Meet Miriam of Nazareth

Meet Miriam of Nazareth
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Many of us relate to Mary as the Blessed Mother, the Queen of Heaven, the Mother of God, the one who is praying for us in heaven.

But I'd like to invite you to think about Mary in another way. I'd like to invite you to think about Miriam of Nazareth, a woman living in a backwater village in Galilee.

Mary, as you probably know, was chosen by God while she was a young girl to bear Jesus. Mary was perhaps 14 or 15 years old when she had her mysterious encounter with the Angel Gabriel.

Many Christians idealize Mary. We think, How wonderful it must have been to have been chosen for this! How marvelous to have been the mother of Jesus! What a grace-filled life she led!

Although Mary did indeed lead a grace-filled life, we cannot forget that this real-life woman almost certainly experienced a great deal of confusion.

That confusion began at the Annunciation. When told that she would conceive and bear a son, she asked the angel, "How can this be, since I am a virgin?" Notice, then, that Mary's very first utterance in the Gospels is an expression of confusion.

There is more confusion in store for her after Jesus starts his public ministry. Of course she had the benefit of the Angel Gabriel's original message, but still we can ask: Between the Annunciation and her first witnessing of Jesus's miracles, did Mary have a spiritual experience that was equally profound? Or did she have to rely on what was revealed to her at the Annunciation?

Why do I ask this? Because at one point in the Gospels, Mary is obviously disturbed by her son's actions.

Soon after Jesus begins his public ministry, Mary travels with the rest of Jesus's extended family from Nazareth to Capernaum, a distance of roughly forty miles, to collect him. After they arrive in Capernaum, Jesus is told, "Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you." Apparently, they had come to bring him back to Nazareth. One Gospel verse says that Mary and the family have come to "restrain" him!

In response, Jesus looks to his followers who are gathered around him, and says, "Who are my mother and my brothers?" Then, pointing to his disciples, he says, "Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother."

There are many ways to read this passage -- and perhaps Jesus did eventually greet his mother and his family in Capernaum. But on the face of it, Jesus is reminding his listeners that familial ties are not as important as ties between the teacher and his disciples. It must have been a difficult thing for his mother to hear.

And by this point Joseph, Mary's husband, would have been dead. How do we know? One clear indication is that when Jesus's family goes to collect him in Capernaum, Joseph is not with them. Also, Joseph is not present at the Crucifixion. So we can presume that he has died. We can also presume that Jesus mourned Joseph and keenly felt his absence as he carried out his public ministry.

But even if he needed to distance himself as he began his public ministry, Jesus loved his family.

Interestingly, one reason that Jesus may have waited to begin his ministry until roughly the age of thirty, which was a late age to begin a "career" (life expectancies in Nazareth were between 30 and 40 years at the time), was to ensure that Mary was provided for. Significantly, Mary does not remarry, as she could have. Therefore, it's reasonable to conclude that someone provided her with enough money to live on after her husband's death. Who? Most likely Jesus.

Fast forward to Mary standing at the foot of the cross. Imagine what it would have been like to hear her son say to her, "Woman, here is your son," and to the Beloved Disciple, "Here is your mother."

What is Jesus doing in his last moments? He's caring for Mary. Even helpless on the cross he is caring for her. Jesus understood both the love of a parent and love for a parent.

A question: Before this moment in Jesus's life, before his time on the cross, when was he the most helpless and vulnerable? When he was an infant. Moreover, God chose to come among us in the most helpless form imaginable -- a child, utterly dependent on others. God was dependent on us. And who cared most for God in his helplessness? Mary. Now, helpless again, he helps her.

We don't have to be strong to help other people. We don't have to have money. We don't have to have professional training. We don't have to have academic degrees. We don't even have to be healthy. We only have to love and want to help.

Excerpted from Seven Last Words: An Invitation to a Deeper Friendship With Jesus by Fr. James Martin, SJ, published February 2016 by HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Book Publishers.

The Rev. James Martin, S.J., is a Jesuit priest, author, and editor at large at America.

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