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
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Ronald Reagan went horseback riding and took a vacation after the Korean Air Crash of 1983. So why does the GOP keep airbrushing history to bash Obama?
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1338 GMT (2138 HKT)
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Errol Louis says the tragic death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD has its roots in the "broken windows" police strategy from the crime-ridden '80s.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1127 GMT (1927 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Texas Gov. Rick Perry is right to immediately send 1,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in response to the border children crisis.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1356 GMT (2156 HKT)
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 2015 GMT (0415 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1535 GMT (2335 HKT)
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1227 GMT (2027 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1157 GMT (1957 HKT)
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1417 GMT (2217 HKT)
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
July 19, 2014 -- Updated 0150 GMT (0950 HKT)
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1507 GMT (2307 HKT)
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
July 20, 2014 -- Updated 1755 GMT (0155 HKT)
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1953 GMT (0353 HKT)
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1933 GMT (0333 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1011 GMT (1811 HKT)
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1206 GMT (2006 HKT)
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1214 GMT (2014 HKT)
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 2016 GMT (0416 HKT)
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1601 GMT (0001 HKT)
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1625 GMT (0025 HKT)
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1804 GMT (0204 HKT)
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1518 GMT (2318 HKT)
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 0124 GMT (0924 HKT)
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT