Fire-breathing Mary

21 Dec

In the Questions of Bartholomew, Bartholomew and his fellow apostles ask Jesus profound questions, like “how many souls leave the world every day?” “what’s the worst sin?” and “can we see the abyss?” Although they often tremble while asking, they still want answers. Vacillating between encouragement and admonishment (oh, Christ: always a tease), the resurrected Jesus offers terrifying responses to their inquiries. He shows them the blinding abyss, makes Bartholomew stand on Satan’s neck, and shares with them many secrets of the cosmos. Throughout all of this, the apostles frequently fall to the ground in terror, covering their faces.

One of the most striking incidents in this text comes not from Jesus, however, but from his mother. At the apostles’ repeated request, Mary begins to speak of how “he who is hardly contained by the seven heavens was pleased to be contained” in her womb (II.12). She explains that three years before her pregnancy, she spoke with God, who fed her reappearing (!) bread and wine while disguised as an angel.

More astonishing than the story itself, however, is the circumstance of its telling. She assigns four apostles each a part of her body, so they can all hold her down while she speaks.

And when she had ended the prayer she began to say to them, ‘Let us sit down upon the ground; and come, Peter the chief, and sit on my right hand and put your left hand beneath my armpit; and you, Andrew, do so on my left hand; and you, John, the virgin, hold my bosom; and you, Bartholomew, set your knees against my back and hold my shoulders, lest when I begin to speak my bones be loosed from one another.’ (II.14)

And while she’s talking about angels, earthquakes, and ineffable encounters, fire spews from her mouth:

And as she was saying this, fire issued out of her mouth; and the world was at the point to come to an end. But Jesus appeared quickly and laid his hand upon her mouth and said unto Mary, ‘Utter not this mystery, or this day my whole creation will come to an end,’ and the flame from her mouth ceased. And the apostles were taken with fear lest the Lord should be angry with them. (II.22)

Mary, so often depicted as gentle, loving, and protective–the ultimate mother–transforms into an apocalyptic force of destruction. The apostles, pining her down, sit intimately close to the massive, all-consuming flames. Because she assigns them each a side of her to hold (creating a very cross-like formation), Mary either moves violently or is on the brink of collapse. Not to mention the fact that these four (chaste) men are holding down one (holy) woman–the mother of their Lord, no less!–seems potentially scandalous. But their group hug around Mary doesn’t phase Jesus at all. He simply covers her mouth, stopping words and flames alike, so that the world may be preserved.

Just as paradoxical as a savior-bearing and world-ending mother, the details of Jesus’ conception threatens to undo all that has been conceived. This kind of knowledge is dangerous. And yet, Bartholomew continues to ask more questions. Although some answers are truncated like this one, and peppered with references to ineffability, it’s not as if Jesus stops his mother before she starts her story. Mary risks “having her bones loosened.” She prepares for the repercussions of telling the unspeakable.

In spite of Jesus’ claim that she shouldn’t utter the mystery at all, the storytelling begins and the fires rise.

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