The Passionists - Compassion

Mary, the Mother of Jesus-Text Only

Her name was Mary, a form of the name Miriam, the famous sister of Moses. The name was common among Jewish women in those days.

A well-known tradition says she was born in Jerusalem, the daughter of Joachim and Ann. Other early sources say Mary was born in Nazareth. There is even an ancient record that points to Sepphoris, a town a few miles from Nazareth, as her birthplace.

Wherever she was born, Mary's life most likely unfolded in the staunch Jewish settlement of Nazareth in the hills of Galilee, not far from the important caravan routes linking Egypt and Mesopotamia.

The Jews there were a strong, robust people. The hill climate was dry and healthful. And though the land often lacked water and no one knew from one year to the next if enough rain would fall or if invading locusts or field mice would spoil the crops -- still, facing uncertainty only made the people of Galilee more hard-working and close-knit. Struggling for a living deepened their religious spirit. They learned you must depend on God always. to top of page

Her Daily Life

Mary was a woman of rural Galilee. She lived as they did, in a small family house of stone and mud-brick. She worked like any young girl, grinding wheat and barley into flour, preparing dishes of beans, vegetables, eggs, fruits, nuts, and occasional chunks of mutton. Wool had to be made into clothing. Bread had to be baked. A few chickens and a donkey had to be fed. And in the village, small as it was, there were always little children to care for.

Almost daily she carried a large jar of water from the town well for washing and cooking (the well still supplies modern Nazareth today and is called "Mary's Well"). Early on, the Jews found that cleanliness prevented disease, so frequent washing -- an important chore of women -- became part of their religious practice. The well also was a favorite spot where women talked and traded bits of everyday news.

Just as for the other women of Nazareth, the seasons and times of harvest determined what Mary had to do. With the first downpour of rain in October, the vital wheat crop was sown on the mountain fields, to be gathered -- if all went well -- in May. Small dark olives, knocked from dull green trees in September, had to be pressed into oil for lamps and food. In May or June, early figs were picked; in July, the softer juicy fruit. Grapes and pomegranates ripened in September and October. God blessed the hills of Galilee with his bounty, but it could never be taken for granted. The unpredictable land could just as well give nothing to those working it.

From the people of Nazareth Mary learned about life. Few strangers visited the town. It had little wealth, culture or learning. But just as a tiny drop of water contains a wealth of living organisms, so the small town of Nazareth had a rich life of its own. Children were born, young people married, someone died and was buried. Mary felt these joys and sorrows. A sheep was lost, a family quarreled, a son left home. From such small things, life's deepest lessons could be learned. to top of page

Her Rich Faith

The people of Nazareth had a strong Jewish faith. As God's chosen people, descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the Jews believed this land was theirs, given to their ancestors whom Moses led out of Egypt. They knew by heart the deeds of kings like David and Solomon and the words of prophets like Isaiah and Elijah. Even though the Romans, with Herod's family as their puppets, now occupied Palestine, the Jews of Galilee believed God would someday send a Messiah who would free Israel from her enemies.

They lived in a war-torn land. For centuries before the Roman occupation, conquering armies of Babylonians, Assyrians, Persians and Greeks fought over Palestine. Despite their wars, revolts and riots, the Jews remained a subject people -- taxed, bullied and despised by succeeding rulers. Like their compatriots, the Jews of Nazareth were never far from the dangers of political violence. During the Jewish uprisings in Galilee around 6 A.D. -- when Jesus was a child -- Roman legions captured the city of Sepphoris, sold all its inhabitants into slavery and burned the city to the ground.

For some Jews, foreign domination only fanned the fires of revolution more brightly in their hearts. Others, like the Pharisees, became more strictly conservative and exclusive in their religious practices. Still others, like Mary and many ordinary people of the land, became more and more aware that they were powerless themselves, but God, the all powerful, could raise up the lowly. Their faith was of the deepest kind:

"The Lord hears the cry of the poor.
Blessed be the Lord.
The Lord our God, the Lord alone!
Therefore you shall love the Lord, your God,
with all your heart, and with all your soul
and with all your strength." (Deut. 6:4-5)

Mary's faith was strong. Yet, in fervently religious Nazareth with its high moral standards, she hardly stood out at all, even in the eyes of those who knew her best. Besides, as a woman living in a society where men counted most, she would be little noticed except as a mother and a wife.

When she was 15 or so, Mary's parents made plans for her to be married, as was customary in those days. They chose Joseph of Nazareth, a carpenter, for her husband. The engagement took place and Mary returned home to wait about a year before she would go to live with her husband as his wife. But then, something happened: to top of page

The Annunciation

"The angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the House of David; and the virgin's name was Mary. He went in and said to her, 'Rejoice, so highly favored! The Lord is with you.'

"She was deeply disturbed by these words and asked herself what this greeting could mean, but the angel said to her, 'Mary, do not be afraid; you have won God's favor. Listen! You are to conceive 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 forever and his reign will have no end.'

"Mary said to the angel, 'How can this come about, since I am a virgin?'

"'The Holy Spirit will come upon you,' the angel answered, 'and the power of the Most High will cover you with its shadow. And so the child will be holy and will be called Son of God. Know this too: your kinswoman Elizabeth has, in her old age, herself conceived a son, and she whom people called barren is now in her sixth month, for nothing is impossible to God.'

"'I am the handmaid of the Lord,' said Mary. 'Let what you have said be done to me.'

"And the angel left her." (Luke 1:26-38)

The Gospels, compiled years after these events at Nazareth, tell the story of Jesus and recall Mary only incidentally. True, St. Luke's account sees Mary favored by God, the Lord's handmaid, a model believer. His story describes her fear and perplexity, her faith and acceptance during the angel's visit. But still, we are left to ourselves to imagine Mary's life and her experience when the angel left her.

The angel's message struck like lightning, changing everthing for her. Immense joy filled the young girl's soul when she conceived the child by the power of the Holy Spirit. But when the angel left, Mary was alone. to top of page

Living With Mystery

Nazareth certainly was unaware of the angel's visit. That day and the days afterward, men tended the fields, the aroma of fresh bread filled the village air, women talked around the well. The Word of God was made flesh, but the people of Nazareth saw nothing changed. In their eyes, Mary was still a young girl of 16, espoused to Joseph the carpenter.

Once the angel left, Mary faced some troubling questions with only faith to guide her. What about her marriage to Joseph? Since she was bearing a child that was not his, Mary had to face the anguishing prospect of divorce and the shame it could bring down upon her in a small town that frowned on an unfaithful wife. Even though he had a high regard for her, how could she explain to Joseph the mysterious act of God and an angel no one else saw?

The threat was removed when the angel appeared to Joseph in a dream and said: "Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because she has conceived by the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a Son and you must name him Jesus."

When Joseph woke, he took Mary as his wife to his home. Together they would do what God would have them do. to top of page

Mary Visits Her Cousin

Three months after the angel's annunciation, Mary visited her relative Elizabeth, the elderly wife of Zachary who served as a priest in the temple at Jerusalem. Mary had been told that this couple advanced in age was to have a child, too, "for nothing is impossible with God."

"Mary set out and went as quickly as she could to a town in the hill country of Judah. She went into Zachary's house and greeted Elizabeth.

"Now when Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the child leaped in her womb and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. She gave a loud cry and said,

'Of all women you are the most blessed, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. Why should I be honored with a visit from the mother of my Lord? For the moment your greeting reached my ears, the child in my womb leaped for joy. Yes, blessed is she who believed that the promise made her by the Lord would be fulfilled.'" (Luke 1:39-45)

Mary stayed with Elizabeth for about three months and then went back home. Finally, six months later, her own Son was born. to top of page

Her Child is Born

"Now at that time Caesar Augustus issued a decree for a census of the whole world to be taken. This census -- the first -- took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria, and everyone went to his own town to be registered. So Joseph set out from the town of Nazareth in Galilee and traveled up to Judea, to the town of David called Bethlehem, since he was of David's House and line, in order to be registered together with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. While they were there, the time came for her to have her child, and she gave birth to a Son, her first-born. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger because there was no room for them at the inn.

"In the countryside close by, there were shepherds who lived in the fields and took it in turns to watch their flocks during the night. The angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them. They were terrified, but the angel said, 'Do not be afraid. Listen! I bring you news of great joy, a joy to be shared by the whole people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. And here is a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.'

"And suddenly with the angel there was a great throng of the heavenly host, praising God and singing:

Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and peace to all who enjoy his favor.

"Now when the angels had gone from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, 'Let us go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has made known to us.'

"So they hurried away and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger. When they saw the child they repeated what they had been told about him, and everyone who heard it was astonished at what the shepherds had to say. As for Mary, she treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart." (Luke 2:1-20) to top of page

Prophecies in the Temple

After the birth of Jesus, according to St. Luke's Gospel, Mary and Joseph fulfilled what Jewish law customarily required when a child was born. Eight days later, they had the child circumcised and gave him the name Jesus.

After forty days, they took him to the temple at Jerusalem to consecrate him to God. There, the old man Simeon and the old woman Anna recognized the child's extraordinary mission. Taking him into his arms, Simeon said to Mary his mother: "You see this child: he is destined for the fall and for the rising of many in Israel, destined to be a sign that is rejected -- and a sword shall pierce your own soul, too -- so that the secrets of many hearts may be laid bare."

Then they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. to top of page

Visit of the Magi

Saint Matthew, however, describes less tranquil circumstances following the birth of Christ. When Jesus was born in Bethlehem, Magi from the east arrived to pay him homage, guided by a star. Seeking information of the child's whereabouts from King Herod, they were directed to Bethlehem, where they found Jesus with Mary his mother. They offered gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Then, warned of Herod's purpose to kill the child, they departed quickly for their own country by another way. to top of page

The Escape to Egypt

"Rise, take the child and his mother," the angel says to Joseph. "Flee to Egypt and stay there till I tell you."

Safe in Mary's arms, Jesus is taken into Egypt where he escapes Herod's massacre of the innocent children of Bethlehem. When, at the angel's command, the child returns to his own land, he has relived the ancient journey of Israel -- the Exodus.

Both Matthew and Luke suddenly end their accounts of Jesus' early days when he settles with his family at Nazareth. Except for St. Luke's story of the pilgrimage of the boy Jesus to Jerusalem, the Gospels are silent about Jesus and Mary until his public life begins. to top of page

Jesus Missing for Three Days

Saint Luke relates the story of one pilgrimage the holy family took to Jerusalem:

Every year his parents used to go to Jerusalem for the feast of the Passover. When he was twelve years old, they went up for the feast as usual.

When they were on their way home after the feast, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem without his parents knowing it. They assumed he was with the caravan, and it was only after a day's jouney that they went to look for him among their relations and acquaintances. When they failed to find him, they went back to Jerusalem, looking for him everywhere.

Three days later, they found him in the temple, sitting among the doctors, listening to them and asking them questions; and all those who heard him were astounded at his intelligence and his replies.

They were overcome when they saw him, and his mother said to him, "My child, why have you done this to us? See how worried your father and I have been, looking for you."

"Why were you looking for me?" he replied. "Did you not know that I must be busy with my Father's affairs?" But they did not understand what he meant.

He then went down with them and came to Nazareth and lived under their authority. His mother stored up all these things in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom, in stature, and in favor with God and men. to top of page

The Silent Years

His long years at Nazareth are called his "hidden life," the years he grew in "wisdom and age and grace," his years with Mary and Joseph. Nazareth was his first and only school; Mary and Joseph his principal teachers. From them, the Son of God made-man learned to speak his first words, in the accent of Galilee. They acquainted him with the ways of the village and the ways of the human heart. Before anyone else, he listened to and learned from Joseph and Mary.

They taught him to appreciate familiar things from the Galilean hills -- the sower, the shepherd and his sheep, the vineyard, the fig tree. These images later conveyed his deepest thoughts. Ordinary experiences, like watching Mary place a small measure of yeast into flour before baking and seeing it rise, gave him earthy images to describe the remarkable ways the kingdom of God touches all things. He learned the skills of carpentry and the discipline of hard work at Joseph's side.

Joseph, Mary and Jesus seldom went beyond their village and the neighboring fields. Their home was one simple room, used for work by day and as a bedroom by night. In the limestone floor were small openings into grain silos, carved for storage out the rock below floor level. On the wall, a niche for an oil lamp, the only light in the windowless room. On summer days, a shelter of branches shaded the flat roof above.

Though Jerusalem was the center of Jewish worship, the Jews of Galilee made the 80-mile journey to the Temple only for the great pilgrimage feasts of Passover, Pentecost and the Tabernacles. Their faith was nourished in their home and in the local synagogue. There at Nazareth, Jesus grew to know his own Jewish traditions. to top of page

After the Death of Joseph

Joseph's death, some years before Jesus' public ministry, left Mary a widow, depending more than ever on her Son for support. Devoted to him, she knew he had a mysterious, divine role. Yet, in those long years at Nazareth she had no heavenly signs to go by. No angel spoke to her; no witnesses came forward to explain anything more of the child's destiny. At Nazareth Jesus was her faithful Son, working at his trade, following the seasons and the harvests, hardly noticed by his neighbors and relatives. And Mary was his mother. to top of page

Mary's Imprint on Jesus

It would be natural that Mary's imprint appear in Jesus' later teachings. The way he valued childhood and family life surely came from rich memories of homelife at Nazareth and its simplicity, trust and love. "Unless you become like little children, you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven."

His later parables and teachings show his esteem for the faith and patience of women and condemn the injustices done to them in the male-dominated society of his time. His advocacy and appreciation for women surely followed his love and respect for the woman who was his mother. He was sensitive to the plight of widows. Surely he was influenced by Mary's situation after the death of Joseph?

Can we go further? Was Jesus' love for his own religious tradition and his ability to be critical of that tradition fostered by the honest sense and devotion of a woman like Mary and a man like Joseph? One thing is certain: Nazareth left an imprint on his experience. to top of page

Her Son Leaves Home

When he was about thirty, Jesus left Nazareth to stay for awhile in the desert of Judea near the River Jordan where John the Baptist was preaching and baptizing. People said that a prophet had arisen in Israel and that God was speaking in that lonely place. As she watched her Son go, Mary sensed that the long years of silence were coming to an end.

"Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized in the Jordan by John...After John had been arrested, Jesus went into Galilee. There he proclaimed the good news from God. 'The time has come,' he said, 'and the kingdom of God is close at hand. Repent, and believe the good news.'" (Mk 1:9, 14-15)

He preached in the synagogues around Capernaum on the Lake of Galilee, healing the sick and driving out evil spirits from those who were afflicted. Great crowds flocked to him. But when he went up to Nazareth, he was rejected.

"Where did this man get all this?" they said when he spoke in their synagogue. "Is he not the carpenter, the son of Mary...?"

"A prophet is not without honor except in his native place and among his own relations and in his own house," Jesus replied, amazed at their lack of faith. He left Nazareth and never returned there again. to top of page

Sees Her Son Rejected

His rejection by his own people undoubtedly caused Mary deep sorrow. She sided with her Son when even some of his own relations thought he had gone mad and wanted to seize him. The old man Simeon had predicted in the temple when Mary presented her infant that a sword would pierce her heart because of the child. At Nazareth, she felt that sword as he was rejected by his own.

We don't know where Mary lived during the time of Jesus' public ministry. At Nazareth with some relatives? Or did she move to Capernaum to live among his disciples? Wherever she was, she did not have him as close to her as before. His eyes now turned to a larger family. "Who are my mother and my brothers?" he said one day to the crowd when Mary and some of his relatives came to see him. Looking at those seated around him, he said, "here are my mother and my brothers. Anyone who does the will of God, that person is my brother and sister and mother." (Mk 3:33-35) to top of page

Quietly Following Her Son

Mary had no prominent place in the ministry of Jesus. She was rarely with him. True, according to John's Gospel, she prompted his first miracle at a wedding feast in Cana of Galilee when he turned water into wine. "Do whatever he tells you," she said to the stewards at the banquet. But mostly Mary remained at a distance while others told her what he said or did. If she had a role during his ministry, it was that of a believer, treasuring in her heart what she heard and trying to understand the meaning of it all. Later, a more active part would be hers.

She followed her Son from afar as he traveled through Galilee to Jerusalem. "Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you," some shouted as he passed. And Mary rejoiced at their praise. But she also knew he had powerful enemies whose threats and plots to destroy him increased every day. When Jesus and his disciples went up to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover, Mary followed him too, with some relatives and friends. She knew danger awaited them there. to top of page

With Her Son as He Dies

"Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother and his mother's sister, Mary, wife of Clopas, and Mary of Magdala." (Jn 19:25)

We can hardly guess how Mary experienced the tragic days when they arrested and crucified her Son. Tradition says she stood on the road as Jesus passed by carrying his cross. When all his disciples fled, she remained with him. Helpless to do anything else, she watched her dying Son and offered her love. When he died, they took him down from the cross and placed him in her arms. She held him gently, her child of long ago. to top of page

Her Joy

She was one of those who saw him risen from the dead.

Her cries of grief turned into cries of joy as she waited in prayer with the apostles for the Holy Spirit that Jesus promised to send them.

As the mother of Jesus, Mary had a special place among his followers, strengthening their faith through her own. From his cross, Jesus gave her to his church as a mother for all ages.

We do not know for sure the place or circumstances of Mary's death. One strong tradition attests that she died in Jerusalem. Another tradition points to the city of Ephesus, where she is said to have lived for awhile with the apostle John. to top of page

St. Jerome on the devotion of a pilgrim at Bethlehem
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