Christianity’s depictions of Mary, the Mother of Christ throughout the centuries, have typically departed from realistically representing her life in ancient Palestine—from the Annunciation forward to the birth of Christ and forward, through his youth to his public life, crucifixion, resurrection, and beyond.
A mixture of cliché-ridden iconography, Renaissance era paintings, and medieval folklore is responsible for this. With notable exceptions, the world has turned Mary into an unrealistic pastiche of groundless, idealized assumptions. These diminish rather than do justice to the burdens of faith and assumptive love that would have constantly challenged her life.
In certain ways, C. S. Lewis deals with the medieval part of this in his scholarly Allegory of Love, now seldom read. The painter Caravaggio depicted the reality of Bethlehem in an extraordinary stable scene. The Pre-Raphaelite Dante Gabriel Rossetti captured it in his gut-wrenching Annunciation portrayal using as a model his sister Christina. Still, despite these and various works of historical fiction and theology, the world rambles on with its not entirely harmless visions of Mary. Meanwhile, much neglected is the young woman; the wife of Joseph; possibly a stepmother in a blended Jewish household; a Mary wondering whether she was truly the Mother of Christ or simply raising a precocious boy with a tendency to challenge authority.
How long after the appearance of the Archangel Gabriel did she begin to doubt what she was told? Could she ever have been certain? (We all have dreams.) The birth of Christ must have been like a normal, rural childbirth. Did angels really sing? Did strange figures appear bearing gifts? Did Mary change whatever was used for a diaper? Some Medieval paintings, reminding us of Christ’s humanity, depict the naked child suckling at her breast. Some depict him with a ball.
Did Christ in childhood run around town like other kids? Did the neighbors sometimes complain? Did the dog bark? Did Mary arise in the middle of the night to help Joseph worry over household finances? Did she ever say to Joseph, ‘let’s pray for a miracle because what would little Jesus do if we don’t get through this crisis?’ Was Mary an affectionate tease whose girlish laughter rang through the house and over backyard clotheslines where sometimes hung the soiled evidence of a boy who played too hard?
Of course there must have been a sense of magic at the first Christmas, the sort of feeling that accompanies any birth in a dismal place. All over the world, people who have ‘Christmas babies’ in wretched slums experience the same. Modern astronomers think they can explain a mysterious, wondrous star, but where were they when Mary heard her baby’s first cry? Or his last for that matter, on a cross not far away?
I think the answers are to be found somewhere in Mary’s appearances on earth after her Assumption into heaven, celebrated this past month. She could not have been certain till she arrived at the end of her journey. And, finally then, did she learn what it was all about? For a time, during his public life and journey to Calvary, not even Jesus knew more. Who does no more?
Mary’s appearances at Lourdes and Fatima are not about her, but about us and our need for faith in the face of ever-present uncertainty and adversity. They are about our journey into an unknown she experienced, where we all wander with our doubts, too self-confident at times, too dumbfounded at other times, and often afraid. Did we see something, or was it a dream, or a trick of imagination? Or simply a cruel prank?
Like us on especially dark nights, Mary may have looked for signs in the heavens. And so, now and then she appears to remind us we are unlikely to see anything while stumbling along on an obscure pathway requiring faith and love. The rosary she wants us to recite is a reminder of her own doubts in the spaces between beads and an assurance that she will always be with us, both in darkness and in blinding light.
Depictions of Mary meeting her son in the Fourth Station of the Cross offer two views. A cringing, hand-wringing, horror-struck Mary collapsing in the arms of friends is by far the more common. This does her courage no justice. Less common are depictions with her hand upon her son’s arm, staring lovingly into his face, urging him on, and urging him go the whole way, for if this travesty is to have a happy ending, the two of us will have to climb this hill to know for certain, maybe.
Sure, there may have been angels at Christmas; there were for certain King Herod, a superstitious and paranoid man; and a protective stepdad named Joe leading his wife and child to safety and security in a nearby foreign land. We think of Christ as the Son of God. Whoever says with an equally abiding sense of awe, Christ was the son of Mary also? And that maybe, just maybe, she and Joseph helped make him the man he was.