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