Dialogue

  • Issue 81 / May - June 2011



    Mary: Her Conception and the Birth of the Messiah

    Clare Julian Meryem Tuz

    Why we chose Mary
    We are a small group of women of Turkish-Muslim and Catholic origins who became acquainted in the Spring of 2009 and immediately recognized our soulful connection with one another. Since that time, we have been meeting regularly to share our faith and love of God. During our studies we discovered that Mary holds a unique place of reverence in both our traditions. For instance, she is the only woman mentioned by name in the Holy Qur’an, and is mentioned in twelve chapters throughout the Qur’an, a total of thirty-four times, (The Fountain Magazine, Issue 72, pg 46ff). One chapter in particular, Sura 19, (Maryam), is named after her. In addition, within the Catholic tradition the honors given to Mary are innumerable. Litanies composed in her honor and prayed at various times throughout the year reveal such titles as: Mother of our Redemption, Mother of Comfort and Understanding, Immaculate Conception, Our Lady of Perpetual Help, just to name a few!

    But why did we actually choose Mary to begin our more formal studies together? Perhaps on a more unconscious level the need for the universal, open-hearted Mother is keenly felt by many of us at a time when other sources of grounding and spiritual nourishment are so troubled in our world. Perhaps it was because we intuitively understood that Mary reveals to us a sublime expression of what it means to be truly human; to be incomparably holy, yet void of any judgment or dualism; of strong Jewish culture and spirituality, yet universally receptive to all of God's people.


    The conception and the birth of the Messiah
    Christianity and Islam each teach that Mary was chosen to be the mother of the Messiah Jesus/Isa, and that her conception was accomplished by God’s miraculous intervention, and not by human intimacy. Both traditions record that the Angel Gabriel appeared to Mary announcing to her that she had found favor with God:

    “Mary, full of Grace, blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” (Luke 1:26ff)

    “Mary, God gives you the glad tidings of a Word from Him, to be called the Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, highly honored in the world and the Hereafter, and one of those near-stationed to God.” (Sura 3:45)

    When Mary questioned the angel as to how this could be accomplished, since she “did not know man,” Gabriel once again responded very similarly in both Holy Scriptures.

    “The Power of the Most High will over shadow you so that the Holy One to be born shall be called, the Son of God.” (Luke 1:34-36)

    “God creates whatever God wills. He does but say to it 'Be' and it is.” (Sura 19:35);”We breathed onto her out of our Spirit and We made her and her son a miraculous sign.” (Sura 21:91)


    Although the Qur’an makes no direct mention of Mary's visit with her cousin Elizabeth, as recorded in the New Testament, the encounter is well-known among Muslims and is tenderly represented in a beautiful Muslim film depicting the life of Mary.[1] Further, both the Qur’an and the Bible make mention of Zachariah’s three days without speech during these events, as a consequence of his having asked God for a “sign” (Luke 1:18ff; Sura 19:10).

    Christianity and Islam agree that Mary was alone when the angel Gabriel appeared to her. Islam, however, also holds that at the actual moment in which Mary gave birth to Isa in Bethlehem, she was again without human companionship. The Qur’an records that Mary was alone in the desert and that during moments of great distress, just prior to Isa’s birth, God comforted and reassured her. He provided nourishment to her from a nearby sacred date palm tree, as well as refreshment from a rivulet which miraculously appeared. Shortly after his birth, the infant Isa/Jesus spoke reassuring and comforting words to his mother who vowed to remain in silence that day and “enter into no talk with any human being” (Sura 19:26).

    The Christian image of the birth of Jesus differs on several accounts. In the New Testament, Mary is betrothed to Joseph who assumes the role of her chaste companion, and the guardian and protector of her and her child. It is usual for Christians to visualize Mary and Joseph together in a stable or cave with the babe Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger; indeed this is the scene described in the Gospel account by St. Luke. However, the precise moment of Jesus' birth is not revealed to us, only the setting following his birth. It is actually later that night or perhaps the following day that is described by St. Luke in the Gospel account when the shepherds arrive and “marvel,” in the company of Mary and Joseph, at the sight of the infant Messiah wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger (Luke 1:8ff). It is interesting to note that in contrast to the “marveling” of the shepherds, Luke uses the phrase, “but Mary kept all these things in her heart.” Might we consider this notation a subtle reference to the vow of “silence” Mary may have been keeping that day, which the Qur’an more explicitly makes reference to?

    It is also worth noting that accounts of Jesus' actual birth, revealed in both the writings of Mary of Agreda and Catherine Emmerich, [2] indicate that Mary was alone in the company of the Divine during the moments in which she gave birth to the Messiah. Catherine Emmerich, a Catholic nun and mystic of the seventeenth century, for instance states that Joseph noticing the supernatural light surrounding Mary, “went into his little cell and threw himself on his face in prayer.” Similarly, Mary Agreda, also a Catholic nun and mystic of the fourteenth century, records that Joseph had retreated to another section of the cave and kept prayerful vigil through the night. Reminiscent of the scene in the Qur’an, she writes that shortly after his birth the infant Jesus actually spoke comforting words to his mother![3]

    Of further interest is an account given by Catherine Emmerich of what happened just hours before the Nativity, in which Mary and Joseph take a walk through the valley behind the Cave, and visit the “tomb of Mahara (Abraham's nurse).” This tomb was situated near a “sacred tree.” While at this site, Joseph and Mary spent time in prayer together. At one point it was decided that Joseph would go into the city of Bethlehem to obtain some provisions, leaving Mary by herself. This image of Mary being alone on the outskirts of the city and near a sacred tree shortly before the birth of Jesus bears a remarkable resemblance to the scene recorded in the Qur’an where Mary, just prior to Isa's birth, is alone in a remote area of Bethlehem and near a sacred date palm tree. Catherine Emmerich records that when Joseph returned with their provisions he accompanied Mary back to the cave and shortly thereafter she gave birth to Jesus.[5] Muslims believe that Mary gave birth to her child at this sacred tree (Sura 19:23ff).

    We would like to make one last observation regarding Mary's conception and the birth of the Messiah. As clearly noted in the Qur’an, but only alluded to in the Gospels, Mary is scorned by those who judged the birth of Jesus to be the product of an adulterous relationship. This may account in part for the distress she experienced recorded in Sura 19 above when God comforted her moments before giving birth. Other passages in the Qur’an make reference to a confrontation between Mary and her own people regarding Isa's birth. They exclaim to her, “O Mary! Assuredly you have done unexpected and strange things. O sister of Aaron, your father was never a wicked man, nor was your mother unchaste” (Sura 19:27-28). In comparison, one may examine a subtle reference made in the Gospel of John. In chapters seven and eight St John describes a setting in which Jesus was confronted by a few false religious leaders. In the course of their taunting, they infer that Jesus was the “son of a Samaritan.” Though more subtle in its inference, the judgment being made regarding Mary's reputation and the implication that Jesus was the product of an illicit relationship is apparent. Jesus' response to them, "you dishonor me" is particularly appropriate in light of this. Hence, the Qur’an seems to convey more clearly the painful experience which Mary in particular underwent in this matter.

    Although not completely identical in their details, these accounts of Mary's experience regarding the conception and birth of Jesus contain many astounding parallels. Perhaps what seems at a first reading to be irreconcilable differences presented in the Gospels and in the Qur’an are in reality only partial glimpses of a more total picture. This more "total" picture is not absent in the sacred writings of each tradition, but merely some aspects are hidden. If we ponder them with an open heart perhaps they will allow us to enter something much greater and more profound.


    Mary - the "Kli" of Jewish mysticism:
    Although the virgin birth of Jesus by Divine intervention is not honored in Judaism as it is in Christianity and Islam, it is interesting to note a comparable theme revealed in the spiritual teachings of Jewish mysticism, known as “Kabbalah.” Though complex in theory at times, an aspect of Kabbalah teaching may be applied to Mary and perhaps thus more easily understood.

    Essential to the teachings of Kabbalah is the understanding that God, the Divine Creator, is in His very essence the “Will to Bestow.” In other words, God is God because He is continually in the act of Self-Giving, and possesses no other desire than to Bestow His Abundance onto His Creation. By contrast, the created were created and designed to receive God's Abundance. This is known in Kabbalah as the “Will to Receive.” Thus, God created His creation in order to receive of His goodness and thereby accommodate his Desire to Give and Bestow. The created’s will to receive is compared to an empty cup or vessel waiting to be filled by God’s abundance. This vessel is known in Kabbalah as “Kli.” Kabbalah teaches that although God's Will to Bestow is continually and perfectly being manifested, the created’s will to receive is limited and marred by egocentric needs.[6]

    If one takes a quantum leap of association one may use the teachings of Jewish mysticism to perceive Mary as the ultimate model of “Kli,” (i.e. the human receptivity to God, totally emptied of the self-serving ego). In her pristine human desire to please God and receive God’s Will, referred to in the Gospel’s as her Fiat – “Be it done unto me according to your Will” – Mary perfectly fulfills the essence of her existence. By way of her selfless love for God, her unwavering trust in His Benevolence, and complete receptivity to His Will to Bestow, Mary, the perfect “Kli,” becomes a means that God brings forth through her what has been previously unrealized - the fullness of His own Divine bliss manifested in the soul and humanity of Jesus.

    Just as we are discovering through quantum sciences that our own thoughts or intentions will eventually be manifested on the physical plane in some form or other, so too, a thought or word or intention that exists in the “mind” of God – so to speak – will ultimately be realized in physical reality as well. It is interesting to note that Jesus is known and referred to as the “Word” of God in both Islam and Christianity (Qur’an 3:45; John 1:1-3,14).

    On the mundane and practical level, the human mind has difficulty grasping Mary's miraculous conception and the virgin birth of Jesus, but in the mystical realm of Kabbalah, for instance, we may come to acknowledge Mary's experience as the receptivity to God as we were all created to be and the manifestation of His Love as we were all meant to bring It forth into the world.

    From the heart - how Mary has personally touched us Who is Mary in my life?
    by Ayse

    When we first started to come together and share our faith with each other, I realized how much more I needed to learn about my own faith. I had always been told that my faith brings together all Abrahamic religions and the name of my faith stood for peace: Islam. I could understand it in my mind. But as we came together, as we studied the Bible and the Qur’an and found how God loved diversity and thus created us in different shapes, colors, nationalities and so on, my heart started to agree with what my mind had been saying. That is when my heart began to work with my mind. Now, I feel God in my heart.

    As time passed and as we studied Abraham, Jesus, the Night Journey, and Mary, my own faith started to get stronger. Mary was Jesus' mother and one of the most praised female characters in the Qur’an; I knew this before we started to study Mary in both traditions. Now Mary represents how much God loves women as His own creation, as He gives her name to a large section of His own sacred book. In my country I was asked so many times about the women rights in Islam. Now I think I know the answer. Mary is obedient to God's order, she stands strong in her community and is proud of her baby, while being very humble in her relationship with God, as pure as an angel. In this way, Mary (may God be pleased with her) has taught me: I am obedient, I am humble, I refrain from sins and I am still standing as a woman of my time in my community; as I do these I become closer to God. I would love to spend my whole life in this way. I would like to thank all my friends who worked together on this article and who helped me to understand Mary in my mind and feel her in my heart.

    Mary in my life
    by Hulya K.

    First of all, during our meetings I learned how important the interfaith dialogue is. God loves diversity and created us so different from one another. At the same time, He created us with common values. Yes, we all have eyes, ears, fingers, and even fingerprints but they are also all different from each other. Similarly, our faiths have the same values, like Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Mary. The discussion of Abraham, Jesus, and Mary in Christianity and Islam makes my faith stronger and deeper.

    In addition, I have learned many things about the life of Mary. I am inspired by her trust in God. It is not important how bad the situation you are in or what people say about you. Just trust God. Just do what He wants. Just accept what He gives you. Do not say a word. Be silent and trust God. He knows and gives the best for you. In Turkey, she is known as “Mother Mary.” Now, I can understand why this is so... Thank you my dear friends and thank you Fethullah Gulen for your ideas which encourage us to come together.

    Another dimension of awareness of Mary
    by Clare

    As present as Mary has been these many years in my life, the depth of my awareness and love for her has grown even more deeply during these weeks of our inter-faith study of her. As a Christian I am particularly blessed by exposure to aspects of Mary's life found in the Qur’an but generally absent in the Gospels. They have opened up for me another dimension of Mary's great heart and soul. I think of Mary as a key to true peace among people. When she is revealed in the heart, the heart grows to love her, but also feels it is loved and welcomed unconditionally by her. In the Catholic tradition one of her titles is, "Our Lady of all the Nations.” Through the "virgin point" in her heart and soul, which she never abandoned, I am led into further depths of knowing and loving Jesus, and through her universal motherhood and love of all people, I am led into further depths of knowing and loving my sisters and brothers of all faiths.

    My feelings towards Mary
    by Hulya T.

    My feelings towards Mary began when I watched a movie about her during my pregnancy. Later, I started reciting Sura Mary from the Qur’an and also read the translation of it many times. When I was in difficulty, I remembered her. I thought how she coped with so much trouble. How brave she was, how self-confident she was. How powerful her faith was. In our meetings, a different window opened for me. I learnt the perspective of different faiths of Mary. I learnt their respect towards her. The more I learnt, the more I loved. Most importantly, I saw the whole picture. Actually, the similarities between our faiths are much greater than the differences. These sentences are just an example of what I feel. Last but not least, I would like to thank my dear friends.

    Conclusion
    Relating to one another and learning from one another in a spirit of trust and love is the most precious gift. As Rumi, the beloved Sufi mystic of the thirteenth century expressed, "There was a dawn I remembered when my soul heard something from your soul.” This “dawn remembered” is nothing less than our common oneness in God's “heart.” What appears to our mind at times as irreconcilable differences may be transformed and integrated into a greater perspective when we open it to God's grace. This is what we experienced in our study of Mary.

    In the Catholic tradition, it is believed by many that Mary has been appearing to visionaries in Medjugje, Bosnia since 1981. Her continual message to the world has been to “Pray, Pray, Pray.” During the early years of apparitions, it was recorded that her message also included admonition to respect the beliefs of all people. “God is One and Indivisible,” she said and cautioned against the dreadful divisions being created in the world. Around this same time, Mary made special mention of a holy and humble woman named Pasha and asked that we try to become more like her. It was discovered that Pasha was a Muslim woman who lived in the nearby city of Sarajevo. [7] Mary’s message that day reveals a profound wisdom and all-inclusive love for us to ponder. In the context of apparitions considered to be “Catholic,” the Blessed Virgin Mary admonished her children to be more like a holy Muslim woman.

    The Qur’an states that no one knows the true meaning of the Book (i.e. the Qur’an, the Torah and the Gospels) except God and those of true understanding, (Sura 3:7) and that He will one day make clear our misunderstandings. “Whatever you differ on, the final judgment about it is with God. Such is God, my Lord: in Him I put my trust, and to Him I turn in devotion” (Sura 42:10). These words reassure us that God Himself will bring into clarity what is now dimly understood, as the apostle Paul also states in his letter to the Corinthians, “Now we see through a mirror dimly, but then we shall see face to face (1Cor. 13:12ff).
    Mary has given us a great gift on this journey. We praise and thank her for it. There is still a great distance yet to go. In trust we wait for God to show us more.

    A former member of a Catholic Contemplative Order, Clare Julian is a licensed clinical social worker who currently lives and works in SLC. She has a deep passion for the potential of healing through inter-spiritual dialogue and friendship, and has been greatly blessed by both. Meryem Tuz is a dialogue activist in USA. She graduated from Middle East Technical University, Ankara, Turkey, with a major in chemistry.

    Notes
    1. “St. Mary” directed by Shahriar Bahrani, 2007.
    2. Catholic nuns of the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries who received divine revelation of Mary’s life.
    3. Catherine Emmerich. The Life of the Blessed Virgin Mary; p. 197.
    4. Mary Agreda. Mystical City of God, p. 231.
    5. Emmerich, pp. 195–197.
    6. See B'nei Baruch Kabbalah, kabbalahlearningcenter.info.
    7. Mary Craig. 1988. Spark from Heaven: Mystery of the Madonna.

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