Skip to main content

Jesus and Mary: It's complicated

By Jay Parini
updated 2:35 PM EST, Tue December 24, 2013
 Jay Parini says the relationship between Mary and Jesus grew complicated after its serene beginnings, portrayed here as part of a Winterhall Players performance of The Nativity, at All Souls Church in London.
Jay Parini says the relationship between Mary and Jesus grew complicated after its serene beginnings, portrayed here as part of a Winterhall Players performance of The Nativity, at All Souls Church in London.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Jay Parini: The image of Jesus in arms of his mother, Mary, is central to Christmas story
  • Like many mother-child relationships, Jesus' with his mother grew complicated, he says
  • He says records are scant, but gospels show sometimes testy, sassy exchanges
  • Parini: Jesus, good son, would ultimately ask apostle to care for 'mother of god' when he died

Editor's note: Jay Parini, a poet and novelist, teaches at Middlebury College. He has just published Jesus: the Human Face of God, a biography of Jesus

(CNN) -- No image is more central to the story of Christmas than that of baby Jesus in the arms of his mother, Mary. It was painted and sculpted over and over again, by such artists as Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael. It's a picture of tender mercy and boundless love between a mother and her son. But these first gentle moments (even experienced in the humble environs of a manger) are perhaps the easiest of any parent-child relationship.

The story that would develop for Jesus and his mother, as presented in the gospels, was complicated, and not very unlike what happens in many families: a tale of enchantment, then disenchantment, of resistance and reconciliation.

Jay Parini
Jay Parini

The first scene in the Gospels after the Nativity occurs when Jesus is 12, on the cusp of adolescence. The boy accompanies his family to Jerusalem for Passover week. After the celebrations, his family leaves -- failing to notice that Jesus has been left behind. Searching for three frantic days, at last they find him in Herod's great Temple, among a group of elders, who are amazed by his knowledge of the scriptures. When Mary questions him about his behavior, Jesus replies somewhat testily: "Why did you come looking for me? Didn't you know I must be about my Father's business?"

Okay. He was smart, perhaps a bit sassy. As the only glimpse we get of Jesus before the age of 30, it's a telling instance, however.

Flash forward 20 years or so, when Jesus begins his ministry in Galilee. His family, however, doesn't seem happy. He is, for a start, attracting large crowds. He goes about healing people, casting out demons. In Mark 3:21, it's clear the family wishes he would cease and desist. "He is out of his mind," they cry. Soon after this, Jesus says dismissively: "Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God's will is my brother and sister and mother." (Mark 3:34-35)

Man's late wife makes Christmas wish
10,000 carolers respond to girl's wish
Dad gives ultimate Christmas surprise

At the marriage in Cana, where Jesus performs the first of his many "signs and wonders," Mary accompanies him, complaining to her son that the hosts have run out of wine. He turns on her: "Woman, what have I to do with thee? Mine hour is not yet come." (John 2:4) This sounds harsh. But Jesus has a symbolic point, and he makes it, turning six stone pots of water into wine. It's a sign that he will not be bound by the laws of nature.

One doesn't see Mary again until she stands in all her sorrow at the foot of the cross with a few other women who were close to her son. She was presumably a widow by this point, as Joseph is not mentioned. Jesus, as her oldest son, is responsible for her well-being. And here he is, dying before her eyes in this public and humiliating way. Intriguingly, he summons his most beloved disciple, probably John (though nobody knows for sure), asking him to look after Mary when he is gone. "Here is your mother," he says. This was surely an act of love.

Our last view of Mary in the Gospels is in the Upper Room in Jerusalem, where she meets with the 11 disciples after her son's death. They are planning to pick a 12th disciple at this point -- to replace Judas. This moment precedes the Pentecost -- the arrival of the Holy Spirit in tongues of flame. Obviously Mary has, by this time, begun to play a role in the early Christian movement, though the scriptures say little about this.

Much that we think about Mary, in fact, is the stuff of legend -- things added to her story by later Christian writers and artists. The Gospels offer only a few glimpses of her, beginning in Bethlehem, by the manger, with a helpless child bringing light into a fallen world. In the course of his three decades, Jesus and Mary had a tender but complex relationship, with misunderstandings -- again, the stuff of family life writ large. Yet their relations ended on a note of deep accord, with Mary taking on her role as "mother of God," becoming an important figure in the early church.

And we think of her at Christmas, this woman "full of grace," who, with Christ child in arms, was "blessed among women."

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jay Parini.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 1:33 AM EST, Thu December 25, 2014
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
updated 6:12 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
updated 8:36 AM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
updated 2:14 PM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
updated 3:27 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
updated 10:35 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
updated 7:57 AM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
updated 11:29 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
updated 4:15 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
updated 1:11 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
updated 1:08 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
updated 1:53 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
updated 3:19 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
updated 5:39 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
updated 2:51 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
updated 4:13 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
updated 7:55 AM EST, Wed December 10, 2014
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
updated 12:34 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
updated 8:42 AM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT