Mary, the mother of Jesus, is one of the most revered female figures in Western culture. She has been the focus of countless paintings, many great pieces of music, and endless prayers (“When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me…”). In addition to references in the New Testament, she is the only woman mentioned in the Koran (70 times). Modern psychologists such as Carl Jung found her to be a powerful archetype that can resonate in our psyche, representing a divine feminine energy full of compassion.
Great spiritual figures, like works of art and music, are not reducible to just one interpretation. Instead, they have a “surplus of meaning”[i] — every culture can find something important in them, and our personal journeys, we can come back to them at different times, seeing, hearing, and feeling things we might have not seen before. Mary is one of those enduring figures and symbols.
She was virtually ignored in my seminary education — perhaps part of the Protestant reaction to the way she had been so highly venerated in Catholicism. In much of the art I did see, she seemed to be a frail, timid, and submissive woman. But I began to meet people for whom Mary was an abiding inspiration, and I became curious about her.
At one point, I decided to do a simple review of key passages in the New Testament for myself. I was surprised at what emerged.
Whatever your background or beliefs, I invite you to imagine you have never heard of her before. Consider this sketch as you would a summary of key points in the development of a character in a novel or a play. What kind of person emerges?
- When a divine messenger comes to her declaring she has been chosen to bear a child, she does not acquiesce immediately but questions and challenges the idea.[ii]
- She becomes pregnant before being married and faces the prospect of being an “unwed mother” in a conservative rural culture.[iii]
- From the beginning, she has a clear sense that the child she was going to bear would challenge and upset the social status quo.[iv]
- Political decisions made by a distant ruler force her to deliver her child 80 miles away from her village and family, dependent on the hospitality of strangers.[v]
- When she and her husband take their son to the temple to be dedicated, an 86-year-old stranger tells her that he will cause conflict in the world and bring her personal suffering.[vi]
- When her son is still an infant, a paranoid king orders the execution of all male infants under 2 years old. She and her husband take their son and flee to a foreign country as refugees, only coming back when her husband has dreams telling him it is safe to return.[vii]
- When he is 12, they visit a large city with her extended family. He disappears. When they find him, he is debating adult spiritual teachers. When she and her husband tell him how worried they’ve been, he tells them he identifies more with God as his father than his natural parents.[viii]
- At some point, her husband dies leaving her a widow. She appears to bear four more sons and two daughters before her husband dies.[ix]
- At age 30, her son begins to teach and demonstrate spiritual power and becomes a controversial figure. Being concerned for his safety, she and her other sons come to a house where he is surrounded by a crowd and ask him to leave with them. But he refuses to go, saying his true family is those doing the divine will. They leave without him.[x]
- After two years, he goes into the capital city, provokes the authorities, and is executed as a common criminal and threat to public order. Most of his male followers abandon him. She is with a group of women who watch as her son takes his last breath. Before he dies, he tells one of his followers to care for her.[xi]
- After several days, people begin to experience her son’s presence and spirit as being very much alive. They begin to form a new community dedicated to continuing his teaching and work. She becomes part of this new community, along with her surviving sons.[xii]
For me, the figure that emerges is not a sweet, submissive, silently-suffering woman. This is a woman who lived on the margins in unsettled times, bearing great hardships and uncertainties throughout her life. Her experience as a mother must have been a complex mixture of joys and anxieties, fears and hope. By the last chapter of her life, she has lost both her husband and her first-born son. She finds support in a spiritual community that respects and takes care of her and who share a belief that love is stronger than death.
There are many portrayals of Mary in the history of art, but one of my favorites is the statue that stands above the entrance to the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles. The sculptor, Robert Graham, portrays her as a woman of blended ethnicity. She is strong in body and spirit. Her bare feet are planted firmly on the earth. She has endured a great deal and behind her closed eyes you can sense a profound inner strength. She holds out her hands and arms in a universal welcome.
I’ve known many mothers in my time who have endured great hardships and challenges. Hard as they try, they can’t protect their children from suffering. They find strength in community. And their love never ceases.
[i] Paul Ricouer, as cited in https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ricoeur/
[ii] Luke 1: 26 – 38
[iii] Matthew 1: 18-25
[iv] Luke 1: 46-55
[v] Luke 2: 1-7
[vi] Luke 2: 25-35
[vii] Matthew 2: 16-23
[viii] Luke 2: 41-51
[ix] Mark 3: 31-35
[x] Mark 3: 31-35, Luke 3:23
[xi] John 19: 25-27
[xii] Acts 1:14
Thank you Steve.
Beautiful. Wonderfully researched. I’ve always had an affinity for Mary. Thank you Steve for sharing this well written essay.
Thank you, Kathleen. It means a lot to me that this piece resonated with you. Your travels look wonderful.