Comparative religion is an aspect of the humanities that offers critical insights into the human experience. Last week on MHC’s Humanities Connection on WYPR we heard from Dr. Heather Miller Rubens, a Roman Catholic Scholar at the Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies (ICJS), on Mary’s visit to Elizabeth in Luke’s Gospel. Yesterday, on Christmas day, Dr. Homayra Ziad, ICJS’ first Muslim Scholar, provided insights on the Muslim poet Jalaluddin Rumi’s writings on the role of Mary in the Qur’an and the story of the Visitation. In the event you missed it, we’ve reprinted their commentaries below.
Dr. Heather Miller Rubens
Dr. Heather Miller Rubens (Roman Catholic Scholar, ICJS)
Next week Christians around the world will celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. As a Roman Catholic, scholar, and as a mother, the joys of Christmas include reflections on Mary, the mother of Jesus.
What did Mary think, what did she feel, about her pregnancy and about the baby? In the Gospels, Mary is silent on the day of Jesus’s birth. To find Mary’s voice in the Christmas story, we must go back to the days before the birth.
In Luke’s Gospel, the young, unwed Mary had just been visited by the angel Gabriel, and told of her impending motherhood. Incredulous, she asked the angel “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” Gabriel gave a mysterious response to her direct question. He replied, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” Gabriel continued, “And now your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.”
Mary rushed to Judea see Elizabeth. The meeting between these two unlikely mothers, called the Visitation in Christian tradition is purely joyful. The baby in Elizabeth’s womb (the yet-to-be-born John the Baptist) lept upon hearing Mary’s voice, and that Elizabeth exclaimed “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” In response, Mary offers a joyous song of praise. She says:
My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
Once Mary speaks, her voice is naturally a Jewish voice. Her prayer is deeply rooted in the forms, words, and images of her Jewish community, echoing the Psalms, as well as Hannah’s prayer found in the Book of Samuel. Mary’s Magnificat, as her song is popularly known, has a proud place within Christian piety.
When you spend time with this prayer, its ubiquity in Christian piety is understandable. The joy of this prayer is infectious. When we wonder this Christmas how Mary felt about her pregnancy, and about her God, we can turn to the song of praise that she sang to her cousin. In the warm embrace of female friendship, Mary was able to openly sing her song of Christmas joy.
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Dr. Homayra Ziad
Homayra Ziad, Ph.D. (Muslim Scholar, ICJS)
I knew the story of the Visitation, beautifully described by my colleague, Dr. Heather Rubens, through a very different source, and in a very different context: in the poetry of Jalaluddin Rumi.
You may know Rumi through the myriad translations and loose adaptations of his work into English. But before this thirteenth-century theologian, poet and spiritual adept became the beloved bard of the New Age, his rich, macaronic language and joyful, complex spirit had made its way into every nook and cranny of the Muslim world. Because of its tremendous cultural and spiritual impact, Rumi’s Masnavi, a six-volume poem of rhyming couplets, is called “the Qur’an in Persian.”
Mary appears as a key figure through whom Rumi refracts the path of the spiritual seeker.
One such tale lovingly describes the Visitation, which Rumi entitles “How Yahyá [John], on whom be peace, in his mother’s womb bowed in worship to the Messiah (Jesus), on whom be peace.”
But why would a Muslim poet assume that the Visitation would resonate with his audience? Of course, Rumi wrote in a cosmopolitan multi-religious context, in a Muslim land that had once been a part of Byzantium. But on a more basic level, Mary is an animating figure in the foundational scripture of Islam, the Qur’an. A chapter of the Qur’an is named after her. She is Maryam, the mother of Jesus, a messenger of God. The Qur’an calls her a sign from God, a woman of truth, an example for the believers.
The chapter that is named for her begins with the birth of John the Baptist and then moves into the story of the virgin birth – her pregnancy, her seclusion and the birth itself. But what is most striking about this Qur’anic passage is that it acknowledges and honors the pain of labor. As she cries out, God acts as midwife, tending to her with words of comfort and fresh dates from the palm tree to which she clings.
And like Mary and Elizabeth’s encounter in the Gospel of Luke, a birth that could have been a burden becomes a joy and a gift. Rumi would refract this again through the lens of the spiritual path, whose every step is a painful struggle against our baser selves but whose end-goal is the bliss of communion with God:
The body is like Mary, he writes. Each of us has a Jesus, but so long as no pain appears, our Jesus is not born. If pain never comes, our Jesus goes back to his place of origin on the same secret path he had come, and we remain behind, deprived and without a share of him.
Our thanks to Dr. Rubens and Dr. Ziad for their contributions to the show and this blog. The ICJS is a non-profit that addresses the contemporary challenges of religious pluralism. Visit www.icjs.org to learn about their workshops, classes, and other events. Scholar photos courtesy of icjs.org. Blog image: Daret Jacques “Visitation” courtesy of Wikipedia.