In the Catholic Church January 1st is the feast of Mary, the mother of God. The exalted title can hide the very human reality. Here was a life lived in the shadows of uncertainty, loss and mystery: an unexpected pregnancy, the birth in a stable of a treasured child, the strange ways of the man he grew up to be, the impossible witness of his cruel end. In the Gospels too, Mary remains for the most part in the shadows. True, she is centre stage in the first acts of the drama: visited by an angel, conceiving a child, travelling to Bethlehem, giving birth to her son, fleeing with Joseph and her new born to Egypt and then returning to Nazareth where, with her husband and wider family, she brings up her son. Yet as the pages of the Gospels turn, Mary recedes from view.
She is there at Cana, where Jesus produces wine for a wedding feast. She comes with other family members, seeking to pull Jesus away from the crowd so that they can talk with him, only to be rebuffed: for all – Jesus says - who seek the will of God are mother, sister and brother to him. And then silence. Where has Mary gone?
She doesn’t seem to be among the women who accompany Jesus along the way. Her son does not speak of her. There is no mention of Jesus returning home for any length of time as might be thought normal for any considerate son. Luke pictures Mary as a contemplative woman – one who treasured all that happened to her in her heart. But such contemplation could not have been without a real sense of loss. The intimacy of a mother-son relationship seems to have been little more than a memory in the active years of Jesus’ ministry.
But just as we begin to accept that Mary’s part is done she enters the story again. In John’s Gospel Mary is there beside her dying son. What agony she must have felt. What meaning could be left in an angel’s words told so long ago of giving birth to one who would save his people? Jesus looked at her and at the disciple he loved and asked that they become the home for each other in their grieving. And then he was gone.
In all the resurrection stories that follow Mary is not mentioned. Not for her the comfort given to Mary Magdalene, or Peter, or Cleopas and his friend on the road to Emmaus. Ignatius Loyola cannot bear the omission. The first contemplation of the Resurrection within the Spiritual Exercises is of Jesus appearing, ‘body and soul’ to his mother. Remembering our own losses, and the impossible gaps they leave, we might join with Ignatius in wishing it were so. But the Gospels do not tell this story.
Yet for all Mary’s absence she remains solidly there: integral to the Jesus story and what follows from it. She never ceased being Jesus’ mother; he was always flesh of her flesh. Was there ever a moment when he was not in some way in her view, even when far removed from her physically? Whatever happened, Jesus would always be alive for Mary within her memory.
And so it is that, almost in an afterthought, Luke mentions Mary once more. The risen Jesus has taken final leave of his disciples, promising them in days to come that they will be baptised with the Spirit. They return to the upper room in Jerusalem, praying for the gift of what is to come, and among them are ‘certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers’ [Acts of the Apostles 1:14]. Hers is the life of the womb: waiting for what is to come, aware of life stirring in a dark and hidden place. That has been her work through so many days of not knowing, deep questioning, and yet trusting, from those days when the angel came and spoke to her of impossible things and brought forth from her the ‘yes’ that defined her life:
Here am I, the servant of the Lord: let it be with me according to your word. [Luke 1.38]
She – among all those waiting in an upper room– already knew the overshadowing of the promised Spirit. It had always been shadow for her – an absence of the angel who left her once her ‘yes’ was done. Yet Mary also sensed the bright light that cast this darkness – the one that once shone within her, and that glimmered still, and was now being born afresh for the waiting world.