Skip to main content

Jesus and Mary: It's complicated

By Jay Parini
December 24, 2013 -- Updated 1935 GMT (0335 HKT)
 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
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1516 GMT (2316 HKT)
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1434 GMT (2234 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0243 GMT (1043 HKT)
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1340 GMT (2140 HKT)
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1330 GMT (2130 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1126 GMT (1926 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1629 GMT (0029 HKT)
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1231 GMT (2031 HKT)
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
August 24, 2014 -- Updated 0105 GMT (0905 HKT)
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1200 GMT (2000 HKT)
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT