By Charlie Johnston
Just about two months ago a reader from New Jersey named Jerry posed an excellent question to me. Read it yourself:
“I am struggling with an issue that has bothered me for a long time. I can’t seem to get an answer from clergy that I know. Here goes: Why does Jesus in scripture seem disrespectable to his Mother? As a boy disappearing and when found in the Temple He does not even apologize. At the Marriage feast at Cana, He acts like Mary is bothering Him about the wine situation. In, at least one other point, He is told that his Mother and brothers are waiting to see Him and He kind of blows it off! Also, I can’t seem to find any instances of Jesus expressing His love for his Mother. Sorry to bother you with this but I really need a satisfactory answer to this.”
Back when I was teaching RCIA, I had several tricks I used to encourage people to ask honest questions, to explore what really troubled their hearts. If you can’t get to the heart of such things, you can’t really dispel the fears and doubts that sometime plague us all. Unfortunately, people often self-censor in religious groups for fear of causing offense. Others pretend that things are not as they plainly seem to be in order to seem pious. I covered this phenomenon in my meditation on the Book of Job. Job’s friends were conventionally and aggressively pious, but their position required that they pretend to believe nonsensical things – and God later told them that, “You have not spoken rightly of me as has my servant, Job.” The best doctor in the world cannot effectively provide aid if the patient hides his wound. So it is with the wounds of our heart and faith.
I loved the sincere candor of this question – and it is something I have pondered, myself. I am certainly not the final word on this, so I only offer you the thoughts I have formed over the years.
When the adult Jesus speaks to His Mother, He begins by calling her, “Woman.” It is jarring to modern sensibilities and seems to lack much in the way of affection.
I started to read the Bible for myself by the time I was in second grade (I took to reading like a duck takes to water – and was tested to be at a high school level of comprehension in that same grade.) When I was a little kid, the Father was consoling to me, but the Biblical Jesus kind of scared me. Forget what people say: the Jesus of the Bible frequently went on hard, condemnatory fusillades. Pit of vipers…generation of vipers…you hypocrites…let the dead bury the dead (to a grieving adult child)…you must hate your parents. Jesus was a hard Man, in many ways. To make the Jesus of the Bible into the vague, gauzy hippie of pop culture is to be utterly ignorant of the Bible, itself.
There were a lot of hard things that the adults around me just did not speak of at all – probably precisely because they were hard. Jesus said, at different times, that we must love our enemies AND that we must hate our parents, spouse, siblings and children. How did that make any sense to those who actually read the text? So, would it be better for our families to make themselves our enemies so we could then love them? Tough stuff for a little kid. As I got a little older I started to learn more about things like rhetorical hyperbole. I also figured out that, in archaic usage, hate did not mean the malicious enmity it signifies in modern language. It could be as harmless as to prefer the company of one person over another. Thus, if an official had two counselors and regularly preferred the counsel of one over the other, he could be said to hate the counsel of the second best. I understood, but it was still unsettling.
I also noticed that Jesus was always gentle with the broken, the hopeless and the candid, even if they were broken by their own propensity to sin. He reserved His vituperation for the self-righteous and the aggressively hypocritical who sought to dominate and degrade those around them. Over time, this came to console me a lot. Jesus was a hard Man AND a gentle Man – hard on pretentious triumphalism and the protector of those who struggled. It is strange to me that many people who think themselves the most pious of all adopt the very behaviors that Jesus most adamantly condemned. Frankly, it often makes me wonder how many people have read the Bible in any detail at all.
Of course, almost everyone knows that, in the ancient world, women were usually treated as second-class citizens, sometimes as little more than servants. But the Jews were the most respectful of women, in general, even elevating some to Judges and warriors. I read some ancient literature and found the title, “Woman,” was usually used in a respectful way in formal situations. But I also found a few occasions where it was used peremptorily – usually to older servants. Whether respectful or not, it is certainly jarring to my ears – and is certainly not a term of intimacy or endearment. It was a formal mode of address. I took a different tack and looked at the behavior of Jesus following such encounters – and that painted a very different picture than the formal words.
Before continuing, I must tell you I have NEVER subscribed to the notion that the great saints were suddenly told all that God intended for them and then just serenely followed the schematic. I think that to be an absurdly childish notion, contrary to the way we know God acts through the Bible. Revelation does not pop up fully formed like some divine jack-in-the-box. It is always a process, one which unfolds over time and requires us to keep focused on what God intends as we stumble forward. Divine revelation is a mix of metaphorical and literal material – and sometimes the literal seems metaphorical and the metaphorical, literal. The closest any of the Major Prophets of the Old Testament got to seeing and reporting with clarity was Isaiah. Even so, it was not until hundreds of years later that it became obvious how clearly he had seen.
Thus, I am not of any school that believes Mary knew exactly what was to happen from the start. She had to struggle each step of the way, as well. Since she was focused on God (full of grace, you might say), she pondered each event in her heart.
When told by the angel, Gabriel, that she was to be the Mother of the Messiah, I do NOT think she understood that to mean she would be Mother of the Second Person of the Trinity; God, Himself. The Jews all expected the Messiah to be a great temporal leader at that time, thus, I suspect Mary initially thought her son would be the great King and leader foretold. The events of the Nativity and the Presentation certainly suggested that God was doing something new here, much bigger than anyone anticipated, and that the reality would confound Jewish expectations in many ways – and Mary contemplated this in her heart. And so, revelation started unfolding for her at a much deeper level.
After the Temple, Jesus’ response to His parents’ fears does seem insensitive. He only says, “How is it that you sought me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49) I think this is a pivotal moment in the ongoing unfolding of revelation to Mary. Jesus knew and understood His Mother’s personality. Here He boldly claims divine filiation to God, Himself. What He was doing was revealing a critical piece of information about who He is for His Mother’s contemplation. This coming of the Messiah was not going to be what anybody then in Israel expected. The tender affection in which He held both Mary and Joseph is revealed in the action that immediately follows: “…he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them; and his mother kept all these things in her heart.” (Luke 2:51)
Note that it does not say Jesus pretended obedience to them, but that He WAS obedient to them. God was obedient to man for a time. I often cite this bit of the Gospel to illustrate that, in Christianity, obedience is not a matter of the lesser submitting to the greater, but rather a means of channeling grace in a divinely-appointed order of things. In this case, the primacy of the family in human affairs is confirmed. Even more, Jesus is giving to His Mother illumination of a reality that is hidden from all Israel – and all the world – at that time. To me, it is the first great sign of how deeply He reveres and trusts His Mother.
Moving to the marriage feast at Cana (John 2:1-12), Jesus’ response to Mary’s observation that the hosts had run out of wine initially seems so brusquely formal that it could be seen as a rebuke. Yet Mary’s reaction – and what Jesus did then starkly reveal the nature of their relationship. Mary completely ignores any implied rebuke in her Son’s retort, but immediately tells the servants to “do whatever he tells you.” And then Jesus confects the wine. Have you ever really pondered this deeply? To put it in modern terms, after Jesus gives a sharp answer, Mary says the equivalent of “Yeah, yeah, yeah, kid” then turns to the task at hand with complete confidence He will do as she asked. I always thought of it as a great paradox – that when Jesus said His hour had not yet come and His Mother said, get to it, His hour had come, indeed. She adored her Son, but fully lived her maternal duty, as well.
I asked Nicholas Healy, the founding president of Ave Maria University and now working to firmly establish Newman College in Ireland, for his take as I prepared this piece. He offered an intriguing take on Cana that has enriched my thoughts on it. He said, “At Cana, what seems to be a rebuke could well be the message: ‘Mother, if you want me to perform a miracle it will start the clock running on my mission.’ Mary’s direct instructions to the servants “Do whatever He tells you” AND the immediate miraculous instructions given by Jesus shows Mary’s willingness to start the clock and Jesus’ acceptance of the consequence for her sake.”
It feels to me that Jesus trusted Mary as a real collaborator in His mission – and His affection is evidenced by His obedience and responsiveness to her by His actions.
Probably the most abrupt of all is the story told in Matthew 12:46-50. This is the passage where Jesus is told that His Mother and brethren were outside asking to speak to Him. And Jesus replied that His Mother and His brethren were whoever did His will – and did not go out to His family.
If Mary knew everything whole and entire from the start, this passage is incomprehensible to me. If, on the other hand, the intent of the revelation was unfolding for her, it completely makes sense. She was Jesus’ Mother. He had become the center of a great deal of controversy, with many people, including some in high authority, attacking Him with great vitriol. What Mother is not shaken by such things? Everyone who has ever been in a dangerous profession, such as policeman or soldier – or even in the heart of frequent controversy is familiar with this. The Mom is concerned that people are being mean to her child – or that her little guy is in danger. The son, focused on his mission and duty, loves his Mother, but cannot be distracted from that duty because of it. Jesus, in this passage, does not narrow His concept of family, but expands it while staying focused on His duty.
An event that my correspondent didn’t mention, but has been critical for me, is the passage from John 19:26-27. It is here that the Lord entrusts His disciple, John, to Mary’s care and the care of Mary to the disciple, John. This is universally considered among theologians to be Jesus entrusting the entire Church to His Mother.
When I was a catechumen, I was not convinced of the perpetual virginity of Mary. Oh, I accepted it, for I had come to believe what the Church teaches definitively. But I was not persuaded by the logic. I knew that, in archaic usage, cousins were routinely called brothers and sisters. But it seemed so frequently stated that James was the brother of the Lord that I did not see any compelling reason that this was not literally true. And then I saw this passage with fresh eyes. Ancient Israel was an honor culture. If the oldest son died, the care of a widowed Mother passed, as a matter of sacred duty, to the second oldest son. To even suggest otherwise was an unforgiveable insult and, even, sacrilege. With the exception of those things connected to His mission, where He challenged many Jewish practices and attitudes of His time, Jesus was a faithfully observant Jew on all other things. If James had been a literal brother, to entrust Mary to John would not have happened in that culture. This was important to me because it was my last tickle of doubt – and was swept away.
I agree with my New Jersey correspondent. The recorded conversations between Jesus and Mary are jarring and seem to show little affection. But their actions towards each other in these same passages reveal a very deep and tender intimacy – and the trust between them.
I don’t know whether this will resolve the concerns for anyone but me, but it is what I honestly think. I’d love to hear your observations, too.
Just getting back from my trip in late November and going into a very busy Advent season, I did not get my Christmas cards out. That does not mean I have forgotten them. Rather, my friends will be getting Christmas cards in Ordinary Time. I have resolved to get them done before Lent. Ah well, next year in Jeru