When I was a child, growing up in a predominantly Portuguese Roman Catholic neighborhood in the northeast USA, Mary fascinated me. In all the statues – and almost every family had a statue, whether a small one on a mantlepiece or a larger one on the front lawn – she had beautiful features, exquisite blue robes, and the best crown anyone has ever worn.
My favorite movie was the 1952 “Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima”. I could never make up my mind whether I wanted to receive a vision of the blessed virgin as did Lucia, Jacinta and Francisco, or run-away with the handsome Gilbert Rowland who played Hugo da Silva, the male lead.
As a child, I also identified with Mary. My mother told me that Mary was Jewish, just like me. Mary went to synagogue, just like me. Mary said the ancient prayers, such as “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one”, just like me. I often pretended I was Mary: I wrapped myself in a blue sheet, put a blue pillowcase on my head, constructed a crown made from aluminum foil, and smiled sweetly at everyone I met.
On the other hand, I also heard the Christmas story, about how the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary, a Jewish virgin, and told her that she would have a baby. I was the only Jewish girl, and thus the only Jewish virgin, in my neighborhood, and so I thought maybe that Gabriel would appear to me. The idea both intrigued me and frightened me.
Today as the married mother of two children, I no longer aspire to be a virgin mother. But today as a professor of New Testament, I find that Mary still both fascinates me and inspires me.
I wonder if her parents named her “Mary” – one of the most common names of Jewish women in the first century – in honor of Moses’s sister Miriam, who led the Israelites at the Exodus and in the wilderness. Did they name her after Mariamne, the Hasmonean princess married to Herod the Great, a symbol of Jewish independence as opposed to Roman rule? What did Mary think about politics, about the tetrarch Archelaus who ruled Galilee, or about the Roman governors who replaced Jewish leadership in Judea in 6 C.E.?
Just as my mother told stories to me, and, as I told stories to my children, I think Mary told stories to Jesus. According to the book of Tobit, Tobit’s grandmother Deborah taught him Torah, as other Jewish women instructed their children. Surely Mary taught Jesus the Torah’s instructions about loving God and loving the neighbor, commandments that find their way into the “Great Commandment” in Matthew 22:36-40 and Mark 12:28-34. Perhaps she told Jesus about how Moses guided his people from slavery to freedom, about how King David brought the ark to Jerusalem, about how Judah Maccabee defeated the Syrian forces that desecrated the Temple in Jerusalem. Perhaps she told him how the prophets Elijah and Elisha healed bodies and provided food for hungry people; Perhaps she told him about Cain and Abel, Ishmael and Isaac, and Jacob and Esau, whose stories underlie the Parable of the Prodigal son. Or perhaps she talked to him about Isaiah’s servant, who suffered on behalf of his people.
Mary’s influence on her son, while it must be imagined, cannot be discounted.
by Amy-Jill Levine