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."
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.
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.