Kieran Fenn fms
Her feet on the ground
Sociology and archaeology have given us so much in recent years in reconstructing the life of a woman in first century Israel.
There is real value in trying to understand the meaning of Mary as a particular person with her own life to compose, not as a woman divorced from her history and turned into the maternal face of God, the eternal feminine, the idealised church, and so on. We may even feel closer to her.
She was an actual human person, a mother at between 12 and 15 years of age, struggling with her own life journey, which was also ‘a pilgrimage of faith,’ including its dark night (Vatican II).
Miriam of Nazareth was a poor woman, along with the many poor women whose lives are lost in the mists of unimportance. She lived her life in an economically poor, politically oppressed, Jewish peasant culture, marked by exploitation and public violence.
This is not the Mary we have been given. Instead we have the Mary of the ruling classes of medieval Europe, who made Mary one of themselves, ‘Madonna, Our Lady’. About Palestinian housewives they knew nothing; if they had, they would have found her like the maids of their palace kitchens or the peasant women of their domains.
Before they could venerate Mary, they had to extract her from her own historical life and turn her into the ideal woman, a high-class gentlewoman, from a similar class to their own.
A woman in her world
What was life like for a woman such as Mary in the Hebrew world of the first century?
It is no easy search since the Bible focus is on men. Of the 1,426 names given, 1,315 are men, 111 are women: only nine percent. The realm of public and communal life is dominated by kings, warriors, priests, prophets, and sages.
The more private or domestic area of life, traditionally that of a woman like Mary, receives little direct attention. Given the extremely few references to Mary in the NT and the little we can gain from her in history, it is surprising how great a significance she has in both Christian and Muslim traditions.
At the level of human activity, the primary Mediterranean cultural value was ‘being’, responding to life’s experiences, rather than taking charge and ‘doing.’
Mary in the role of ‘doing’ can be seen at the wedding in Cana (John 2:1-11) where she invites Jesus to intervene in a moment of need, then gives instructions to the servants, and apparently ‘takes charge’ of the situation; her behaviour rather indicates that she and Jesus are somehow related to this couple and family.
It would be very shameful for a non-relative to interfere in the affairs of a non-related family. Yet, even here, Mary responds spontaneously as a female relative is expected to respond; with concern for the honour of the family lest it be shamed by a sudden shortage of wine at a celebration.
When Mary learns from the angel that her kinswoman, Elizabeth, is pregnant (Luke 1:39–56), she sets out with haste to visit her. Mary’s response to the news is spontaneous and immediate, proper to the present moment.
Different values overlap (the present moment, spontaneous response, a significant other from the group).
Of farms and feeding
The economy of ancient Israel was based on agriculture.
Poor soils and insecure rainfall meant that life was precarious for families living in tiny highland settlements such as Nazareth. This small village may have had a population numbering between 300-400 people.
The normal pattern of the whole peasant family working the land did not apply for the family of Joseph.
Nearby, the large Herodian city of Sepphoris was under reconstruction. The former city had been razed as brutal Roman reprisal for the revolt of Judas the Galilean in 4 BCE, with the levelling of surrounding villages and the enslavement of its population. This event would have been part of the life of a young mother, Miriam, with her new-born son, as would the enslavement of her friends and relatives.
There, a builder or stoneworker (rather than a carpenter, or worker in wood, a rare and precious commodity) would find employment. Joseph may well have moved to Nazareth which was within an hour or two walk of three to four miles, in order to find work offered at the growing, gleaming city of Sepphoris.
We know much about village agricultural economy and the work that would have made up much of Mary’s life.
Most households and villages survived by growing wheat and barley, olives and grapes, as well as orchard and garden crops.
Each family kept a few sheep, goats, cows or oxen, important as a food source if the crops failed. This was a not infrequent event as rain was notoriously unreliable. A good growing season allowed for three harvests.
Women spent the same amount of time, four to five hours a day, as men in planting, weeding, harvesting in fields removed from the house. Men probably did the initial work of ploughing, clearing, and terracing.
Nearer home would be a small family plot where tasks more compatible with child care would be carried out. This was gardening work – cultivating fruit trees, vines, vegetables, herbs – which took up a significant part of the day.
Food also had to be stored for the non-growing season.
Archaeology has turned up a wealth of storage jars and pits. Grains, olives, fruit and herbs had to be transformed into forms that keep.
Threshing, pounding, drying, and pitting foodstuffs for year-round supply was a woman’s responsibility.
We know today how much work is involved in preserving and processing staple cereal crops: wheat requires soaking, milling, grinding, mixing, proving and baking to produce bread. The events of the parable of the leaven in Matthew 13:33 illustrate a scene the child Jesus saw Mary engaged in many times.
Grain processing on its own took two hours a day, to which add the preparation of other foods, and the routine care of animals, feeding, milking, and cleaning of domesticated animals for the production of dairy goods.
Other areas of responsibility were making clothes (remember the seamless garment in the crucifixion scene of John 19:23-24?) as well as household vessels, pottery and baskets.
The common courtyard, surrounded by extended family or close kinship group, contained a shared oven, a water cistern, and a millstone for grinding grain. This was the kitchen area where food was prepared and cooked in the open air. Domestic animals also lived here.
The villagers shared larger food-preparation facilities such as a threshing floor, olive press and wine press. The diet was mainly grain and olive oil, with some fruits, vegetables, and wine, along with occasional milk products if one had flocks of sheep, or fish if one lived near the lake.
Living at subsistence level, households largely grew their own food, did their own building, and sewed their own clothes from cloth which they had spun from sheep’s wool.
Much of what I have outlined is typical, monotonous, and repetitive.
Yet this was Mary’s life. In this way she contributed to the work of her son. When she did take time to visit her son when he was about his work, it was exceptional enough to be recorded (Mark 3:31-35).
Together with Joseph she lived as one of the insignificant people of Nazareth. She lived out her whole life in the spirit of her fiat.
We live out the mystery of obedience in the ordinary events and pre-occupations of everyday life.
Humble fidelity, constant, unspectacular, patient, is the mark of Mary’s life as well as the life of most of us.
We offer what we can to God, who can take the very ordinariness of a life like Mary’s – or our own – and use it to bring in the great mystery of his reign.