3. Mary in Scripture
Mary in Scripture
Part 1 - Hail Mary: Blessed among women Download PDF
Part 2 - The Annunciation Download PDF
Part 3 - The birth of Jesus Download PDF
Part 4 - The Visitation Download PDF
Part 5 - At the Temple Download PDF
Part 6 - The wedding at Cana Download PDF
Part 7 - At the foot of the Cross Download PDF
Part 8 - Pentecost Download PDF
Part 1 - Hail Mary: Blessed among women
As we move into a new liturgical year, the Gospel followed is that of Matthew. We will hear the opening genealogy that places Jesus as Son of Abraham and son of David. But we also hear of Mary, his mother, placed among some of the great women of Israel. It is on their stories that I would like to focus as Mary is blessed among these courageous figures.
(Genesis 38). Tamar marries Er, a son of the patriarch, Judah, but Er soon dies, leaving her a childless widow. The rule of levirate marriage (to the brother-in-law) comes into play, allowing her to conceive a child to produce heirs for the deceased. Onan, the next brother, acts selfishly and refuses to imperil any personal inheritance rights, and avoids his responsibility. He dies as punishment. Judah, now fearful for his youngest son, Shelah, tells Tamar to return to her father’s house until Shelah is older. Nothing comes of Judah’s promise.
As time passes, the imperilled widow, takes the initiative. At sheep-shearing time Tamar exchanges her mourning clothes for those of a prostitute to obtain from Judah what he would not provide through his son. By this time, the patriarch has lost his own wife, and not recognising Tamar behind her veil, he hires her as a harlot. She requires of him his seal, cord, and staff as guarantees of later payment. But when a friend of Judah comes to pay her, he is told by the townspeople, “No prostitute has been here.” The line is important as an indication that Tamar is an honourable woman, seeking what was rightfully hers.
Three months later, when evidence of her pregnancy is apparent, Judah wants her burnt, a punishment well beyond the customary stoning, and usually reserved for the offending daughter of a priest. Then she produces the evidence that Judah is himself the father, and in a rare admission for a patriarch, pronounces her more righteous than he.
Tamar is a woman who takes charge, but there is no evidence that she was assisted by the patriarch in caring for her twin children. Was she left to bring them up alone? Such a common situation in our own day! She uses deception as do so many of the women in these early stories, their only weapon in a patriarchal society.
In Joshua 2 we have the story of the two Israelite spies who spend the night at the house of Rahab the prostitute. She hides them from the king of Jericho, discerning that God is on their side. In exchange, they guarantee her safety and that of her family. The location of the spies in a brothel would serve the purpose of overhearing the talk of the town and be one location where strangers would not be particularly conspicuous or suspicious. Rahab takes a huge risk in protecting them but she does so because of her faith in a future that belongs with the God of Israel. She is clever in outwitting the king, ignoring his death-affirming command, acting in a way that affirms life.
Later her action leads to her family and descendants living among the people of Israel. She became a righteous convert, married into the line of Judah, wife of Salmon and mother of Boaz, and was the legendry ancestor of eight prophets (including Jeremiah), and of Huldah the prophetess. Hers is a story of redemption, of the spies, of her family, and of herself.
This popular story of loyalty and tragedy that turns into triumph has hidden depths. Ruth responds to Naomi with words that should remind us of another radical acceptance, Mary accepting her future. Orpah chooses her destiny by returning. She does the expected thing; Ruth does the unexpected. Her choice is startling; she chooses death over life; she sacrifices her national identity; she renounces her religious affiliation. The radicality of her choice is matched only by Abraham in his call: “leave your country and kindred and father's house for a land I will show you” (Gen 12:1). But Abraham was a man, with a wife and possessions. Ruth stands alone. No God called her or promised blessings and support. There is no more radical decision in all the memories of Israel! The depth of her commitment finally silences Naomi.
So we have the deep friendship of a younger and older woman, a forerunner to Elizabeth and Mary. We have a subversive element in the ethnic identity of Ruth, from Moab, one of Israel’s most hated enemies, being in the blood line of David. Mary also speaks the language of a God on the side of the poor and despised, and against the wealthy and powerful (Luke 1:51-53).
The Mother of Solomon
Interestingly, Bathsheba is not named in the genealogy. She is called ‘the wife of Uriah’ (Mat 1:6). She is honoured as the mother of Solomon, the wisest of kings. Bathsheba, victim of the king’s lust, loses her husband to the murderous plan of the royal adulterer, David. She works with Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet to ensure that her son, Solomon, will sit on the throne of Israel.
What is the mother of Jesus doing in the company of these other women? First, two explanations we can set aside: Jerome said that the four were sinners and Mary’s son came for sinners. The women were not seen as such in Israelite history, but were respected, praised and honoured for their contributions to the line of Judah. They were all foreigners (Luther), and Jesus came for Gentiles also. But there is no evidence that Tamar or Bathsheba were foreigners. Nor does this apply to Mary who was Jewish.
All five women give birth within the context of irregular marriages; contributing children to the line of Judah, moving from one end of Jewish history to the other. Each occurs at a critical moment in the history of God's people, Tamar at Judah’s critical origins, Rahab at the moment of entry into the Promised Land, Ruth at the beginnings of kingship, and Bathsheba at its full flowering in Solomon. In difficult circumstances these foremothers each dreamed of a future and acted to bring it about.
Mary brings to fulfilment the promise inherent in the life of all these women. God works through the extraordinary and unexpected. These final two explanations seem to apply to all five women, not just four.
Part 2 - The Annunciation
Reading: Luke 1:26-38; Acts 1:14
This scene is found only in Luke, a gospel dated in the mid 80s, addressed to third generation Christians. It is a gospel closely related to its sequel, Acts of the Apostles, the story of the birth of the Church, and, as in the gospel, ‘the mother of Jesus was there.’ It is from Luke’s gospel that authentic knowledge of Mary and devotion to her emerges.
Luke begins the earliest picture of Mary as a maiden of twelve to thirteen years of age. Writing from a post-Resurrection perspective he touches upon the mystery of her calling to be the Virgin Mother of the Messiah. The scene has been carefully prepared by the foretelling of the birth of the Baptist in the annunciation to Zechariah, a parallel (or diptych) to interpret the meaning of Mary’s call.
The connections are apparent to the careful reader: the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy and same angelic messenger, Gabriel. The contrasts are there too: Zechariah in the south and the temple in Jerusalem, with Mary in the north living at Nazareth in Galilee; Elizabeth’s advanced years and barrenness with Mary’s youth and potential.
The Annunciation Pattern
The dogmatic constitution Dei Verbum states that the Old Testament “contains matters ... in them, too, the mystery of our salvation is present in a hidden way" (DV# 15). Luke has gone back to the literary form called ‘Annunciation’, that occurs often through the Old Testament. Luke uses it for both John the Baptist and Mary; Matthew will use it also; it is basic to the call of Isaiah and Jeremiah as well as others.
The five steps in the pattern are as follows:
1. The appearance of an angel of the Lord or the Lord.
2. Fear as reaction to being confronted by such a presence.
3. The divine message:
A. The visionary is addressed by name.
B. A qualifying phrase describing the visionary.
C. The visionary is urged not to be afraid.
D. A woman is with child or is about to conceive.
E. She will give birth to the (male) child.
F. The name by which the child is to be called.
G. Interpretation of the name (etymology).
H.The future accomplishments of the child.
4. An objection by the visionary as to how this can be or a request for a sign.
5. The giving of a sign to reassure the visionary.
Gabriel, whose name means ‘strength of God’ or ‘man of God’ brings good news to the parents of the precursor, John, and the holy one, the Son of God, Jesus. As with the earlier books of the Bible, angels and humans are involved in God’s plans. The mention of Elizabeth in her sixth month (the sign element) will lead to a three month visit by Mary (vv.26 and 56). In v.27 Luke unlike Matthew focuses exclusively on the Virgin Mary rather than on Joseph of the house of David. Mary herself would likely be of the priestly line of Aaron as was her cousin.
God’s first greeting to Mary through Gabriel is “You have been found to be full of grace.” Now we know who Mary is in the plan of salvation and how she is called or named by God. Mary is already found to be with grace even before she gives her consent to be the mother of the Messiah. From the earliest times in the church Mary has been called the all-holy one. The transformation of Mary operated by the grace of God has already taken place prior to the Annunciation. Already we can see the grounds for the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. What is being said here is that God, in loving kindness, has graced Mary in such a way that she never turned away from God. Gabriel tells her “You have found favour with God.”
Back to the Old Testament
Luke does not quote the Isaiah 7:14 prophecy, the virgin (Greek Bible parthenos; Hebrew Bible almah ‘young woman’) shall conceive, as Matthew does but Luke too implies its fulfilment in the calling of Mary to respond in trust and faith to the angel and to conceiving and giving birth to Jesus. Like the gospel writer we already know the full story of Jesus’ life, death and Resurrection. Luke is painting this scene within his inspired contemplative reflection, capturing it through the lens of sacred time rather than as a precise chronological moment. The entire mystery of Christ is captured at a glance through the lens of Resurrection faith.
The titles of Christ appear: “He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of….David….he will reign over the house of Jacob….of his kingdom there will be no end.” These Messianic and Christological terms will be applied to Jesus throughout the gospel, but are realisations of identity that come after the Resurrection about who it was who walked among us. Given that the last part of the gospel to be written was the Infancy Narratives, then such late understandings are applied to the beginnings. We must never forget that out of Easter came the Gospels, including the Annunciation account itself.
Mary asks how all this is possible since she has no marital relationship with Joseph. Then begins the dialogue through the angel’s response that the Holy Spirit will overshadow her and thus the one born of her will be called holy and a son of God. It is because of his conception by the Holy Spirit that Jesus is Son of God. ‘Son of God’ is used of Adam in Luke’s genealogy (3:38) and for the Risen Christ in Acts 13:13, implying one who lives because of God’s direct, creative intervention. The full meaning of the title ‘Son of God’ is recognised by his disciples only after the Resurrection: “The apostles proclaimed above all the death & resurrection of the Lord. After Jesus rose from the dead and his divinity was clearly perceived, faith far from destroying the memory of what had transpired, rather confirmed it. (OTHG, also DV and CCC, my italics).
Nothing will be impossible with God
This already graced young woman responds with her free consent to the summons of God: “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” These words are an assertion and expression of faith and an insertion of herself into the long line of women who have, in the course of Israel’s history, faithfully served the purposes of God – Sarah, Ruth, Deborah, Judith, Esther, etc. Her response contrasts with that of Zechariah, and is more than adequate to the display of God’s grace working in her. In this young woman of Nazareth we see the first instance of what will be a constant pattern in Luke: the generous response of those on the margins to the outreach of God’s race.
Reference - Buby, B. (1997). Mary of Galilee vol.1: Mary in the New Testament. St. Pauls: Manila. Published in the Marist Messenger, 31 March 2015.
CCC = Catechism of the Catholic Church
DV = Dei verbum
OTHG = On the historical truth of the Gospels
Part 3 - The Birth of Jesus
Readings: Luke 2:6-19; Matthew 2:1-2, 9-11
A Real Birth
Birth, the word opens up a world of meaning; a woman in childbirth is on the threshold of life and death. Her body struggles to bring the future into being, but her pain and exhaustion consume her to the point where she experiences a dying as well as a birthing, a loss of self, of identity, of control and dignity, a loss of all the protective layers with which we surround ourselves. When a woman gives birth to her firstborn child, she is born into a new relationship. A child is born but so is the new identity of mother. When Jesus died on the cross, his physical passion was Mary’s spiritual passion; in Jesus’ birth, Mary underwent her own physical passion. Rejected by society and lying in a barn among animals, she suffered for the salvation of the world.
Let us be quite clear on the argument that Mary, free from original sin, would not suffer in childbirth. Jesus’ birth was as real as his death. Mary gave birth as all women do, in bringing her baby into the world. Water and blood poured from her body in the birthing process, as it was to flow from her Son in giving birth to the body of the Church (Jn 19:34). God entered our world through a woman. To assert anything less is to walk down the road of the Docetic heresy that could not accept the brutal reality of the crucifixion, so often dwelt on in gory detail, while the birth of Jesus is portrayed in a timeless sentimental image of stable and shepherds with a Madonna free from all traces of childbirth. Such an image alienates most women who have experienced childbirth and is unfair to Mary herself.
To suggest that the physical changes in Mary through giving birth put an end to her capacity to serve God in perfect love is to reject the natural processes of women’s bodies, created and ordained by God. It is to tie an understanding of ‘virginity before, during and after birth’ to a purely mechanistic and physical level to the neglect of the spiritual level of her undivided heart. As we walk through the liturgical season of Advent with Mother Church, the raw power of a pregnant woman becomes a spiritual condition that we all share, male and female, awaiting a birth. While we try to prepare ourselves, to be at peace with God and the world, to move toward Christmas in quiet contemplation, we find ourselves caught up in frantic shopping, cooking and rushing about. The spirituality of Christmas is crowded out by the pressures of the world.
For Mary also the first Christmas was not what she expected. She did not spend her time quietly preparing for the birth of her child, and when he was born she found herself alone and forsaken. Perhaps she remembered that rare mystical moment when God was present, communicative and awaiting her consent. Where was God now when her pain and fear were intense? During the birth there was no bright gleam of angel’s wing or encompassing light or peace beyond words. Mary shared with her sisters on earth that have given birth that risk within the space between life and death that is giving birth. In Mary’s day that risk was a great one. We know from skeletal remains that the average life expectancy for a woman in the first century was between 28 - 30 years of age; for men, ten more years. Many deaths came about in an age when infant mortality was high, perhaps as much as 50%. Multiple pregnancies carried grave risks.
Those at the Crib
For Mary, the whisper of angels came later when the shepherds arrived, praising God and telling her that the heavens rejoiced at the birth of her child. If there is truth in the line that every new birth is a sign that God has not given up on the human race, then how infinitely true this was in the birth of Jesus. Mary had to believe what the shepherds told her, treasuring their words and pondering them in her heart. Christmas comes to us as a rumour of love, whispered amidst the noise and frenzy, carried on the lips of improbable messengers. And in the midst of the chaos of so many Christmases we hear and experience God’s love and care through the love and care we try to extend to others and, hopefully, that we experience from them.
Many artists have tried to capture the beauty of the shepherds at the crib; Gerrit Van Honthorst (1590-1656) shows the shepherds as rugged men crowding around the manger in delight, close to the child, their faces expressing joy, reverence, awe and excitement. A journey that began for Mary with the angel Gabriel coming to a young woman, open to God’s word, now brings in strange visitors in a faraway place, who became bearers of God’s reassurance to her that her child would bring peace to earth. Many people live out of earshot of angels, behind closed doors. We need to search out the poor shepherds of our world and ask them what the angels are saying. God’s favour does not rest on the rich and powerful, but on the woman and her child in the stable and the shepherds in their field.
And there were Wise Men
These also heard the message, and they too have something to teach us. They set out with false expectations, hoping to find a king in a royal palace. Would they have set out if they had known what lay at the end of the journey? But something in them was open to newness, and this enabled them to recognise the ultimate significance in the child they encountered. So often the minds and hearts of the rich are closed to the poor. The wise men had the appearance of wealth, knowledge and power, but the landscape of their souls was that of the open hillside where the shepherds lived, where angels appeared and God’s glory and power broke through in a newborn child.
A Christmas Card Scene?
The nativity was not quite the scene peddled in shopping malls. It was a scene of hope in the depths of poverty, pain and abandonment. Jesus was born on the periphery of society, not at its centre. There was no community to welcome him. There were only the shepherds, and later the wise men who had to leave their ordered world and travel to the margins of society to find the one they sought. The nativity is a scene repeated over and over again in our world today, but we have to pull back the curtains of our lives to see the star.
A baby born to a poor woman proclaims a truth. In times of war and famine and social crisis, birth rates tend to increase rather than decrease. It is as if the birth of a child defies death. It was the birth of a child to a poor peasant woman from Galilee that will one day defeat death altogether. We await that time as we mourn the deaths of 1800 plus Palestinians and 60 plus Israelis, as the Ukraine tears apart the life in the land below and the skies above, all the brutal work of big people with small consciences. We wait, work for, and pray for the day when God ‘will bring down the powerful from their thrones, and lift up the lowly’ (Luke 1:52).
Source - Beattie, T. (1995). Rediscovering Mary: Insights from the Gospels. Liguori Publications: Barnhart, MO.
Published in Marist Messenger, 30 September 2014.
Part 4 - The Visitation
Reading Luke 1:39-56
I was once asked by a Muslim artist who was contracted to do the artwork for a chapel in a Catholic college in the Philippines what was my idea of the Visitation. My answer was two pregnant women meeting and touching each other’s bellies in fascination at the new life within them. I am happy to say that the chapel of the Magnificat in Manila has a beautiful rendition of the scene. Luke has two believing women, confident in God’s word, sharing the grace of being pregnant with two children who will have special missions in God’s plan of salvation.
Old Testament Background
Mary moves with eager haste to visit Elizabeth who greets her with a loud cry of praise. Behind this wonderful scene lies the Old Testament pattern of the surprise of elderly Sarah in giving birth to Isaac and the stirring of Jacob and Esau within the womb of Rebekah. The action of Elizabeth’s unborn infant leaping in the womb not only reminds us of Rebekah’s unborn twins (Gen 25:22ff.) and David’s dance before the Ark of the Covenant (2 Sam 6:16), but also of the messianic leap of joy among the poor, the anawim, of whom Mary is representative (Isa 35:6).
The scene reaches over to the song of Zechariah (the Benedictus) and forward into what follows, the song of Mary (the Magnificat); it brings together the triad of Elizabeth, Zechariah, and John the Baptist with that of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus. The fulfilment of the first covenant, so present in the first group, flows into the second covenant at the advent of the Messiah. Mary is depicted as the model believer and it is Elizabeth who proclaims her blessed because she has believed (LK 1: vv.42 and 45).
This blessing foreshadows the blessing given by the woman in the crowd in Luke 11:27-28 - Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you! But he said, ‘Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it!’ Mary’s faith is explicit in her hearing the word of God and keeping it – My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it. (LK 8:21).
Mary will be declared ‘blessed’ more than once in this gospel; she is the beatitudes personified. She is joyful, happy, fortunate, and blessed woman of faith. Again we have Old Testament echoes of Joel who is called blessed among women (Jgs 5:24) and Judith who is addressed in Judith 13:18 as you are blessed by the Most High God above all other women on earth. The Song of Songs 1:8 spoke of the loved one as O fairest among woman.
The Journey Theme
The Visitation is a point of departure for Mary’s active journey of faith; Luke’s gospel features Jesus own journey from 9:51 to 18:14, but there are many other journeys, here one before Jesus is even born. The long journey of almost ten chapters to Jerusalem has Jesus carefully preparing his disciples for his own exodus to God. In the Visitation, through the meeting of Mary and Elizabeth, Jesus prepares in joy the mission of his own precursor, John the Baptist. Mary may have first made her journey of faith within her own heart. We read how she journeyed to Elizabeth with great eagerness or haste; later she ponders over the events and words spoken to her (LK 2:19 and 51). The journey in Luke from Nazareth to the home of Zechariah would be 70 to 80 miles in length, a full week to reach Ain Karem where today a church in this little village bears beautiful panels of the Magnificat prayer of Mary in more than 24 languages.
Mary’s song of joy and praise of God for the wonders being accomplished is both a response to God and an acknowledgement of Elizabeth’s praise of her as being blessed among all women. The song of the male, Zechariah, is balanced by the song of a woman, Mary, a regular feature of Luke’s gospel. The Lukan themes of joy, fulfilment of God’s promises, the reversal of mighty by the lowly, the merciful love of God for the people of Israel, the praise of God by servants like Mary and Elizabeth, the blessings poured out on Mary, the conversion of minds and hearts, and salvation, thread their way through this great hymn.
The structure of the Magnificat resembles that of Psalms of Praise - 33, 47, 48, 113, 117, 135, and 136 that begin with a call to praise God, then give the reasons why, and conclude with a summary of the psalm. The hymn itself is more Semitic in style than the rest of Luke’s Infancy account and links into the primitive Jewish-Christian community overwhelmed by the salvation of God that has come to Israel in a new and startling way. The link with the prayer of Hannah in 1 Samuel 2:1-10 is a certain pointer in that direction as Hannah gives praise to God for the birth of her son Samuel and all that God would do through him.
By general scholarly agreement the Magnificat did not originate with Luke; it is a compilation of Old Testament motifs. By placing it on the lips of Mary, Luke is certainly making the point that Mary lived this prayer as the first disciple of Jesus and the embodiment of the poor (the anawim) even if she did not literally compose the Magnificat itself, word for word. How appropriate that she leads the hymn of praise to God as Saviour of the people, as had Miriam, Deborah, and David of old.
Reference - Buby, B. (1997). Mary of Galilee vol.1: Mary in the New Testament. St. Pauls: Manila. Published in the Marist Messenger, 1 May 2015.
Part 5- At the Temple
Reading: Luke 2:22-28
Mary went through ritual purification after childbirth. This confirms that in the eyes of God and of the world, her purity was not some bizarre physical condition which set her apart from other women. Modern women have postnatal check-ups six weeks after giving birth. We think we are a scientific society that is no longer trapped in a superstitious worldview, but we over-look the fact that, as in Mary’s case, we need some socially endorsed ritual that terminates the process of pregnancy and confirms that the woman’s bodies have returned to their normal functions. Today, an obstetrician performs the task. In Mary’s day, it was the priest within the context of a liturgical celebration.
In the past as a Christian body we even had a private ritual for women being ‘churched’, going to church for the first time after giving birth, but it no longer finds acknowledgement in the wider community. It was one of the rare occasions when the equality of the sexes promised in Christ was incorporated into Christian praxis, when the Church acknowledged our gendered bodies and incorporated the reality of those bodies into our spiritual lives. The rejection of ideas of ritual purity could have resulted in acceptance of the body with all its discharges and cycles and functions. The reality and acceptance of physicality was deeply enmeshed in the Jewish religious awareness.
Yet early Christianity followed the road of denial of the physical, the Greek dualism, the soul’s yearning to escape the body. We do not need purification because we are loath to acknowledge that we have bodies at all. Yet our sacramental system proclaims the opposite, the sacramentality of physicality.
The Purification celebrates a woman’s fertility. When Mary went to the temple with her baby son, the visit signified many things, but one of them was her public acknowledgement of her physical process of childbirth and fertility. All enduring societies provide their members with ways of making sense out of human living. Such ways of making sense out of life are systems of meaning.
Sacrifice of the Poor
Luke’s account of the Presentation also reminds us that Mary and Joseph were poor. Leviticus instructs that if a woman ‘cannot afford a lamb, she is to take two turtledoves or two young pigeons’ (Lev 12:8). This is the offering that Mary took to the temple. Having offered herself entirely to God, having conceived by the Holy Spirit and given birth to the Son of God, the Mother of God still approaches God with the offering of the poor in her hands. There is so much to learn from this. Any image of God that is not rooted in the suffering and weakness of the poor is an idol that oppresses rather than liberates the human spirit. How strongly Pope Francis is asserting this point!
The gospels challenge us to look for Jesus among the poor, not in the sense of Western spiritual poverty that so adeptly averts the challenge to wealth, but in the concrete realities of poverty. Jesus’ mother had no lamb to offer at the temple, but like Hannah before her, she consecrated her firstborn Son to the Lord. Jesus was to be both shepherd and lamb. At his birth, his mother welcomed the shepherds with whom he would one day identify himself. At the Presentation, she offered the Lamb to the God he would call his Abba, though she had no money for a lamb. In some medieval paintings, Mary is depicted in priestly robes to indicate that in offering Jesus in the temple, she was performing a priestly function.
Simon speaks of the laying bare of secret thoughts. What secret thoughts are laid bare when we contemplate this mother and her baby in the temple? Mary and Jesus were not confrontational, but as they lived out their ministry in the world, people found their own masks stripped away. There was something in their goodness, of the Mother and Child, that was piercing and purifying, that exposed the darkest intentions and desires of the human heart as well as the most generous acts of love and devotion. The violent power of Herod, the treachery of Judas, the political opportunism of Pilate, all these would be laid bare. And so it continues to our day.
The powers of history to our day ride out to conquer and destroy so many children, so many mothers, and all the evils of the world are laid bare. Yet there is light as well as shadow. There is the light of Elizabeth’s greeting to Mary and the anointing of Jesus’ feet by the woman of Bethany. There is the light of Joseph’s love overcoming his reluctance to offer Mary and her child a home. There is the light of the two elderly patient figures of Simeon, righteous and devout, and aged Anna, herself a prophet whose actions speak louder than the words she does not speak, patiently waiting and recognising the salvation that is ‘a light for revelation to the Gentiles.’
Anna was an older woman who had spent years in prayer, waiting for deliverance, a symbol of women everywhere who yearn and fast, and who wait through the history of unredeemed humanity, never losing faith, never losing the desire to speak out and to spread news of her hope and her vision. How much we might discover if we could interpret the message of this old woman, to glimpse the secret thoughts and unwritten history of her life, mother and grandmother, of her long years of widowhood and prayer, this prophet whose words are not recorded and are lost to us. Yet when Jesus was presented in the temple, a woman, a prophet, was there to welcome him. God promised through Joel (3:1) “Your sons and daughter shall prophesy.”
Old and weary Anna stands beside the young mother of Jesus as figures that speak powerfully as women bringing to fruition this promised fragile sign of redemption, of praise to God, and a voice to speak what they have seen and been part of.
Simeon speaks of a ‘sword’ that is to pierce Mary’s soul. Traditionally the ‘sword’ has been associated with the suffering of Mary at the time of her Son’s crucifixion. But Luke’s Passion account does not place the Mother at the Cross. Only John’s gospel does so. Luke brings her in at Pentecost, but in Luke, the ‘sword’ has a broader reference. Mary will have to surrender her Son to a broader and more risky role – ‘his Father’s business’ - that would entail the human experience of fare welling her child into what was to be a challenging and hostile mission in which he would experience both acceptance and rejection, love and hatred.
Source - Beattie, T. (1995). Rediscovering Mary: Insights from the Gospels. Liguori Publications: Barnhart, MO.
Part 6 - The Wedding at Cana
Reading: John 2:1-12
Where it all Began
So often we approach passages in the Scriptures with the question ‘What happened?’ rather than the richer and more revealing question ‘What does it mean?’ The most puzzling line from the Cana account concerns a line spoken by Jesus and literally interpreted from the Greek as “Woman, what have I to do with you?” The interpretation has generally gone along as some lack of understanding on Mary’s part about the nature of Jesus’ mission and of her relationship to him. It is seen as a harsh rebuke or even as a severance of the mother/son relationship at the outset of his public ministry. To read the description of the wedding at Cana in this light does suggest something problematic in the relationship between Mary and her Son.
However, if we reverse the roles, acknowledging the cultural probability that Mary was related to one of the married couple (it is highly improbable and inappropriate that she would have involved herself in the crisis otherwise) then she has a position of authority and Jesus himself is the one who she brings to understanding the significance of the moment. The passage then takes on new meaning. This gospel uses the term ‘sign’ for the great works of Jesus and signs call for understanding of their meaning, otherwise they remain unread.
Birth into his Messianic Role
There is no birth narrative in John; we have to go to Matthew and Luke for that part of the gospel story of Jesus’ human origins. But at the beginning of John’s account of the public ministry of Jesus this gospel tells a story of an encounter between Mother and Son that constitutes a birthing process as Mary pushes her Son into a role that as yet he seems not ready to assume. The image of birth is not commonly ascribed to the Cana account but if two other gospels at their beginning describe the birth of Jesus into his humanity then this one describes the birth of Jesus into his public role of Jesus the Messiah/Christ.
Two women writers (Ivonne Gebara and Clara Bingemer) in their book, Mary, Mother of God, Mother of the Poor, say of this passage: “Mary’s faith begets and gives birth to the faith of the new messianic community.” So Mary becomes in a modern insight, Mother of the Church as well as Mother of the Messiah and his mission. This is a very good indication that women scholars can bring new insights to our understanding and appreciation of the riches of Scripture.
A Critical Moment
Mary knew, with an intuition born of years of prayer and nearness to God that the moment had come for a step into the unknown. Just as once she had pushed her child from the nurturing process of her own body into a hostile world, so now she was being asked to push him into the public domain, away from the private world that she had shared with him for thirty years. With typical generosity and no small sorrow, she had to break the maternal bond and surrender her Son to the world. She had to give him his freedom in order that he might win ours by becoming fully what God intended him to be.
Jesus was initially reluctant to embark upon his new path that would take him to his ‘hour’. It meant leaving the old ways of living. Mary’s own motherly concern would have cried out against what she was doing. They could avoid involvement, enjoy the wedding and go home together afterwards. As at the Annunciation, that great moment of decision in which ‘the Word became flesh,’ Mary held the divinity of Christ in her hands. She had to make the final decision on behalf of the human race. God’s gift to humanity, hidden for thirty years from public gaze, had now to be revealed. As God had waited for Mary’s “Yes,” so now God waited again. It was Mary who must utter the word that would allow God’s will to be played out in history through the saving work of her Son, Jesus Messiah.
Reading the Signs of the Times
Perhaps Jesus had an intuition as to the significance of the moment and far from rebuking her he was challenging her to be open to the future. He was asking if she was willing to redefine her role in relation to him, to become his disciple and mother of the Christ role he was to set out on. His words to her were heavy with heartache and promise for both of them. He knew and she knew what their relationship had been, the tenderness and love, the intimacy and togetherness in their experience of God. Now the wilderness lay ahead and a mission path stretched out that depended on Mary’s co-operation and a second “Yes.” She must go with him to the cross and beyond, in order for the Church to be born of her.
Mary accepted Jesus’ challenge, and she did so, not by responding directly to him but by turning away from him and speaking to those who were present. “Do whatever he tells you,” she told the servants, a distant echo of her words to the angel in Luke: “Let what you have said be done to me.” When humanity hears and obeys God’s Word, God’s presence is revealed. Jesus knew, from the way his mother spoke, that his hour had indeed begun. Where once she had birthed him in water and blood, now she birthed him again in water and wine – in Jewish thought, ‘the blood of the grape’. This will reach its conclusion in the blood and water that flows from the pierced side of Christ when the Woman, the Mother, will again be there.
A Continuing Story
From earliest times the use of the word ‘woman’ has been associated with Eve. This gospel will use the term for the Samaritan woman at the well (Jn 4:21) and also for Mary Magdalene (20:13), and finally for Mary, the woman at the foot of the cross. The many roles that women play in the gospel of John are associated with worship, resurrection and redemption. It is a woman who created the circumstances for Jesus’ revelation of his glory that ‘his disciples might believe in him’. It is a woman to whom Jesus first revealed himself as Messiah. It is to a woman that the risen Jesus first appeared: “Woman why are you weeping?”
“Woman” is a redeeming word that resounds through all of history from Eve to our present pope who calls for a more maternal and compassionate face to the church. It is no accident that the Hebrew word for mercy or compassion is rahamim and the word for womb is rahmah. To say that God is merciful is to restate the Genesis truth that ‘in the image of God male and female were created,’ and affirm one of the strongest feminine images for God.
Deepening the Meaning
The world that Jesus entered stood desperately in need of a new divine intervention. Its resources were limited: six jars, incomplete number (not the fullness of seven) and water were not adequate to meet the needs of the hour. In reality the whole mission of Jesus was to take our incompleteness and turn it into fullness. Cana is not just one moment; it is the journey of Jesus’ life to that hour when again blood and water flowed, the Woman stood at the foot of the cross with the Beloved Disciple/s who believe and take that Woman as their Mother. And in the background to it all is the marriage feast, the goal of human life when we will all sit down at the marriage feast of the Lamb at the end time, the marriage between the Spirit and the Bride, between the Woman and the Man, the marriage of heaven and earth, the great vision at the end of the Book of Revelation.
Source - Beattie, T. (1995). Rediscovering Mary: Insights from the Gospels. Liguori Publications: Barnhart, MO.
Published in the Marist Messenger, 31 January 2015.
Part 7 - At the Foot of the Cross
Reading: John 19:25-27
Mary’s Journey into our Day
This reflection completes our journey through the writing of Tina Beattie’s Rediscovering Mary, a work that shows Mary as a woman of ideas and action, courage and imagination. We have travelled with her from Nazareth to Ein Karim, from Annunciation to Visitation, Bethlehem’s birth and Jerusalem’s Temple, Cana and Mary’s growth as disciple. Now we come to the events we so recently celebrated as a Church, the dying of the light, the Mother at the foot of the Cross.
In our own day we have seen the horror of those killed for their faith in Christ. The mothers of some of these murdered children can comprehend the anguish of Mary and add their own names to the experience of the Golgothas of our day. Ultimately, the mother at the foot of her child’s cross occupies a space beyond expression and language.
Mary’s relationship with Jesus was no longer based on motherhood but had become one based on discipleship and a community of equals, but she still was his mother and she suffered on Calvary as his mother. It is easy for theology to dwell on her presence as symbol of the Church and the New Israel, but popular devotion has always recognised and identified with her human sorrow. In both the Way of the Cross and ‘Mater Dolorosa – Mother of Sorrows’, and in many of the hymns and liturgies and poems, popular Catholicism has focused on the figure of the pieta, the human mother grieving for the death of her Son.
A Mother in Sorrow
A woman from El Salvador struck a contemporary note with her lament, “I often think of Mary: I suffered so much when they arrested my son. When I went to ask where he was, they said they didn’t know. I searched and searched, but couldn’t find him. Finally, his corpse appeared, his head in one place and his body in another. I fainted when I saw him. I thought of how the Blessed Virgin also suffered when they told her that her son had been arrested. Surely she went searching for him and later saw him die and buried him. That is why she understands my sorrow and helps me to go on."
Through the ages, Mary as Our Lady of Sorrows remains a constant motif in the faith of those who suffer and who find in her a source of solidarity and comfort. Mary on Calvary is both mother and companion to all who find themselves in a place where nobody would choose to stand. Mary stands at the heart of loss, grief, and betrayal. Yet that darkest moment is also the greatest moment of love and faith, for in the midst of violence and horror, a Kingdom of gentleness, mercy, and peace is born.
There were so many births and dyings in Mary’s life, and here at the foot of the Cross, she becomes the Mother of all humankind. As once she gave God’s child to the world, now that child gives her to the Church.
At the Foot of the Cross
At the moment of his death, the motherly Kingdom is born. As the poor are blessed for the Kingdom of God is theirs, so the Mother of God becomes mother of the poor, mother of that devastated community at the foot of the Cross, a group of women and one unnamed male disciple. As in Mark, women emerge from the silence of the earlier gospel to become named individuals and key participants. She who has been voiceless, finds herself named and acknowledged at the crossroads of history. “Many who are first will be last; and the last first” (Mark 10:31).
Every time we hear that Jesus died alone and forsaken by his friends, we forget that that applies only to his male disciples, not the braver group of his women disciples who did not ‘forsake him and flee.’
The one male disciple who endures the tragedy of the Cross is purposely not named. The women are named real presences; an unnamed male disciple becomes a symbol for all men who must learn to live within a motherly Church, taking Mary as their example and restoring women to their rightful place. A man, the beloved disciple, one loved and loving, takes his place among grieving women without shame or running away. He was brave enough to stay and not be among those who forsook Jesus and fled. This small group at the foot of the cross gathered in solidarity with one another. One was Mary’s sister, possibly Salome, mother of James and John, a friend, companion and support in crisis. Presence in crisis counts for something even if it does not make it better. To step into suffering beside another does not diminish the darkness, but it can take away some of the loneliness and terror of the unknown.
In being there Mary shares the darkness with her Son. The terrible abandonment expressed in Gethsemane and the cry from the Cross, is lightened by the presence of the Mother in the midst of the violence, the hatred, and the bloodlust of the crowd. Whenever the powers of this world crucify the innocent, there are women who refuse to run away, who express their resistance in the courage of being there, quiet presences in the midst of chaos. The women at the cross symbolise all the women who refuse to hide, all the women who sorrow and mourn for children killed to satisfy the dictates of power.
We, too, in bereavement or loss, turn to Mary for consolation in our times of trouble. She is not just a motherly figure in one-to-one relationship with the individual believer. She is Mother of the Church, and that tells us something about how we must behave as a community. The Jubilee Year we begin on December 8th of this year is to be the Year of Mercy for the Church. The choice of date is intentional, the Immaculate Conception of the Mother of Mercy.
We stand in need of mercy in so many areas – to the creation we live in, in our own country with regard to the poor and neglected sections of our society, within our church. The mercy of God rings through the Gospel and the life of Jesus, the living embodiment of God’s mercy – and that mercy entered our world through Mary. She is the exposed heart of the God her Son named as Abba, who keeps love alive in the depths of hatred and abandonment, sharing in the restoration of humanity through the dying and rising of her Son.
Source - Beattie, T. (1995). Rediscovering Mary: Insights from the Gospels. Liguori Publications: Barnhart, MO.
Part 8 - Pentecost
This feast originally marked the end of the grain harvest. In time it came to be associated with the Exodus and the giving of the covenant. In New Testament times it took on a new significance as the day in which the Spirit is given to the disciples of Jesus. Eventually the fifty period, influenced by Luke’s writings, separated into three festivals of Resurrection-Ascension-Pentecost.
Born of the Spirit
The last mention of Mary by Luke occurs at Pentecost and in Acts 1:12-14. Throughout his Gospel and in Acts, Luke uses summary statements. What we know about Mary from his first volume, her image, receives its final summing up in the second volume. Luke considers that what happened in the upper room, at the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the believers, a parallel to his Infancy Narrative. The birth of the Church is the presentation of the power of the Spirit of Jesus upon the apostles, Mary, and the brothers and sisters of Jesus.
The life of Jesus was similarly announced by the power of the Spirit upon the Virgin Mary at the Annunciation (Lk 1:26-38). Both births, of the physical and then the spiritual body of Jesus, occur at the beginning of each of Luke’s major writings and are both under the shadow and power of the Holy Spirit. While the account of the birth of Jesus is told through the lens of the Old Testament birth narratives, the birth of the Church has a different literary pattern. Yet the content and message are the same.
Mary was told, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; hence the holy offspring to be born of you will be called Son of God” (Lk 1:35). The faithful followers of Jesus are told not to leave Jerusalem for “within a few days you will be baptised with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 1:5). They are to continue the mission of Jesus: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes down upon you; you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, yes, even to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
The Place of Prayer
The group gathered in the upper room are the disciples mentioned in Acts 1:2; the eleven named are the apostles; Mary, the mother of Jesus is named, while the women and ‘brethren’ are mentioned. All of them are united in the prayer that was to characterise the emerging Church in Acts. Mary, in Luke’s Gospel, is a model of faith and prayer (see her dialogue with the angel in 1:26-38; her prayer of praise in the Magnificat, and her reflective mind and heart, 2:19 and 2:51). Her presence in the upper room is more than symbolic.
Among all the names in Acts 1:13, Mary is the person who has actually given witness to a prayer life modelled on the Psalms and to a personal reflective prayer life.
We know the disciples frequented the temple at the hours of prayer; the temple begins and ends this gospel. Yet we are given the content of Mary’s prayer through her pondering over the events and words spoken of her Son in his early life. She is now a model for the apostles, disciples, and friends of Jesus gathered in the upper room. If later the newly formed twelve continue to devote themselves to prayer and the ministry of the word, then such a movement was significantly enhanced by Mary’s sharing in the inception of the Church.
Mary shared in that prayer with them and the gathered ones. Before the descent of the Spirit, prayer united them; after the coming of the Spirit, prayer continued among them and calmed the storms associated with their early mission.
Mary, Model for the Church at Prayer
Clearly Mary is a full member of the group gathers in Acts 1:14. To be ‘of one mind’ and heart means no second class citizens. Mary is fully the Church inasmuch the Church is at prayer. This is the last mention of her in the New Testament; there is no trace of her being sent out on mission. Prayer too is mission and here Mary is a model par excellence. It was good intuition on the part of the Church that the praying St. Theresa, the Little Flower, was named Patron of Missions and Missionaries. The parallels are clear.
John’s Gospel, which often has similar themes to Luke, was aware of a tradition of Mary’s presence, not at Calvary in a scene unique to John, but at Pentecost when the Christian Church is born. The sign symbolism in John 19:25-28 is suggestive of birth of the Church in blood and water, and the breath of Jesus, his Spirit, as given to the gathered community waiting at the foot of the Cross (Pentecost).
The Pentecost text in Acts gives us the name of Mary and places her in a special position to be representative of the Church at prayer. The woman who emerges in Luke as the best image of the Church is Mary, the mother of Jesus. In the two volume work of Luke-Acts there is a definite pattern of paralleling events from the first book to the second. As Mary was physically the mother of Jesus, so, too, she is actively present as the Church is being born at Pentecost. Through her prayer – a prayer of waiting and expectation of the fulfilment of the promises of the Risen Lord – Mary becomes both a dynamic instrument and consenting human person who disposes herself to receive the gift of the Spirit just as she did at the Annunciation.
A Spirit Shared
Now the Holy Spirit impregnates all gathered in the upper room; now they all proclaim and witness to their new birth as the community of the Risen Lord. The all-inclusive universalism of Luke’s vision does not allow him to avoid mentioning Mary, woman of faith and prayer from the Annunciation in Galilee, to the temple rites in Jerusalem, to the time of Passover, and now finally in the upper room awaiting the descent of the Holy Spirit, the promise of Jesus. The age of the Church has at its origins that same believing woman who brought Jesus into our world’s history as God’s agent of salvation.
In his Gospel Luke has nineteen mentions of prayer; in the Acts there are twenty five significant passages. The birth of the Church is presented as a result of prayer, waiting the promise of the Spirit. In obedience to Jesus they gather in the upper room and were of one mind and one heart steadfast in prayer. Prayer was integral to the Church movement from its start. Mary was a central figure in that initial experience.
Source - Buby, B. (1997). Mary of Galilee vol.1: Mary in the New Testament. St. Pauls: Manila.
Published in the Marist Messenger, 2 June 2015.
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