What do we really know about the woman we call Mother of God and Mother of the Church, the first of all the saints, the model believer? What do contemporary Scripture studies, archaeological research and analysis of the literature of her time reveal to us about Mary? I invite the reader to reflect with me on the “historical Mary,” whose life is so intertwined with the mystery of Jesus. Focusing on Mary’s Jewish roots, writers like Raymond E. Brown, S.S., in The Birth of the Messiah, John P. Meier in A Marginal Jew and Elizabeth A. Johnson in Truly Our Sister have carefully examined the religious, economic, cultural and political circumstances of her daily life. The scene they reconstruct is quite different from the idyllic portraits of medieval artists and the serene rhapsodies of musicians and poets.
Mary was actually called Miriam, after the sister of Moses. Most likely she was born in Nazareth, a tiny Galilean town of about 1,600 people, during the reign of Herod the Great, a violent puppet-king propped up by Roman military might. Nazareth was of little consequence for most Jews: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46). It is never mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures, nor in the Talmud. Mary spoke Aramaic, with a Galilean accent (see Matt 26:73), but she also had contact with a multilingual world. She heard Latin as it slipped from the tongues of Roman soldiers, Greek as it was used in commerce and educated circles and Hebrew as the Torah was proclaimed in the synagogue.
She belonged to the peasant class, which eked out its living through agriculture and small commercial ventures like carpentry, the profession of both Joseph and Jesus. This group made up 90 percent of the population and bore the burden of supporting the state and the small privileged class. Their life was grinding, with a triple tax burden: to Rome, to Herod the Great and to the temple (to which, traditionally, they owed 10 percent of the harvest). Artisans, who made up about 5 percent of the population, had an even lower median income than those who worked the land full time. Consequently, in order to have a steady supply of food, they usually combined their craft with farming.
The picture of the Holy Family as a tiny group of three living in a tranquil, monastic-like carpenter’s shop is highly improbable. Like most people at that time, they probably lived in an extended family unit, where three or four houses of one or two rooms each were built around an open courtyard, in which relatives shared an oven, a cistern and a millstone for grinding grain, and where domestic animals also lived. Like women in many parts of the world today, Mary most likely spent, on the average, 10 hours a day on domestic chores like carrying water from a nearby well or stream, gathering wood for the fire, cooking meals and washing utensils and clothes.
Who were the members of this extended household? Mark’s Gospel speaks of Jesus, “the carpenter, the son of Mary, the brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here among us?” (Mark 6:3). Were these “brothers and sisters” children of Jesus’ aunt (see John 19:25) and therefore cousins? Were they Joseph’s children by a previous marriage? We do not know their precise relationship to Jesus and Mary, but it is probable that they all lived in close proximity within the same compound.
In Palestine at that time, women ordinarily married at about 13 years of age in order to maximize childbearing and to guarantee their virginity, so it is likely that Mary’s espousal to Joseph (Matt 1:18) and the birth of Jesus occurred when she was very young. Luke indicates that Mary gave birth to Jesus during a census required by the Romans around 6 B.C., in a cave or stall where animals were stabled. A feeding trough served as his crib, as today poor refugees use cardboard boxes and other homemade artifacts as makeshift beds for newborn infants.
It would be a mistake to think of Mary as fragile, even at 13. As a peasant woman capable of walking the hill country of Judea while pregnant, of giving birth in a stable, of making a four- or five-day journey on foot to Jerusalem once a year or so, of sleeping in the open country like other pilgrims and of engaging in daily hard labor at home, she probably had a robust physique in youth and even in her later years. We also err when we picture her as Fra Lippo Lippi’s gorgeously dressed, blue-eyed, blond-haired Madonna, who often adorns Christmas cards. Whether she was beautiful or not, she would have had features like those of Jewish and Palestinian women today, most likely with dark hair and dark eyes.
It is doubtful that she knew how to read or write, since literacy was extremely rare among women of the time. The culture was highly oral, with public reading of the Scriptures, the telling of stories, the recitation of poems and the singing of songs.
A Jewish culture permeated Mary’s life. One might legitimately ask: Did she keep a kosher kitchen? Was there a mezuzah on the doorpost of her family’s modest home in Nazareth?
Her husband, Joseph, seems to have died before Jesus’ public ministry began. We know that Mary herself, however, lived through the time of that ministry (Mark 3:31, John 2:1-12). Her separation from Jesus as he went out to preach was undoubtedly painful for her. In a passage that has always embarrassed Mariologists, Mark tells us that Jesus’ family thought him mad (Mark 3:21); but what mother, upon seeing her son challenge Roman authority rather dauntlessly (this often meant death), might not have said to him, “Are you crazy?”
John tells us that Mary was present at Jesus’ crucifixion (John 19:25-27), though the other evangelists are silent about this. At that time she was probably close to 50 years old, well beyond the age at which most women in that era died. She lived on at least into the early days of the church. Luke states that she was in the upper room in Jerusalem with the 11 remaining apostles “who devoted themselves to prayer, together with the women…and with his brothers” (Acts 1:14). The lovely paintings and icons of Pentecost that picture the Spirit descending on Mary and the 11 apostles hardly do justice to Luke’s text, which indicates that she was there with a community of 120 persons.
After Pentecost, Mary disappears from history. The rest of her life is shrouded in legend. As Elizabeth Johnson points out, an active imagination easily wonders: What memories, hopes and strategies did she share with the men and women of the new, Spirit-filled Jerusalem community? Did she live on peacefully in Jerusalem as an old woman, revered as the mother of the Messiah? Was she quiet or outspoken? Did others come to her for advice? Did she express her views about the inclusion of the Gentiles? We do not know. It would seem that she died as a member of the Jerusalem community, though a later tradition portrays her as moving to Ephesus in the company of the apostle John.
Why focus on the historical Mary in Advent? There are three reasons. First, her history brings her nearer to us. While there is an alluring quality to the gorgeous Madonnas depicted by medieval artists, this first-century Jewish woman living in a peasant village was much more like billions of people today than the women in those beautiful paintings. Though her culture was quite different from that of our 21st-century post-industrial society, it was not unlike that of women in thousands of villages as they exist today in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Her daily life and labor were hard. With Joseph, she raised Jesus in oppressive circumstances, struggling to pay the taxes by which the rich became richer at the expense of the poor. As with the vast majority of people in world history, most of Mary’s difficult life went unrecorded.
Second, her holiness lies in persistent, faithful listening to God’s word. Even though in canonizing saints the church has customarily emphasized martyrdom, asceticism, renunciation of family and worldly possessions, or lifelong dedication to the poor, today we recognize more and more that holiness consists mainly in persevering fidelity in the midst of everyday life. This is what the “historical Mary” exemplifies. As events unfolded around her, often to her surprise, she had to figure out continually what God was asking of her. She looked for the word of God in people and events, listened to that word, pondered it and then acted on it. She doubtless repeated again and again what she said to Gabriel, “Be it done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). Day by day she lived a “pilgrimage of faith,” to use the words of Vatican II. She found energy in her trust in the God of Israel and in her solidarity with the growing community of Christians who experienced the promise of life in the death and resurrection of her son.
Third, today we recognize Mary’s Magnificat as a rousing freedom song of the poor. Mary, the lead singer, epitomizes the lowly of Israel, those marginalized by society, for whom there is “no room in the inn” (Luke 2:7). God is her only hope, and she sings the divine praises with exuberant confidence. While it may be difficult to imagine this revolutionary hymn coming from the mouth of a Madonna painted by Caravaggio, it is easy to envision it issuing from the lips of the historical Mary. Galilee was the spawning ground for first-century revolts against a repressive occupying power and its taxes. The Christians of Jerusalem, who with Mary were the nucleus of the post-resurrection church, suffered from real hunger and poverty (see Gal 2:10; 1 Cor 16:1-4; Rom 15:25-26). With the members of this community, Mary believed that God can turn the world upside down; that the last are first and the first last; the humble are exalted, the exalted humbled; those who save their life lose it, those who lose their life save it; those who mourn will rejoice, those who laugh will cry; the mighty are cast down from their thrones, the lowly lifted up. She and they were convinced that in God’s kingdom the poor are first, and the prostitutes, publicans and outcasts of society eat at the table of the Lord.
The historical Mary experienced poverty, oppression, violence and the execution of her son. Her faith is deeply rooted in that context. Before the omnipotent God, she recognizes her own “lowly estate.” She is not among the world’s powerful. She is simply God’s “maidservant.” But she believes that nothing is impossible for God. In the Magnificat she sings confidently that God rescues life from death, joy from sorrow, light from darkness.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a theologian-martyr executed by the Nazis, spoke these words in a sermon during Advent 1933:
The song of Mary is the oldest Advent hymn. It is at once the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung. This is not the gentle, tender, dreamy Mary whom we sometimes see in paintings; this is that passionate, surrendered, proud, enthusiastic Mary who speaks out here. This song has none of the sweet, nostalgic, or even playful tones of some of our Christmas carols. It is instead a hard, strong, inexorable song about collapsing thrones and humbled lords of this world, about the power of God and the powerlessness of humankind.
Christians throughout the world will join with Mary in singing her vibrant song this Advent. May it be both praise of God’s power and a prophecy of a world to come.
The Canticle of Mary
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my savior.
For he has looked upon his handmaid’s lowliness; behold, from now on will all ages call me blessed.
The Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
His mercy is from age to age to those who fear him.
He has shown might with his arm, dispersed the arrogant of mind and heart.
He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones but lifted up the lowly.
The hungry he has filled with good things; the rich he has sent away empty.
He has helped Israel his servant, remembering his mercy,
according to his promise to our fathers, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.