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.

For many Christians, Mary the mother of Jesus "exists on a more exalted plane," as James Martin wrote back in 2009. He says that Christians could learn a lot from Mary and the very human struggles she faced. The article is reprinted below.


It's tough to relate to someone who's supposed to be God's mom, isn't it?

Over the past few weeks, millions of Christians have bought, sent, and received cards prominently displaying images of Mary and her son. The most popular designs—if the cards I've received are any indication—come from the late Middle Ages and Renaissance. Typically Mary, an attractive young woman with light-colored hair, stares beatifically at her newborn son, whose rosy cheeks compliment his virgin mother's fair complexion. Both sport haloes and in some renderings Jesus' halo includes a cross, a foreshadowing of his suffering three decades hence.

Even nonbelievers know that Mary probably looked nothing like what she does on Hallmark cards. Most likely, she was a young girl, around 14, with neither a fair complexion nor fawn-colored hair. While there is a dispute over whether Palestinians today physically resemble the denizens of first-century Palestine, it's fair to say that Miriam of Nazareth looked more like a Middle Eastern girl of today—with darker skin and raven hair—than she did a Northern European Renaissance milkmaid.

But if card manufacturers still think of Mary as a fair-skinned beauty queen, many Christians, especially Catholics, don't even think of her as human: Mary exists on a more exalted plane. For Catholics she is the "Blessed Mother," the "Blessed Virgin Mary," and, according to the Council of Ephesus, which convened in 431 A.D., the "Mother of God." (The dogma-making council reasoned that if Jesus was fully human and fully divine—the two natures inseparable—Mary had to be mother of both, hence Theotokos, or "Mother of God.")


Though I believe in all these titles, such lofty theological images can obscure Mary's earthy humanity and distance her from us. And that's lamentable. The human Mary has a lot to teach Christians—actually, everyone: men and women, from the devout believer to the doubtful seeker to the disbelieving atheist.

Just look at her story as recounted in the Gospel of Luke. Even if you doubt that the narrative is told accurately, you have to admit that buried within this supposedly pious and saccharine Bible tale is the vivid image of a strong, resilient, and self-possessed woman.

To begin with, the first time Mary opens her mouth in the New Testament, it is to question God. "How can this be, since I am a virgin?" she asks, after the angel tells her that she will give birth (a reasonable enough question). Her response to something surprising in her life—and that's quite an understatement—is to question. To doubt. Here is one moment where her entirely human life intersects our own.

Who hasn't wanted to ask in the face of a life-altering change, "How can this be?" Holy confusion is a natural part of the life of any believer—indeed, any person. Ironically, earlier in Luke's Gospel, Zechariah, the soon-to-be father of John the Baptist, doesn't fare as well with his question. When he doubts that his elderly wife will conceive a son, a manifestly testy angel strikes him dumb. When Mary airs her confusion, the angel politely furnishes her with an explanation—albeit a confusing one. It's a striking example of biblical favoritism for women.

After the angel explains what will happen to her, Mary makes her decision. She says yes. "Let it be done to me according to your will." As the Catholic theologian Elizabeth Johnson points out in her book Truly Our Sister, the young peasant girl decides on her own, without recourse to the traditional male authorities of her day: "Exercising independent thought and action, she asks questions, takes counsel with her own soul," Johnson writes. "In a self-determining act of personal autonomy, she decides to go for it." This is one reason why Mary is a central figure for many smart Christian women, like the theologian Diana Hayes, who calls Mary's radical "yes" a moment of "outrageous authority."

After the angel's visit (or encounter with God in a vision, or a dream, or however you understand it), Mary rushes off to see Zechariah's wife, her cousin Elizabeth. Pious preachers paint this episode as Mary's journeying to "a Judean town in the hill country" to assist the elderly woman with her upcoming birth. But something else may be going on. The young, pregnant Mary probably needed the older woman's advice. Again, another point of intersection: Who hasn't felt the need for counsel in times of severe stress, no matter how "faith-filled" a person is? Setting aside the miraculous circumstances of the conception, it makes perfect sense that an indigent young mother would seek the assistance of a wise older woman. Joan Chittister, a Catholic sister, in an essay in the new book Holiness and the Feminine Spirit, points out that Mary does not turn to the men in her life—not to Joseph her husband for understanding, nor to her father for protection, nor to the local priests for vindication. "No," writes Chittister, "Mary goes to another woman."



Slate Plus Early Read: The Self-Made Man

The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.

Mitt Romney May Be Weighing a 2016 Run. That Would Be a Big Mistake.

Amazing Photos From Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution

Transparent Is the Fall’s Only Great New Show

The XX Factor

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada

Now, journalists can't even say her name.


Lena Dunham, the Book

More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.

What a Juicy New Book About Diane Sawyer and Katie Couric Fails to Tell Us About the TV News Business

Does Your Child Have Sluggish Cognitive Tempo? Or Is That Just a Disorder Made Up to Scare You?

  News & Politics
Sept. 29 2014 11:45 PM The Self-Made Man The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.
Sept. 29 2014 7:01 PM We May Never Know If Larry Ellison Flew a Fighter Jet Under the Golden Gate Bridge
Dear Prudence
Sept. 30 2014 6:00 AM Drive-By Bounty Prudie advises a woman whose boyfriend demands she flash truckers on the highway.
  Double X
Sept. 29 2014 11:43 PM Lena Dunham, the Book More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 29 2014 8:45 AM Slate Isn’t Too Liberal, but … What readers said about the magazine’s bias and balance.
Brow Beat
Sept. 29 2014 9:06 PM Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice Looks Like a Comic Masterpiece
Future Tense
Sept. 29 2014 11:56 PM Innovation Starvation, the Next Generation Humankind has lots of great ideas for the future. We need people to carry them out.
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 29 2014 11:32 PM The Daydream Disorder Is sluggish cognitive tempo a disease or disease mongering?
Sports Nut
Sept. 28 2014 8:30 PM NFL Players Die Young. Or Maybe They Live Long Lives. Why it’s so hard to pin down the effects of football on players’ lives.