The title of this book is intriguing, and yet perhaps for some confusing. We all know that Mary had no gospel and the “good news” is truly her Son. The helpful subtitle gives us the real reason we read Frederika Matthewes-Green’s latest book. She offers some texts about the Virgin Mary which are to many Christians unknown and unavailable.
Eastern Orthodox writer Matthewes-Greene has written an ecumenical book that offers Catholics and Protestants, and even some fellow Orthodox Christians, a look at an apocryphal gospel and two ancient prayers that offer valid insight into the mother who bore Christ. When a non-Orthodox reader launches into this book, however, there are a few statements by the author about non-Eastern Orthodox Christians, where she has described some positions in Christian history which attested negative ideas about the source of her Gospels of Mary. Generally these no longer exist and are no longer really held. For example, she has chosen the title “The Gospel of Mary,” she writes, because it “was excluded from the Roman Catholic tradition because it shows Joseph as a widower. (And there’s another element in the story that so outraged St. Jerome that he termed any work where it appears ‘ravings’ – we’ll get to that later on.)” Most Roman Catholics today either are completely unaware of the tradition of this “Gospel of Mary” as she calls this Proto-Gospel of James, or they are familiar with it due to liturgical art through the ages which depended on this source (such as the stained glass windows in Europe’s Gothic cathedrals), or they are familiar because they have studied Mariology.
The book redeems itself, however, and in a captivating way. As a convert to Eastern Orthodoxy, Matthewes-Green can deliver concepts and describe the traditions of eastern Christianity in a refreshing “western” way. She includes in this little book, a page by page analysis of the Proto-Gospel of James with an English translation on one page and her commentary opposite. She is clearly aware of many innuendos that come from the translation of this document from Greek, meanings that a mere English translation would not offer. The next section of her book includes the ancient prayer text known in Latin as the Sub Tuum Subsidium, which the author titles Under Your Compassion. This may be the strongest part of her commentary in the collection of early source material. She tackles the delicate issue of “asking Mary’s prayers,” a topic so important to ecumenical dialogue today. Her graceful way in considering “prayer,” “the saints,” and this ancient petition for help to Mary who bore Christ is gentle and nicely convincing. She writes: “Some Christians who have found prayer companions among the saints report that it has enhanced their faith in undeniable ways – prayers answered, miracles attained, peace received.” She demonstrates the argument for prayer and the mediation of the Virgin Mary from the ages-old experience of Christians, and in this prayer, from ages before Christian division.
The third section of her book is devoted to her own translation and commentary on the ancient prayer, usually chanted in eastern churches of Christianity during the first five weeks of Lent. For many who have glanced at a prayer book with this Annunciation Hymn, as she calls it, they have found confusing rubrics and stilted translation. It is a hymn composed during ancient stressful times when the faithful recognized the powerful protection of Virgin Mary. It is not a hymn of petition begging Mary’s help but a hymn of devotion, a long and poetic hymn that praises the young woman who answered God’s call and gave her “yes.” Named the Akathistos, meaning “not sitting down,” it is a hymn recognizing Mary as a “hometown hero” as the author writes. “As the first step in our rescue, God invited the participation of a real human being, one who had an ordinary human body, which ate and itched and grew tired just like ours. His plan required the partnership of a regular person, and he didn’t choose someone who was powerful, strong or famous; he chose a girl. Everything turned on that moment, and Mary said yes. That seems enough to warrant a ticker-tape parade.” In her contemporary language, the author is pointing to why the ancient hymn of the Akathistos is long, replete with images of beauty, and explores in a multitude of poetic stanzas the very moment of when Gabriel rushed to Mary with the invitation from God. She writes: “Who can comprehend what must have been in her heart in those days, or how severely her faith was tried?”
If the reader perseveres through the three parts of this book, understanding the author’s point of view – which is to share some of the wisdom and beauty of ancient sources about Mary, the mother of Christ – he or she will be inspired to learn more, to reflect on these sources, and to pray. What better purpose can a book serve?
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