The Testament of Mary

The Testament of Mary

 

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.

Madonna Lactans

Alice Watson reflects on Mary, Motherhood, and the mystery of Christ.

  1. What was

bouts

Dieric Bouts, Madonna mit Kind (ca. 1475)

He is eleven days old and we take him to Church. I am broken.  Not yet learnt how to reform, or realised that it might even be possible.  Swallowed up by silence, and doubt, that nothing can make sense any more.

I feed him in the vestry, I’m afraid he’ll fuss, of the looks, the milk that won’t be controlled, how he coughs and splutters and how I don’t really know what to do.  How I don’t really know who I am.  How I don’t really know.  Squished between the discarded decorations and the sign for the fete, I look up and in a dusty old picture I see you.  Did you know what to do, birthing your own Lord, Word made flesh. Your flesh. How you held in your arms a little ball of universe, and sprayed milky stars across his skin.  In chaos and in love.  What trauma did you know too?

He still feeds long after the bell has rung, after the rows of shuffling feet and crossing hands have made it back to their pew.  But the curtain swishes, and the veil is lifted, and the body of Christ (amen)  And the blood of Christ (amen).  How long until the Blood is my blood, and how long until it’s his?  For His blood was once yours, no purification needed, only grace.  So very full of grace.

  1. And is

Hansen

Kate Hansen. 2010. ‘Gladys and Elizabeth’

He is eight months old and I run back from classes to feed him.  Leaving behind the patriarchs, and the evangelists, and the dead German theologians.  There are quite a few of them. I don’t read many women in these early days.  I am tired and I pretend I’m not.  I drink too much coffee.  I keep up.  Sometimes.  Sometimes barely.  I think of you as my hands move around the beads, or as my mind moves around them as I will him to sleep.

At night I whisper the Magnificat to him.  Half promise, half threat, half dream.  Cast the mighty down.  Raise up the lowly.  Did you do the same, night after night, rocking chair revolutionary.  Is that how he became his Mother’s son?

I don’t go to Walsingham.  I stay home and nurse.  I think you’d approve.

  1. And is to come

icon

Icon of the Mother of God of the Inexhaustible cup.

And so this is this.  Time passes, and I am moulded, formed, softened by the love that has flowed through my ducts, toughened by the fire that burns in my veins.  Perhaps not tough enough.  Still.

I learn of loss, of fear and trembling.  I learn of trust and of acceptance.  I learn of laughter and of lament.  And I learn a little something of the mystery, and the wonder of transformation.  Of pain transfigured to strength, scars to art, nights of tears to mornings of joy.  And of the power that can transform blood, to milk, and to blood again.

Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for all of us who cry, who mourn, who are shamed, cast down, who carry heavy burdens.  And for all those who lift them. Now and at the hour of our deaths.  Amen.