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Mary of Nazareth at the ardent heart of the Covenant

· ​In the New Testament ·

Everyone knows that the Virgin Mary is associated, in the heart of the Church, with an immense spiritual tradition which meditates on her, sings her grace, celebrates her participation in the work of salvation and finds support in her maternal guidance. The most eminent figures of Christian history flank the humblest believers in an equal faith in and filial piety for the woman whom the Council of Ephesus solemnly declared to be the Theotòkos. Nevertheless, without diminishing this reality which is an integral part of the Christian patrimony, it is not inappropriate to turn a little to the sources of faith and of piety, that is, to the testimony of the Scriptures. It is known that because of its sobriety this testimony is in stark contrast with the superabundance or rather exuberance of Marian theology and devotion. The fact is that Mary’s presence in the Gospel account is restrained and discreet. This is an obvious paradox which it would be a sin to ignore and not to question. Questioning might lead us to a better knowledge of Mary. And we might also succeed in overcoming the uneasiness which some Christians feel with respect to a certain Marian spirituality. In fact the exaltation of the Virgin Mary is very far from protecting us from misogyny. Proof of this is found in the many discourses that contrast Eve – weak and a temptress, who represents women of all times – with the pure and holy Virgin, constituted as a model of a femininity consisting of obedience, service and self-denial, which men and women have widely abused.

“Annunciation”, Vittorio Corcos, (1904)

Let us briefly remember a few elements of the scriptural documents. It is a question of fact that the Gospels of Luke and of John mention Mary at two decisive points in their accounts. In Luke, Mary is presented from the beginning in the Annunciation and in the Visitation, and in John, at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry with the Wedding of Cana. Mary is then mentioned again at the final moment of the Passion when, in John 19:25-27, Jesus’s words are reported as he consigns into Mary’s hands the Apostle John and to John entrusts Mary. In the fourth Gospel the unexpected appellation of the Mother of Jesus as “woman” (gyne) underscores what is theologically at stake, attributed here to her presence. After the Resurrection, the Acts of the Apostles indicate her presence in the Upper Room, where the outpouring of the Holy Spirit takes place. However, over and above these references the Marian corpus is not made up only of brief mentions set on the lips of adversaries who intend to discredit Jesus, pointing out that he is simply Mary’s son, “Is not his mother called Mary?” (Matthew 12:46-50 and parallels). In addition to this is the episode in which Jesus reacts to the question of his Mother and his “brothers” who had come to talk to him: “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” (Mt 12:46-50 and parallels). His answer, generally considered brutal, is in fact very instructive because of the way he turns the meaning: “Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother, and sister, and mother”. The assertion is confirmed in Lk 11:27-28, when Jesus rejects the words of the woman who celebrates the maternal womb that bore him, once again transferring the blessing to “Those who hear the word of God and keep it”, hence far from any consideration of Mary’s physical motherhood. Yet, although they are certainly disconcerting, these latter facts contain an important lesson: the identification of Mary, the clarification of her role and of her pre-eminence in the mystery of salvation can create misunderstandings. Thus they are an invitation to us be prudent and to pay attention.

“Blessed are you among women”: this appellation which Elizabeth gives to Mary, who knows her cousin’s secret while she herself receives the grace of an impossible birth, must draw our attention. Elizabeth’s words are magnificent but need to be properly understood, namely by avoiding the interpretation which would have Mary being “the only one among women who knew how to please God”, as a fifth-century author claimed and as a long-existing tradition has inferred. The Gospel text, in both its Greek and Latin versions, designates her clearly as the one who is “among”, “among women”, who finds her place in the rich procession of the female generations of women that have succeeded one another since the world has existed. And in this context Mary naturally finds herself first and foremost beside her contemporaries, her kin, those close to her and friends who lived at the pace of a Galilean village in the first century. Our historical memory struggles to bring the lives of these women to life, since culturally they are doomed to oblivion. Exegetes and historians today strive to restore something of them, which however does not go beyond what Ps 128 says allusively: “Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house”.

“Visitation” (stained-glass window in the Church of Taizé)

Yet in Mary’s case, this humble condition is snatched from banality. In the first place, this is because that hidden life, in which nothing seems worthy of particular special attention, enables us to touch the mystery of the Incarnation of Jesus himself, described in Gal 4:4 as “born of woman”, which makes him close to the human condition in its most modest state. In the second place, it is because the Gospel account resonates with strong Biblical references which connect Mary to the women of Israel whose memory the Scriptures preserve and celebrate. The presence of Elizabeth, the barren woman who gives birth in her old age, records in the Gospel, from the very beginning, this story of a woman which serves as a support to the accomplishment of God’s plan, as does the Magnificat, whichtakes up the words of Hannah, mother of Samuel. Thus Mary appears at the end of a long line of women, starting with the matriarchs and passing through Ruth, Judith, Esther and many others, who conceived through God’s power the generations of Israel or who, through this same power, are guarantors of the future of the people in times of danger. Lastly, Mary is evoked in the words that associate her with the Daughter of Zion whose features the prophetic tradition exalted in anticipation after the Exile, associating her with the work of salvation which God is to bring about. And it is this which is expressed in the greeting of the angel of the Annunciation, in which the Greek term chaire must be understood as “rejoice”, taking it up fromZeph 3:14, Zech 9:9 and, indeed Joel 2:21-33 and inviting Messianic Jerusalem to the joy of knowing herself to be reclothed by God in the raiment of salvation. This time, it is clear, Mary traverses the female generations of Israel to become equal to the entire people, generated to holiness by God, starting with the small remnant which kept itself humbly in hope

We may therefore celebrate Mary as the verus Israel, in the sense that all that defines her is in fact a fulfilment of the vocation of the chosen people. Mary is thus placed, as no other human being is, at the ardent heart of the Covenant where God takes his wish for the salvation for humanity to its utmost point and where this humanity has access to a justice which fulfils his divine truth. The same thing happens when Mary consents to the angel’s unheard of announcement, defining herself as “the handmaid [or servant] of the Lord”. Far from carrying the negative interpretation of being a maidservant, “servant” is the title that we know Moses received from God and which he keeps until Rev 13:3, and it is also the title given to King David, and naturally to the people who, according to the Prophets, strove so hard to honour him in the Old Testament story. Humility associated with the word “servant” in its turn finds its true meaning in the light of the revelation: an antidote to pride, which leads to death, it is the quality to which the God of Israel continuously exhorted his people, teaching them that it is the main route, the truly powerful weapon which confuses and defeats the proud. The words of the Magnificat, which celebrate the God who “has put down the mighty from their thrones”, express this well.

Mary, as the one “who listened” is more than ever the Verus Israel. In this too she accomplishes, that is, she brings to its fulfilment, the task entrusted to the people of the Covenant in the shema Israel (cf. Deut 6:4), she who knows how to perceive the voice of “fine silence” of the angel of the Annunciation. And it is precisely on this “listening” that Jesus places the emphasis, in order to correct the blessing which exalts the womb that bore him. Now, listening is also keeping the word received, just as Mary does in Lk 2:19 and 51, fulfilling the injunction which likewise defines the vocation of Israel in the Deuteronomic tradition. And lastly, listening and keeping within one is believing, for which Elizabeth gives credit to Mary: “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her from the Lord” (Lk 1:45). It is on this very belief that Luke’s Gospel places the emphasis on two occasions. It is a belief that we must question and contemplate, asking ourselves how it was that Mary believed rightly. It is not necessary in fact to avoid the question on the pretext that, as Mother of God, conceived without sin, she would have lived with a foresight which would have spared her the darkness of faith and which in the end would have dispensed her from believing. But this is not how the Gospels evoke her. On the contrary, following the Annunciation which gives rise to her question “How shall this be?”, her life is strewn with wonder. The account of the Nativity in Luke describes her while she ponders in her heart on the memory of somewhat disconcerting realities. How is it possible to think that Simeon’s words during the presentation of the Child in the temple did not cause her to feel perplexity? 

Carlo Crivelli, “Pietà”, (detail, 1476)

This perplexity is clearly expressed in the episode in which Jesus, as an adolescent, stays behind in the temple while his parents have departed. The question “Son, why have you treated us so?” was not at all clarified by the enigmatic reply of Jesus, who said that he must be in his Father’s house. The text comments soberly that Mary “kept all these things in her heart”. And again, how is it possible to imagine the trial lived through by Mary during the 30 years of Jesus’ hidden life, which seemed to cancel all she had heard prophesied about her Son? And during that long period might not Mary have experienced the mystery of the kenosis of Jesus as the hymn in the Letter to the Philippians explains it? And even more, when this kenosis culminates on Golgotha. Must we believe that the Mother was spared the discouragement of the Son: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”? The fact is that Mary remains present until the end. Stabat mater. She stayed there all night, in the trial of the contradiction, “piecing together (according to the meaning of the Greek word symballousa in Lk 2:19) the evidence of the absolute failure and the trust without words in the fact that God saves, even in that loss.

This is the faith of Mary’s “understanding mind” to use the phrase in Prov 14:33, which is also the mind that Solomon asked God for in his prayer (1 Kings 3:9). And it is from this mind, this heart – which listens and ponders, which adheres to the hidden design of God in the midst of the darkness that seems to deny it – that Jesus is begotten. Moreover it is to this faith that Mary generates the Church: a courageous, resistant faith which confronts the collapse of all the idolatrous images of God which the Cross contradicts and denounces. Thus, living and generating from this faith, Mary of Nazareth completely transcends the model of femininity which all too often we have desired to assign to her. It is of this woman, associated with the divine work of the recreating of humanity, as St Anselm sang of it, that the whole Church is asked to recognize that she has been maternally generated, to bring into the dark present in which we live the testimony of the victory of the Risen One, despite all the contrary proofs.

Anne-Marie Pelletier

The author

A university lecturer emeritus, she currently teaches biblical exegesis in the Notre-Dame Faculty of the Collège des Bernardins, Paris. She is often involved in courses of biblical anthropology in the monastic world and is a member of the Association catholique française pour l’étude de la Bible [French Catholic Association for Bible Studies] (ACFEB) and of the Institut Lustiger. In 2014 she was awarded the Ratzinger prize. Her publications include Lectures du cantique des Cantiques. De l’énigme du sens aux figures du lecteur (1989);Le Christianisme et les femmes. Vingt siècles d'histoire, (2001), and Le signe de la femme (2006).

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