Friday, February 20, 2009

The Angelus

Today as I was engaged in my bi-monthly task of cleaning out the garage, I found myself singing the old Latin hymn, Angelus domini. I had heard it hundreds of times as an altar boy in the Catholic Church, and it imprinted itself on my mind. And this morning it bubbled to the surface in what I may boast was excellent Latin: Angelus domini nuntiavit Mariae, et concepit de spiritu sancto. 'The angel of the Lord declared unto Mary, and she conceived of the holy spirit.'

And that got me thinking about Mary and the virgin birth. Now we were taught in the Church (and it is related in Luke's gospel) that Mary, the mother of Jesus, became pregnant while engaged to Joseph. Of course, we have very little information about either of those people, but I have no serious quarrel with accepting their identities as enshrined in Catholic tradition. What I do have a quarrel with, however, is the patently absurd idea of the immaculate conception and the virgin birth, which defies every form of common sense and life experience that we have. (Remember that Tolstoy said that religion should ask us to believe nothing that contradicts reason, but only that which complements and completes it.)

And so I began to wonder what may really have happened to those people, and it seemed to me that the reality is probably quite simple. Mary, who was most likely a teenager, perhaps fifteen or sixteen, was betrothed to a man whom we call Joseph, almost certainly without her permission. Perhaps as a form of rebellion, or perhaps simply because she was an immature and gullible child, she became pregnant by someone else. Her pregnancy during her engagement was a scandal, of course, and threatened disgrace to her family and to that of her intended. Now, the gospel tells us that Joseph decided to 'put her away,' which is to say, break off the engagement and drop her cold, which is what any first century Palestinian Jew would have done.

But evidently, he changed his mind. Why? I imagine that Mary concocted an elaborate story about having been visited by a messenger of God (an angel, from the Greek word angelos, or, message), and that God's spirit impregnated her as part of some larger cosmic plan. Joseph, being a simple tradesman or craftsman (tradition has it that he was a carpenter, and I am prepared to accept this), which is to say, being not very well educated, deeply religious and just as deeply superstitious, chose to accept her explanation and, out of fear, decided not to break off the engagement.

As for the rest of it - the journey to Bethlehem (which is nonsense when you think about it: the Romans would have been fools to have required everyone to travel to the cities of their birth to be counted in a census, as this would have caused chaos in their empire) the virgin birth (which is absurd on its face), the visit by the magi (who would have been magicians, as the word implies, and not kings) the heavenly host singing at the top it its voice in the middle of the night without, apparently attracting a crowd, the flight into Egypt, the slaughter of every newborn boy for miles around (which would have caused a riot and the overthrow of the high priest, I would have thought) - none of it happened, though it makes for a beautiful and compelling story.

Instead, what we have in simple human terms is a commonplace enough story. A teenage girl is betrothed against her will, gets pregnant by some other man (perhaps the man she really loves), and manages to talk her intended into not disgracing her, himself and their families by 'putting her away.' And out of this quite ordinary story comes a truly extraordinary one, of a man who disowns his flawed human parents in favor of a divine father and a universal mother, teaches heresy in public places causing his family (including his mother) to try to have him restrained as a lunatic, threatens the social, political and religious order, is arrested, tried and publicly executed. And then, after his death, some of his peers declare him to have been the Jewish Messiah (though nothing he did was consistent with Jewish notions of the Messiah), and, later still, backed by the power of the same Roman empire that executed him, his cult declares to the world that he was God incarnate.

If this is so, it raises two intriguing questions. The first is What happened to Joseph? who disappears completely from the narrative. We know that Mary had other children (despite the pointless denials of the Roman Church), but it may be that one or more of those children were not Joseph's and he simply got fed up with his wife's behavior and left. The second concerns Mary, and her feelings as she stood at the foot of the cross. Imagine the guilt and regret she must have felt, having utterly destroyed her life and Joseph's life, and witnessing the public failure and disgrace of her eldest child. If, as I suspect, she lived a life of culpability rather than virtue, if she was far from immaculate and was, in fact, conventionally human (and probably not terribly bright), she may have experienced the nearly animal remorse displayed by the mothers of L.A. gang members when they arrive wailing before the TV cameras at the scenes of their children's murders. They neither understand nor can they imagine how they and their offspring came to such a pass, lacking the insight and self-awareness necessary to have so changed their lives as to have avoided the inevitable.

In this light, the death of Mary's son appears not as part of a divine plan and thus transcendently inevitable, but merely in the way that the tragedies of life are inevitable precisely because angels do not elevate our natures - only we can do that.