It seems that everyone but me went to Japan last spring, seeing Tokyo and Kyoto, eating luscious ramen and buying too cute sweets, experiencing both the open air hot spring and the capsule hotel, and even visiting the shrine of Mary in Akita.
Which Mary? Mary the mother of Jesus. There are shrines for Mary throughout the world, even in places where Christianity is not significant such as Japan. Indonesia has more than a hundred of shrines of Mary (usually called gua Maria – Mary’s cave), mostly in Central Java, Yogyakarta, and Bangka Belitung).
Catholics celebrate May as the month of Mary. Nobody really knows why May was designated as month of Mary. My wild guess is that May is the peak of springtime in Europe, and the feast is an updated version of pre-Christian spring celebration, which began with Easter (or New Year in several Asian cultures). There is no special day or ceremony, but throughout the month churches and people would dedicate prays, pilgrimages, and works (including articles) to her.
Living about two millennia ago, the Jewish woman had no known surname – she is more famous for her son instead of her parents. What we know is that she lived by the name Maryam or Mariam (among the speakers of Aramaic, now an endangered Middle Eastern lingua franca) or Miriam (among the Hebrew speakers). She is revered in all branches of Christianity and Islam, and in general Christians and Muslims believe that Mary was a virgin who conceived and gave birth to Jesus.
The devotion to Mary, however, is very Catholic. One of the biggest dividers between Catholic and Protestant faiths is the view on Mary. The biggest concern for Protestants is that Catholics may confuse between respecting Mary with worshipping her, while Catholics maintain that they venerate, not worship Mary.
I went to a Catholic school, so certainly I grew up with Mary. Besides The Lord’s Prayer (Our Father), Catholic kids are expected to remember the Hail Mary prayer. Catholic children are also expected to be familiar with the Rosary, a prayer bead closely related to Mary.
And what did the school teach me about Mary? She’s probably the second most important figure in the religion, after Jesus. In Indonesia, God is of course on top of everything – the acceptance that Jesus is God helps too. In short, Mary is above all angels and saints, although she’s not a divine being like Jesus is. There’s a branch of Catholic theology called Mariology, which I mistakenly thought had to do with me.
Why can’t Mary be seen as a divine? The short answer from theologians would be “because she isn’t”. No mainstream religion, perhaps besides Hinduism (the sole survivor of all Indo-European polytheist systems), accepts a female god, even a lesser one. On the other hand, the female personification of divine forces existed in pre-Christian Europe and pre-Islam Middle East. Both Jewish and Greek philosophies (and their Christian offspring) personify Wisdom (Sophia) as a female.
The consequence of monotheism is there only one God, personified as male. Blame patriarchy – the Rule of Dad. But everyone longs for Mom too, not just to balance Dad, but as the nurturer and protector. Mary may not be a goddess, but it is certain that she was and is a mother. Some Protestant churches, worrying that eventually people will mix up Mary’s nature, refuse to take her beyond being the mother of Jesus – although, ironically, now more Protestant churches ordain female priests while the Catholic Church won’t discuss the idea.
I believe that Catholics throughout the world see Mary as the update to their culture’s traditional female divine and collective mother figure. There is a painting in my school of Mary as a Javanese goddess overlooks a Javanese village (it might be a copy of Basoeki Abdullah’s Maria painting). I used to collect images of Mary and baby Jesus in several cultures, such as Aboriginal Australian, Japanese, and Persian. Anti-Catholics (Protestants, Muslims, or atheists who take Dan Brown too seriously) claim that the Mary & baby Jesus motive is based on pagan statues, most notably the Egyptian Isis nursing Horus.
Perhaps so, but so what? I don’t doubt that the popularity of Christianity and of Mary comes from the millennia old trading of ideas and cultures along the Mediterranean. Religions throughout history, throughout the world always adapt other religions.
Javanese Catholics incorporate the ideals of Dewi Sri (literally “Great Goddess”, the personification of Earth) into Mary just like their ancestors associated her with the Hindu goddess Lakshmi. East Asian depictions of Mary resemble Mahayana Buddhist Guanyin or Kannon, known in Indonesia as Dewi (Goddess) or Mak (Mother) Kwan Im. It’s no coincidence that the largest concentration of gua Maria are in areas where Dewi Sri and Kwan Im were very important for people’s lives fifty years ago.
In college I joined a church group called Legion of Mary. It’s globally stereotyped as a grandma’s gang, but I was extremely lucky since the chapter I joined in had several Indonesian and Asian students. Despite the anemic meetings and bittersweet voluntary works in nursing home and poor neighborhoods, I am still nurturing friendships with those students. I still hold a “what if…” thought of choosing the Legion instead of the larger and more popular Indonesian Catholic Youth, but three lifelong friends are such a blessing. Perhaps it’s a gift from Mother Mary.
When I began writing, I started with the word “Goddess” but found it problematic. I don’t want to discuss the Goddess movement, which is too distant from Indonesian context, and is a fringe group even in Anglo-American feminism. The word “Mother” got the ball rolling, simply because it’s not only about the celebration of motherhood, but also about the celebration of womanhood. If several world religions can agree on one thing – and that is Mary is a good mother and a good woman – then she is a great blessing for humanity.