It was a scene I found initially arresting. A few seconds later, it had suddenly become repulsive–as if I’d witnessed an indecency. It left me ambivalent and confused. It was a courageous moment of artistic freedom that I should, by all rights, be cheering.
Patty and I were watching a documentary about a spin-off of the phenomenally successful American Idol show. What makes this film noteworthy is that it is set in Afghanistan, a nation mesmerized by their scaled-down version of this singing competition. Two of the four finalists were women—a minor scandal in its own right. Setara is the singer pushing the cultural envelope in hopes of becoming the next Afghan Star. The camera followed her performance as she tries to join the elite top three.
It was deceptively prosaic–to western eyes—unremarkable. With the barest flick of the wrist the gauzy veil covering Setara’s black hair slips back as she sings in front of the panel of judges and millions of Muslim viewers. It was an assertion of independence from binding, implacable dogmatic constraints that dehumanize and demean. The hooligan, Boston Tea Party supporter in me was stirred by her bold act of defiance.
What looked to be a sly but calculated element of choreography was actually transgressive behavior similar to Bush’s invasion of Iraq. The Islamic viewership was to be simultaneously shocked and awed. But this little drama was much more than an artistic statement, a public rejection of cultural, religious norms. As her veil slid off her head it wrapped itself around the participant and her viewers in a conspiracy of shame. What was transpiring was an exhibition of public sensuality as scandalous as an Idol contestant disrobing in front of the four panelists. By exerting her right to exhibit her beautiful hair, Setara not only shocked, she shamed the conscience of a nation. Therein lies the explanation for my inexplicable queasiness.
I was caught off guard in the middle of a sudden nauseating storm. While the rebel, Son of Liberty raucously celebrated, the loyalist Tory in me was dismayed and repelled. Freedom at odds with Tradition. A rocking boat careening on the foaming waves of independence sliding into the quiet troughs of dutiful submission. And, oddly enough, I thought of Virgin Mary who had to survive a storm of her own to become the mother of God.
Apocryphal sources, which the early church declared to be useful but not divinely inspired, support the tradition that Joachim and Anne were the parents of Mary. According to the Gospel of James, written about 50 years after the death of the apostle John, they had been childless for many years but received a heavenly message that they would bear a child. When Mary was perhaps three years old, they brought her to the Temple in Jerusalem to consecrate her to God. The document recites the belief that Mary remained in the Temple until puberty, at which point she was assigned to Joseph as her guardian. Later versions of the story appear in the Gosple of Pseudo-Matthew and the Gospel of the Nativity of Mary. The Dedication of Mary are holy feast days still celebrated by the Orthodox and the Roman Catholic church.
I am used to thinking about Mary as a poor peasant girl, living a placid, rural life in a backwater town of no significance, at a far remove from the stimulating rhythms of religious and political power. I think of her as a little country girl, with not much to offer or to give up. These stories would indicate that she may have had more status, more on the line that I’ve been led to believe. The historicity of these narratives are not ultimately significant. What matters is the reminder that Mary was a young woman with rights—no less, but–perhaps, a little more than most of us.
Maybe she had the right to be treated as an honored individual who’d been raised and educated and faithfully served for years in the Temple. In a quaint, traditionalist country village, this would have made her a star. Perhaps little Mary was more like the winner of the Israeli Idol show—a big fish in a little pond. She was used to being admired as the golden-child; pointed to and nodded at approvingly. So, when the tide shifted and crowds began to clamor for her Son’s blood, maybe she understood all too well the sword thrusts of fickle admiration.
Regardless. Whether she was famous or unheralded, celebrated or unknown, there is no doubt that as this tender, teenage girl was formulating the words of holy assent, with exemplary abnegation she had first had to utter a resounding, “no!” Her “be it unto me” was impaled on the barbed points of a thousand condemning stares behind a forest of accusatory fingers. To accept the Archangel’s message was to deny place, status, honor, respect, dignity. It was a renunciation of the blessed, sisterly solidarity of the red tent. Mary’s assent was a willingness to become a curse-word, to be known as the one who fell, who failed, who let down her family and her entire village—to be stigmatized.
The bowed head was not obedience to command but submission to a wrenching vocation—a life-long death, culminating in what is worse than death, a mother’s heart being ground to powder as she helplessly observes her son’s slow, brutalizing murder. She was surrendering her right to personal happiness, to self-actualization, to freedom from shame, accusation, misunderstanding, to the full and free exercise of her gifts.
Being the handmaiden of God meant she gave up the right to position, to fulfillment of her dreams, to being significant, to having a voice. As far as she knew, she would henceforth never, ever be taken seriously again. Women and men would look at her as though she were of no value. She lay down all her rights and become her town’s doormat.
How different the insatiable, rapacious greed of the Morning Star that replaced glory mantle with Serpent scales. His “yes” was a demand—for a place, a throne, recognition, stature and status, and the full and unrestricted exercise of his many notable gifts. His affirmation was also a denial, it was a negation of submission, self-dying, self-emptying, sacrificial love. “I shall not let God dictate the level to which I can rise. I shall not lay down but rather be lifted up to the heights!”
Satan’s insistence was a defiant throwing off of the demure veil—“I shall expose all of my beauty to whomever I choose in the manner I choose. I deserve to be treated as an equal. No one shall put me under oppressive, negative, limiting, restrictions. I shall throw off the ancient curbs and checks; shall break through the condescending, demeaning hierarchical boundaries that oppress and circumscribe my identity. I am gifted. I shall not be denied. I am nobody’s inferior. I shall have a place!
Not so meek and mighty Mary whose beauty and exaltation—her everlasting glory was to accept the unjust veil, laden with inescapable shame–its cloying stigma of dishonor. Who in humbling herself to the lowest place is now revered as Queen of Heaven–forever.