You Have More in Common With the Mother of Jesus Than You Think

Religion, spirituality, and sacrilege.
Dec. 24 2009 10:36 AM

Hail Mary

You have more in common with the mother of Jesus than you think.

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During the sojourn with her cousin, Mary proclaims what is termed her "Magnificat" (after the Latin translation of the first words of her discourse: "My soul magnifies the Lord"). Still shocking for some contemporary Christians, Jesus' mother celebrates a God who has "brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly." God fills the hungry with good things, she says, and "sends the rich away empty." Imagine a prosperity-gospel preacher saying that God favors the poor! The passage is beloved by liberation theologians, by the poor, and, frankly, by anyone who looks to God for ultimate justice.

From then on, Mary had a hard road to slog. Nine months of pregnancy, to be sure, but also, if you believe even a fraction of what are called the "infancy narratives" in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew, a tiring journey with Joseph to Bethlehem for a census. Like many today, Joseph and Mary were caught under the heel of powers far beyond their control and were still required to care for their family. St. Luke, ever the historian, is keen to remind readers that Jesus was born in a real-life situation, which is why he takes pains to note that Quirinius was the governor of Syria and why he mentions another historical potentate. "In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus," he writes. (Luke's version is the one Linus recites every year on A Charlie Brown Christmas.) So Mary is undoubtedly tired. The arduous months of pregnancy, the grueling journey to Bethlehem, and the unanesthetized labor would have been severely taxing.

So a further point of intersection, for not just women but men: We're not at our best when we're physically tired. Contemporary believers need to know that they're not the only ones who have struggled like this, trying to do the right thing in the face of physical exhaustion. Even the "Mother of God," the "Blessed Virgin Mary," the one who may seem far removed from our daily lives, struggled physically.

Later on, as Notre Dame Scripture scholar John Meier notes in the first part of his multivolume work A Marginal Jew, Mary and Joseph raise Jesus in a relatively poor town. (Nazareth was considered such a backwater that one snarky disciple mocks the place, saying, "Can anything good come from Nazareth?") Finally, Mary evidently faced confusion about the way her son had turned out—a not uncommon event for parents today. When word spreads about Jesus' preaching, the Gospel of Mark tells us, "his family went to restrain him." And of course, Mary suffers through Jesus' crucifixion, at which point Meier estimates her to be roughly 48 to 50 years old. Hers was a human life filled with human struggle and, clearly, human emotion.

Mary's final words in the New Testament come at Jesus' traditional first miracle, the Wedding Feast of Cana, as recounted in the Gospel of John. When she suggests that Jesus help the host who has run out of wine, Jesus turns to her and says sharply, "Woman, what concern is that to you and to me?" Placidly, his mother turns to the host and says, "Do whatever he tells you." Perhaps she understood Jesus' ultimate ministry better than even he did at that moment.

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That wouldn't be surprising. After all, Mary had more time to think about her son's destiny. Moreover, she had the benefit of years of hard-earned wisdom gained from living a fully human life.

Watch: Susan Thistlethwaite of Chicago Theological Seminary and Father James Martin discuss how Mary can be a subversive figure for today's Christians.

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James Martin, a Jesuit priest, is editor at large of America magazine and author of The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything.

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