How should we think about her today, this little Middle Eastern woman called Mary? Different times and cultures have interpreted her in different ways and she could easily be the Lady of a Thousand Faces. Let’s see why.
The first thing is to look in Scripture and, in particular, the Gospels. Not surprisingly, she doesn’t get much court-time: in Matthew, Mary doesn’t say anything and is kind of beige, neutral; in Mark, she’s like the cocky on the biscuit tin, an outsider; in Luke, she’s a woman of faith; in John, the only name she gets is “the mother of Jesus”, which says a lot, particularly if you’re a clergy spouse.
Certainly, there’s no consistency in the Good Book. However, we can say some things about her, this one who has intrigued and fascinated people for centuries.
Mary ( Miriamin Hebrew) was, start to finish, a Jewish woman. She had inherited her faith from her family line, one that stretched back to Abraham and Sarah. Her prayers were to YHWH, the God who set people free, the One who established covenant with his people.
Mary followed the Torah (Law) by reciting the prayers, keeping Sabbath and Festivals and lighting candles. She was a typical Jewish woman who also believed that the Messiah had come. This didn’t mean that she stopped attending synagogue; far from it, she continued that practice.
While Mary was one of the original Jewish Christians, she was never a Gentile. It does her no honour, therefore, to take to her Jewishness with a bottle of White King Bleach. Don’t think we haven’t done that, believe me. We have.
We’ve turned her Jewish complexion into that of a blond, blue-eyed Caucasian. Not content with disfigurement, we’ve also taken to her spiritual life and made her into a 20 th/21 stcentury version of a Christian woman, which she ain’t.
Mary lived in a rural village, Nazareth , whose population consisted largely of peasants and tradies. Married to a local chippie, her life consisted of taking care of her large household. Besides Joseph and Jesus, Scripture tells us there were four brothers: James, Joses, Judas and Simon and some unnamed sisters.
Her days were filled with the hard, unpaid work of women of all ages: the feeding, clothing and nurturing of a growing household. Like other village women of her day, she was, most likely, illiterate.
Times were tough in l’le old Nazareth . This village was part of an occupied state under the heel of imperial Rome . Revolution was in the air. The atmosphere was tense. Violence and poverty prevailed.
To our shame, it’s only in recent days that we’ve even noticed the similarities between Mary’s life and the lives of many others. The Flight into Egypt and the death of her son Jesus by execution compares with those who, among other horrors, have had their children and grandchildren disappear or murdered by dictatorial regimes.
Whatever else Mary is, she is a sister of the marginalized women in every oppressive situation. It does her no honour, then, to take her out of her dangerous historical circumstance and transform her into an icon of a peaceful middle-class, western woman dressed in a blue robe.
Mary walked by faith, not by sight. She had a relationship with God that was profound. In her days, people’s hope for the coming of the Messiah included the hope that he would liberate the poor from oppression. That was her hope, too.
Her “Here I am Lord” in Luke is a response to the call of God on her life to be God’s partner in the work of redemption, a vocation that still eludes many of us today. As I say, she walked by faith, not by sight.
God stood beside this young woman who was pregnant outside of wedlock and in danger of her own life. God stood with her to fulfil the divine promise. Mary’s faith-filled partnership with God in the work of liberation is sung out in the Magnificat(Lk 1:46-55). It’s the longest set of words placed on the lips of any woman in the New Testament.
In this song, she sings of the future, when peaceful justice will take root in the land among all people. She’s a prototype of many others – Martin Luther King and so on – and, like his speech, her song is great too; a revolutionary song of salvation. Not only is Mary full of grace but she’s also full of political opinions, which is a Good Thing in anyone.
It does no honour to her to reduce her faith to a privatised level. What’s worse, though, is to reduce Mary’s faith to that of a doting mother/son thing. Before Jesus was born, Mary had her own deep relationship with God and it’s a relationship that isn’t focused on Jesus.
Mary, the mother of Jesus, is someone whose life we ought to try to copy; she’s a friend of God. It’s good to find her and to let her dangerous memory inspire and encourage our own witness as a partner with her in that same hope.
(Note from Ian: Reflections this week is an edited version of a Sermon I’m planning to deliver at St Mary’s Atherton on Sunday. It’s their Festival Day. I’m indebted to Sr Elizabeth Johnson CSJ for her insights.)