By Jean McCurdy Meade
Mary the mother of our Lord is the most revered saint in the Christian world; indeed, many Christians regularly pray for her intercession with our Lord as part of their liturgy and spirituality. Yet her role in the ministry of Jesus is very limited. Luke gives detailed accounts of her call by the angel Gabriel to be the virgin mother of the Messiah, the trip with her husband to Bethlehem where she gives birth, and the visit of shepherds who are advised by angels to come and see the Christ child in the manger.
Matthew tells of Joseph’s being told by an angel to take her as his wife without fear since the child she is carrying is “of the Holy Spirit,” not another man. After Jesus’s birth, wise men from the East come to Bethlehem to pay “the King of the Jews” homage, bringing gifts. Joseph, not Mary, is then told by an angel to flee with the mother and child to protect them from Herod’s murderous intentions, and eventually to return to Nazareth with them after Herod’s death; Joseph is the focus of those stories.
After the birth narratives, there are only four instances in the Gospels where Mary appears.
The first of these is only found in Luke — the story of Jesus staying behind in Jerusalem at the age of 12 to discuss the Scriptures with the elders in the temple. When a very distressed Mary and Joseph find him after three days of looking, she says, “Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been looking for you anxiously.” He replies, “How is it that you sought me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” It seems that here he is already distancing himself from both his parents, becoming aware that his calling will be difficult for them to understand, though he returns with them to Nazareth and is “obedient to them.” At the end of the Lucan birth narrative, Mary “kept all these things, pondering them in her heart.” Here, 12 years later, she “kept all these things in her heart” once more.
Mary also appears at the wedding at Cana in Galilee, which John places at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus has called his first disciples, who confess him to be “him of whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph” (John 2:45). Thus, he is known as Joseph’s son. In the next chapter it is “the mother of Jesus,” with no mention of her name, either here or later at the cross.
When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” Jesus takes that comment as an implicit request to do something about this embarrassing failure of their host, who presumably is their friend. He replies enigmatically, “O woman [not Mother] what have you to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” She seems to know that he can do something about the situation, and encourages him to come forward, though he is reluctant. She tells the servants to do whatever he tells them and drops out of the scene. When the water is turned into the best wine served so far, the steward of the feast is amazed but does not know what happened. We are told that the servants, however, did know and that his disciples believed in him. Presumably, Mary already did too.
Mary only appears once more before the crucifixion. And it stands in strong contrast with the other depictions we’ve seen, making us wonder just how she understood what Jesus felt he was called to do and be. It begins in Mark 3:19 with a distressing picture of the crowds around Jesus and her attempt to seize him against his will to protect him from the crowds that were following him:
Then he went home; and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. And when his family heard it, they went out to seize him, for people were saying, “He is beside himself.”
The King James Version uses “friends” for the Greek οἱ παρ’ αὐτοῦ (hoi par’ autou — “those belonging to him”), but the RSV and NRSV use “family,” which certainly makes more sense, since his disciples are already with him. Some in the crowd say he is possessed by Beelzebub and Jesus replies with a parable about how a kingdom divided against itself cannot stand, asking, in effect, “How can Satan cast out Satan?”, referring to his recent exorcisms of evil spirits.
The synoptic Gospels all record that Mary and her other sons then stand outside the house where he is teaching, but are unable to get through the crowd to even speak to him. Joseph is presumed to be dead since he is not mentioned. These brothers of Jesus are known as her children, whatever their biological relationship to Jesus may be, as is clear from the account of his rejection at Nazareth: “Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? Are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us? Where did he get all this?” (Matt. 4:55-57, cf. Mark 6:3, Luke 4: 22).
And his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside they sent to him and called him. And a crowd was sitting about him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers are outside, asking for you.”
Instead of having his disciples make way for them through this crowd, he replies, “Who are my mother and brothers?”
Matthew and Mark use the same language, while Luke softens Jesus’ reply by omitting the question, and instead having him say, “My mother and brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.” But it stands in all three accounts that he did nothing to help them make their way in to talk with him, or go out to talk with them or even greet them.
Although he refuses to give his family special treatment, his response to their request also emphasizes that Mary has already heard the Word of God, from the angel Gabriel, and done it: “Be it unto me according to thy word.”
In recalling Mary’s acceptance of her call, we are reminded that she had to respond then in faith, just like the rest of us. Just as she had no special knowledge to guide her when Jesus was conceived, she has no special knowledge now that he is an itinerant preacher, healer, and exorcist. She is acting like a normal mother of a grown son about whom the whole family is concerned.
Mary misunderstands Jesus and his mission here; she and his brothers think he may be out of his mind as people are saying. Her love for her son makes her want to protect him from himself, as it were. Jesus is not deterred, however, and does not even go out to talk to them. Instead, he declares that anyone who hears him and does the will of God is part of his family. Surely Mary went home with her other sons and pondered these words in her heart, as she did when she could not understand why her 12-year-old stayed behind in Jerusalem for three days without telling his parents what he planned to do, much less asking their permission.
The sword which Simeon prophesied would pierce her soul also is present again.
The final time Mary appears in the gospels is in John, where she is at the foot of the cross along with the beloved disciple, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. Matthew, Mark, and Luke do not mention her there at all with the other women. Jesus in his great suffering looks down and sees his mother and commends her to John: “‘Woman, behold your son.’ Then he said to his disciple, ‘Behold your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home” (John 19:27).
This passage is the source for all the beautiful and heart-rending paintings and sculptures, such as the Pietà of Michelangelo in the Vatican depicting Mary holding the body of her dead son. Again, there is no mention in any gospel of her being there for the descent from the cross or burial, although Matthew, Mark, and Luke write that the other two Marys saw where he was laid in Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb. But once again, wherever she was, whose sorrow could be like unto her sorrow at Jesus’ suffering and death? The sword has pierced her heart to the core.
The final time Mary is mentioned in the New Testament (unless one counts the vision of the woman clothed with the sun in Revelation 12) occurs in Luke’s continuation of his Gospel, the Acts of the Apostles.
Then they returned to Jerusalem… Peter and John and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot and Judas the son of James. All these with one accord devoted themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary, the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers. (Acts 1:12-14)
Notice that not only are all the women who had accompanied Jesus throughout his ministry up to his death and who were the first witnesses of his resurrection gathered with the remaining 11 disciples, but that Mary is accompanied by his brothers. The one they hoped to seize and take home to save him has now evidently astounded them into faith in him by his resurrection! Or maybe it is their mother’s example of unflinching faith in the midst of things she could not understand that has inspired them all along, even as they were confused and doubtful.
When the day of Pentecost comes and all there are filled with the Holy Spirit, let us remember, Mary alone of all that company already knows what it is to be filled with the Holy Spirit. It does not record whether tongues of fire appeared on her head or whether she spoke in unknown tongues, but when the mighty wind filled the house, she knew whence it came, for it had already happened to her when her faithful response brought God’s Son into this world. She had responded in faith then, and now at last sees the glorious end of her obedience and perseverance. The sword has pierced her, and she surely bears that scar in heaven as much as Jesus bears the marks of his crucifixion, but her doubts and tears are replaced now by confidence and joy. May we have the grace to follow her example and persevere through our doubts and sufferings unto a joyous end.