Who Was Mary? ©

Rev. Eamon R. Carroll, O. Carm.

In my half-century of preaching and teaching, I have come to realize there are two topics Catholic audiences are always eager to hear. One is the Eucharist, the inexhaustible riches of the Mass; the other is the Virgin Mary, the holy Mother of Jesus, Son of God, and our spiritual mother. To my delight and surprise, I find a similar hunger to hear about the holy Virgin in ecumenical gatherings. Our inquiry concerns Mary of the New Testament, specifically the Gospels. All-important for understanding the Virgin Mary is the meaning of the word "Gospel." The word is short for "Godspell," God's good news, glad tiding of salvation, evangels, a type of literature different from all other writings. No more for Mary than for Jesus, her Son, were the evangelists concerned to give us complete life stories.

After their master's death and resurrection, his followers celebrated his memory, especially in liturgy, baptism and the Eucharist. They focused less on precise biographical details of our Lord's life and more on His mission and message, not simply the "life of Jesus," but Jesus as Himself the "Word of life."

Gradually, these first Christians began to write down their recollections and understanding of who Jesus was and why He came. This began with the letters of St. Paul in the 50s. Subsequently, after the year A.D. 70, came the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John.

Given the paucity of details about the life of Mary, the lack of information about her childhood and old age and the comparative rarity of her appearances in the public life of Jesus, is it beside the point to talk about her life and times?

Quite the contrary is true. There is an extraordinary presence of Mary, the Mother of Jesus, in Christian memories from the very start. The Gospels say more about the Virgin Mary than about any other woman. She is part of the "good news" that is the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Mary belongs to the Church from the beginning.

From the standpoint of a full story of Mary's life, there are admittedly big gaps, which pious authors as early as the second century attempted to fill with fanciful stories of childhood. What we know for certain is that the maiden of Nazareth came from a devout Jewish family. Elizabeth, her cousin, and Zachary were "upright in the sight of God" (Luke 1:6). Her husband, Joseph, was "an upright man" (Matthew 1:19). Every year the holy family went to Jerusalem for the feast of Passover (Luke 2:41).

What more does the Bible tell us about the meaning and mystery of Mary? The oldest reference is St. Paul's letter to the Christians of Galatia, A.D. 54/55: "When the completion of time came, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born a subject of Law, to redeem the subjects of the Law, so that we could receive adoption as sons."

The pattern was set: Jesus Christ, Son of God, became the Son of Mary. Some centuries later, A.D. 431, in Ephesus, where Paul had also preached, a great ecumenical council would trumpet the title Mother of God, "Theotokos." This was a magnificent defense of the central truth that the Son of God, second person in the Holy Trinity, has, indeed, entered our human world as the true Son of Mary, "for us and for our salvation."

The oldest Gospel, Mark, describes Jesus by His townsfolk as "the carpenter, the Son of Mary." (Mark 6:3) Unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark has no nativity story, and virtually no other reference to Mary, apart from a somewhat offhand mention in the company of relatives of Jesus (Mark 3:31-35), where her Son explains that true relationship to himself consists in "doing the will of God."

If Mark's slight mention of Mary is a "silhouette," St. Matthew offers us a "sketch" of the Gospel image of Mary, Mother of the promised Messiah. The Magi find the "infant king of the Jews" ... "with Mary his mother."

Advised by the angel of the Lord, Joseph takes "the child and his mother" to Egypt to escape the murderous soldiers, and, at Herod's death, takes "the child and his mother" back to the land of Israel. Mary, of clearly Jewish background, is also a promise to the Gentiles, believing , as Abraham did, in God's promise of salvation.

St. Luke gives us a wonderfully full "Gospel portrait" of the Virgin Mother of Jesus, present at capital stages in her Son's life--conception, birth, infancy, childhood and manhood. The Virgin of Nazareth, whose name is Mary, receives God's invitation through the message of the angel--the "angelic salutation," which begins the familiar prayer of the "Hail Mary."

In Mary's visit to her cousin, Elizabeth, who is unexpectedly pregnant with John the Baptist, we hear Elizabeth's praise of Mary's motherhood in faith, and her words are incorporated in our "Hail Mary," known by all the world as the "Ave Maria" and sung in countless settings.

When Jesus is twelve years old, He strays from the company of Joseph and Mary on the way home from the Passover pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

Mary expresses their anguish to hear her Son's mysterious words about being in His Father's house. Then the certain falls, and Mary shares with Jesus the silence of the long years in Nazareth until her Son begins His public ministry as He preaches about the kingdom of God.

At the end of her beloved Son's death, terrible passion and atrocious death, then His glorious resurrection and ascension, St. Luke tells us in the Acts of the Apostles that the Mother of Jesus was in the upper room with fearful apostles awaiting the outpouring of the Pentecostal Spirit. Hers was an extraordinarily significant presence to the fledgling Church.

The apostles were new shepherds (pastors) of Christ's Church.

The Mother of Jesus is in their midst, forgiving and reconciling the disciples (with Peter at their head) after their disgraceful desertion of their master in His agony and death.

Last of the Gospels, St. John sees Mary as a "remembering mother." The "Mother of Jesus" (the only name he gives her) is found at the start of her Son's ministry, the wedding feast of Cana, the first sign by which his followers come to have faith in Him.

At the foot of her Son's cross on Calvary, Mary is present doubly as Mother--Mother of the Crucified One and Mother of the Beloved Disciple, representing all the followers of Christ. She is the bearer of tradition, witness before all others of who Jesus is, how He died and the effects of his sacrificial death.

In 1995, the University of South Carolina Press published Mary: Glimpses of the Mother of Jesus, a book written by the Protestant scripture scholar Beverly Roberts Gaventa, Ph.D., a professor at Princeton University.

Gaventa uses literary analysis to explore the picture of Mary. Of New Testament writings she limits herself to the narratives in Luke, Matthew and John and draws up her characterization of the Virgin Mary by putting to her sources such questions as these: What does Mary say and do? How do others speak to her about her? In what ways does she change as the story develops?

Gaventa's book is a fascinating harvest of "glimpses," such as those of Luke's double reference to Mary's pondering/questioning of the mystery of her Son, the Redeemer as Messiah and Savior. Further, as Gaventa said at a Princeton ecumenical meeting, "When poor, imperiled Christians turn to Mary as the Mother of Sorrows, consciously or not, they touch a thread in Matthew's Gospel." And on that same occasion, following the lead of St. Luke: "if one can say that Mary is a disciple, then is it not a Protestant sort of thing to affirm that Mary is, symbolically speaking, the Mother of Disciples, even the Mother of Believers?"

A final note: It strikes me that the most significant approach to Mary in the Church's current teaching is the stress on her ordinary life as the woman of faith and the great model of "obedient faith."

St. Therese of the Child Jesus (d. 1897) was named a doctor of the universal Church in October 1997. This was based on her writings, which include her teaching on Mary as walking in the luminous darkness of faith.

I close with these words from St. Therese, that obscure, cloistered Carmelite nun in Normandy: "Why say, with reference to the aged Simeon's prophetic words, that the blessed Virgin had the passion of Jesus constantly before her mind from that moment onward? 'And a sword will pierce through your soul also,' the old man said. It wasn't for the present, you see...it was a general prediction for the future. She lived by faith just like ourselves, giving proof of this from the Gospel, where we read: 'And they did not understand the words which he spoke to them'."

© Fr. Eamon R. Carroll, O. Carm., is professor of theology at Loyola University Chicago, a professor at the International Marian Research Institute, and a member of the Mariological Society of America.


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