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The Blessed Virgin Takes the Stand

James Morrow

Here we have a scene from “The Gospel According to Mary of Nazareth,” Chapter Nine of my novel-in-progress, a satiric religious fantasy tentatively titled Lazarus Is Waiting. My protagonist, “the world’s second most famous resurrectee,” spends Book One of the novel tooling around in space and time on an enchanted Egyptian barge, visiting places as diverse as first-century Gaul, second-century Carthage, fourth-century Rome, and the New York City of A.D. 1963. During the Roman phase of his life, Lazarus’s fortunes become entangled with those of Constantine the Great. For reasons too complicated to summarize here, Lazarus engineers the emperor’s legendary Christian epiphany prior to the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, and he also helps to draft the subsequent Edict of Milan. (Contrary to popular understanding, Constantine did not make Christianity the official religion of the Empire—most exCommunicated readers know this—but he did open up a political space for religious toleration via the Milan charter of A.D. 313, which he cosigned with his rival Licinius.)

Book Two of Lazarus Is Waiting turns on my reimagining of the A.D. 325 Council of Nicaea, during which three hundred and eighteen bishops debated the theological legitimacy of Presbyter Arius’s “subordinationism,” as opposed to the more orthodox consubstantialist view, which held that God and Jesus were essentially synonymous or homoousios, “of the same substance.” Our Jewish hero devoutly desires that Arius’s doctrines not be declared anathema, since the love of his life—Celaeno, a Greek philosopher who has converted to Christianity—is among eighty accused Arians for whom the proceedings amount to a courtroom trial, at the end of which they will be found either guilty or innocent of heresy. In my somewhat loopy version of the historical narrative, if the bishops decide against them, the Arians may suffer a fate even worse than excommunication.

Thanks to his time-traveling ship, Lazarus has managed to bring Jesus’s mother to Nicaea, knowing she will be happy to testify on behalf of subordinationism. (He has also convinced Mary Magdalene and Princess Salomé to add their voices to the debate.) In interviewing the Madonna, Lazarus adopts the persona of “Crelnic Haha,” an anagram for “Charlie Chan,” the fictional hero of the Hollywood movie cycle Lazarus saw during one of his New York sojourns. By imagining himself as a wise, philosophical detective, Lazarus has acquired sufficient self-confidence to address the learned bishops.

This scene is very much a work in progress, and I would appreciate comments, criticisms, and corrections from exCommunicated readers. My coordinates are <jamesmorrowauthor@gmail.com>.

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First Council at Nicaea. Emperor Constantine at center. (Source)

The Council reconvened promptly at nine o’clock the following morning, whereupon Mary Nazarene and I, flanked by Arius and Athanasius, settled into curule chairs on the dais. Constantine swooped into the hall like the proudest of Roman eagles and alighted on his throne. Bishop Ossius signaled for us to begin.

“Learned prelates, I bring good news,” I said. “Heed the Gospel of Crelnic Haha. Seated beside me is Mary of Nazareth, the one who carried, birthed, suckled, nurtured, and imparted much knowledge to Jesus the Christ. She sailed to the Bosporus on the same magic ship that brought two other women and myself to this great Council.”

“Magic ship, my left foot,” grumbled Bishop Hortensius, transforming his entire body into a sneer.

“We are not obliged to attend the testimony of frauds,” said Bishop Alexander.

“Call Mary Nazarene a fraud if you wish,” I said. “She will answer your scorn with love and your faithlessness with forbearance.”

“Though the quantity of scorn I’m prepared to endure is not without limit,” she said. “Back in first-century Judaea, I cheerfully made an enemy of Pontius Pilate, calling him an ass’s anus, and I’m equally willing to rub you prelates the wrong way.”

“As humble Crelnic Haha understands your story,” I said, “you fled to Provincia Nostra, thus avoiding persecution by the procurator of the Emperor Caligula.”

“For several years I devoted my energies to growing grapes and barley,” said Jesus’s mother, nodding. “I supplemented my income making tables, chairs, cabinets, and birdhouses, having learned carpentry skills from my late husband.”

“May I address you as Mary?”

“That is the name my parents gave me. I would have preferred Naomi. Call me anything but Theotokos.”

“You were not a God-Bearer, Mary?”

“For a Jewish woman nothing could be more absurd than to imagine she’d gestated a deity, much less Yahweh. The idea is at once comical and obscene.”

“A Christologist might say you were Theotokos, but the Creator neglected to reveal this circumstance to you.”

“Does the famous wrath of God extend to playing games with a young woman’s sanity? I only ask. I do not know.”

“And yet your honorable offspring referred to himself as the ‘Son of God.’ ”

“Is not every person a son or daughter of the Supreme Being?”

“For the sake of argument, might we say your firstborn was God’s progeny in a way the rest of us are not?”

“If you insist,” said Mary Nazarene.

“So our task this morning is to weigh the Arian Creed against the Nicene Creed in light of Jesus’s presumed divinity.”

“Anything to free the heretics.”

For the next hour Mary Nazarene and my Crelnic Haha self reviewed the events of Jesus’s life, particularly his famous miracles: the water into wine, the loaves and fishes, the stilling of the waves, the waltz across the sea, the healing of lepers and cripples and blind men. Mary argued that each such intervention was more reasonably ascribed to a being whose divinity was homoiousios rather than homoousios, and she insisted that neither view should be considered heterodox.

“And now we come to the horrendous part of the story,” I said. “We can omit it if you’d prefer.”

“No, I must take us to Calvary.” Mary Nazarene gestured toward the banners. “Both creeds seem to imply that God secured salvation for Christians by capitalizing on my son’s execution for sedition.”

“The atoning death of the Christ,” I said knowingly. “His suffering redeemed the sins of believers.”

“Everybody who observed his crucifixion agrees it was terribly painful,” said Mary Nazarene. “Of course, if God really wanted Jesus to know the agonies of the flesh, he would have made him a woman and required him to give birth.”

“Thus ended your son’s short but productive life.”

“Father, forgive these three hundred and eighteen bishops, for they know not what they do,” said Mary.

Abruptly Bishop Ossius got to his feet, waving his crozier before the assembly like Moses roiling the Red Sea. “Allow me to share my reaction to the conversation we have just witnessed. This woman radiates an uncommon purity, does she not? For all we know, God arranged for the Madonna herself to walk among us this morning.”

“In my soul I sense her blessed virginity,” said Bishop Tubertus.

“Virginity?” said Mary Nazarene.

“This may truly be the Queen of Heaven,” said Bishop Alexander.

“It’s not impossible,” said Bishop Caecilianus.

“She is redolent of sanctity,” said Bishop Hortensius.

“But here’s the truth of the matter, gentle Mary,” Ossius continued, facing the dais. “Your part in God’s plan played out over three centuries ago. No one ever expected you to worry your pretty little head over abstruse theological matters. Better you should leave complicated questions of consubstantialism and subordinationism to the Catholic and Apostolic Church.”

“Well said, Bishop Ossius,” declared Constantine from his throne.

“Haven’t you clowns been listening?” said Mary. “Crelnic Haha and I have settled the question for you. Subordinationism is more sensible than consubstantialism, but the two doctrines are not necessarily incompatible.”

“Whatever you say, my dear Theotokos,” said Bishop Alexander.

“Before the Mother of God and the Council of Nicaea go their separate ways,” said Bishop Ossius, “I think we should praise this sweet and holy lady for bringing Jesus into the world. We owe her a loud and rousing ‘Hosanna!’ ”

“Hosanna to Mary!” shouted Bishop Tubertus.

“Hosanna to Mary!” added Bishop Caecilianus.

“Hosanna to Mary!” cried Bishop Hortensius.

“I don’t want your damn hosannas!” wailed Mary. “I want you to promise the Queen of Heaven, or whoever the hell you think I am, that you will not shed blood over a diphthong!”

“Hosanna to homoousios!” shouted Alexander.

“Hosanna to homoiousios!” Arius retorted.

“Hosanna to homoousios!” declared Tubertus.

“Hosanna to homoiousios!” countered Eusebius of Nicomedia.

“Hosanna to homoousios!” insisted Hortensius.

“Hosanna to homoiousios!” screamed Celaeno.

“The Council will adjourn for lunch!” Constantine commanded.

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