A new book called The Testament of Mary by the Irish writer Colm Toibin presents a very unorthodox picture of Mary, the Mother of Jesus. She’s an old woman living in Ephesus telling two of Jesus’ disciples about the life and death of her son. One reviewer said of the book, “This is not the Mary your mother knew.”
That’s because Toibin pictures Mary as an embittered, vengeful woman who’s still grieving and angry over her son’s death. She can’t accept it and sees nothing good about it. Her son had been taken away from her.
Some reviewers in the secular press praise the book because they say it’s so human. That’s the way a mother would deal with a son’s unjust death, they say. But is it human to live angry and embittered? Are we human when we end our lives disappointed and with no hope? Is that what God means human to be? Was that really the way Mary was?
Not according to the gospels. The Mary they present certainly bears her cross. Christian devotion calls her the Mother of Sorrows and says that seven great sorrows pierced her heart. She stood by the cross of her Son. But she saw something beyond the sorrows and apparent failure. God was there in it all and a larger plan promised resurrection and life. Mary was a believer and that made the difference.
It seems to me that Toibin’s gospel presents Mary as our secular culture sees all human beings, as if all life’s meaning comes from the here and now, and then there’s death. A cold dreary picture of being human.
But Mary represents humanity redeemed, as God means it to be. The mystery of her Immaculate Conception–which we celebrate December 8th– far from isolating her from the rest of us, prepared her to be the first fruits of a new humanity, as she followed the path of her Son. She was human as God meant human to be.
It I were writing a book like Toibin’s I think I would begin it in Jerusalem where St. Luke describes the disciples waiting after Jesus ascended into heaven. Among them were“…certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus.” (Acts 1.14) They were wondering when the days of God’s restoration of the kingdom were coming, even though Jesus had told them “It’s not for you to know the days.”
Still, there and then in Jerusalem, the disciples were sure the kingdom was coming soon, even though Jesus tells them to witness to him further “in Jerusalem, Judea and all Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1, 6-9) Luke charts that journey of the church in the Acts of the Apostles.
Did Mary at that time temper the expectations of the disciples by sharing her own experience of patient waiting, of her closeness to her Son, of God’s mysterious ways. “How can this be?” she once said to the angel. She knew what it meant to wait for God’s will to be done after the angel left her. God’s will is beyond our will and expectations.
There with the disciples in Jerusalem, Mary would be a thoughtful woman, who found answers to the questions she kept pondering in her heart in the scriptures and the feasts they celebrated in the temple. We can hear Mary’s voice in Luke’s Gospel, not a voice of anger or bitterness, but a voice proclaiming God’s goodness for the good things done through her. She was truly “blessed among women.”
“Full of grace,” she was full of humanity too.