Mary and the Priest
The scripture scholar Father John MacKenzie liked to remind people, “Mary could break the arm of every artist who ever painted her!” He used to say this in his lectures and finally wrote about this in an article entitled, “The Real Mary”. After this article appeared he spoke about the number of women who were in touch with him thanking him for what he had written. Women, and perhaps men as well, were weary of the blue-garbed, white-veiled, blue-eyed, brown-haired Caucasian woman of pious, if not simpering poses, so often presented for their adoration and emulation. They yearned and yearn for a “real Mary”.
Not all of us will have the opportunity to visit the Holy Land but for those of us who have it becomes clear very quickly that indigenous women there bloom early and fade early in terms of physical beauty. But they are incredibly strong, especially the Bedouin women who can still be seen in their encampments. They are almost swarthy in their appearance, dark-skinned, dark hair and eyes, often covered in black but for their faces that are unveiled unless they are now Muslims.
In the bazaars they make their way against all comers getting the kerosene and other supplies they need for their families whether or not they are still nomads or live in the settlements the government now provides for them. Their children are tremendously important to them and protected diligently by them. This is what Mary would also have been, strong, stalwart, protective, caring, brooking little or no opposition when the needs of her child, even in his adulthood, were at stake.
Jewish girl children were not exposed to death as was the custom among some other groups at the time of Mary and Jesus but they did not receive the welcome that the boy child did. At about the age of five, girls began to learn the care of the household. At the age of three their brothers began to learn the Torah. The young girl soon came to understand that her role was to make the religious lives of the males in her household possible. Eventually she would leave her father’s house and be expected to continue to do this for her husband and her sons. There were no specified religious rituals for her except to provide this accessibility to study and prayer for the men.
She fared somewhat better in her adulthood than did women in other communities. Her marriage would be arranged because it was a marriage of families not of the two individuals. However, she could be divorced by her husband and sent naked from his house for reasons like poor cooking, that she talked too much, or that she did not produce a male heir. She had no right to initiate divorce proceedings on her own no matter how badly she had been treated. If she had no male protector, father, husband, or a brother, or living with a son when she was widowed, the only option offered to her was prostitution. Such was the fate and life of Mary and of the women of her time and place.
Tradition says that Mary was widowed early on and that the care of Jesus was very much hers after that. It may have been so, yet by the time of his thirteenth birthday, a boy was to have learned his father’s trade and was expected to take responsibility for his own religious living. It is likely that Jesus would have done that. They would have lived together until he felt called to become a peripatetic rabbi and it is likely that Mary would have accompanied him in his travels, because women often did this. It seems that she became a part of the group of women who cared for Jesus and the men around him.
Mary surely comes across to us as empathetic when we hear of her at Cana asking her son to do something about the failing wine. It is interesting that Jesus dismisses her request at first but then seems to think better of it and then fulfills it. (This is not the only time he does that in terms of a woman who comes into his life.) Mary and other members of his family are so disturbed about Jesus at one point that they try to take him away back to his home. Her concern is real. It is then that we have Jesus reported as saying that blood ties are far less important to him than is the community of faith. If he said this within Mary’s hearing, we might wonder how she felt. Betrayed? Resigned? Confused? How might our own mothers feel if they heard us saying that our community of faith was more important to us than she would or could be! Empathy usually goes hand in hand with deep sensitivity.
We are told that Mary stood at the foot of the cross watching her son’s life ebb away, hearing his anguished cry about feeling forsaken, overwhelmed with his remembering that she needed to be cared for, and placing the youthful John in her care and she in his. We know the story does not end there. We know that she played a vital role at the Council of Jerusalem, unique in itself, since women could not be official witnesses in ancient Israel, and even today Orthodox Jewish men thank God that they were not born women or idiots.
What does all this say to us, we seminarians, priests, bishops who say that Mary is our mother in a special way? What does it mean to look to her as a model, for support, encouragement, and hope? What does it say about how we ought to relate to women in our celibate lives, without compromising their persons or ours? Let me offer a few suggestions.
If we see anything in Mary it is faith in her son and his mission to recall Israel to what God wanted of them. We have for ourselves, then, a model of faith in the Jesus way, a conviction that the radical egalitarianism he preached and lived is desirable, possible, and worth dying for. We have in Mary a woman faithful to the duties to which her life called her, fulfilling them in moments of great joy, great pain, and sometimes in great loneliness. We are called to do the same. We have in Mary a model who speaks out and identifies human needs to those who can do something to fill them. She gives voice to the voiceless. So must we.
She stands at the foot of a cross on which hung a man dying the most horrible death that Rome had to offer, branded the worst possible kind of criminal, identifying herself with him, loving him, believing in him when he has almost lost faith in his own self and in his God. So must we stand with those on our political, economic, and social margins, believing in them when they have often lost all faith in themselves and perhaps even in their God.
Mary invites us to one more thing and that is to take women as seriously in our lives as her son did in his. Jesus was a feminist. Make no mistake about that. Contrary to the accepted norms of his society he did not see women as second-class citizens or moral hazards. They were his colleagues and friends. He encouraged them to use their minds. He enjoyed their company. He was grateful for their services. He was available to them. He applauded their successes and empathized with their pain and distress. He did what he could to help them grow in health of body, mind, and spirit, and he learned from them to grow in his own body, mind, and spirit. He treated them humanely and they did the same for him.
He nurtured them and he allowed the women in his life to nurture him. He loved them and they loved him. They experienced that authentic loving means nothing less than working toward the spiritual development and well being of the beloved. He did not exploit them nor allow them to exploit him. It is not surprising then that leadership in many of the earliest Christian communities was in the hands of women, and very competent women at that.
If Mary is our mother and our model, then we need to understand and admire her for the valiant woman that she was. She was of service but she was not a doormat. If “the apple does not fall very far from the tree”, then we need to look closely and realistically at her son and in him see her qualities that helped him to become what he was. If we are faithful to our own vocation, those qualities of body, mind, and spirit must also be ours.