Once there was a lady named Mary (Miriam in Hebrew, Maryam in Syro-Aramaic). The name wasn’t particularly uncommon in first-century Middle Eastern culture, as could be demonstrated by the number of Marys in one place during the last days before and after the resurrection: Mary, the mother of Jesus; Mary, the mother of James and John and wife of Zebedee; Mary Magdalene; Mary, wife of Cleophas; and Mary, sister to Martha and Lazarus, not to mention others who weren’t named in the Bible but who were part of the nameless faithful who followed Jesus.
We don’t know much about the one we call Mary the Virgin except that she was an upright and faithful young woman, devout, obedient, and unmarried. She was betrothed to a man named Joseph, but she was still a virgin. The first mention we have of her is during what we call “The Annunciation,” when an angel appeared to her from God and told her that she was chosen by God to be the mother of God’s son. From what we read in the gospel, Mary questioned the whole thing but meekly accepted the situation. I often wonder what she would have said had this event happened a millennium or so in the future. Would she have been so meek and mild, as we have been taught to portray her? Would she have asked more questions? Would she possibly even have said no to the whole thing? I wonder.
The next thing we hear of Mary is that she went to visit her cousin Elizabeth, wife of Zechariah, who was pregnant with a child later known as John the Baptist (or Baptizer). She stayed there for about three months, returning home after the birth of John. I wonder what that trip home was like? Did she wonder what her parents were going to say? What about Joseph, the man to whom she was betrothed when she up and left so suddenly? Surely she must have had contact with her family during the time she was gone. Did her parents want to rush off to Elizabeth’s to bring her home at once? What did they do once she finally came home? Did they hide her in the house to prevent a lot of talk about an unmarried pregnant woman from their family living in their house?
She went on the trip to Bethlehem with Joseph now that they were considered married. The story fills out with angels, animals, shepherds, and a simple but private place for the birth of Jesus to take place. Later, magi brought expensive gifts that would be helpful on the family’s journey to Egypt and back. The family went on one more trip to the Temple in Jerusalem when Jesus was about ten years old, where the parents managed to lose him for about three days before they found him still in the Temple, talking with and learning from the rabbis.
Mary doesn’t appear again until Jesus is grown, and he escorts her to a wedding in Cana. Somehow someone miscalculated the wine, and the family of the wedding party faced real embarrassment by running out. Mary told Jesus to do something about the situation, but at first, he objected, saying it wasn’t his time yet. Being a mother, she simply told the servants to do what Jesus told them to do, and the family honor was saved.
The next time Mary appears in the story is at a synagogue where Jesus was teaching. Mary and Jesus’s brothers and sisters showed up, demanding he come home because he was thought to be insane. Somehow Jesus walked through the crowd unseen, and the family went home empty-handed.
Mary was named as being at the foot of the cross as her son died, and was among those who came to the tomb on the morning of the resurrection to do the burial rites there had not been time to do before the sun went down. The day of crucifixion became the evening that began Sabbath when no work, purification, or anointing, could be done. There were several more references to Mary as living in Jerusalem with her sons who had risen in the leadership of the church, and then she seems to disappear.
So why is Mary so important? Millions of women have become mothers, but only one was the mother of Jesus. She taught him his first lessons and who watched over his early steps. She was present throughout his whole life and even at his death. She was present after the resurrection and probably at his ascension into heaven. That made her singular among all the mothers of the world.
Growing up in a faith when Mary was really only mentioned during the Christmas season (we didn’t “do” Advent), and during Holy Week and Easter, it has taken me a very long time to see Mary as a significant influence on the belief and practices of the church. In some theologies, she is close to being or is actually considered to be like the fourth member of the Trinity. She is sometimes seen as a balance to the male-dominated Trinity and in a position somewhat like the mother goddess of other world religions. In a time when women were discounted and marginalized, Mary became a guiding light, a mother figure, and a representative of what an ideal woman should be.
Even now, Mary is a treasured part of the church, a mediator between humans, Jesus, and God, and a representative of holy women throughout time. The Hail Mary is as well known as the Lord’s Prayer, and the Magnificat is part of Roman Catholic, Anglican, and some Protestant worship. Mary’s influence has spread internationally, and she has been portrayed as an image of peace, unity, love, and nurture. She seems to be a figure we can all look to and try to emulate.
Hail, Mary, full of grace…
Image: Immaculate Conception, by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1767-1769), in the Museo del Prado, Spain. Found at Wikimedia Commons.