The story of Mary
Every century and culture has interpreted Mary in different ways. Consider the paintings, sculptures, icons, music, liturgies, feasts, spiritual writings, theologies, official doctrines.
It seems that the image of Mary has allowed the Christian imagination to think very creatively and very differently about understanding Mary. How should we consider Mary (or Miriam, as she would be known in Hebrew) in the 21st century?
Recognising Mary of the Gospels
We know very little about Miriam of Nazareth as an actual historical person. She was a first-century Jewish woman.
The four Gospels portray her in very different ways, reflecting their very different theologies. At first glance, Mark comes across as having a negative view of Jesus’ mother. She arrives with other members of the family as Jesus is preaching and they call to him. When the crowd tells Jesus his mother is asking for him, he replies, “Who is my mother and brother and sister? Those who do the will of my father are mother and brother and sister to me” (see Mark 3:31-35). And Mary remains outside. Mark does not seem to have a positive view, at that point, of Mary as a disciple.
Matthew’s view of Mary is rather neutral by comparison. He places her in the genealogy of the Messiah, in line with four other women who act outside the patriarchal marriage structure, thereby becoming unexpectedly God’s partners in a promise-and-fulfillment schema. In Matthew’s Gospel, though, Mary doesn’t speak, and all the focus on the birth story is around Joseph.
Luke describes Mary as a woman of faith, overshadowed by the Spirit at Jesus’ conception and at the beginning of the Church at Pentecost. She is the first to respond to the glad tidings to hear the word of God and keep it. This is a pictorial example of Luke’s theology of discipleship. It’s a very positive view of Mary from which we have mostly gotten our tradition.
Finally, John has a highly stylized portrayal of the mother of Jesus, and that’s all he ever calls her. He never names her.
As with the Gospel portraits of Jesus, these diverse interpretations cannot always be harmonized. But each is instructive in its own way.
To glimpse the actual woman behind these texts is difficult. Now we get help from new studies of the political, economic, social and cultural fabric of first-century Palestine.
Mary as a Jewish Woman
As a descendant of the people of Israel, Mary inherited the Jewish faith in one living God, stemming from Abraham and Sarah onwards. She prays to a God who hears the cry of the poor, frees the enslaved Hebrews and brings them into their covenant relationship. Given Jesus’ clear knowledge and practice of the Jewish faith in his adult life, as reflected in the Gospels, it is reasonable to assume that Mary, with her husband, Joseph, practiced this Jewish religion in their home, following Torah, observing Sabbath and the festivals, reciting prayers, lighting candles and going to synagogue, according to the custom in Galilee.
Later at the end of Jesus’ life, Luke depicts Mary in her older years as a member of the early Jerusalem community, praying with 100 other women and men in the upper room before the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost. What we see from this—and most scholars think that that’s a historical glimpse—is that Mary participated in the early Christian community in Jerusalem. Now in the light of the death and resurrection of Jesus, this gathering of disciples believed that the Messiah had come. But in no way did they think that this was a cause to leave their religion; they kept going to the Temple, and so forth.
For many years, they preached the good news to their fellow Jews trying to get them to understand the promise of God has been fulfilled, before finally being persuaded by Paul and others that the gospel was meant for gentiles too. To use a term coined in scholarship, Mary was a Jewish Christian—the earliest kind of Christian there was. This was before Christianity split off from the synagogue. She was never a Roman Christian, never a gentile at all.
Mary, a Peasant Woman
Mary lived in a Mediterranean rural village, Nazareth, whose population consisted largely of peasants working the land and craftsmen who served their basic needs. Married to the local carpenter, she took care of the household. Now how many children were in that household? Well, her firstborn son, Jesus, obviously lived there, but we also read in Mark’s Gospel that the mother and the brothers and the sisters lived together in Nazareth. And these brothers are named in Chapter Six: James, Joses, Judas and Simon. His sisters Mark leaves unnamed, as typically happened with groups of women in the New Testament.
But however many were in the household, we would know that in her setting, her days would ordinarily be taken up with the hard, unrecompensed work of women of all ages: to feed and clothe and nurture her growing household. Like other village women of her day, she was probably unlettered, illiterate.
The economic status of this family is a matter of some dispute. Scholars like John Meier place them in a blue-collar working-class arrangement, while others such as John Dominic Crossan assign them to the peasant class, desperately struggling under the triple taxation of Temple, Herod and Rome.
Either way the times were tough. This village was part of an occupied state under the heel of imperial Rome. Revolution was in the air. The atmosphere was tense. Violence and poverty prevailed. We owe a debt to Third-World women theologians who have noticed the similarities between Mary’s life and the lives of so many poor women, even today. Notice how the journey to Bethlehem in order to be counted for a census accords with the displacement of so many poor people today separated from their ancestral homes because of debt and taxation.
Notice how the flight into Egypt parallels the flight of refugees in our day—women and men running with their children to escape being killed by unjust military force. Notice how Mary’s experience of losing her son to death by unjust state execution compares with so many women who have had their children and grandchildren disappear or be murdered by dictatorial regimes. Mary is a sister, a compañera, to the suffering lives of marginalized women in oppressive situations.
Woman of Faith
Mary walked by faith, not by sight. Scripture tells us she asked questions. She pondered things in her heart. And she went on faithfully believing in all circumstances.
She had a relationship with God that was profound. Now in those days, people’s hope for the coming of the Messiah included the hope that he would liberate the suffering poor from oppressive rule. Luke’s infancy narrative gives a particular twist to our memory of Mary’s faith by placing her in a key position of partnership with God to bring about this historic occurrence. The Annunciation scene, as biblically analysed today, depicts her being called to the vocation of being God’s partner in the work of redemption on the model of the call to Moses at the burning bush.
Mary of the Magnificat
Though Mary is poor and lowly, and a culturally insignificant woman, the powerful living holy God is doing great things to her. And God does this not only to her but to all the poor: bringing down the mighty from their thrones; exalting the lowly; filling the hungry with good things and sending the unrepentant rich away empty. And all of this is happening in fulfillment of the ancient promise—and in her very being. For she embodies the nobodies of this world, on whom God is lavishing rescue.
In this song she sings of the future too, when finally, peaceful justice will take root in the land among all people. This is a great prayer; it is a revolutionary song of salvation. As writer Bill Cleary once commented, “It reveals that Mary was not only full of grace but full of political opinions.”
Miriam’s song has political implications—socially radical ones at that. With a mother like this, it’s no wonder that Jesus’ first words in Luke proclaim that he has come to free the captives and bring good news to the poor. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree!
So Mary lived in solidarity with the project of the coming Reign of God, whose intent was to heal, redeem and liberate. It does no honour to reduce her faith to a privatized piety. Worse yet, which sometimes happens in traditional Mariology, is to reduce her faith to a doting mother-son relationship. She hears the word of God and keeps it. What I’m suggesting is that before Jesus was born she had her own relationship to God that wasn’t focused on Jesus. Even after his death and resurrection, when she is now part of the community proclaiming him as the Messiah, her pattern of faith is still that of Jewish hope: God’s Messiah who now has come will come again soon and bring this justice to the land as a whole.
She hears the word of God and keeps it. And in this too she is, as Paul VI called her in Marialis Cultus, our sister in faith. We can begin to see the potential in other Gospel scenes. As we remember her and keep foremost the idea that she is a Jewish peasant woman of faith, then we can interpret the other scenes in the Gospels where Mary shows up and where we are presented with the dangerous memory of this very inconsequential woman in her own culture and historical context. With a heart full of love for God and for her neighbour, Mary of Nazareth gives us this tremendous example of walking by faith through a difficult life.
Our partner in hope
We began by asking, what would be a theologically sound, spiritually empowering and ethically challenging view of Mary, mother of Jesus Christ, for the 21st century? My answer has been to suggest that we remember Mary as a friend of God and prophet in the communion of saints. Let her dangerous memory inspire and encourage our own witness.
We ought to relate to Miriam of Nazareth as a partner in hope, in the company of all the holy women and men who have gone before us. This can help us reclaim the power of her memory for the flourishing of women, for the poor and all suffering people. It can help us to draw on the energy of her example for a deeper relationship with the living God and stronger care for the world.
When the Christian community does Marian theology this way, our eyes are opened to sacred visions for a different future. We become empowered to be voices of hope in this difficult world. Like Mary, we will be rejoicing in God our saviour and announcing the justice that is to come.
Elizabeth Johnson, a sister of St. Joseph, is professor of theology at Fordham University; an international lecturer and a former president of the Catholic Theological Society of America. Her Ph.D. is from Catholic University of America.
Through August to December, the Liturgical year contains an array of feast days celebrating Mary’s life, her devotion to God and her importance within the Church.
August 15 Assumption of the Blessed Virgin
Commemorates the death of Mary and her body AND soul being taken up to heaven from her tomb.
August 22 – The Queenship of the Blessed Virgin*
Celebrates Mary’s reward for accepting to be the mother of Jesus. Her titles include Queen of Heaven and Queen of Angels.
Sept 8 – The Birth (nativity) of the Blessed Virgin
Mary’s birthday. We celebrate Mary’s birth to Jaochim and Ann.
Sept 12 – The Most Holy Name of the Blessed Virgin
Celebrates the name of Mary – Miriam, in the Jewish tradition. Mary was called many other names, such as Queen of peace and Star of the Sea.
Sept 15 – Our Lady of Sorrows
We recognise Mary for her suffering. The title “Our Lady of Sorrows” refers to Mary’s suffering during the passion and death of Christ.
Sept 21 – Presentation of the Virgin Mary
This date celebrates when Mary’s parents dedicated her to God in the Jewish temple when she was 3 years old.
Oct 7 – Our Lady of the Rosary
Celebrates Mary protecting us and reminds us to pray to her.
Dec 8 – Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary*
Commemorates the feast day when Mary was conceived (pure).
*Most important feast days.
Sept 8 – The Birth (nativity) of the Blessed VirginMary’s birthday: We celebrate Mary’s birth to Jaochim and Ann.
Sept 12 – The Most Holy Name of the Blessed VirginCelebrates the name of Mary – Miriam, in the Jewish tradition. Mary was called many other names, such as Queen of peace and Star of the Sea.
Suggested Class Activity
Names are important as they define who we are. The Blessed Virgin Mary is known as the merciful, the ever-patient mother, our protectress … and many more titles.
List the names Mary is known by to highlight her importance as Jesus’ mother, Mother of the Church and our spiritual mother.
See Litany of Loreto:
List what your names would be (as in qualities and roles). E.g. Protector of the Weak or Animals, Patient Daughter/Son. How important could these names be to your sense of identity?
Sept 15 – Our Lady of SorrowsWe recognise Mary for her suffering. The title ‘Our Lady of Sorrows’ refers to Mary’s suffering during the passion and death of Christ.
Sept 21 – Presentation of the Virgin MaryThis date celebrates when Mary’s parents dedicated her to God in the Jewish temple when she was 3 years old.
Oct 7 – Our Lady of the RosaryCelebrates Mary protecting us and reminds us to pray to her.
Dec 8 – Immaculate Conception of the Virgin MaryCommemorates the feast day when Mary was conceived (pure).
The Church honours Mary with various feasts, in particular:
Catholic Education Office Diocese of Bathurst
- The Solemnity of Mary, The Mother of God: January 1
This is the oldest and most important feast of Mary. Coming one week before or after Christmas, it is a second celebration of Jesus’ birth with a special focus on Mary as the Mother of God. The title “Mother of God” was given to Mary at the Council of Ephesus in 431. In the early Church some claimed that Mary should only be called the mother of the human Jesus ans not the mother of god. the council taught, however, that the humanity and divinity of Jesus could not be separated ans that they exist in the one person – with the momentous implication that we can rightly give Mary the title of Mother of God. Again we see that a celebration of Mary is a celebration of her son.
- The Annunciation: March 25
All of the most important feasts of Mary are really celebrations of Jesus. that is why the name of this feast was changed from the conception by the Virgin Mary, accomplished by the power of the Holy Spirit. The gospel for this feast, Luke 1:26-38, is he first time Mary appears in the Bible. The angel Gabriel greets her with the words that have become the first part of the Hail Mary. Mary is deeply disturbed and fearful. Yet she places her trust in God, saying, “I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” Once again we see that the feast of Jesus’ conception occurs exactly nine months before the celebration of his birth. When March 25 falls during Holy Week, the Annunciation is celebrated after Easter.
- Mary, Help of Christians – Patroness of Australia May 24
Over 4000 years ago, Pope Pius V introduced a new title; Our Lady Help of Christians. It was his way of saying thanks because Europe had been saved from a Turkish invasion.
John Bede Polding, Australia’s first Catholic Bishop, called his first cathedral ‘St Mary’s’, and when parishes and dioceses were set up in our country, he chose Mary, Help of Christians, as our patroness for the whole of Australia.
- The Birth of Mary September 8
Although we do not know the date of Mary’s birth, Christians have celebrated it on this day since the beginning of the seventh century. The date of the feast of the Immaculate Conception was determined by counting back nine months form this date, the time from conception to birth. Mary’s birthday is one of only three celebrated in the Christian calendar. along with births of John the Baptist and Jesus, it celebrates the dawn of salvation.
- The Presentation of Mary in the Temple November 21
Once again we have no biblical record of this event, but like all Jewish children, Mary would have been brought to the Temple on the 40th day after her birth. (The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple is recorded by Like and celebrated on February 2).
- The Immaculate Conception December 8
The feast is not the commemoration of Jesus’ conception (as is sometimes thought) but of Mary’s. Although Joachim and Anne are not named in the Bible, an ancient tradition holds that they were Mary’s parents. their feast is celebrated on July 22. we believe that Mary was conceived by her parents in the natural human way, but that she was conceived without original sin. This is gift God gave her in anticipation of her Son’s redemption. when pope Pius IX defined his belief in 1854, he explained that God’s grace was given to her “in such a wonderful manner that she would always be free from every stain of sin”. Mary is revered as patroness of the United States under this title. The national shrine of the Immaculate Conception is located in Washington, D.C.
- The Immaculate Heart of Mary: Date varies
This feast was extended to the universal Church by Pope Pius XII in 1944. In our times, the celebration of this day varies according to the date of Easter. It usually takes place in June on the Saturday after the feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. the hearts of Jesus and Mary are often depicted together as an expression of their union in love or us. this day reminds us of the prayerful ways she pondered the mystery of Jesus in her heart and of her unceasing love for us.
- Our Lady of Mt Carmel: July 16
Mt Carmel is located on the coast of Israel just north of the city Haifa. Tradition holds that it was the place where the prophet Elijah confronted the pagan prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18:19-46). It is an ancient shrine of Mary and it was here that the Order of Our Lady of Mt Carmel was founded about 1154. This contemplative Order, known as the Carmelites, began to celebrate its patronal feast on July 16 because, according to its tradition, it was on this day in 1251 that Mary appeared to the Carmelites St Simon Stock in England ans gave him the brown scapular as a sign of her love and protection . Our Lady of Mt Carmel is especially revered in Italy and by Italian-Americans.
- The Queenship of Mary: August 22
Following the establishment of the feast of Christ the King, Pope Pius XII created this feast in 1954 on May 31. The new calendar moved it to August 22 to emphasize its connection with the Assumption. We venerate Mary as queen for two reasons: because of her unique part in redemption and because she is first among the saints. Pius XII said of her, “Like her Son before her, she conquered death and was raised body and soul into heaven, where as queen, she sits in splendor at the right hand of her Son”.
- Our Lady of Sorrows: September 15
One aspect of Mary’s life that is being appreciated anew today is her suffering. The poor, especially in Latin America, find in her one who walks
with them: as a refugee, as a mother whose son is unjustly murdered, as a widow. the Gospels give us ample record of the suffering Mary endured. The circumstances of Jesus’ birth were harsh, even by the standards of the day. Afterward the Holy Family fled to Egypt to escape persecution by Herod. the loss of Jesus in the Temple signaled the new challenge of understanding his ministry. “Did you not know that I must be about my Father’s work? ” he said to Mary (Lk 2:49) . Ultimately, his passion ans death were hr greatest trial.
- Our Lady of the Rosary: October 7
The origins of this feast lie in the 16th century when the Christian armies of Europe won a number of victories over the Muslim Turks. While the battles raged, the people of Rome prayed the rosary. In thanksgiving for the victory of the Christina navies at Lepanto, October 7, 1571, the day was dedicated to Our lady of Victory. The name was soon changed to Our lady of the Rosary. Catholics today do not celebrate this victory, but rather give thanks for the gift of the rosary. Because of this feast, the month of October has been dedicated to the rosary.
- The Visitation: May 31
Luke’s account of the Annunciation is immediately followed by his story of Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth, who despite her advanced age was soon to be the mother of John the Baptist (Lk 1:39-56). This date is after the Annunciation but before the celebration of John’s birth on June 24 so that the order of these days in our liturgy follows the actual order of the events. Elizabeth greets Mary with the words that are the second part of the Hail Mary:”Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb ” (Lk 1:42). In response, Mary offers a prayer which is known today as the Magnificat: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord…” The full prayer is found in Luke 1:46-55. the name of the prayer comes from the Latin word magnificat, which is the first word of the prayer. It is sometimes translated , “My soul magnifies the Lord”.
- The Birth of Jesus: December 25 (Advent)
Advent presents Mary, along with Isaiah ans John the Baptist, as models for our preparation for the coming of Jesus. The Gospel for the fourth Sunday of Advent particularly focuses on Mary’s role in God’s plan of salvation. While the celebration Christmas naturally focuses of Jesus, we reflect also on Mary’s part in giving him life and upon her vital link to the whole mystery of the Incarnation.
- The Presentation of the Lord: February 2
The feast of the Presentation of Jesus in the temple was previously called the Purification of Mary, but its name was changed to place the focus more clearly on Jesus. Yet because of Mary’s role in these events, it is still a day to reflect on her. In the Gospel we hear the prophecy of Simeon spoken to her: “You yourself shall be pierced with a sword- so that the thoughts of many hearts may be laid bare” (Lk 2:35). Pope John Paul II, in his encyclical letter, Mother of the Redeemer (!987), reflected on the meaning of these words: “Simeon’s words seem like a second Annunciation to Mary, for they tell her the actual historical situation in which the Son is to accomplish his mission, namely, in misunderstanding and sorrow. This announcement …reveals to her that she will have to live her obedience of faith in suffering, at the side of the suffering Saviour, and that her motherhood will be mysterious and sorrowful.”
- The Assumption: August 15
We do not know anything about Mary’s life after the day of Pentecost. Christian tradition holds that Mary spent that last years of her life in Ephesus in Church and the Dormition (meaning “falling asleep” of Mary) at the legendary place of hr death. In some parts of the Church there was once a commemoration of her death. Since the seventh century this acceleration has been called the Assumption. In 1950 Pope Pius XII defined as a dogma of our faith that Mary was assumed into heaven “body and soul”, without specifying whether or not Mary actually experienced physical death.
Information obtained from the Catholic Education Office Diocese of Bathurst.
Mary, Help of Christians
The feast day to Mary Help of Christians has been celebrated in Australia since 1844 but the history to this day dates back to the start of the 1800’s.
Napoleon Bonaparte had jailed Pius VI who died in jail. When Pope Pius VII was elected he too was jailed by Bonaparte, who kept him prisoner at Fontainbleau.
The Holy Father vowed to God that if he were restored to the Roman See, he would institute a special feast in honour of Mary.
The military eventually forced Bonaparte to release the Pope and on 24 May 1814, Pius VII returned in triumph to Rome.
Twelve months later the Pope decreed that the feast of Mary Help of Christians be kept on 24 May.
The infant church in Australia had a special reason for turning to Mary. No priests were sent to the colony in its early days and Mass was not allowed except for one brief year until 1820. It was largely the Rosary in those early days that kept the faith alive.
Catholic Australia remained faithful to Mary and was the first nation to choose her under the title Help of Christians, as Principal Patroness.
When Australia became the first country to have Mary Help of Christians as Patroness, it became the first country to have a mother-cathedral under the same title.
The Church has traditionally focused on two aspects of Our Lady’s help on this feast day.
Firstly, upon the role of Our Lady’s intercession in the fight against sin the life of a believer.
Secondly, Our Lady is one who assists Christians as a community, through her intercession, in fighting against anti-Christian forces.
Mary Help of Christians patroness of Australia and of the Military Ordinariate
Almighty God, deepen in our hearts
our love of Mary Help of Christians.
Through her prayers and under her protection,
may the light of Christ shine over our land.
May Australia be granted harmony, justice and peace.
Grant wisdom to our leaders and integrity to our citizens.
Bless especially the men and women
of the Australian Defence Force and their families.
We ask this through Christ Our Lord. Amen.
Mary Help of Christians, pray for us.
Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney accessed March 2013.
Learning Experiences/ Reflections
- What customs about Mary or devotions to Mary do you share as a family?
- During this month, include Marian prayers in your class prayers. Remembering that Mary is Mother of the Church, encourage the students to include a special prayer to Mary in their family prayers.
- Ask your parents or grandparents to recall what they learned about Mary when they were your age.
- Are there any Marian images in your home or parish? What are they like? Can you find out more about the origin of those images?
- Mary listened and responded to God with a “yes”. How are you living the way God asks of you?
- Research what happened at Fatima (Portugal) in 1917.
- Research what happened at Lourdes (France) in 1858.
- Find a traditional portrait of Mary from art or holy cards you may have at home or at school.
- Discuss why artists may have depicted Mary in this way. Then sketch your own ideas of how she would have looked.
- Look carefully at the ‘Our Lady of the Southern Cross’ (above) and discuss the symbolism used by the artist. Explain the significance of this icon for Australians.
- Have a class quiz based on questions related to Mary.
- What are some other feast days dedicated to Our Lady? Find out what
- What are some other feast days dedicated to Our Lady? Find out what they are and the dates they are celebrated in the church. There are many!
- Make a list of some of the titles for Mary you may have heard, perhaps the name of a church or school.
- Pray the Angelus together. Find other Marian prayers. Say them together with your class and family. Create a bank of Marian prayers in the classroom.
- There are many songs that we can sing to Mary; select one, perhaps write the words out loud, and learn to sing this song together.