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Searching for the Real Mary of Nazareth




“The fact that Miriam of Nazareth has been depicted in so many diverse ways, from the humble handmaid to the powerful Queen of Heaven, indicates that the human imagination has been at work crafting symbols.” Sr. Elizabeth Johnson


The church chose the month of May to celebrate Mary, but if I were Pope, I’d move that celebration to December. Mary looms in our imagination at this time of year like no other. On the surface level of the story, Jesus isn’t “here yet.” His mother is the first person to step onto the stage. Similar to the creation story in the book of Genesis, Christianity’s creation story begins with a spark of life in the dark, receptive womb of a peasant girl who now, very pregnant, begins her hero’s journey by traveling a great distance. She travels in order to be seen and counted by a foreign government that controls her personal life and her society. At a deeper level, the Marian saga shows us what being fully committed to union with Christ looks like. She symbolizes the ideal disciple.


But what happens to a woman when she becomes a symbol? How much of her own reality is lost? How relatable can this ideal disciple be for the rest of us? A closer look at scripture’s Mary moments helps us uncover the woman behind the image.


The Mary I love loses her inconsiderate, 12-year-old son and searches frantically for him for days.

I lost a toddler for about 20 minutes many years ago and I can still summon up the abject fear it caused in me. You will note that the gospel says he stayed home and was obedient after that incident. You can bet that his mother and father had a great deal to do with that.


The Mary I love attends a wedding reception with her son and notices that the hosts are short on wine. She points out this impending crisis to her son, which he initially dismisses as not his problem.

Then she turns her “mother look” on him. She’s not asking for miracles; she’s perhaps expecting him to go to the equivalent of the wine store of that day and bring back more wine so the wedding party is not embarrassed, and the celebration can continue. The rest, I grant you, is miraculous.



The Mary I love is the woman in Mark who is worried sick about her son’s safety, due to his dangerous celebrity. She gathers relatives together for an intervention. This does not go well. (See Mk 3:31-35)


The Mary I love is the woman who lived through all the joys and heartaches of watching her son grow into someone larger-than-life. She watched as he was followed by throngs of people and, as a result, became a threat to the engine of power.

Her final act of motherhood was simply to stand in solidarity with him as he is vilified, tortured, and executed.


The Mary I love was a true exemplar for all women and men. She was a resilient, earthy peasant. She was a loving and conflicted parent, making the best of things in a culture that subjugated her… a culture that, in the end, could not contain the immensity of her son.


After his death, we find her an elder in the budding community of the church. She receives the Spirit at Pentecost and quietly steps off the stage of the biblical narrative.


But right now...


…she’s just that young pregnant girl…at the start of her saga…traveling to Bethlehem… waiting for her child to be born.




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