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 9:42 PM EST, Fri December 19, 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.
updated 11:00 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
updated 4:54 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
updated 5:23 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
updated 1:39 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
updated 3:20 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
updated 9:56 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
updated 4:01 PM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
updated 9:53 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
updated 5:53 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
updated 10:50 AM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
updated 4:23 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
updated 9:26 AM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
updated 9:39 AM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
updated 12:38 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT