BY JULIE LONNEMAN
Considering how important Mary is in Christian history, the New Testament says little about her. What it does say, though, speaks volumes.
By Raymond E. Brown, S.S.
MAY BE THE MOST FAMOUS WOMAN who ever lived, and yet
there is surprisingly little in the New Testament about her.
Mary is featured only in a few Gospel scenes and the first
chapter of Acts.
Nevertheless, these Marian passages, arranged in a plausible
chronological order, illustrate how quickly devotion for Mary
the four Gospel accounts of Jesus ministry, Marks
is generally considered the oldest. In it Mary appears only
once (3:21,31-35) and is referred to once more (6:1-6). The
basic scene involves a transition in Jesus life: He
is moving out of the Nazareth family circle into an active
career of teaching and healing centered at Peters house
is attracting such attention that he does not even get time
to eat (3:20). His worried family, thinking his behavior strange
(he is beside himself), sets out to bring him
back home. Mark fills in the time required by their journey
down to Capernaum by telling how Jesus dealt with scribes
from Jerusalem who also fail to understand him (he is
possessed by Beelzebul [3:22-30]).
answered this second misunderstanding immediately, Jesus answers
the first only when the family arrives at the lakeside house
(3:31-35). Since he is inside surrounded by a crowd, the word
has to be passed in: Your mother and your brothers are
outside asking for you. Jesus response (Who
are my mother and my brothers?) raises the issue of
who really constitute his family now that the Kingdom of God
is being proclaimed. As his natural family stands outside,
Jesus looks at those inside and proclaims, Here
are my mother and my brothers. Whoever does the will of God
is brother and sister and mother to me.
scene, in which Jesus praises a family of disciples that is
obedient to God at the expense of a natural family that does
not understand him, would not incline readers to develop devotion
to Mary. Yet it is regarded by many non-Catholics as the basic
Marian text, perhaps in reaction to Catholic elevation of
dourness of the Marcan outlook is not alleviated by 6:1-6.
The locals at Nazareth are astounded at Jesus religious
prominence: Where did this fellow get all this wisdom?
Isnt he a carpenter? Isnt he the son of Mary,
and the brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? Arent
his sisters here with us? In response to the townspeople
who have taken offense at the local carpenter-turned-preacher,
Jesus compares himself to a prophet who is not honored in
his own region, among his own relatives and in his
own house. Another discomforting passage for a positive appreciation
A significant change in outlook comes about because Matthew
has a story of Jesus conception and birth that was lacking
in Mark. Joseph is married to Mary but has not yet taken her
to live with him. A shocking report reaches him that Mary is
pregnant, but before he can take action to dissolve the marriage
by divorcing her, an angel appears in a dream (Matthew 1:18-25).
The angel reveals to Joseph that Marys conception is from
the Holy Spirit (not from a male); her child to be named Jesus
will save his people from their sins and embody Gods presence
with us (Emmanuel).
Matthew is silent about Marys reaction to this intervention
by God, the conception creates a context for Matthews
treatment of Mary in the ministry. Surely this uniquely privileged
mother would have understood when Jesus began his ministry
of proclaiming Gods kingdom. Accordingly when Matthew
draws on Mark 3, he completely omits 3:20-21, in which the
family thinks Jesus is beside himself and sets out to bring
Jesus returns to Nazareth (Matthew 13:54-58), he acknowledges
that he is not honored in his own region and in his own house,
but makes no mention of being dishonored by his own family.
Nevertheless, Matthew 12:46-50 reports virtually unaltered
the family-choice scene recounted in Mark 3:31-35: Jesus still
gives preference to disciples related to him by doing Gods
Contrasted to the portrayal
of Mary in Mark and Matthew, which ranges from dark to neutral,
this two-volume work paints her in much warmer colors. While
the mother of Jesus had only a restricted role in the Matthean
infancy narrative, the virgin of Nazareth (Luke 1:26-27) is
the principal figure in the Lucan infancy narrative.
too (although the situation is indicated only indirectly)
she and Joseph have been married but have not yet lived together.
In an appearance to Mary (1:30-33) the angel Gabriel, quoting
freely from 2 Samuel 7:12-16, announces that she is going
to be the mother of the Davidic Messiah. When Mary asks how
this is to be since she is a virgin, the angel quotes what
Lukes readers would recognize as the language of Christian
preaching: The holy Spirit will come upon you; the power
of the Most High will overshadow you; and so the child will
be called holy, the Son of God (1:34-35).
uses similar imagery (Holy Spirit, power, divine sonship)
in Romans 1:3-4 to phrase the gospel of Jesus as Son of David
and Son of God. In the same way here, Luke is presenting Mary
as the first one to hear the gospel. She responds, Let
it be done unto me according to your word. Thus she
fulfills perfectly the requirement we saw in Mark for the
family of disciples: Whoever does the will of God is...mother
the Lucan Mary acts out her discipleship in two ways. First,
she hastens to go to her relative Elizabeth to share the good
news. By way of full response to the gospel, Christian disciples
do not simply receive and hold on to what God has revealed;
they communicate it to others. Marys arrival causes
Elizabeth, under the influence of John the Baptist in her
womb, to prophesy in praise of Mary.
the heroic women deliverers of Israel, Jael and Judith (Judges
5:24; Judith 13:18), Mary is titled blessed among women.
Moses had said that, if Israel heeded the voice of God, the
wombs of the Israelite women would be blessed with fruitfulness
(Deuteronomy 28:1,4). Elizabeth, recognizing that Marys
womb is uniquely fruitful, blesses her as the mother of the
Lord (Luke 1:41-44).
Marys heeding the word of God in the Annunciation had
another dimension beyond that envisioned by Mosesa gospel
dimension that Elizabeth recognizes when in 1:45 she blesses
Mary a second time for having believed (and thus having
met the criterion of discipleship). If all future generations
will call Mary blessed (1:48), they will do so in fidelity
to Elizabeths prophetic recognition of her roles as
mother of the Lord and true Christian disciple.
Second, Mary develops discipleship to the fullest by
blessing God in the Magnificat (1:46-55). In that hymn Mary
interprets the good news she has brought to Elizabeth. The
angel told Mary who Jesus is, namely, Messiah and Son of God;
but Mary translates this identity in terms of what his coming
the one hand, Gods gift of Jesus shows strength to Israel,
exalts the lowly and fills the hungry; on the other hand,
it scatters the proud, puts down the mighty and sends the
rich away empty. Mary is anticipating the gospel of her son
who, though proclaimed by God as Divine Son (3:22), proclaimed
himself in terms of blessings for the poor, the hungry and
the sorrowful, and woes for the rich, the satisfied and the
revelers. More than any other biblical passage, the Magnificat
has made Mary an emblem of hope and a sign of Gods care
for the oppressed and downtrodden throughout the world.
the scenes immediately following the birth of Jesus, Matthew
(2:11,14, 21) mentions Mary only as a passive object of care.
For Luke, next to God she is the major actor. While others
are amazed at the glorious news of the birth of the Messiah
and Lord, Mary treasures away all these things carefully,
interpreting them in her heart (Luke 2:19). This echoes the
language of Genesis 37:11, Daniel 4:28 (Greek) and 7:28 in
which a visionary reflects on a mysterious revelation, only
part of which he has fully understood.
what has been revealed to her, the way that Jesus career
will work out will be a trial and involve decision even for
Mary, as Simeon prophesies figuratively in Luke 2:34-35 in
terms of a sword passing though her soul. The last scene of
the Lucan infancy narrative, when Jesus reaches age 12, illustrates
her difficulty. She and Joseph cannot understand the way he
has behaved in the Temple and his response that he must be
about his Fathers business (2:49-50). The challenge
to accept Gods unfathomable will in faith is ongoing
in the life of the disciple.
Mary met the ongoing challenge is shown in the Lucan form
of the basic ministry scene we saw first in Mark. No longer
are the mothers and brothers who come looking for Jesus contrasted
with the family created by discipleship. Rather, they are
the best examples of those who hear the word of God and do
it (Luke 8:19-21), the group that are like the parabolic seed
in the good soil mentioned a few verses before (8:15), namely,
those who, hearing the word, hold it fast. Indeed,
the mothers and the brothers endure into the beginnings of
the Church, for they are counted in Acts 1:13-14, alongside
the Twelve and the women, among the believers awaiting the
Pentecostal coming of the Spirit.
Although this Gospel has no infancy narrative, it has two ministry
scenes involving Mary. In content they differ from the accounts
in the first three Gospels, but the basic theological issues
are the same.
Cana, a scene in which Jesus moves from family life to public
ministry, his mother and brothers are attending a wedding
(John 2:1-12). The mothers implicit request They
have no wineexerts a family claim on Jesus, similar
to the mother and brothers coming to look for Jesus in the
basic Marcan scene. The rejection of that claim in terms of
My hour has not yet come is similar to the Lucan
Jesus response to his mothers complaint about
his behavior at age 12, Did you not know that I must
be about my Fathers business?
relation to earthly family both answers give priority to the
role assigned to Jesus by the heavenly Father who sent him.
Yet the mother of Jesus in John persists with, Do whatever
he tells you, similar to Marys response to the
angel in Luke 1:38, Let it be done to me according to
second Johannine scene, which takes place at the foot of the
cross (John 19:25-27), confirms that Marys final reaction
at Cana reflected the obedience characteristic of disciples.
The hour has come (13:1); Jesus is finishing the work the
Father has given him to do (19:28-30); gathered around him
is a group of followers who have remained loyal to the last.
Chief among them are two figures whom John has mentioned but
whose personal names he never supplies, namely, the mother
of Jesus and the disciple whom he loves.
making the former the mother of that disciple, and the latter
his own mothers son, Jesus is establishing a family
of disciples. This is Johns form of dealing with the
Who are my mother and my brothers? issue. If in
Mark and Matthew there was a contrast between two families,
one by nature and the other by discipleship, in John (as in
Luke) the natural mother is brought into the family of discipleship
in a preeminent way, for she now is the mother of the most
perfect disciple who becomes Jesus brother.
theology will recognize that God accorded Mary many privileges,
but all of them are derivative from those already found in
the sparse New Testament references. She was the mother of
Gods Son, the Messiah; she met the requirements of discipleship
in an outstanding way. Pope Paul VI wrote succinctly: Mary
is held up as an example to the faithful for the way in which
in her own particular life she fully and responsibly accepted
the word of God and did it....She is worthy of imitation because
she was the first and most perfect of Christs disciples.
This article is being simultaneously published in Scripture From Scratch (N0597), a monthly newsletter from St. Anthony Messenger Press, 1615 Republic St., Cincinnati, OH 45210. Reprints are $1 each (please send self-addressed envelope); quantity rates are available.
Raymond E. Brown (d.1998), a Sulpician priest, was Auburn Distinguished
Professor Emeritus of Biblical Studies at Union Theological
Seminary, New York. He was twice appointed a member of the Pontifical
Biblical Commission, by Pope Paul VI in 1972 and by Pope John
Paul II in 1996. He wrote extensively on the Bible. Brown's
last book was A
Retreat With John the Evangelist: That You May Have Life
(St. Anthony Messenger Press).