Tim Middleton reflects on the tangible, immersed experience of Christ incarnate, and that of his mother Mary, and the challenge of meeting God in the pain and truth of life on earth.
‘Conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, crucified, dead, and buried’—the Apostles’ Creed puts it all very succinctly. If you’re in church on a Sunday, this terse summary of the key moments in the life of Jesus is sometimes all you get. But Colm Tóibín’s play (and subsequent novella) The Testament of Mary includes rather more.
Mary the mother of Jesus has been the focus of Christian adoration for centuries and we’ve inherited a tradition replete with images. When people talk of Marian devotion, one might hear the haunting opening of Arvo Pärt’s setting of the Stabat Mater, a sorrowful hymn to Mary. Or one might conjure to mind the exquisite marble of Michelangelo’s Pietà in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. According to tradition, and indeed much of our greatest sacred art and music, Mary is serene, obliging, self-sacrificing and God-fearing.
But what if you had been the mother of Jesus? What if you had been at the foot of the cross when your own son was crucified? What if you were thoroughly exhausted by everybody else trying to re-interpret what the life of your son meant?
It’s not necessarily easy to read: Tóibín’s book can disturb, upset and provoke. In places it is anachronistic, chronologically disjointed or in direct contradiction with what you find in the Bible. For me, though, to be concerned by this is to miss the point. What I have gradually come to realise is that, by definition, there has to be something very gritty about the incarnation. I used to be very bothered by the idea that Jesus only came at one time and in one place—the so-called scandal of particularity. How could a supposedly universal God be as thoughtless as to not give us easy, universal access? But I have come to appreciate that the messy, historically contingent way in which God came to Earth is not a weakness but a strength—in fact, it is taking the notion that God became fully human very seriously indeed. The human condition is messy, and so the life of Jesus must also have been messy. What’s more, each of us views life through our own subjective prism: parts of life are unfair, parts of life don’t work out in the way we had hoped, and for much of our lives we are dependent on other people for support and happiness.
So what would all of this have looked like through Mary’s eyes? It might well have been baffling. The crucifixion might well have been so dangerous and terrifying that she decided to flee. And, in an echo of Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, it may well have felt like the whole thing just wasn’t worth the pain and anguish. Our abstract, creedal formulas have a certain place, but it is only in gritty, lived experience that we fully grasp the reality of things. Perhaps it was all rather tougher for Mary than we are sometimes led to believe.