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The Story of Mary: It's Meant for Today

This is my favorite picture of Madonna and Child. It is by Paul Gauguin and hangs in the met. I especially like it when there is a foot of slush and ice on the ground. It makes me long for warmth both temperature wise and the intimacy that is present in this picture. Never mind that Jesus looks like he is about nine years old or that in a nod to modesty Gauguin chose to have her sarong cover her bosom. The fresh tropical fruit is set on a fata, a place where Polynesians made offerings to gods. In all probability Jesus never saw a banana. Yet it has an intimacy about it, a sense of what is important. The relationship pictured is deep and sacred.

This is one view we have of Mary. The Gospel’s present four different portraits of Mary.

In Mark, the earliest Gospel, She is mentioned for the first time by name at the Lord’s rejection in Nazareth. The locals ask, “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, and the brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon…?” The designation of Jesus as “the son of Mary” rather than associating him with his father’s name is gossip about Mary conceiving out or marriage. Mark says nothing more. In fact, Mark’s attitude toward Jesus’s blood relatives is fairly negative: some of them try to restrain him for insanity so Jesus defines his true kin—his “brother, sister, and mother”—as those who do the will of God. The crucifixion mentions a certain Mary, the mother of James and Joses and Salome, but it is unclear whether she is the mother of Jesus or another Mary.

Matthew expands Mary’s role with his account of Jesus’s birth. Most memorably, Matthew has Mary fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy that a virgin will conceive and bear a son called Emmanuel. Beyond this, however, her figure is largely passive, especially in comparison with her betrothed Joseph. In Matthew’s account, it is Joseph who agonizes over Mary’s unexpected pregnancy, and it is Joseph whom the angel visits—to order him to take Mary as his wife and move to Egypt Joseph, not Mary, makes the decisions. Matthew’s focus on Joseph over Mary fits his emphasis on the royal lineage that runs from David to Joseph.


Mary takes center stage in Luke’s nativity account. She is the one whom the angel Gabriel visits, and she is the one who wrestles with the announcement of the conception. We learn more about Mary in Luke, including her hometown Nazareth, and her family connections. Her relative Elizabeth belongs to a priestly lineage. Mary also has more to do. She travels to visit Elizabeth stays with her for three months and sings the Magnificat. She is the dedicated mother, traveling to Bethlehem while pregnant, giving birth to Jesus, wrapping him in swaddling clothes, and placing him in a manger. Luke even reveals her state of mind, reiterating that she treasured in her heart the things that had happened.


In John, Mary was there for Jesus’s very first sign of turning water into wine at the wedding at Cana Unlike the first three Gospels, John explicitly makes her a witness of the crucifixion. Indeed, it is at the cross where Jesus proclaims the mutual adoption as mother and son between his mother and his beloved disciple, the figure behind John’s Gospel. The mother of Jesus and the beloved disciple have something else in common: neither of them are ever called by name in this Gospel.


The Gospels exhibit an increasing fascination with Jesus’s mother. The earliest, Mark, portrays her in the barest of terms, calling Jesus the “son of Mary” and preferring instead to focus on spiritual kinship. Matthew and Luke augment Mary’s role in Jesus’s story with the infancy accounts. Finally, in John, Mary becomes an important witness to the end of Jesus’s life. This fascination with Jesus’s mother does not end with the Gospels but continues to grow in the succeeding centuries.[1]

Suprisingly for most Christians, Mary is mentioned in the Quoran more than in Christian scriptures. She is the mother of Isa (Jesus ). She holds a singularly exalted place in Islam as the only woman named in the Quran, which refers to her seventy times and explicitly identifies her as the greatest of all women.


You will see many images of Mary at Christmas, In pageants and plays Mary always gets high billing. Next to Gaugan my favorite Mary was from a young girl in Newark named Fatima who decided to improvise the birth of Jesus during the padget by rolling around on the floor with heavy breathing screaming and pulling a baby doll out from under her robe. It may be the most realistic madrona and child I have ever seen. And it certainly was a show stopper.


Forget about Mary meek and mild- her Magnificat is a war cry. Saying yes to being a part of God’s plan to overthrow tyrants, and lift up the poor. She announces that her conception is the church’s mission, our mission to challenge the status quo with radicle preference for the poor and marginalized.


Forget about the blue vale. Blue dye belonged to the rich. It would have been harvested from claims in Ceasera Phillip, a place that she would have probably never been. Mary didn’t get vacations.


Forget about Mary mild. She demands Jesus do something about the social humiliation at the wedding. Jesus calls her woman, emphasizing that this is a woman who can and should demand her place among the believers.


Forget about that donkey. The donkey was the Cadillac of transportation. No teenagers could afford that.


I don’t mean to pull the rug out from under your Christmas.


Mary is the story of how Christmas comes to those who don’t even own a rug.


The ones without a voice. The ones in danger and at risk because the world does not approve of their pregnancy. Christmas comes to teenagers who have tremendous burdens placed on them. It comes to old woman like Elizabeth who had no hope of a future. To Simeon who was about to give up on faith and Anna who lived in grief and probably on the margins. Christmas comes to refugees and immigrants as Mary shielded her son for the flight into Egypt. Christmas comes when the church proclaims as Mary did, the poor are the chosen of God. With God all things are possible.


This year, we have all had the rug pulled out from under us. When we hear the story of Mary and sing her song, let’s remember this story was written for times just as these. Amen, Come Lord Jesus!

[1] Stephen C. Carlson, "Portraits of Mary in the Gospels", n.p. [cited 19 Dec 2020]. Online: https://www.bibleodyssey.org:443/en/people/related-articles/portraits-of-mary-in-the-gospels

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