An extraordinary female figure, “whose greatness risks being impoverished, rather than enhanced, by dogmas and popular devotion”. There is maximum respect, but exclusive reference to the Bible, to the New Testament scriptures as a source of knowledge. The position of the Protestant Churches on the Mother of Jesus is well known. We spoke about this with the Tavola Valdese moderator, Alessandra Trotta, a Palermo-born lawyer and deacon. This is the second time a woman has assumed this role, one of the three women (including two pastors) among the seven members of the national governing body of the Waldensian Evangelical Church - Union of Methodist and Waldensian Churches, which also represents them in relations with the State.
Moderator Trotta, who is Mary for Protestantism?
The Waldensian Church, as well as the Churches that adhered to the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, is the Church of 'Sola Scriptura'. This means that for us Mary is what the Scriptures say about her. What has been constructed out of Scripture often perplexes us because it seems to us to risk deflecting and even betraying a figure whose value rests in what, precisely, the Scriptures say about her.
Describe to us some passages of the Gospel in which, according to you, Mary appears in all her greatness.
First of all the Magnificat (Luke 1:46 ff), is a wonderful, poetic, and revealing passage. Mary presents herself as the servant on whose lowliness the Lord has cast his gaze to perform His work of mercy, making explicit her awareness that she has been chosen not by virtue of any particular merit or purity. This is what often happens in the Bible, when the Lord chooses the outsiders, those on whom one would least bet. Mary is a teenager, and the position of women in the society in which Jesus was born, and alas in many respects in ours, is well known. The Magnificat says what is essential about Mary, i.e. she is the believer who accepts (consciously, after asking questions!) to make herself available to the Lord.
What other episodes do you think are particularly significant about Mary?
I think there are also those that bring out her ordinary humanity. Once again in Luke’s Gospel, for example, we find the episode in which the parents went to look for the twelve-year-old Jesus who had wandered off without permission, showing that they did not understand their son's destiny. In the wedding feast of Cana, on the other hand (John 2), Mary appears as an insistent and trusting woman, so much so that she makes Jesus change his mind about the appropriate time to reveal himself. The son says: my time has not yet come, but by her insistence Mary enables us to understand that, in Jesus' presence, it is always the right time for salvation. However, the testimony of the gospels also leads us to exclude the exaltation of family roles in and of itself, with the redefinition of the dimension of the 'family' that Jesus himself performs. Think of when Jesus is in the middle of the crowd and someone tells him that there is his mother, brothers and sisters looking for him to take him home. He replies; “Who is my mother, who are my brothers? Who does my Father’s will. Jesus redefines family identities, making blood ties less important in the face of the vision of a new community structured on other foundations and horizontal ties. Finally, Mary is encountered at the foot of the Cross, in the utmost pain of a woman about to lose her son in that atrocious way, and in the very human love of a son entrusting his mother to another son. Here, what Protestants think of Mary lies in these biblical passages. And it seems to us that all the essentials are there.
Protestants do not believe in the dogmas of perpetual virginity, Immaculate Conception, Assumption into heaven, they do not pray the Hail Mary. So what is the judgement on the great Marian devotion that characterises Catholicism?
As far as dogmas are concerned, it seems to us that they have no biblical foundation and risk impoverishing the meaning of the figure of Mary rather than enriching it. For example, attributing importance to being born without original sin in our opinion distances us from that element of humanity that makes Mary so true and close to us.
You are a woman at the top of your Church; do you find that a female figure like Mary can be an inspiration for women today?
I have the feeling that the valorization of Mary as a figure of reference, emphasizing her virginity, even her eternal virginity (which expresses the discomfort of accepting the existence of brothers and sisters, as the Bible tells us) risks tying the value of women to an imaginary that looks at sexuality as something impure and scandalous. Paradoxically, it is not necessarily the case that a female figure charged with this meaning is actually an inspiration in the struggles for the affirmation of equal dignity and equal rights for women in society and in the churches.
The image of Mary today also has other values; for example, she is a woman protagonist in a male world.
Of course. In fact, the dialogue with the angel Gabriel in the annunciation is also beautiful for this reason. A female figure is asked for consent at a time when no one would have done so. But I remember that the Bible is full of female figures of extraordinary value, recovered moreover by the strand of feminist theology.
So what is Mary’s specific value?
Mary expresses her highest value by entrusting herself and becoming an instrument of God's ‘possible’ that breaks through the human ‘impossible’. Here, the virgin birth, like the birth of a sterile woman, represents this. Mary is a woman and a mother with whom one can identify. She is the humanity that God loves and there is no need to load her with other meanings to be able to love her ourselves, appreciate her and feel her close.
by ANTONELLA MARIANI
A journalist with the Italian national newspaper, Avvenire