The various Marys

For Catholics, the figure of the Virgin Mary occupies a place of relevant importance, both in our faith and in our devotion. Sometimes we may think that the whole Bible favors and supports this point of view. But if we read the books of the New Testament carefully we will be surprised: not all of them give her a prominent or transcendent role. Why? Because more than fifty years passed between the first and the last books of the New Testament were written. And during that time, the image of Mary evolved. In fact, as the years went by, Christians began to reflect and discover the marvels that the Lord had done with her. Later writers did not hesitate to praise and extol her in their books. If we now analyze, attentively and respectfully, the texts of the New Testament, from the most ancient to the most modern, we will be able to discover this evolution.

Mary, the ignored

The first writings of the New Testament were the letters of St. Paul (written between the years 50 and 60 approximately). There are three references to the birth of Jesus, but Mary is never mentioned. The first reference is in the letter to the Philippians, where he maintains that Jesus was “born in the likeness of men” (2:7). The second, in the letter to the Romans, says that Jesus was born “as a man, of the family of David” (1:3). The third reference (more explicit), in Galatians 4 ,4: “When the fullness of time had come, God sent his son born of a woman.” We see, then, that Paul does not mention Mary. The fact is that Paul focused only on the death and resurrection of Jesus. Everything else was relegated to the background.

Mary, the disadvantaged

After Paul, St. Mark wrote (about the year 60 or 70). He is the first to mention the name “Mary”. He mentions her in two episodes of his Gospel. In one, he presents her with the “brothers” of Jesus, and tells how one day Jesus was preaching in a house in the village. Then his family, who thought he was mad because of the things he was teaching, went to look for him to take him away (cf. 3:20-21); when they arrived, they told him that his mother and brothers were looking for him outside, but he answered, "Who are my mother and my brothers?" and looking at those who were sitting around him, he said, "These are my mother and my brothers, those who do the will of God" (3:31-35). This account of Mark is not very favorable for the family of Jesus and for Mary. Apparently, she appears united to a group that does not understand Jesus' mission. And Jesus is seen as taking distance from them and considering, instead, his listeners as his true family.

For the second time

The second episode of Mary, in Mark, is the one in which Jesus entered to preach in the synagogue in Nazareth. Those present, amazed, commented, "Where did he get this wisdom and this power to work miracles? Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, and brother of James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas? And are not his sisters here among us?" And they were scandalized by him. Jesus then said to them, "A prophet is despised only in his own country, among his own kinsmen and in his own house" (6:1-4). These words of Jesus confirm Mark's unfavorable opinion of Jesus' family, for they reiterate that his relatives and those of his household despised him. Mark probably inserted this phrase of Jesus in order to clarify that the only way to enter Lord's family is by listening to his Word, not by blood ties.

Mary, already considered

Years went by and Christians began to wonder more about the birth of the Lord. As a result of these reflections, they also discovered the important role that Mary played in it. It was then up to St. Matthew to write his Gospel (about the year 70). He is the first to give us details of Jesus' infancy (cf. 1-2). He tells us that the child was not conceived with the help of Joseph, Mary's husband (cf. 1:16), but by the work of the Holy Spirit; that is, without the intervention of a man (cf. 1:18). With this, the understanding of the figure of Mary and her transcendent role in God's work evolved enormously. But in Matthew, Mary still plays a secondary role. The central character of Jesus' infancy is St. Joseph. To him the angel announces the birth of Jesus (cf. 1:20). He is entrusted with naming him when he is born (cf. 1:21). To him the angel warns him to flee to Egypt when they wanted to kill the child Jesus (cf. 2:13). The divine messenger communicates with him to return to Israel (cf. 2:20). Mary, on the other hand, does not say a word. She does nothing. She is mentioned almost in passing.

Mary, the rescued

The two episodes of Mark are also related by Matthew, but with modifications. In the first, he eliminated the indication that Jesus' family "thought he was mad". So Mary and her "brothers", in Matthew's Gospel, go to look for him not because they did not believe in him, but to listen to him because they were his true disciples, just like the other listeners who were with him at the time (cf. 12:46-50). In the second, where Jesus is despised as a prophet in Nazareth, Matthew put in Jesus' complaint: "A prophet is despised only in his own land and in his own house" (13:58). In other words, he deleted "and among his relatives", so that these (among whom was the Virgin Mary) would not be in an unfavorable position. Matthew, therefore, presents an improved portrait of Mary and the family of Jesus. But he preserves a still passive role for her.
Mary, the protagonist

When St. Luke writes (year 80 approximately), the figure of Mary reaches an extraordinary height. We see this at the beginning of his Gospel, in the two chapters dedicated to the infancy of Jesus: now Mary will be the central and outstanding character, around whom all the other events will revolve. First of all, it is to Mary and not to Joseph that the angel Gabriel announces her miraculous pregnancy (cf. 1:26-38). It is she and not Joseph who is commissioned to name Jesus (cf. 1:31). And unlike in Matthew, where Mary never speaks, in Luke, Mary speaks, and asks, and listens, and answers (cf. Lk 1:34). And while in Matthew the virginal conception is only mentioned in passing in one verse (cf. 1:18), in Luke the angel elaborates at length on the subject (cf. 1:30-35). In addition, Mary is called "full of grace" (1:28), a title unique in the entire New Testament. With this, Luke places Mary on an exceptional plane among all human creatures: God will do nothing without Mary's consent.

Mary, the example

But Luke does not stop there. There is more praise for Mary. When she goes to visit her relative Elizabeth, she receives the praise: "Blessed among women" (1:42). And also: "Blessed are you who have believed" (1:45). Then Mary begins to sing: "All generations, to the end of the world, will call me blessed" (1:48). When Jesus was born, Luke notes that Mary alone wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger (cf. 2:6-7). That is to say, she is the only one who acts in the mystery of the birth. Finally, she appears "keeping all things in her heart" (2:19:51). With Luke, for the first time the New Testament takes a personal interest in Mary, in her reactions, in what happens to her. For the first time, she appears on the scene no longer in a passive way as in Matthew, but asking, answering, dialoguing, consenting. She runs in haste, she sings, she is surprised, she marvels, she suffers anguish. And she appears, above all, as a model of a believing life and of a woman attentive to the Word of God.

To save the family

And what happened to the two negative scenes in Mark? Luke also narrates them, but adds new modifications in order to exalt the figure of Mary even more.

To the first one, in which Jesus distanced himself from his family, he turns it into a true praise of Mary (cf. 8:19-21). To do this, he first eliminates Jesus' question ("Who is my mother and who are my brothers and sisters?"), which hinted at opposition to them. Then, he suppresses the gesture that Jesus makes ("he pointed with his hand toward his disciples"), which marked a contrast between his carnal family and his followers. And finally he does not say "these are my mother and my brothers," referring to his disciples and excluding his relatives, but in a more general way: "My mother and my brothers are those who hear the Word of God." But since he had earlier shown Mary totally given to listening to the Word of God, these words sound implicitly as a true praise of the Mother of Jesus.

Cutting back on the criticism

In the second scene, in which Jesus is rejected in Nazareth, Mark had put on the Lord's lips, alluding directly to his relatives: "A prophet is despised only in his own land, among his own kinsmen and in his own house" (6:4). Matthew, later, softened the expression and put: "only in his own land and in his own house" (13:57), forgetting "the relatives"; but he kept "the house" and the word "despise". Luke finally wrote: "no prophet is well received in his own land" (4:24), with which he made two more changes: he suppressed "the house" and changed the verb "to despise"; and thus avoided any suspicion on Mary or on Jesus' relatives. To these two episodes of Mark, Luke added two others; so that his Gospel contains four passages with references to Mary, outside the infancy of Jesus. The third is in the genealogy. There we read: 'Jesus was about thirty years old when he began, and was believed to be the son of Joseph' (3:23). By saying "it was believed", he makes a clear allusion to the virginal conception, which he had already fully assumed in his Gospel. The fourth episode is that of a woman who, in the street, excitedly cries out to Jesus: "Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you" (11:27). And Jesus answers her, "More blessed are those who hear the Word of God and keep it." With which Luke intended to exalt, even more, Mary for her fidelity to the Word of God.

Mary in the face of the Dragon

With the passage of time, the understanding of Mary progresses even more. And when the Apocalypse is written (year 95), a mysterious "woman" appears there, clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. She is with child and cries out in labor pains. Then she gives birth to a male child, who is the Messiah (cf. 12). Up to this point everything seems to indicate that it refers to Mary. But the Apocalypse goes on to say that a great red Dragon stood before her, ready to devour the child as soon as he was born. As soon as the child was born, he was lifted up to heaven. Then, the great Dragon, being frustrated, turned against the woman and the rest of her children, who hid in the desert and were fed by God. This "woman" cannot be the historical, real Mary, because such an episode never happened to her in her life: having to flee with her other children to the desert. Who is, then, this "woman"? It is Mary, but as a symbol of the persecuted Church of that time. Therefore, she appears with many children (the Christians), who flee from the Dragon (the Roman Empire), to the desert (some safe place), and are fed by God (the Eucharist).

For an engaged couple

Finally the Gospel of John is written (around the year 100). And with it we reach the maximum exaltation of Mary. If Luke had shown her occupying a key position in the history of salvation, and the Apocalypse had elevated her to a symbol of the persecuted Church, John presents her as a figure of the glorious Church, the maximum that could be imagined. Although he never calls her "Mary", nor mentions her virginal conception, he names her in two exclusive scenes. The first is at the wedding at Cana (cf. 2:1-12), when in the midst of a feast the bride and groom run out of wine. At his mother's request, Jesus transforms 600 liters of water, used by the Jews in their purifications, into 600 liters of excellent wine. Was this a mere historical episode that happened in a village? The biblical scholars say there is much more to it. Indeed, a wedding is mentioned, but neither the bridegroom nor the bride is mentioned. And it is Mary who notices the lack of wine, not Jesus. It is therefore a symbol. The prophets had announced for the end of time a great wedding feast, in which God would marry his people, as a bridegroom does with his bride, and would serve wine in abundance (cf. Hos 2:16-25; Is 54:4-5; 62:4-5). Now, in Cana, Jesus appears as the true bridegroom, since it is He who is in charge of giving the wine to the guests, and no less than 600 liters. Since it is his Mother who does this, she appears as the bride, symbol of the glorious Church that is definitively united with her spouse, Christ.

Like Adam's rib

The second scene is the one in which Jesus is dying, with his mother at the foot of the cross. John writes: "When Jesus saw his mother, and the beloved disciple standing beside her, he said to his mother, 'Woman, behold, your son!' Then he says to the disciple, 'Behold your mother' " (19, 26-27). It is not a simple family drama described here. In reality, the beloved disciple is not a real character, but symbolizes the first Christians. Therefore, the mother of Jesus here is not Mary, but the Church, the mother of believers. That is why Jesus, who is the new Adam, has his side opened with a spear and blood and water flow from it, symbol of the birth of his wife, the Church (as Adam had his side opened so that his wife, Eve, could be born). If Mary in the Apocalypse was elevated to the symbol of the "Church-persecuted", and at the wedding feast of Cana to that of the "Church-bride", at the foot of the cross she is the symbol of the "Church-mother".

The patience of God

It was not easy for the authors of the New Testament to understand Mary. There was a slow evolution, and the traces are reflected in the Gospels, the letters of Paul and in the Apocalypse. From the episode in which she does not seem to understand her Son Jesus, to the stories in which she is portrayed as the supreme figure in the history of the Church. Even today, among Christians, there are different attitudes towards Mary. Some look at her with indifference. Others treat her with suspicion. Some have dealings with her through prayer, but without going beyond that. Finally, there are those who have discovered that it is not enough to pray to Mary, but that we must take her as an example of life and try to imitate her. We must all reach this final stage. But in the meantime, we must be patient with each other. The same patience God had with those who wrote about her in the New Testament.

Author: Ariel Álvarez Valdés

(translated and adapted by Francisco Albarenque Rausch)