Mary of Nazareth, the mother of Jesus, has from the earliest Christian tradition been given a preeminence of place and status in our faith, far beyond any other person in history. She gave God’s son flesh and blood, and no one was closer to the Savior. In preparation for that unique role, God preserved her from original sin and from all personal sin.
Unfortunately, because of her special status and role, through the centuries Mary has also often been removed in the eyes of many writers and artists from our world and the experiences every person has in life. That is one reason why, in 1964, the Second Vatican Council wrote the following statement: The “Church strongly urges that theologians and preachers of the word of God be careful to refrain as much as possible from all false exaggeration as from too summary an attitude in considering the special dignity of the Mother of God.”
In other words, it is totally appropriate that we understand and embrace Mary as a real human being, who lived in Palestine in the early years of the first century. Granted, we may not have many detailed historical incidents described in the Gospels of Mary’s life, but there is no doubt that those moments actually took place. Her pregnancy with Jesus put her in a situation, e.g. pregnant with no reasonable explanation for her parent or Joseph that was in fact life-threatening. And she experienced that situation and others with the anxiety and fear any human being would.
Great faith and trust do not temper powerful and painful emotions. It did not to Jesus on the cross. Nor would it with Mary. She experienced life as you and I experience it. Actually, what is true is that her very personal sinlessness gave her a deep sense of what sin and evil are. It only caused her moments of suffering to be intense to a point we cannot fully grasp.
If you want to ask what sin is, don’t ask an evil person. The one who knows sin is the one who is in a deep and loving relationship with God, and one who suffers from the evil of others. The idea that Mary was never tempted is trumped by the simple fact that Satan tempted Jesus himself. For Satan, Mary would have been a real prize. So understanding Mary’s own humanity, as perfect as it is, consider what would be one of the most painful experiences she or anyone could have? I suspect it was those moments of deep loneliness that she suffered during her earthly journey. There are five occasions, none of them brief, that the Gospels allude to.
An Unexpected Pregnancy
The Gospels lay the foundation for the first painful experience of aloneness and isolation for Mary. She was the daughter of Anna and Joachim (as tradition relates) and engaged to Joseph, though not yet fully married to him, and so they were not living together. Mary was a young teenage girl, perhaps 14 years old. It was normal in that time for a young girl, once able to bear children, to be married. At some moment prior to the marriage, in a response to God’s grace, Mary gave herself to God and, in effect, said, “Whatever you want, Lord, and I’m your maidservant.” In that moment, Mary became pregnant through the power of the Holy Spirit and became not just the mother of Jesus of Nazareth.
Mary’s pregnancy immediately catapulted her whole life into confusion, conflict and indeed mortal danger. (Mt 1:18ff) The beautiful film The Nativity Story portrays exactly what Mary faced. She had no answer that would make sense to her shocked parents or to Joseph. Her parents seek an answer: was she ravished by a Roman soldier? This would not have been unheard of, because of the Roman oppressors. Mary denies that and any other suggestion with the only answer she has: “I broke no law.”
But nothing anyone can come up with solves the problem. She was pregnant, and there is only one way you become pregnant. Joseph is overwhelmed with hurt and disappointment by what he sees. He can only conclude that now it is impossible for him to marry her. In fact, by law he would have to divorce her. And, if that happened, Mary would have been in mortal danger since obviously she could never hide the pregnancy.
As a result, Mary would have become isolated from the three people she loved more than any other in the world—her parents and her intended spouse. To describe her as feeling lonely and confused hardly would describe the emotional turmoil raging inside her.
The Gospel reveals that eventually Joseph was told in a dream not to fear taking Mary as his wife. So he did. But we don’t know how many hours or days Mary was totally alone with herself, without fully understanding she was carrying the savior of the world.
Life as a Widow
There is a second time of intense loneliness that Mary experienced. Though it is not specifically noted in the Gospel, we know it happened. It was the death of her beloved husband, Joseph. Jesus began his public ministry around the age of 28 or so. It is significant we never hear of the presence of Joseph after Jesus begins his public life, since ancient tradition has Joseph dying some years before.
The relationship of Mary and Joseph must have been something very special indeed—very human in their deep love for one another. Though our tradition has always been that they lived as brother and sister, in no way would it lessen their love or their tenderness and care for one another. Joseph was the protector of her and Jesus, as he grew up.
We know that the closer two people are, the more difficult the pain and loss when they are separated by death. Mary became a widow. Even with Jesus still present in her life, that marital bond had ended. Any widow would know what that experience is like. I remember when my father died suddenly of a heart attack. My mother and I were quietly sorting some of his belongings and she stopped for a moment and, in a soft voice, said, “Now, what do I do?”
Why would Mary not have the same kind of thought and experience the emotions that any loving widow would experience?
As I noted, at the age of 28 or so, Jesus was called by the Spirit to begin his ministry. Nothing would or could hold him back from what he sensed God was pulling him to. We often imagine that, because of Mary’s role, she knew something of what was going on in Jesus’ life. Luke hints of it when Jesus, at age 12, remained in Jerusalem at Passover feast (Lk 2:41ff). She and Jesus almost certainly talked about his future, even as Jesus’ call was still developing and becoming clearer.
We don’t know how this all happened, but there came that moment when Jesus knew it was his time. It would likely have come upon his hearing of the work and words of the powerful new prophet, John the Baptist. Jesus was led by the Spirit to John the Baptist, who then realized Jesus was the promised one the prophets had foretold.
Even if Mary had some understanding that this was what Jesus was called to, that fact would in no way ease the pain of separation, as she saw Jesus disappear in the distance, leaving her now alone in Nazareth. We know from our own experience that just knowing the will of God and following it, in no way makes that human experience easy, especially when it calls for separation from loved ones.
There was no question of Jesus abandoning his mother. There were other relatives of some degree who would provide for her. But still, she was now separated from those closest to her because of Joseph’s death and Jesus’ departure.
Ask any mother who kisses her son goodbye as he goes off to war. She will have some understanding of what Mary felt in that moment when Jesus turned and headed toward his future. There had to be tears in her eyes and a deep sense of aloneness and worry for Jesus.
On the Sidelines
Surprisingly, the Gospel recounts the events following Jesus’ Baptism by John in the Jordan, his 40-day preparation in the desert and his first battle with Satan. The Gospel (Lk 4:16-30) recounts that soon afterward, Jesus, filled with the Spirit “returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news of him spread throughout the whole region. He taught . . . and was praised by all” (4:14-15).
Next, Luke describes Jesus’ return to Nazareth “where he had grown up.” We can imagine what the sight of Jesus must have done to Mary’s heart when word got to her that he was coming in the distance.
Talk about a homecoming! No words could describe that moment. What did they talk about? What did Jesus share with her? But, almost immediately, there is a dark and foreboding cloud that comes over Jesus and Mary, too. Jesus’ first preaching in the little synagogue of Nazareth, following his reading from the prophet Isaiah, was initially received with wonderment on the part of his friends and neighbors.
But they see that there is something different about Jesus. “Isn’t this the son of Joseph?” (Lk 4:22).
But when Jesus begins to speak that the truth of God’s love is for all people, including even gentiles in the Old Testament such as the widow of Zareptha and Syrian General Naaman, everything changes. In an instant, the townspeople are stunned and shocked by Jesus’ assertion. How dare a Jew speak of God’s love for the gentiles? They rise up and attempt to kill him. Jesus is able to escape and leave Nazareth, never to return (Lk 4:29).
But now, as a result of the town’s criticism and rejection of Jesus’ words, try to imagine what Mary’s status would have become among her own neighbors? From that time on, Mary’s life in Nazareth must have been terribly uncomfortable.
Was there sniping and criticism of her, implying that there was something wrong with Jesus and all the changes in him? Who did he think he was? What was it like for her to meet the women at the well each day and overhear their gossip and snide remarks? What had happened to her son?
But it would get worse. As Jesus moved through his public ministry, it became very plain that what his preaching and teaching were doing was turning the Pharisees and Scribes against him. Rumors that “he’s a law breaker and a blasphemer” would reach Nazareth.
Even more, the powerful high priests were getting critical word about Jesus. They were sending representatives to check him out and test him. What they were finding drove them in time to plot against Jesus. Word had to get back to Nazareth where everyone knew Jesus was from. Such accusations were giving the people of Nazareth a bad name. “Don’t you people in Nazareth know how to control your own people?”
How many sleepless nights would Mary have experienced? We know that faith itself is not a sedative against suffering and hurt. Who could she turn to?
A Mother’s Despair
Finally we come to the moment of Mary’s deepest suffering in her whole life—witnessing the indescribable death of her son on the cross (Jn 19:25 and Mt 27:55). John mentions that Mary was at the foot of the cross. Matthew’s account is probably more historically accurate, as Mary and other holy women disciples of Jesus “watched from a distance.”
Any crucifixion was a horrible event to witness. For Roman soldiers hardened by their brutal experiences, it was simply business to be taken care of as proficiently as possible. The last thing they would allow would be hysterical and emotionally distraught relatives and friends of the victim getting in the way of their gruesome task.
Regardless, there is no question Mary witnessed the death of her son. Granted, the women were supporting her, especially Mary Magdalene, but no one could possibly touch the inner pain and devastation of that scene and Mary’s sense of total helplessness. Of all those moments of loneliness up till then, this would have been the most devastating and heartbreaking of Mary’s whole life.To make matters even worse, it would have been the time when Satan himself, who was already tempting Jesus as he hung helpless on the cross, would besiege Mary with the most horrible thoughts. “So, this is the reward for your gift of yourself to God. What a failure your son turned out to be. What kind of a mother were you, anyway? Why didn’t you stop him when you had time? Doing God’s will? Nonsense!”
Early Church tradition describes the next time she would touch her only son would be when they took Jesus’ dead body down from the cross and laid him in her arms. No words can describe that moment for her.
Now, alone, she would continue her earthly journey cared for by Jesus’ apostles and especially by the “disciple whom Jesus loved” (Jn. 19:26-27).
A Greater Understanding
There is one final moment to understand. Many people wonder why none of the gospels describe a scene where the risen Jesus appears to Mary. After all, Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene first, numerous times to his apostles, and even to large groups of people. But there is nothing about an appearance to Mary.
The reason for this omission must not be understood as a kind of neglect of Jesus’ mother or his love for her. Remember, the gospels were written for all those who did not realize just who Jesus was and what his death meant. For them, Jesus’ resurrection was proof of who he truly was.
But Mary is not considered to be among that group of people who needed an appearance. Jesus’ mother knew he had arisen long before his appearance to others and we can assume that she, the woman of faith, would have seen him first of all. The experience of Mary and her times of loneliness that arose from the circumstances of her life as the mother of Jesus is a reminder that Mary’s life was real and truly human.
She knew what it meant to be isolated, to fear, to experience terrible anxiety, loneliness, and hurt. For all her sinlessness, Mary’s life was filled with the faith-demanding events just mentioned. There likely were many more. It is for those moments in her life that Pope Paul VI wrote: “She is worthy of imitation because she was the first and the most perfect of Christ's disciples.”
We begin to realize that what her “Yes, Lord” really meant. She knew the human experience more than we can describe. She was the best gift Jesus could give just before his last breath when he told us all: “Behold, your Mother” (Jn 19:21).