I never understood Mary all that well before becoming a mother. One of many Marys in the Bible, we always refer to her as “Mary, mother of Jesus,” and being cast as the mother of all mothers is not a very relatable lens through which to view her even when you are a mother yourself. Plus it feels like the Catholics called dibs on her, like, a millennia ago, and there’s all these weird lies we tell about her. She’s both daunting and mysterious.
You can fall down a deep rabbit hole on the internet that’s all about the translation of the words describing Mary and whether or not she really was a virgin or young or perhaps simply unwed. Then there’s that whole thing where pretend she was a perpetual virgin and never talk about her other children.
The Gospels clearly name the four Disciples James, Joseph, Simon and Judas as Jesus’ brothers. I, who made sport of antagonizing my siblings, would be interested in examining the dynamics a familial connection would have wrought on the Disciples. Where’s that show, Netflix?
Basically the things I used to find interesting about Mary weren’t really even about her, and ain’t that a metaphor for motherhood right there?
I once sat in a high school class and listened to the two kids in front of me have a low-talking argument about how many ribs we all have. One said women have an extra set because in the book of Genesis God took a rib from Adam to create Eve. The other kid called bullshit. I felt then the same way I feel now about arguments like that.
The number of ribs we each have, or the origins of Mary’s first pregnancy don’t change the overall message of the Bible. I understand that in the early days of Christianity when people were trying to sell others on the awesomeness of Jesus and validate his role as the promised Messiah, that perhaps throwing in “did you know he was born to a virgin mother” may have sounded cool, but did people believe it even back then? It’s clearly a thing invented by men, because only they would miss what’s so crucial about Mary. I mean she did birth babies and keep young snotty children with their terrible immune systems alive before modern medicine, so that in and of itself is miraculous, but there’s more.
The Bible often reads like a Steven Soderbergh movie script, dropping you into scenes with no context or background to help. This is certainly true in the second chapter of John when Jesus was attending a wedding in Cana. We don’t know whose wedding it was, or why he was there, or why his mom was there, or his Disciples. But for this particular story, we don’t need to know any of the background, because it’s the one where Jesus turns water into wine. We can all understand how bitchin’ that was. Who doesn’t want a friend with this skill?! All the party invites. Ever.
It’s Jesus’ first miracle, but he doesn’t chose to perform it. He was pushed. When the wine ran out, his mother simply told him, “they have no wine.” We all know how she said that factual statement. The force of a mother’s will is easily discernible to her children with just a look, let alone her tone. Jesus was a bit sassy, replying “My hour has not yet come.” Both Jesus and his mother knew he could perform this miracle, and they knew to do so would change everything. And in the most epically passive-aggressive move ever, Mary tells the servants to take the empty vessels to Jesus and “do what he says.” Jesus gave in. He turned that water to wine because his Momma told him to.
There’s a lot of unintended conflict and shame thrown around in our modern American conversation about motherhood. I waded into it myself upon first becoming an aunt, then all but drowned in it by the time I started having kids in 2013. The best way I can illustrate this is to tell you about one evening at a women’s Bible study I attended. We were reading a passage about an especially sexist character in the New Testament (I won’t throw share at him because Paul knows what he did), and one woman said, “I have so much trouble examining anything he did because I’m a feminist and always so distracted by what a misogynist he ways.” A chorus of voices joined her, all women of a certain generation who agreed because their’s was the one to break a lot of gendered barriers in our society. They shared experiences where authority figures in their formative years would use things this Bible character said to hold them back. Then one lone, frail voice dissented. She was a much older woman who, it had been easy to learn over the course of several meetings, was still fresh with grief for a husband of over 40 years who had passed. She said, “I was always happy to take care of my kids and husband and the things around the house. I thought I was serving God at the same time. But I guess that’s not okay anymore.”
There was silence and shocked faces. Clearly none of the other woman intended what they said to hurt. So I said (because I always have something to say), “There isn’t anything wrong with what you did. These ladies are saying it’s wrong to tell women they have to do that and only that. We should have a choice.”
I felt this one deeply because I had the same struggle via the world’s most obnoxious internal dialogue. I’m the willful gal who defined herself with her career, rising quickly in her field, only to walk away from it all upon the birth of her first child. And motherhood wasn’t anything like I’d assumed it would be.
When my son was first born, I didn’t love him. Of course I didn’t, because I didn’t know him. Yet there was quilt at having this feeling that seemed perfectly logical to me. I did have surging hormones that filled me with anxiety if he wasn’t in my arms, and I often felt a bottomless fear at the thought that he’d be taken from me in a variety of horrible and elaborate, yet equally impossible, ways. I look back now and think what a fascinating adaptation strategy encoded in our DNA. The instinct to protect was there even when love was not. Love came anyway, quickly, but it was muffled by grief.
I was bereft of a sense of self. One day a well-known and often-consulted member of the campus community where I both attended college and then later returned to work, the next day a stay-at-home mom to a baby I didn’t yet know or understand.
What I did know is that I had to hang on to myself as tightly as I could. I knew desperately that I could not let my baby subsume me. I had sacrificed pieces of myself to him, quite literally, when he was in the womb, so how easy and alluring it was to sacrifice my identity in the continued creation of him outside the safety of my body. And I saw it happening, in the mothers all around me, but I fought it.
I vowed never to make my profile picture one of just my children.
I stood back when he struggled on equipment at the playground, even shooed away other women who assumed I was shirking my duties, because he had to learn to do it himself.
I hugged and coddled often, so don’t think me a monster, but I was determined my son would be his own person.
And then I read that line Mary says to her son at the wedding in Cana. It was shortly before my son’s first birthday, and f I felt a direction in the haze of new motherhood. Because Mary got it. She knew.
It is not our job to disappear and become known only as the mothers of our children. We must help our children become who they are meant to be.
Yes, Mary is the mother of Jesus. But she is also the woman who pushed Jesus to become our Christ as he was meant to be. That’s how I chose to think of her, to remember her. And following her example is how I honor her.
Mary, mother of Jesus. Mary, compeller of Christ.