Mary the woman of faith: A credible role model

Mary the woman of faithAnne Inman

In a recent article on Mary (The Pastoral Review July-August 2012), Anne Inman argued that a distorted understanding of Mary's 'obedience' and 'docility' had 'led to a perception of Mary as a rather passive figure, somewhat at odds with what we know about her extraordinary life'. This next article suggests some moves which might help to correct this distortion. Anne Inman is director of Education for Parish Service, London.

There are undoubtedly a great many people with a strong devotion to Mary, who find her an inspiring role-model. Yet it is also evident that there are many who find them- selves unable to relate to her; many who have a problem when it comes to incorporating an authentic devotion to Mary into their spiritual lives. Pope Paul VI acknowledged this when he wrote in 1974 'some people are becoming disenchanted with devotion to the Blessed Virgin and finding it difficult to take as an example Mary of Nazareth'. (MMyISAMlis Cultus 34) The purpose of this article is to address this specific difficulty.

With this limited aim in mind, this article will not deal with Mary's symbolic role in divine revelation. Thus there will be no discussion of Mary's status as virgin and mother, nor her bodily assumption into heaven. Neither will those apparitions of Mary that have enlivened simple piety right up to the early twentieth century be explored. The subject of this article is what might be called the historical Mary of Nazareth, and what can be learned about the historical Mary from a historical critical study of the Gospels.

Alongside the symbolic Mary and the Mary of simple piety, another image of Mary has seeped deep into the Catholic imagination. It colours Catholic preaching and Catholic writ- ing. This image is largely the product of the nineteenth century, before Catholic scholars had begun to engage in the historical-critical study of Scripture. It aimed to describe Mary's virtues and her attitude; to hold her up as a role-model according to a specific interpretation of what she was like and how she behaved. What will be explored here is the discrepancy between the nineteenth- century image of Mary and what we are able to determine of what Mary was actually like from a historical-critical study of the Gospels.

Mary's faith
It is above all to the Annunciation that the Church has looked to determine what Mary was like. In its interpretation of this event it has found Mary to be supremely obedient, supremely faithful and wholly accepting of God's word. More than any other characterisations, Mary has been portrayed as obedient, faithful and accepting, and the primary focus for this interpretation has been her 'fiat' to the Angel Gabriel at the Annunciation. Thus for example in Pope Benedict's recent letter Porta Fidei 13: 'By faith, Mary accepted the Angel's word and believed the message that she was to become the Mother of God in the obedience of her devotion (cf. Lk 1.38)' Obedience and acceptance are presented as the outstanding components of Mary's faith.

In my previous article, I argued that Mary's 'obedience' is open to distortion and misrepresentation. Here I want to look at the way in which Mary's acceptance has often been dis- torted in such a way as to render her an entirely passive figure. In Verbum Domini 27, Pope Benedict XVI talks of Mary's docility. To say that Mary was 'docile' means that she was 'teachable', but arguably Mary's docility is more likely to be understood in terms of 'pas- sivity'. Pope Paul VI is alert to this type of misunderstanding when he states that 'Mary of Nazareth, while completely devoted to the will of God, was far from being a timidly submissive woman.' (MMyISAMlis Cultus 37)

When it comes to Mary's 'faith', there is a tendency in a highly influential branch of Mariology to paint Mary as a submissive fig- ure, whose passive faith contrasts starkly with the thoroughly active faith of Abraham. Section 144 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church cites Abraham as 'the model' of 'the obedience of faith' and then refers to Mary as 'its most perfect embodiment'. Quite unlike the faith of Abraham, Mary's faith is presented in this branch of Mariology as supremely passive. It is almost as though believing 'the message that she was to become the Mother of God', as Porta Fidei puts it, Mary no longer had to struggle to work anything out. She no longer had to make the big decisions; she no longer got anything wrong. It is as though after her decision at the Annunciation, it was all somehow done for her, and she just had to go along with it in an attitude of passive acceptance.

While the post-Assumption Mary is considered to be a figure of extraordinary power, there has been an undeniable stress on the passivity rather than the activity of the historical Mary of Nazareth in certain strands of Catholic piety. Her perceived passivity has been such that Raimundo Panikkar in the twentieth century felt able to write with no hint of irony, 'We see in tradition that Mary said practically nothing and did very little'.1 On this account, those of us who want to imitate Mary would do well to say practically nothing, and do very little, while passively cultivating the virtues of acceptance and obedience.

While there is practically nothing recorded of what Mary said, it can hardly be inferred that Mary said practically nothing

There have been numerous excellent studies that demonstrate the way in which this pic- ture of the passive Mary coheres with a par- ticular theology of the Church heavily reliant upon Mary's symbolic role. This picture of Mary has also served to bolster the traditional view of marriage whereby the woman is accorded a passive, rather than an active role in the marital relationship. It is not my intention to go over this ground. My concern is restricted to examining the credibility of this picture of Mary as essentially passive. As far as we can tell from the Gospels, is this what she was really like?

What Mary said
Returning to Panikkar's statement: 'Mary said practically nothing and did very little'. While there is practically nothing recorded in Scripture of what Mary said, it can hard- ly be inferred from this that Mary said practically nothing. In a recent talk on Mary I mentioned that we know from chapter 2 of Luke something of what Simeon said at the Presentation in the Temple, but we do not know what Anna said. Afterwards in discussion, it was put to me that Luke was not saying that Anna was a prophet, but that she 'prophesied', that is to say she 'muttered' in a repetitious fashion. She was not speaking rationally and said nothing that could have been recorded. In fact Luke 2.36 reads: And there was a prophet Anna. The Greek word used here is prophetis, in the Septuagint the same word is used for the prophet Deborah in Judges 4.

It would be an unusual interpretation which concluded that the prophets said nothing worth recording. In fact Lk 2.38 tells us that Anna 'spoke of [Jesus] to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem'. It would be good to know what the prophet Anna, who came up to the temple at the very hour of Simeon's utterance, said to Mary. However the very limited point being made here is the well-attested fact that it was not standard practice to record the sayings of women. Rather it was the exception. We therefore cannot legitimately move from the fact that little of Mary's speech is recorded to the conclusion that Mary said 'practically nothing'.

Most of what Mary said, we can only guess at. Attention to the little that Mary is reported to have said, however, reveals that 'far from being a timidly submissive woman ... on the contrary, she was a woman who did not hesitate to proclaim that God vindicates the humble and the oppressed, and removes the powerful people of this world from their privileged positions (cf Lk. 1.51- 53)'. (MMyISAMlis Cultus 37)

What Mary did during the ministry of Jesus
And so to the assertion that Mary did 'very lit- tle'! Let us return to Porta Fidei 13 for a typical teaching. Here we find Pope Benedict XVI saying that Mary 'followed the Lord in his preaching and remained with him all the way to Golgotha' (cf. Jn 19.25-27)'. The reference is to the crucifixion, with no reference to support the claim that Mary 'followed the Lord in his preaching'. One might wish to use this extract from Porta Fidei to challenge Panikkar. For Mary to follow her son to his crucifixion can hardly be said to constitute 'very little'. Yet the Porta Fidei assertion that Mary was 'with him in his preaching' throughout his ministry tends to go unchallenged. Mary was certainly with Jesus at Golgotha. She plainly had influence over him before his ministry began, as we see from the Wedding Feast of Cana (Jn 2.1-11). In Mark 3.20"35, nonetheless, there is evidence to suggest that she was not 'with him in his preaching' throughout his ministry. What we seem to have here is Mary trying to divert Jesus from the life he was leading.

The New Jerusalem translation of Mark 3.20 reads: '[Jesus] went home again, and once more such a crowd collected that they could not even have a meal.' Verse 21 continues, 'When his relations heard of this, they set out to take charge of him; they said, 'He is out of his mind." ' Who are the 'they' here who set out to take charge of him, who said he was out of his mind? According to biblical scholar Francis Maloney, it is widely accepted that the reference is to Jesus' 'blood family.'2 Verses 22-30 deal with the allegations of the scribes that Jesus is possessed by Beelzebul, before verse 31 again picks up the concerns of Jesus' relatives: 'Now his mother and his brothers arrived and, standing outside, sent in a message asking for him.' Jesus responds, 'Who are my mother and my brothers?' (3.32). It is at this juncture that Jesus differentiates those 'out- side' from those 'inside', and it is those 'inside' whom he calls his family. (3.34).

My impression is that the identification is rarely made between the family of Jesus that set out to restrict his eccentric behaviour and the group that arrives, including the mother of Jesus, to try to speak to him. Furthermore Mary's attitude, and the way in which Jesus treats his mother, tend to be glossed over.

Nicholas King gives a pretty standard interpretation of the way in which Jesus treats his mother: 'Jesus' response can sound a little harsh, but he is not so much rejecting his mother or his brothers as redefining the nature of family.'3 Certainly Jesus is saying something very profound about what constitutes an intimate relationship with him. Yet there remains the troubling fact that Jesus refuses to go outside to his mother and other relatives. And the thought of Mary and her relatives setting out to 'take charge of ' Jesus and presumably bring him home sits rather uncomfortably with the traditional under- standing that Mary was passively accepting of Jesus' ministry. Indeed it seems to suggest that she took active steps to curtail what she considered to be its excesses.

Nineteenth-century interpretations
This passage from Mark would also seem to challenge the recent and pervasive Catholic perception of the sort of family life that Mary lived. The relations of Jesus mentioned in Mark 3 are plainly the relations of Mary as well, and given the norms of the time it is highly likely that she lived with them in some form of extended family arrangement. Yet this is not the picture of Mary's home circumstances that has dominated the Catholic imagination since 1921, when the Feast of the Holy Family was extended to the world-wide Church.4 Here she is found to be living in a three- person family unit consisting of Mary her- self, her husband Joseph and her son Jesus.

Such a nuclear family arrangement would have been quite extraordinary in first century Palestine, and is hardly compatible with what we know about the 'relations': the 'brothers' of Jesus of Mark 3, named in Mark 6.3 as James and Joseph, Simon and Judas, along with all his (unnamed) sisters. Before and after Jesus began his ministry, Mary would have been living as a full member of an extended family. The hostility which Jesus was bringing upon himself during his ministry would have put the entire family in danger. When Mary set out to find Jesus and talk to him, she was sure- ly motivated by concern for Jesus, given the hostility he engendered with the authorities, and she was surely also concerned that his actions might impact badly on her wider family. How she must have struggled to know what to do, given on the one hand what Gabriel had said to her, and on the other hand that Jesus seemed to be going out of his mind.

There is little readily available Christian imagery to help us to envisage Mary, accompanied by adult relatives, setting off from home in a frantic attempt to get to speak to Jesus. Yet the text itself should call into question the perceived passivity of Mary's faith-journey. The assertion of the on-line Catholic Encyclopedia that 'Mary effaced herself almost completely' during Jesus' ministry simply does not stack up.5 It is not a credible assertion.

In Mark 3 we glimpse in Mary a decidedly active faith of the sort ascribed to Abraham. Her setting off from home to try to extricate Jesus from his followers and bring him home is reminiscent of a previous dangerous mission: her expedition into the hill-country to visit Elizabeth, when she proclaimed the vindication of the oppressed. (Lk. 1.39; 51-53) In fact it is precisely this active faith that can be determined at the Annunciation. Rather than being an indication of passivity, Mary's fiat demonstrates a willingness to risk the security of the patriarchal family by becoming pregnant with a child that was not her husband's.6 This was not the decision of a person who 'did very little'. Mary was prepared, if necessary, and if she was not stoned, to live as an outcast from respectable society, bringing up a fatherless child. These are not the actions of one whose faith, unlike the faith of Abraham, was passive rather than active.

A credible first-century woman of faith
And so to the conclusions that can be drawn from this study! It is fitting that the Catholic tradition has sought both to venerate Mary as Mother of God, and to seek to show forth her life as the embodiment of faith. It is unsurprising that the tradition has attempted to fill out the picture of Mary's life. Yet this picture would seem to have become distorted by a number of factors: by various interpretations of Mary's symbolic role which have an interest in stressing her passivity; by the passive role that the Church has attributed to women generally; by the desire of the hierarchy to affirm a specific image of family life, thus attributing it falsely to Mary.

A close study of Mark 20"32 calls into question the credibility of this passive image. It gives instead a much more human Mary " a Mary who is always faithful, but who, like us, has to struggle, and does not always get things right " a robust, active woman, not afraid to speak her mind, and not afraid to take action. In short it gives a more authentic picture of the historical Mary " one that might serve as an authentic role-model for those who currently struggle with the pre-critical nineteenth-century version.