The Unknown Mary

So much we do not know about Mary, the mother of Jesus! The Gospels were never supposed to be a biography of Jesus and therefore they give us scant details of his mother. This hurts because when one loves someone, one wants to know more and more about her.

I assume this is why popular Christian stories arose around Syria, Palestine and Egypt in the mid second century to supplement this void. These stories, attempting to provide details omitted in the Gospels, went beyond and sometimes contrary to the indications of the Scriptures. However they still have a haunting beauty about them.

‘The Gospel of James,’ one of these stories written about 150 A.D., portrays the childhood of Mary in this way:

“When Mary was one year old, Joachim (her father) made a great feast and invited the priests and scribes, and the whole people of Israel assembled.

“And Joachim brought the child to the priests, and they blessed her saying, ‘O God of our fathers, bless this child and give her a name renowned for ever among all generations.’

“And all the people said: ‘So be it, so be it. Amen . . .’

“And the child became two years, seven months and seven days, and Joachim said: ‘Call the virgin daughters of the Hebrews and let them accompany the child to the temple of the Lord with torches burning in their hands.’

“And they went up to the temple of the Lord.

“And the priests received her and kissed her and blessed her, saying: ‘The Lord has magnified your name among all generations; in you the Lord will show redemption to the children of Israel.’

“And he sat her on the third step of the altar. And the Lord gave her grace and she danced with her feet and all the house of the Lord loved her.

“And her parents returned home marveling and praising the Lord because their child did not look back.

“And Mary was in the temple of the Lord to be nurtured like a dove; and she received food from the hand of an angel.”

(I aspire to be like this Mary dancing as she enters the temple, and never looking back to the old world!)

When she was twelve, the priests followed the advice of an angel, and summoned all the widowers to the temple so that God could point out with a sign who will be her husband.

Among the widowers who came forward there was also Joseph. All of them were given a rod and extraordinarily out of the rod of Joseph, a dove came out and stood on Joseph’s head. That was the sign. After an initial resistance, Joseph accepted. God provides even emotionally for our needs.

A beautiful legend that captured the imagination of the iconographers tells the story of how the priests opted for seven unblemished virgins to weave a new curtain for the Holy of Holies in the Temple. Mary was one of the chosen ones. It was her task to spin the purple and scarlet threads. Purple is the royal color of the king. Scarlet is the wounded color of blood. Future events cast their shadow, Shakespeare would say.

This was the beginning. And what about the end? After his death, Jesus appeared to Mary in the house on Mount Sion in Jerusalem where she lived after Pentecost and announces that she will soon die. From all parts of the world the apostles gather to bid her farewell.

“Stretching out his hands, the Lord received her holy soul. And when her soul departed, the place was filled with a sweet smell and bright light.

“And a voice from heaven proclaimed: ‘Blessed are you among women.’

“Peter and John, Paul and Thomas, ran to embrace her feet and receive her holiness; and the twelve apostles laid her holy body on a bier and bore it forth.

“Instructed by Jesus, Peter and the other apostles took her body to be buried in a new tomb near Gethsemane in the Kidron Valley, where miracles of healing accompanied her burial.

“Three days later, angels took her body to heaven.”

There we shall meet her and she will tell us the real story. In the meantime, with the bishop of Palestine of the 7th century, we can rejoice because “At her assent the earth blossomed; she sought good things for the poor. Now in heaven her care is undiminished, near her Son she seeks the good of us all.”


(c) Fr. Pius Sammut, OCD. Permission is hereby granted for any non-commercial use, provided that the content is unaltered from its original state, if this copyright notice is included.