Kieran Fenn fms
In the New Testament we find the start of Christian reflection on Mary – just the beginnings, not the fullness of Marian teaching and practice which has developed over the centuries.
The earliest reference to the mother of Jesus is found in Paul’s letter to the Galatians from the mid-50s: ‘But when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law.’ (Gal 4:4).
Little can be said for a Marian interpretation of this passage, but a basic affirmation is made: at the beginning of Jesus’ life there was a woman, his mother. Paul wants to show that Jesus was authentically Jewish and human as communicated through a Jewish mother.
The Christology of the passage is the profound centre of the statement; its message about Mary is limited to the fact that she is a woman and a mother. As early as this passage, a central point of Mariology is established: any truth about Mary is first of all a truth about her son.
But why her absence from the preaching of the apostles?
The apostles stick to the essentials. They were concerned to announce Christ, his passion and resurrection, his exaltation to God’s right hand and the salvation he brings.
Palestinian society was strongly patriarchal and it would not have been acceptable to speak of Mary.
The first generation had no idea of such issues as the virginal conception and assumption. The apostles knew only the adult Jesus, a prophet; they lived with him while he preached and worked miracles. They knew nothing of his childhood. Curiosity about his early life comes much later; the infancy narratives are the last part of the gospels to be written. The passion and resurrection are first.
The resurrection posed the question: ‘Who is this Jesus?’ The answer eventually takes two gospel writers back to his infancy, birth and conception and one to the pre-existence of the Word. In this context Mary was presented late in the development of the New Testament.
Mary in Mark
The mother of Jesus is in all four gospels, but they present quite distinct pictures reflecting diverse theologies of world history and understandings of Jesus and the needs of the local churches for which the evangelists wrote.
In Mark, we have just the faintest outline; Matthew gives a slightly stronger sketch; Luke and John provide a vivid painting or full-bodied sculpture of the woman disciple and mother. In no gospel is Mary the dominant figure; always she is presented as being in some relationship with her son. This is her role, not as an end herself, but as a pointer to her son. What is fascinating about Mary and her role in our salvation story is the significant development in the appreciation of her by the various gospel communities.
The temptation is often to bypass Mark and go to the more flattering texts. The earliest Christian tradition on Mary is the story of the visit of the mother and brothers (Mk 3:31 to 35). Unlike the more popular Marian texts, this seems to cast Mary in a negative light and embarrasses those who are devoted to her. If all we had was Mark’s gospel, we would have the name of the mother from 6:1-6a, two negative stories of rejection and no deep devotion to Mary as integral to Catholic Christianity.
What is Mark doing?
The gospels cover a passage of more than 60 years; earlier traditions are modified, and understood in a better way. The text on the family of Jesus asserts that it is open to every human being, a family not limited by blood, tribe, nation, colour or culture; in this family there is a place for each one.
And in this family, we could be mother, brother, sister for Jesus, (but not Father! 3:35). Mark’s primary intention is not to say anything about Mary, but to cast Jesus’ words in as strong a light as possible. This is best done by powerfully contrasting the two families.
Mary was probably not known to Mark and his community; with so few references it is unlikely Mary was a significant figure in the early Markan church. The main point is not that Jesus did not care for his mother, but that to belong to Jesus in relationship depends on the faith rather than on the blood connections of a disciple. Discipleship is the issue rather than affection for his mother.
The gospel’s perspective
In Mark’s gospel everybody fails Jesus – his disciples, his people, his family. He dies with that terrible cry of abandonment: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’
We know this line from Psalm 22 which ends on a confident note; but let us not rush to that point until we recognise that in Mark, Jesus dies in utter desolation without any relieving features. Jesus’ isolation could go no further – deserted by his disciples, taunted by his enemies, derided by those crucified with him, misunderstood by his family, suffocating in the darkness of evil.
The worst is feeling abandoned on the cross, even by God. At least his mother and brothers are in good as well as bad company!
Mark’s second reference
Jesus’ unhappy return to his home town results in the villagers taking offence at him. It is said that he is son of Mary, brother to James, Joses, Judah, Simon, and his sisters are still there among the people.
The son of Mary seems too familiar to be of any religious significance for them. Sadly, the villagers ask the right question: ‘Where did this man come from or get all this learning?’ But they give the wrong answer. They think they know the source of his power and authority because they know his earthly origins. What they miss is the faith dimension that is part of being a disciple; it is not enough to know the son of God only as the son of Mary.
Augustine was to add an important comment to these Markan scenes when he reminded us that: ‘For Mary, it was a greater thing for her to have been Jesus’ disciple than to have been his mother.’
Discipleship is a matter of faith rather than the natural relationship of family, an important issue in those early days when becoming a Christian could and did lead to family division (see 13:12).
References: Maloney, FJ: Mary, Woman and Mother, and Brennan, W: The Sacred Memory of Mary.