Our local paper recently ran a story about a church that was being demolished. In the process, the workers discovered a time capsule from 1882. They found a newspaper that carried a story about a woman that had died from overexposure in the harsh winter. She was described as an “elderly woman of forty-seven!”
It is hard for us to imagine that just a hundred years ago the mid-forties was a full lifetime for most people. This got me to thinking about Mary the mother of Jesus, who would have been in her mid-forties at the time of His death.
How often do we think of Mary as “elderly”? In our culture, where youth is at a premium and people seem willing to do anything rather than age, we usually focus on Mary the teen-age maiden who learns that she is to be a mother. But what about the rest of Mary’s life? In particular, since Jesus was about thirty years of age when he began his public ministry (Lk 3:23), how can the mature Mary at age forty-five be our example too?
In order to reflect on this, we need to understand something about the cultural meaning of the age of forty-five for their world. Then, since Luke’s gospel highlights Mary more than the other gospels, we can reflect on Luke’s example of Mary at forty-five to discover how we might emulate her example of mature wisdom, connectedness and care.
Being Forty-Five in the First Century
One way to understand the meaning of the age of forty-five in the first century might be to ask who lived that long. In our world, a person of forty-five is considered to be “middle-aged” (statistically the mid-point is 35-39) and usually in fairly good health, who can normally expect to work for another two decades and live even longer.
Those who study the statistics of birth and death in the ancient world indicate that their mortality rates were much higher than ours. Due to their lack of medical knowledge, effective medicines and a healthy balanced diet, their health was always precarious and life expectancy was much shorter than today. In fact, as the time-capsule newspaper shows, only in the last hundred years has life expectancy in the United States been increased from about forty-five years in 1900 to over seventy-five today.
In the first century, about one fourth of all live births did not survive the first year. One third of all children who survived infancy were dead by the age of ten. Women married young (twelve was the legal age for Romans) while men married at an older age (fourteen was the legal age for Romans but mid-twenties was more common because of military service. Eighteen was considered proper for Jewish men.)
Tombstone inscriptions show that the median age of death for wives was 34 years and for husbands 46 years. The dangers connected with childbirth also shortened women’s life expectancy considerably. Most people did not survive their thirties and only a very few (3%) would live to age fifty. Old age was not a usual or customary way for people to die. More often death occurred through illness or accidents.
If we relate the age of forty-five to the life expectancy of the first century, the few who reached forty-five had lived almost their whole life and could expect no more than a few years more to live at best. Their health would be deteriorating rapidly and they would be more prone to sickness and debilitation without any medical remedies. Few women would even have survived this long. Thus forty-five in their world would be much more like the age of seventy today.
This certainly gives a very different picture of Mary at the time of Jesus’ ministry than the one we so often see depicted in our movies. Instead of being a young teenager or a “thirty-something” mother at the time of Jesus’ death, Mary was rather a very mature person whose age and wisdom would command attention and respect from those about her.
Since these ancient people believed that mental ability was a function of aging, a forty-five year old Mary would be a woman of wisdom for others to listen to and learn from. Her knowledge and experience would provide much needed guidance for her family and kinfolk who would have been predominantly younger persons suffering from poor health and without great expectations for long lives. To be forty-five meant that one was a mature person who was a font of wisdom and a focus for the family relationships.
Luke’s Mature Mary: Living With Mystery
As Mary grows to maturity as a mother, she has to live everyday with the mystery of Jesus. How do we live with mystery? How do we live with the mystery of our self and of others in our lives? Mary shows us how to do this. She cares so much about those around her that she ponders everything in order to make some sense of what happens to her. She is characterized by wonder. She wonders at the greeting of the angel, she wonders at what the shepherds are doing, she treasures all these things and ponders them. She goes over and over them to discover their meaning. She wants to discover how they connect with her experience of her relationship with God and with Jesus.
The same desire for connectedness and care that Mary exhibits as a young woman are also the strengths which deepen as she matures. First of all there is her concern for relationships and connectedness. At the Annunciation, she wanted to clarify just how she stood both with God and with Joseph and her other kin before she would say yes to God’s invitation to have a child. She is primarily concerned with the relationships in her life and where everyone belongs.
Secondly, besides this connectedness, there is her care and commitment. This is what characterizes parents. They care for their children down to the minutest details. This is how we measure ourselves as good enough parents. Not necessarily how many toys we have given or all the other material things that are provided, but how much we care, how much we love. These strengths of connectedness, how Mary is related to God and finding her place in God’s plan, and her care for the people in her life, are the strengths that Mary carries with her into her mature task of being Jesus’ mother and being the matriarch of the discipleship community after his death. But we must also note that the appearances of Mary during the public ministry of Jesus described in Luke’s gospel are challenges to her connectedness and her care.
The Mature Mary in Jesus’ Public Ministry
In Luke’s gospel, Mary, the “elderly” mother of an adult son, does not accompany him and the disciples on their itinerant evangelizations. She hears about his famous deeds through the gossip network of the Galilean countryside. Jesus’ fame is growing because of his teaching, performing astounding cures, and engaging in controversy with the religious authorities. So together with other family members, she goes to find him (Lk 8:19-21).
Here Luke reminds us about the importance of kinship for people of that time. Its importance as the fundamental and sustaining relationship for the whole society was the primary hurdle that persons had to overcome to join with Jesus in the new community of disciples. The family relationship in their culture was much stronger than it is for most of us today. Without a family, one could not survive.
When Mary and the family finally find Jesus, she cannot reach him because of the crowds. Somebody then mentions to Jesus that “Your mother and your brothers are outside.” Yes, Mary is “outside” the circle of Jesus followers. Luke hints that some new boundary around Jesus places her outside. Where should families be? They should be “inside” and close to Jesus because of their blood relationship. Yet they are not.
Mary finds herself marginalized to the periphery of His life. He is busy about his Father’s business. He has his own life, his own friends, and is now famous as a preacher and healer. What is her part in this life? Mary experience mirrors that of many parents of adult children—she is left out.
This experience challenges her connectedness to Jesus. Her maternal relationship to him started in her womb when she was linked through her umbilical cord. As a mother, she was willing to let go of this umbilical connection for Jesus to be born into the world. Then she was again willing to let go when he had to be about his Father’s business. Now she is outside and her connectedness to the mystery of Jesus appears broken down completely.
But has her relationship broken down? Is the physical relationship based on blood ties what is most crucial? Jesus, her adult child, reaffirms that the physical and family relationships that Mary has experienced have not been broken but transformed into a deeper connection that every disciple is invited to share.
Mary as Model Disciple
Luke is clearly using this incident to show how close disciples are to Jesus. The bond of our faith relationship is more basic than the blood relationship that binds families. Imagine, being a disciple brings you closer to Jesus than to your mother!
Through the power of the Holy Spirit working in our baptism, we are incorporated into Jesus in a way that is more significant than those who are bonded because they share the same blood. Jesus asks, “who is my mother and my brother and my sister?” Who is my real family? And he answers by claiming that they are “those who hear the word of God and act on it.”
If we read carefully, the main person in Luke’s gospel who has heard God’s word and acted on it has been Mary. Far from being a condemnation of his family, Jesus indicates that his blood family and his faith family can be joined since it is Mary who fulfills both demands. The kind of followers Jesus wants are those like his mother who hear the word, say “yes” to it, and then live it out completely in their lives. They are bonded so deeply with God that they make the word become flesh in themselves. They are ready not only to hear God’s word but also to do what it commands.
Mary listens to the word of God, whether it comes from an angel or through the words and deeds of her son. She has pondered the words, kept them close to her heart, and acted on them to find her voice to say “yes” to God’s mystery in her life. She has acted upon the word in such a way that her life has been transformed completely. So here the mature Mary learns that her behavior is what he wants from all his followers. She is the living example of every disciple who has been called and whose life becomes “sinless” through her contact with Jesus.
Mary and the Death of Jesus
The four gospels differ over their descriptions of Jesus’ death. Mark, the earliest, claims that in Gethsemane all the disciples “deserted him and fled” and only a few women witness his death from far away. Only John describes Jesus’ mother (he never calls her by her name Mary) as present at the foot of the cross with the beloved disciple. Nevertheless Luke gives a clue that she might have been there because he notes that “all his (Jesus’) acquaintances, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things” (23:49).
Jesus’ death and resurrection cause a great transition not only for the disciples but also for Mary. These events signal the end of his earthly work and his return to the Father. The disciples will now have to carry out the Christian mission without the immediate leadership of Jesus. He will send them the Holy Spirit to empower them to understand his teachings and to continue his mission (Lk 24:44-49, Acts 1:1-8).
As a mother, this is also a transition time for Mary. When her son dies, she becomes a mother who can now exercise her motherhood only in memory. The child whom she brought into the world, lovingly nurtured and cared for, watched grow and finally let go to live his own destiny, now dies. But she still lives.
It is not usual for children to die before parents do. Any parent who has lost a child knows this very well. Although the relationship of mother to child remains, she can do nothing more to care for her beloved child. All that is left is to continue to do what she has always done—to keep “all these things, reflecting on them in her heart” (Luke 2:19).
Like John, who describes the dying Jesus telling Mary to be the mother of the beloved disciple (who stands for all the disciples), Luke shows us that when her child dies, Mary’s mothering takes a completely new direction. Mary now becomes mother of the Church.
Mary: Matriarch of the Discipleship Community
Throughout our history we have recognized Mary as our mother. Like a new Eve, she is a matriarch who brings forth a new family that will live in right relationship with God. She is the mother of Jesus’ kingdom community, of all disciples throughout history who are Christ’s Body, the Church. Jesus ascends, but Mary remains to nurture and care for these disciples as she had for Jesus.
Luke illustrates this through his description of the community’s Pentecost experience, in which he encapsulates a profound theology not only of the Church but of Mary in relation to the Church. After the Ascension, Christ has departed from our world and Mary and the 120 disciples gather together for prayer as they await the empowerment of God. The Holy Spirit then descends on the community as it had upon Mary at the Annunciation. But this time the power of the Holy Spirit creates a new “person” in the womb of the Christian community. They now become the embodiment of the saving community who will witness to Jesus and carry on his mission and ministry.
Just as Mary’s “yes” to the angel inaugurated the saving history in the incarnate person of Jesus, so now the community’s “yes” to the Holy Spirit begins the final phase of salvation history. Jesus’ good news will be announced to the ends of the earth through the community of disciples gathered in Jesus’ name. This corporate community is like a new person, “the body of Christ Jesus” as Paul called it. The Spirit descends upon the community of disciples to incarnate the word once again in our world.
But as Luke presents it, only if the community is first together in constant prayer can the Holy Spirit come upon them as Jesus had told them. To bind the community is the precondition for empowering them for their mission. Mary’s presence forms the community and prepares for the Holy Spirit to descend upon them. Her presence is essential for building the new community. As the model disciple, she characterizes what is necessary for the community of disciples to be born as the Church.
One of the important changes emphasized by Vatican Council II and taken up by Pope John Paul II was the insistence of the central importance of the mission of the Church to bring the gospel to today’s world. To be empowered, we must first gather and pray. But we cannot put all our emphasis just on our gathering together. This comfortable community experience is only the prelude to the real task of evangelization. We gather, like the community of Acts, to be empowered for the mission to the ends of the earth.
Mary’s Challenge to Us
As we reflect on the example of the mature Mary, we are reminded that as older Christians we never stop growing in our relationship with God. We can only do this together with others in a community. Just as Mary’s presence was essential for creating the new Church community, so our presence is necessary today if we are going to build our Church and carry on Jesus’ mission to today’s world.
Mary’s matriarchal example also reminds us how important it is to be with others to build community through prayer and caring relationships. We have a lot of care and love to lavish on others. Sometimes we get caught up in our own suffering and turn inward. We lose our focus on others. Mary’s example calls us back to building relationships. Just as the painful time of death of loved ones—whether family or friends—challenges our connectedness and care, like Mary we need to focus again on the wider community. This is the kingdom challenge—to build the right relationships with God and others, based on respect and held together by love so that we can all have peace, the fullness of life.
Mary’s path to God is the model for our way too. We need a commitment to God that creates a new relationship that will be characterized by connectedness to our community and caring service to God and others. But most of all we need a renewed submission and acceptance of the mystery of life and death. To be like Mary we must hear God’s word, and act upon it.
Mary’s wisdom comes because she has learned to live with the mystery of God that is at the heart of all reality. She has said “yes” to a life-long relationship with God. Her “yes” changes everything from that moment on. When we commit ourselves to God, then we will also be changed. Wisdom recognizes how often and how deeply we have been changed by who we have said “yes” to. So we need to say “yes,” and let it happen, so that we can live with the mystery of a God for which nothing is impossible!
Steve is the Author of Reassuring Visions: How to Read John's Book of Revelation Today