A Silence about Mary

Madonna with Child, Carlo Maratta, c. 1660.

Mary is very central to the Gospel’s infancy narratives, but after Cana she almost disappears: we see her in the “Who are my mother and my brothers and my sisters?” passage, at the foot of the cross, and as being present at the Pentecost event, but after that, nothing. Why does Scripture progressively ignore her in this manner, and what are we to make of it?

The first time we meet Mary, Luke describes her as “filled with grace,” and I think it is possible that we do not take that description in a sufficiently strong sense, at least in terms of her lifetime as a whole: the Annunciation is a moment when the Holy Spirit changes her life completely and in a most profound physical sense, but what would her prayer life have been before and after this visit? I don’t think that we could classify her as a mystic—I doubt that she fits any such categories—and yet, she had to be in some sort of constant awareness of God, living in some sort of profound presence to him, at the very least, after this event, and, almost certainly, before it. To judge from the Magnificat, she was clearly filled with at least the scriptural presence of God in the best possible way, but how does she change afterwards?

The infancy narratives give us some idea of who she is as a young mother, at least from the outside. After that, just about anything we might say about her would be pretty much all speculation—but let me offer some ideas anyway.

In the episode of Jesus discussing with the doctors in the Temple, when he is supposedly “lost” there (Lk 2:41-50), note Mary’s expectation that, even at that age, Jesus would still act like a son and would have at least mentioned to her and Joseph that he was leaving home. At this point, the Perfect Man is acting like a perfect teenager; he still needs some polishing. And then, without any other recorded words from Mary or Joseph, we see Jesus simply return to Nazareth with them.

There he grows in “age, wisdom, and grace” until he is about 30, when he begins his mission and shows a completely different kind of awareness, knowledge, and wisdom than he did in the Temple (it is not easy to describe this new mindset in two words). He begins his real mission, not in the Temple with the doctors of the Law, but fairly far from that place in every sense of the word, far from all the activities and attitudes which that site implies, among the common people instead. He has indeed grown, humanly and spiritually, under the tutelage of Mary, and, for at least much of that time, Joseph. They were exactly what Jesus needed as parents.

The Gospel texts show Mary as present to Jesus only twice after that, before she appears at the foot of the cross. During the wedding at Cana (Jn 2:1-12), Mary is present and takes a very active role, even to the point that, as his mother, she overrules Jesus, and he obeys without further demur. She has a very definite maternal and commanding part in his life even here, early in his ministry.

The other occurrence is when the “brothers and sisters” of Jesus decide that he has gone crazy, and they come to take him home (Mt 12:46-50; Lk 8:19-21; Mk 3:20-21, 31). Mary accompanies them, but Scripture does not report anything else about her. I seriously doubt that she concurs in their opinion. I think, rather, she goes along to provide some damage control and to mitigate the harm these brothers and sisters might do.

During the Lord’s public life, we see no more of her. We have no record of his contacting his mother when he stops in Nazareth, for example (Mk 6:1-6; Lk 4:16-20), although I cannot imagine that he did not do so. I suspect that we do not see this in the Gospels simply because that was a private relationship, and not overtly part of his mission or his message at that point.

At the end of that ministry, Mary suddenly appears at the foot of the cross; she must have been in Jerusalem at that time, possibly in Jesus’ entourage, but, even then, she is not a recorded part of what Jesus was doing during the days leading up to his passion and death, not even present at his celebration of the Passover supper—at least not as Scripture tells it.

If she was so close to God, “filled” with the Holy Spirit, and consequently aware of the Father as well, her grief before the cross at what her Son was undergoing had to be tempered, at least in part, by her trust in the Father’s will and design. Only in our prayer, can we begin to see a little of what she was experiencing and to be able to join her in her own prayer.

And then, from that Good Friday afternoon until Easter morning, how did she feel? Empty? Bereaved and bereft? Alone? Abandoned by God? Can we even put into human words what the Spirit had to say to her? And her response to God in this situation? The relative silence about Mary before the events of Holy Week—and after the crucifixion—begins to take on an almost palpable weight. Who is the Mother of God at this moment, and, especially, once Jesus puts her in the care of the Beloved Disciple and vice versa (Jn 19:25-27)? And why does Scripture then seem to forget her?

Allow me to leap to a conclusion here in regard to what is involved in Jesus’ words from the cross to Mary and this disciple. The “beloved disciple” might be John himself, insofar as the historical/literary events of John’s Gospel are concerned, but John rarely does anything that simple, that one-dimensional. I would say that the figure of this disciple, here and throughout John’s Gospel, is rather an avatar of all the true believers, those who constitute the new People of God, the Church, or what we are now learning to call Christ’s Mystical Body. More on this below.

We have no scriptural record of the Risen Jesus appearing to his Mother, but I don’t think that any of the evangelists, not even John, would have had the temerity to attempt such an account: look at how John discreetly refuses to show us what happened when Andrew and “another disciple” of the Baptist go to spend time with Jesus and find their lives transformed by that encounter (Jn 1:39-41). It would be even more difficult to show Jesus as he appeared to Mary in a most intimate manner after his resurrection; He could not, and would not, appear to his mother in the same way that he did to others, bodily, and using words. At that point, the Divine Son simply would not communicate with his marvelous Mother in the same limited way he was forced to do, even with his chosen Eleven.

Again, I point to the unique sort of union with the Father, in the Spirit, that Mary had been living for some 30-plus years: her post-crucifixion experience would have been more than just an episodic vision or a momentary rapture. It would have been completely unique and at a level that I find impossible to imagine, much less to describe, in even the most rudimentary manner. For Mary, that moment had to be the commencement of a radically new, incredibly profound, and continuing union with her Jesus.

I would summarize these aspects of Mary’s history thus: she is very much a mother to Jesus up through the events at Cana, even if she is living in a most advanced presence to the Father and the Spirit during this period, and she withdraws into the background as Jesus begins his ministry. She experiences a critical moment at the cross when Jesus quite specifically establishes a new relationship for her in terms of the “beloved disciple”; at that point, she passes to a wholly different level of intimacy with Jesus—but, necessarily, with the Father and the Spirit at the same time.

We have no clear further reference to Mary, except for a mere mention of her name in Acts (1:14, 2:1) as being present at Pentecost. However, that marks the beginning of a new role for her, one which Luke does not develop.

After Pentecost, the People of God, the faithful, are filled with the Holy Spirit in a manner reminiscent of what had occurred to Mary, yet none of us has ever lived that fullness in the same way that Mary did. We, as individuals and as a Church, are still groping our way through sin and the trials of the world towards fully becoming the Mystical Body.

On November 18, 1965, about two weeks before the closing of Vatican II, Pope Paul VI spoke to the fathers of the Council. On that day, he announced that he would soon consecrate a Roman church to Mary, Mother of the Church.

Mary, Mother of the Church? How? As Mary is the Mother of Jesus in his physical and original incarnation, she is also the Mother of his new form of incarnation in the world, that same Mystical Body. Where Peter and the other apostles are suddenly performing miracles after Pentecost in the name of Jesus, I imagine Mary—still filled with the Spirit—as performing the motherly miracle of nurturing the infant Church in small and very personal ways, all of them as spiritual as the acts and words of her Son, and all having the effect of bringing the infant Church to life. She plays her role with love and the same quiet, strong, calm wisdom that she had always shown. I can well imagine her dealing with Peter and James and Thomas, with Stephen and the women. As always, she is gentle, simple, and serenely focused, still a very human vessel of the Spirit’s activity in the world, as the new People of God comes to birth and begins to grow.

I think that it is in this sense that we might interpret the passage in Revelation 12:1-6. I believe that we must consider the woman in question there to be, first of all, the People of God, the faithful, and from them comes the savior; this is Jesus, of course, but does this mean that we can equate Mary with the People of God? Hardly.

Mary carried the Second Person of the Trinity in her body and gave him a human and fleshly existence at the invitation of the Father, and through the work of the Holy Spirit; she was his mother in every sense of the term. The People of God already existed at that point, however, as the Children of Abraham, and Mary was the daughter of that people, a perfect daughter and not their mother. She had a certain relationship with those who believed in the pre-resurrection Jesus and followed him, but she was not their mother either. I think that it is simply that the woman in Revelation 12:1-6 is just not Mary, not literally, and not even figuratively.

From the moment of her conception, Mary has been different from the rest of us, and I have tried to show how that difference grew over the course of her life. Is it any wonder that we might not feel satisfied with our understanding of the exact modalities of her motherhood of the Church?

Fr. Charles Kestermeier, SJ About Fr. Charles Kestermeier, SJ

Fr. Charles Kestermeier, S.J., received his doctorate in French literature at the University of Wisconsin (Madison) and, since then, has been teaching English at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska.

Comments

  1. At Cana Mary appears as the Daughter of Jerusalem, i.e., this is her symbolic presence until, under the cross, her Son chances this symbolic role to Mother of the Church. The Beloved Disciple becomes her symbolic son, the personification of all believers. To Mary, Mother of the Church, Jesus “hands on the Spirit” (John 19:30) as divine at the same moment that as human He dies on the cross.

  2. Martin B. Drew says:

    The authors of the four gospels showed a very deep love for Mary the mother of Jesus by writing brief moments with Mary . In Scripture when Mary is presented it is as Mother of jesus with a simple authority of love for others. Later with the dogma of the Assumption from Pius XII and the many apparitions of Mary we see this divine love of Jesus pouring from Mary and Jesus for all mankind to live the life of love of God and others. The Magnificat of Mary is remembered.