The Word Among Us

October 2006 Issue

Blessed Are You

Portraits of Mary in the Gospels

Ever since the third century, when efforts were made to meld the four gospels into one, the church has insisted on maintaining the separate integrity of each account of the good news. The gospels were written at different times for different communities, and though they all present the same revealed truth of salvation through Christ, each one tells the story in a unique way, highlighting a different aspect of the gospel and of Jesus himself.

Just as the gospels differ in their accounts of Jesus, they also give us different portraits of his mother, Mary. Mark portrays her in terms of discipleship, and Matthew places her within the Holy Family. Luke emphasizes her role as virgin mother of the incarnate God, and John points to Mary as mother of the church. By exploring these different focuses, we can come to a deeper appreciation of Mary and the essential role that she plays in God's plan of salvation.

Mark: Mary as Disciple. Mark's Gospel was probably written around a.d. 65, and its goal was to encourage Christians, primarily of Gentile origin, in the way of discipleship. Mark skips over the stories of Jesus' birth and begins with the ministry of John the Baptist. As a result, this gospel contains only two direct references to Mary (Mark 3:31-35; 6:1-6). In the first passage, as Jesus is teaching a crowd gathered around him, he is told that his mother and other relatives are outside, asking for him. Jesus responds, "Who are my mother and my brothers? . . . Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother" (3:33-35).

Jesus' answer, shocking at first, reveals the essence of discipleship. It also places Mary at the heart of this calling. She was the first one to do the will of God, telling the angel, "Let it be with me according to your word" (Luke 1:38).

In the second account, Jesus is rejected in his home town of Nazareth. His former neighbors, scandalized at his new ministry, ask one another: "Where did this man get all this? . . . Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary?" (Mark 6:2-3). Mark continues, "He could do no deed of power there. . . . And he was amazed at their unbelief" 
(6:5-6). Dealing primarily with the disbelief of potential disciples, Mark also gives us insight into Jesus' hidden life. The "son of Mary" was thought of only as a humble carpenter. He was not known for miracles and wondrous deeds but simply as just another Nazarene. This scene also helps us understand why people may have been disturbed by the way Jesus seemed to respond to Mary in their previous encounter. Only as our hearts are set on God's kingdom can we come to see who Jesus really is. And this is precisely how Mary thought and acted.

In both scenes, Mary is humble and quiet. Her special dignity is veiled, even when her call to discipleship is clearly indicated. This first of disciples remained hidden, seeking no glory or attention. Her only joy was in doing God's will with a humble, loving heart.

Matthew: Mary in the Holy Family. Matthew's Gospel, written perhaps in Syria around a.d. 85 for a mostly Jewish Christian audience, focuses on the formation of a new community and sees Jesus as the fulfillment of the hope of the Old Testament. For Matthew, Mary belongs within the community of the Holy Family, under the guidance of Joseph.

In Matthew's portrait of Mary, the spotlight falls primarily on Jesus and Joseph. Mary's task is to support the unity and love that are vital in every family—and that are vital in the life of the church. We see this theme also in Joseph's dilemma of discovering that his intended wife was pregnant. When Mary chose to obey God's call, God sent an angel to help Joseph decide to continue on his path as protector and provider for the community formed by himself, this chosen woman, and her child.

Matthew speaks of the centrality of the family again when he portrays the wise men as coming to Mary and Joseph's home to pay homage to the king of the Jews (Matthew 2:10-11). Even as she went about her daily chores of caring for her family, Mary was privileged to witness God's mighty promises unfolding (Isaiah 60:1-3).

The theme of family and community is sounded once more when Mary's family is forced to flee into Egypt (Matthew 2:13-15). She and Joseph were willing to become poor refugees in a strange land in order to protect their God-given child. Just as the Old Testament Joseph was sold into slavery in Egypt and ended up saving his family from famine (Genesis 45:4-8), so Mary's husband fled to Egypt not only to preserve the child entrusted to him but to protect the entire church that would come to birth through this child.

Luke: Virgin Mother of God Incarnate. Luke probably wrote from Antioch around a.d. 85, to converts from pagan religions within the Roman Empire. Where Matthew portrays Mary always in her relationship to Jesus and Joseph, Luke captures her status as virgin mother of the incarnate God. Of all four gospels, there is something special in Luke's portrayal of Mary. He seems to penetrate her character and show us more of her human qualities: her humility, her generosity, her faith, her joy, her life of prayer, and her maternal instincts.

On hearing about her older cousin Elizabeth's pregnancy, Mary "went with haste" to her side, to share her joy and to be of service as quickly as possible (Luke 1:39). When Elizabeth praised her faith, Mary replied with the Magnificat, the beautiful hymn that glorifies God's holiness, justice, and mercy (1:46-55). Like Hannah of old (1 Samuel 1-2), Mary recognized that despite her "low estate," all generations would call her blessed because of the great things the Lord had done in her (Luke 1:48-49). And this is a central theme in Luke: Humility acknowledges the truth, even of one's own blessedness.

At Bethlehem, Mary gave birth to Jesus, caring for his needs in spite of the lack of almost everything (Luke 2:7). After the shepherds arrived and spoke of an angel's announcement of the Messiah's birth, Mary "treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart" (2:19).

When Mary and Joseph found the twelve-year-old Jesus in the Temple, it was Mary who took the initiative to express her concern: "Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety" (Luke 2:48). Even when Jesus explained himself and they did not understand his words, Mary "treasured all these things in her heart"(2:51). This was probably one of the key moments when Mary was faced with the implications of her "yes" to the angel at the annunciation. Here, twelve years later, she had another opportunity to accept her son's mission in a fuller way.

Luke completes his portrait of Mary with two quick scenes (Luke 8:19-21; 11:27-28), in which Jesus' words seem to be a rejection of Mary: "My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it" (8:21); and "Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it" (11:28). Mary understood these words probably far more than anyone else who heard them. Time and again, she had shown herself to be a most faithful hearer and observer of God's word. That may be why Luke goes out of his way to mention Mary's presence at Pentecost in Acts 1:14. She had been overshadowed by the Holy Spirit at the annunciation. Now she receives the Spirit once again, both for her own guidance and for that of the church of which she is a part.

John: Mother of the Church. John, writing in Asia Minor -around a.d. 95, presents the human-divine mystery of Jesus in all its depth and glory. John speaks of Mary only twice, once toward the beginning of his gospel and once toward the end: at Cana (John 2:1-12) and at the foot of the cross (19:26-27). In both scenes, Mary is involved in the lives of others besides Jesus, but always in union with him.

At Cana, Mary tells Jesus, "They have no wine," and though Jesus seems to rebuke her, Mary confidently tells the stewards, "Do whatever he tells you" (John 2:3,5). Jesus' hour arrives, brought about by Mary's intercession and persevering faith. By turning the water into wine, Jesus created a powerful symbol of his message—that the reign of God is being inaugurated as a joyful banquet. All this at Mary's initiative!

When Jesus—on the cross—tells the beloved disciple, "Here is your mother" (John 19:26-27), he is entrusting Mary to this disciple's care, but as a "mother." This unnamed disciple represents the whole Christian community, and so at her son's request, Mary becomes mother of the whole church. She is the new Eve, for in both scenes she is addressed as "woman" (2:4; 19:26), an allusion to the "woman" at Adam's side (Genesis 2:23), "the mother of all living" (3:20).

Conclusion. Mary's person and vocation mirror the mystery of Jesus and the mystery of our own lives. By telling her story in four different ways, the gospels give us a multi-faceted view of the richness of her life and all that she offers to the church. Whether we see her as the first disciple, as a member of the Holy Family, as virgin mother of God incarnate, or as mother of the church, we can honor and admire her, follow her counsels, and call her sister, mother, friend.