mary falls outside the patriarchal set-up of first-century Palestine. The child in her womb is the fruit of a love more powerful and all-encompassing than the marital kind.

DARET Jacques Visitation

Visitation by Jacques Daret, c. 1435

When Elizabeth sets eyes on Mary, the child in her womb leaps for joy. He won’t, however, be joyful for all that long. He grows up to be John the Baptist, a wild-looking, hippie-like figure like a refugee from Woodstock who hangs out in the desert on a diet of locusts and honey, and whose wrathful prophecies panic the political establishment into beheading him. The child Mary is carrying will also grow up to be executed, though in his case by the occupying Roman power. He, too, is disposed of as a potential threat to the state. Neither man has much time for the family, an institution of which Jesus is consistently critical. His mission takes precedence over domestic bonds, and he is notably brusque with his kinsfolk.  He has come, he declares, not to unite families but to turn their members against each other.  Both men are vagrant, celibate, without home, property, profession or much of a future.

Even so, the tone of Luke’s account is triumphant. Mary and Elizabeth do not talk about breast feeding or morning sickness but revolutionary politics. In a sisterly dialogue, the younger woman responds to her cousin’s greeting by bursting out joyfully with a passage from the Hebrew Scriptures. Perhaps she sings and dances as she does so. Yahweh, she announces, ‘has brought down the mighty from their thrones, and raised up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away’.

As an obscure young woman from a notoriously backward part of Palestine, Mary is comparing her own elevation as mother of Jesus to the raising up of the poor.  Her pregnancy is a sign of the victory of the anawim, the humble and despised of the world. Some New Testament scholars have claimed that the words which Luke puts into Mary’s mouth here are part of a Zealot chant, the Zealots being underground anti-imperial insurrectionists. There were probably a few of them in Jesus’s entourage. Whether or not Mary’s words are Zealot-inspired, they are almost a cliché of the Jewish Scriptures. You will know Yahweh for who he is when you see riches lavished on the downtrodden. The only authentic power is one which is born of weakness.

Artemisia Gentileschi Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy

Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy, by Artemisia Gentileschi

Women as a whole belonged to the dumped and discarded of Jesus’s age. The other prominent Mary in the Gospels is Mary Magdalene, who despite the fact that she may have been a sex worker is granted the privilege of being among the first to discover that Jesus’s tomb is empty. This is a daring move on the evangelist’s part, since the testimony of women was dismissed at the time as worthless. Questions of maternity, sexuality, sexual reproduction and so on are nowadays regarded as political issues, but they were not considered such when Luke was writing. (He may have been a physician on the staff of St. Paul, and so would know something about pregnancy).  Despite this, the (probably fictional) scene he sets up strikingly prefigures the political landscape of the present. Once again, politics begins with maternity. One might add that Mary as mother is the subject of some of the most beautiful lines W.B. Yeats ever wrote:  

      What is this flesh I purchased with my pains,
      This fallen star my milk sustains,
      This love that makes my heart’s blood stop
      Or strikes a sudden chill into my bones
      And makes my hair stand up?  

-  from‘The Mother of God’  by W. B. Yeats