Mary in the Gospels
We know very little about Mary of Nazareth (or Miriam as she would have been called in Hebrew) as an actual historical person. What we do know is that she was a first-century Jewish woman who is portrayed in very different ways in each of the four gospels. The earliest gospel reveals that there was not yet a tradition of veneration for Mary. We see in Mark’s gospel how Mary arrives with other members of the family as Jesus is preaching, and they want to see him. When the crowd tells Jesus his mother is asking for him, he replies, “Who is my mother and brother and sister? Those who do the will of my father are mother and brother and sister to me” (see Mark 3:31-35). And Mary remains outside. This most likely reflects the fact that Mary did not hold the significance for Mark’s community that she does for us today.
Matthew’s gospel contains several stories not found in the other gospels. The birth of Jesus is told from the point of view of Joseph, not Mary. Matthew includes the escape to Egypt, but with Joseph as the central character. Like Mark, Matthew also includes the story of Jesus’ mother and family ‘standing outside’ wanting to speak to him, yet Jesus leaves them outside. Mary is also mentioned in the story of Jesus’ rejection at Nazareth: ‘Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary?’ (Matt 13: 55). By the time Matthew’s gospel is being written, devotion to Mary had not yet taken hold in the Christian community.
However, by the time Luke is writing his gospel and the Acts, Mary is being seen as a woman of faith, overshadowed by the Spirit at Jesus’ conception and at the beginning of the Church at Pentecost. She is the first to respond to the glad tidings to hear the word of God and keep it. In Luke’s gospel, Mary is a perfect example of discipleship. He portrays a very positive view of Mary from which the Church has mostly developed her theology regarding Mary.
Finally, by the end of the first century, John provides a highly stylized portrait of the ‘mother of Jesus’. (John never names her Mary.) She appears twice in John’s Gospel, at the beginning and at the end, at Cana and at the cross. Each time she reveals what it means to live a responsive discipleship to Jesus – the word made flesh.
These four gospel portraits show a gradual development in the Church’s understanding of the significance of Mary as the mother of Jesus, and how we can see in her a model of faithful discipleship.
Mary in History
From the gospels we learn that Mary lived in the Mediterranean rural village of Nazareth. The population of Nazareth at that time would have consisted largely of peasants working the land and craftsmen who served their basic needs. Married to the local carpenter (or stonemason as the Hebrew word can also mean), she took care of her family. Her days would ordinarily have been taken up with the work of women of all ages: feeding and clothing her family. Like other village women of her day, she was probably illiterate. The peasants of Nazareth at that time struggled to pay their taxes to the Temple, Herod and Rome. The Romans were an occupying force in her land and the atmosphere around her village would have been tense. For this reason Mary would have witnessed violence and poverty around her for most of her life. Her later experience of losing her son to death by unjust state execution would have compounded the depth of her suffering. Yet we hear in her Magnificat her faith that the lowly will be lifted up and the powerful ones will be brought low. Through her Magnificat we see a woman whose faith in God never faltered.
- Explore what you can about the historical Mary.
Mary as Jewish
Mary was born into the Jewish faith. As a Jew she believed in one living God. In Luke’s gospel we see her praying to God who hears the cry of the poor and frees the enslaved. We can assume that Mary, with her husband, Joseph, practiced this Jewish religion in their home, following Torah, observing Sabbath and the festivals, reciting prayers, lighting candles and going to synagogue, according to the custom in Galilee.
At the end of Jesus’ life, Luke depicts Mary in her older years as a member of the early Jerusalem community, praying with 100 other women and men in the upper room before the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost. We can see from this that Mary participated in the early Jewish-Christian community in Jerusalem. As a faith-filled believer, she kept going to the Temple to praise God for the wonders God had revealed in Jesus.
Christianity was still linked to the synagogue. We must never strip away Mary’s Jewishness from her. Like the early Jewish-Christian believers, Mary was faithful to her Jewish heritage till the end.
Though Mary is poor and ‘lowly’, as she describes herself in the Magnificat, she believes God is doing great things in her life and in the lives of all the poor: It is God who brings down the mighty from their thrones; exalts the lowly; fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty.
Mary believes in salvation. When a person is genuinely poor and struggling, it is hope in God that sustains daily life. Hope in God is what makes life bearable. Hope in the saving power of God fires the faith of the poor and sustains their dreams for the future.
In her song Mary sings of the future when, finally, God’s justice will come about. This is a great song of hope in God’s salvation. Mary reflects the deep and abiding hope of the people of Israel, that God’s salvation will come to birth and bring justice to the land as a whole.