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Mary: the pre-eminent disciple

30 November, 1999

In what it has to say about Mary Vatican II inserted a special chapter into the Constitution on the Church “Lumen Gentium”. By this it was signalling that it wished Mary to be seen as a prototype of the disciples of Jesus. Philip Fogarty SJ develops this spirituality.

There is a startling scene in Mark’s Gospel that tells us something very interesting about Jesus’ relationship to his mother and to his family. Jesus was in Nazareth preaching to the crowd. ‘His mother and his brothers arrived and, standing outside, sent in a message asking for him. A crowd was sitting round him at the time the message was passed to him, “Look, your mother and brothers are outside, asking for you”. He replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those sitting in a circle round him, he said, “Here are my mother and brothers. Anyone who does the will of God, that person is my brother and sister and mother'” (Mk.3:31-35).

Family of faith
Once Jesus had left home and family, and embarked on his mission to Israel, his biological family no longer held pride of place. His new ‘family’ was to consist of all those who listened to, received and did God’s will – as proclaimed by Jesus himself. Such people were now his mother, sisters and brothers!

Putting the gospel in context
To understand Jesus’ relationship to his mother and his blood relatives, we have to place the ‘evidence from the gospel in context. In chapter eight of Luke’s gospel, Jesus relates the parable of the sower (Lk.8:4-15). In explaining the parable, Jesus says that the seed is the word of God, and the seed in the good soil represents those who ‘with a noble and generous heart have heard the word of God and take it to themselves and yield a harvest through their perseverance’.

Shortly after this, in the same chapter, there is a repeat of the scene that we find in Mark’s gospel, but with some subtle changes. His mother and brothers come to him, but cannot reach him because of the crowd. He is told, ‘Your mother and brothers are standing outside, and want to see you’. This time Jesus does not ask the question, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’; instead he says to the crowd, ‘My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and put it into practice’.

In this version of the story, Mary is portrayed as someone who is not just Jesus’ biological mother but, more importantly in his eyes, someone who hears the word, holds it fast in her noble and generous heart, and bears fruit through her perseverance.

The Annunciation
We see this exemplified in the opening scenes of Luke’s gospel. ‘The angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph… and the virgin’s name was Mary. He went in and said to her, “Rejoice, you who enjoy God’s favour! The Lord is with you”. She was deeply disturbed by these words and asked herself what this greeting could mean.

‘The angel said to her, “Mary, do not be afraid; you have won God’s favour. Look! You are to conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you must name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor, David; he will rule over the house of Jacob for ever and his reign will have no end'”(Lk.l:26-33).

Mary’s quick and open response to the messenger from God was one of immediate acceptance: ‘You see before you the Lord’s servant, let it happen to me as you have said’ (Lk.l:38). Mary’s son is to be the long-awaited Messiah, the Son of the Most High. At the Annunciation she becomes the first of Jesus’ disciples in the sense that she is the first in the new dispensation to hear the word of God and the first to proclaim it, as the next scene in the gospel demonstrates.

Mary visits Elizabeth
Mary goes off to visit her relative, Elizabeth, who greets her as ‘the mother of my Lord’. Luke then inserts a song of praise, based on Hannah’s prayer in the Old Testament (1 Sam.2.1-JO). Mary praises God who ‘has looked upon the humiliation of his servant’ and who ‘has done great things’ for her. She then, as it were, tells Elizabeth what her Son will do during his ministry. He will rout the arrogant of heart, pull down princes from their thrones and raise high the lowly. He will fill the starving with good things, and send the rich away empty (cf. Lk.1: 46-55).
Jesus, later on, says virtually the same thing: He proclaims to be blessed those who are poor or hungry, those who weep, the hated and the excluded; while those who are rich, who have their fill, who laugh and are well spoken of are deemed to bp in a woeful situation (Lk.6:20-26). Mary’s hymn of praise is a sort of distillation and first proolamation of the gospel that her son would preach and which his disciples were also called upon to share with others.

Gradual understanding
In the early chapters of his gospel, Luke tells us several times that Mary pondered many things in her heart (Lk. 2:19; 2:51). She must have been puzzled when, after three days of searching, she found Jesus in the Temple and he simply said to her, ‘Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’ (Lk.2:49)

Like the disciples, Mary did not at first understand what was happening, and would only gradually come to comprehend fully the implications of what the angel and her Son had said to her. She must also have deeply pondered the words of Simeon when he said to her in the temple, ‘Look, he is destined for the fall and for the rise of many in Israel, destined to be a sign that is opposed – and a sword will pierce your soul too’ (Lk.2:34-35). Mary would be tested and suffer much as she watched her Son being reviled by many, and especially when she stood by the foot of the cross. But, bearing all, Mary would prove herself to be a true disciple of her Son.

The wedding at Cana
Mary appears only twice in John’s Gospel – at Cana in Galilee and at the foot of the cross. At the wedding in Cana, Mary and Jesus’ disciples are present (In.2:1-12). The wedding party runs out of wine. Mary makes a family-style request on behalf of the newly married couple (They have no wine’). Jesus seems to rebuff her: ‘Woman, what do you want from me? My hour has not yet come’.

Here, Jesus is rejecting any claim that his mother might have on him because he was ‘family’. Mary respects what Jesus says but, placing her faith in her Son, she asks the servants to ‘Do whatever he tells you’. Her faith leads to her request being granted.

Mother and brother
As Jesus was dying, standing near the cross were his mother and the disciple whom he loved, but who is never named, Jesus brings them into a mother-son relationship: ‘Woman, this is your son’.

Then he said to the disciple, ‘This is your mother’. For John, Mary and the beloved disciple represent the Christian community of believers who, doing the will of God as he has revealed it to them, are mother and brother to him. (Jn.19:25-27)

Community of disciples
The last reference to Mary in the New Testament is the Pentecost scene in the Upper Room in Jerusalem. She is present with the eleven apostles, some other women and Jesus’ brothers. This tiny community of disciples, united in prayer, was to be the foundational group that would, through the power of the Spirit, bring the good news of the Risen Christ to Israel and to the world (Acts 1:14).

The apostles would bear witness to Jesus’ public ministry and his resurrection, the women to the burial and empty tomb, and Mary to the events of Jesus’ birth and youth. But Mary was preeminent because, having helped to form the heart and mind of Jesus, she was the first to believe in him and the first to witness to him.

Mary suffered much throughout her Son’s life: her faith was tested over and over again. So it must be for all believers. Mary was faithful to the end. When we ask ourselves what it means to be a disciple of Jesus of Nazareth today, we can do no better than look to Mary, his pre-eminent disciple.

This article first appeared in The Messenger (Mayl 2003), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.

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