Jesus may be the reason for the season, but as with most births, it’s his mother who’s the real hero of the Christmas story. Having undergone a lengthy and dangerous journey to Bethlehem, the teenage Mary gives birth in uncomfortable conditions and without the support of her immediate family. After the nativity, Mary only makes a few cameos in the Gospels; we hear almost nothing about Jesus’s upbringing and Jesus is dismissive of her on at least two occasions. But there’s a lot more to say about the woman whom Christian tradition describes as “the mother of God” and “Queen of Heaven.”
1. She’s a Big Deal in the Quran and Muslim Tradition
Mary is the most important woman in Christianity, but in truth there are more references to Mary in the Quran than there are in the Bible. In fact, Mary—or Maryam—is the only woman to be referred to by name in the Quran (the names of other women are inferred from tradition). A hadith (traditional saying) adds that “the Prophet names Mary as one of the four spiritually perfected women of the world,” (763) who will “lead the soul of blessed women to Paradise” (143).
The Quran supports the idea of a Virgin birth. In the Quran God declares, “[Mary is the one who] preserved her chastity. We breathed Our Spirit into her and made her, and her son, signs to the worlds” (Q 21.91) The description of the birth of Jesus sounds a great deal like the birth of Adam: God breathes life into something. Some people have seen this as anti-Christian polemic, but Gabriel Reynolds, a professor at the University of Notre Dame, notes in his book The Qur’an and Its Biblical Subtext that “when the Qur’an compares the birth of Christ with that of Adam… it is indeed making a polemical point, only not against Christians. On the contrary, it is arguing against the Jews who deny the Virgin Birth and Christ himself.”
Interestingly, the Quran is completely silent about the role of Joseph. In this version of the Virgin Birth, an angel announces that Mary will give birth, Mary consents (as she does in the Gospel of Luke) but, later, feels forgotten and abandoned. As she is overcome by the burden of pregnancy, she cries out “Would that I had died before this and was a thing forgotten, utterly forgotten!” (19:23). The angel shows her running water and a date tree to ease her suffering. The reference to eating dates is especially noteworthy as, even today, dates are thought to induce labor. After giving birth, Mary returns with her child to the Temple. There, Jesus miraculous speaks (as an infant) and proclaims his identity as a prophet. To this day March 25, the Day of the Annunciation, is a public holiday in Lebanon.
2. Mary didn’t die but she did go to Hell
OK, that’s a little click-bait-ish of me. Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christians maintain that rather than dying Mary either fell asleep (known as the “dormition”) or ascended (her “assumption”) into heaven. But despite not dying herself, there are a number of different ancient texts that describe Mary descending into hell. There she gets to witness the tortures and torments of those who lied, stole from the poor, committed adultery, and so forth. The earliest of these is the Book of Mary's Repose (Liber Requiei Marieae), which might have been written as early as the second or third centuries A.D. In the stories about her descent to hell, Mary is distressed by the agonies suffered by the damned and tries to intercede for them in order to alleviate their suffering.
We have other, similar stories about the Apostles undertaking descents to hell, but there’s something distinctive about Mary. Dr. Meghan Henning, an assistant professor of the New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of Dayton, told The Daily Beast “Mary's special identity as Jesus' mother seems to play a role” in these stories. “Her requests not only carry more weight because she is a mother, but in some of the medieval apocalypses she even offers to suffer herself alongside the damned. This is significant because no male apostle makes this offer.” Mary’s not just doing the same kind of thing as the apostles, Henning said, she is imitating the actions and role of Jesus himself.
3. She might set you on fire.
I do not mean this metaphorically in the way that some Christians talk about being “on fire” with the Spirit. I mean this literally. One of the earliest apocryphal stories about Mary portrays her as a studious and pious Jewish girl who practically grew up in the temple, the way that ancient Vestal Virgins in Rome were devoted to the cult of Vesta (there’s no historical evidence for this). Some, however, dared to question her virginity. In one early second century story known as the Protoevangelium of James, a woman named Salome refuses to believe that Mary is still a virgin even after having given birth to Jesus. She says to the midwife that “unless I thrust in my finger, and search the parts, I will not believe that a virgin has brought forth.” In the earliest recorded description of a gynecological exam, Salome proceeds to physically examine Mary herself. As soon as she does Salome’s hand begins to drop off as if it was being burned by fire. Do not mess with Mary. As soon as Salome holds the infant, her hand is miraculously cured; making this the first miracle performed by (baby) Jesus.
The point of the story, according to Lily Vuong, associate professor at Central Washington University and author of a superb and newly published translation and commentary on the text, is to show that Mary is “extraordinarily pure” and “holds the status of Semper Virgo” meaning that she remains a virgin “before, during, and after the birth of Jesus.” For this story it’s Mary’s status as a post-partum virgin, rather than her virginal conception that’s the climactic miracle of the nativity story. It’s from this text, Vuong told me, that Christians get many of their traditions about who Mary and Joseph were. It’s here that we learn the names of Mary’s parents (Anna and Joachim); get the idea that Joseph was elderly and, thus, a protector figure for Mary; and the impression that the annunciation took place by a well (a major feature in artistic tradition).
4. The Immaculate Conception is about the birth of Mary, not Jesus.
One of the biggest mix-ups in popular theology is the idea that the Virgin Birth and the Immaculate Conception are both terms that describe the birth of Jesus. The Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is a 19th century Catholic teaching that actually refers to the teaching that Mary herself was conceived without sin. Vuong told the Daily Beast that, “Some scholars have tried to find support for the Immaculate Conception in the Protoevangelium of James, since Mary is conceived in a miraculous fashion, but it would be anachronistic to make a direct link to the 1854 Doctrine.” It would be an even bigger mistake to use the term to refer to the birth of Jesus.