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10/08/2004
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Few details emerge from the Bible on Mary's life, thoughts
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Few details emerge from the Bible on Mary's life, thoughts
By Father Paul Turner
Catholic Key Scripture Columni

1008TurnerMary.jpg
CNS photo/Art Resource
Joseph leads Mary and the infant Jesus into Egypt after the warning of Herod's intention to destroy the newborn Christ in this depiction of the Gospel story. The manuscript illustration is dated from the late 12th or early 13th century.
Editor's note: This is the first of a two-part article on Mary by Catholic Key Scripture columnist Father Paul Turner, pastor of St. Munchin Parish, Cameron.

October is Mary's month. Devotions to Mary throughout the month first appeared in conjunction with the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary, observed on Oct. 7.

On that date in 1571, the navies of Christian nations defeated the Ottoman navy at the Battle of Lepanto. In the scope of history, it was a minor victory, but a loss by Christian nations to Muslim forces could have altered the religious and political landscape of Europe considerably.

That day happened to be the first Sunday of the month, the day that confraternities promoted praying the rosary. Christians attributed the victory to the intercession of Mary, under the title Our Lady of the Rosary or Our Lady of Victory. Devotion began the following year in Barcelona, thanks to a Spaniard who had fought in the battle, and it spread with papal approval throughout the Christian world.

In 1883 Pope Leo XIII granted an indulgence to all who attended October devotions to pray for peace between the Vatican and the Kingdom of Italy. The Lateran Pacts were signed in 1929, eliminating the intention for these prayers, but October had become Mary's month, and it remains so today.

Mary in the Bible

Mary, honored in many popular devotions like these, appears first in the Bible as the mother of Jesus. The earliest reference to her is in Paul's Letter to the Galatians (4:4). Paul simply acknowledges that Jesus was "born of a woman," without mentioning her name. She plays a very incidental role in her first appearance in the Scriptures.

Important moments in Mary's life are recorded in the Gospels. Among the first of these are episodes not entirely complimentary to Jesus' family. In Mark, probably the first of the Gospels to be written, Jesus' family appears on the scene early in his career. Members try to restrain him because people were saying, "He has gone out of his mind" (3:21). A few verses later the family returns, and this time Jesus' mother is explicitly included in their number - though her name is not given. They send word up the crowd that they'd like to see him, and Jesus' response at once seems to spurn his family and affirm his disciples: "Who are my mother and my brothers? Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother" (3:33-34).

A little later in Mark's Gospel, Jesus returns to his home town and preaches so effectively that people were astounded. They could not believe it was the same Jesus who grew up there. "Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary?" (6:3). Here, Mary's name appears in Christian Scripture for the first time. She is regarded as such an ordinary mother that the people who knew her could not believe she had such an extraordinary son.

Matthew and Luke probably wrote their Gospels a little after Mark. They borrowed much of what Mark had written and included some material of their own. Both repeat Mark's story of the mother of Jesus coming with the family and asking to see him (Matthew 12:46-50; Luke 8:19-21). Faithful to Mark's version, neither of these stories mentions Mary by name.

Luke tells another story, which may be a different version of the same one. Someone from the crowd says, "Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you!" Jesus, instead, blesses those who hear the word of God and obey it (11:27-28). The speaker paid a compliment to Jesus' mother, but he dwelled instead on the blessedness of discipleship.

Matthew repeats the story about Jesus returning to his astonished home town, where Mary is mentioned by name. The crowd, after hearing him preach so effectively, asks with incredulity, "Is not his mother called Mary?" (13:55).

These episodes from the ministry of Jesus place his mother on the periphery. They indicate that the first disciples saw Mary's role in the shadows of her amazing son.

However, both Matthew and Luke introduced other stories about Mary into their Gospels. The famous accounts of the infancy of Jesus were probably written a little later than the stories mentioned above. They might indicate the realization of the first Christians that more about Mary needed to be told. In the popular imagination, believers often meld these two infancy stories together, but they are different in significant ways. It is important to remember that Matthew and Luke probably wrote their accounts of the birth of Jesus without knowing what the other was writing.

Matthew introduces Mary in the first chapter of his Gospel (18-25). She is already pregnant and engaged to Joseph, who is not the father. When Joseph takes action to end the relationship, an angel appears to him with incredible news about Mary: "The child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit." Matthew says this took place to fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah: "The virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel."

Mary is not the central figure in this story. Matthew tells nothing of her personality, her joy or her distress. God is acting, Mary is practically a cipher, and the events swirl around her. Even the birth of Jesus is told more from Joseph's perspective, who "had no marital relations with [Mary] until she had borne a son, and he named him Jesus."

Matthew mentions Mary again when the magi visit, but he tells us nothing more about her. He simply says the magi "saw the child with Mary his mother" (2:11).

The flight into Egypt is also reported from Joseph's perspective. "Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt" (2:14). When safety was assured, the family returned. "Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel" (2:21). Matthew tells us nothing about Mary's feelings or actions throughout this sudden journey.

Luke is different. The infancy narrative of Luke centers on Mary, and in his version her personality emerges. In the magnificent story of the annunciation (1:26-38), the angel Gabriel greets Mary in Nazareth with a salutation Catholics use at the opening of the Hail Mary: "The Lord is with you." Immediately Luke tells us about Mary: "But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be." The angel commands her not to be afraid, for she has found favor with God and will bear a son who will be called Jesus, the Son of the Most High, and the inheritor of the throne of David. Mary the virgin questions how all this could be possible. The angel announces, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you." Mary famously responds, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word." This one story tells more about Mary than all the other previous accounts written for the New Testament. She is filled with faith, questions, fear, wonderment and obedience.

Luke does not stop there. He tells of Mary visiting Elizabeth, an elder relative, pregnant with another miracle child (1:39-45). Elizabeth greets Mary with a second verse used in the Hail Mary: "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb." Mary sings a song of praise, the Magnificat (46-56), an astonishing proclamation of God's intervention in the world, dethroning the powerful and lifting up the lowly.

In Luke's story of the birth of Jesus, Mary is the protagonist (2:1-7). "She gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger." She is there when the shepherds arrive (16); when they leave, Luke tells something else about Mary: she "treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart" (19).

Luke continues: Mary and Joseph bring the child to the temple in Jerusalem, where Simeon predicts that Jesus will be "a sign that will be opposed" and that "a sword will pierce [Mary's] own soul too" (2:33-35). When Jesus turned 12, Mary and Joseph brought him to Jerusalem for Passover, but lost track of him. Finding him at last, Mary admonished him, "Child, why have you treated us like this?" She did not understand his reply: "Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?" Still, when they returned to Nazareth, Mary "treasured all these things in her heart" (41-51).

Luke includes Mary in the sequel to his Gospel, the Acts of the Apostles. She is at prayer with the disciples in the upper room after the ascension of Jesus (1:14). Luke, who frequently mentions that Jesus prayed, holds Mary up also as an example of meditation.

John probably wrote his Gospel after the other three. He adapts a story told in all the other Gospels about the people in Jesus' hometown. In his version, they ask, "Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know?" (6:41). The other two references to Jesus' mother in John's Gospel appear nowhere else. At a wedding in Cana, the mother of Jesus prods him to work his first miracle and accompanies him and the disciples to Capernaum afterward (2:1-12). At the end of his life, Jesus entrusts the beloved disciple to his mother and his mother to the beloved disciple (19:25-27). Throughout John's Gospel, the evangelist never tells the name of Jesus' mother. She is known as Mary only in the other three.

The New Testament was probably written over a period of about 60 years, and the interpretation of Mary's role changed as the writing progressed. She began as a figure on the border of Jesus' ministry. She advanced to a central role in his birth, and she ends with John's Gospel as the mother of the beloved disciple, a symbol of motherhood for the church.

See part two of this article in next week's Catholic Key.

END


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