Have you noticed? Mary never seems to age!
From the Annunciation to the Pieta, her face shows no signs of being anything beyond the young teenage girl imagined by artists of the late Middle Ages or Renaissance. (*)
I hope I can be forgiven for wondering if she had an “immaculate complexion.”
Without knowing the context, someone from another culture could be forgiven for thinking that Mary lived a simple, uncomplicated life and had everything under control.
Her face seems to be outside time and the messiness of life.
The realities of Mary’s life
It then dawned on me that artists picture Mary in their imagination rather than the realities of a Jewish woman many centuries before.
But… how could her complexion remain so immaculate?
- She belonged to the peasant class. Their life was grinding, with a triple tax burden: to Rome, to Herod the Great and to the temple.
- Scriptures say Mary walked the hill country of Judea by herself while pregnant, gave birth in a stable using a feeding trough as a crib (as today poor refugees use cardboard boxes and other homemade artifacts as makeshift beds for newborn infants).
- When she made a four- or five-day journey on foot to Jerusalem once a year or so, she would have slept in the open country like other pilgrims.
- She was a mother who lived through the ordinary trials of caring for her husband and raising a young boy. (Yes, Jesus was once a young boy who had to grow ” … In wisdom, age, and grace!)
- Her mother’s heart broke as she watched him plotted against by the religious leaders of her day, unjustly accused, beaten mercilessly … and finally nailed to a cross.
- What did she feel when she saw a confused bunch of men hiding in an upper room while trying to make sense of their disappointment?
All of these forgotten truths about Mary do not show up in most artist’s imaginations of her face,
The realities of ordinary people today
As I prayed about her real life, I realized more clearly than ever her amazing faith!
She knew the messiness and stresses of life… she was human, one of us. Her life was not unlike so many women in thousands of villages as they exist today in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
- Just as her Son, she had to grow in wisdom, age, and grace.
- With Joseph, she raised Jesus in oppressive circumstances, struggling to pay the taxes by which the rich became richer at the expense of the poor.
- As with the vast majority of people in world history, most of Mary’s difficult life went unrecorded.
Knowing all this, I feel closer to her
What was different about her? When God called in the ordinariness of her life, she answered with deep faith… not knowing what it would mean and how much her mother’s heart would be broken.
She was one of us. Mary lived the stress-filed life of an ordinary woman of her day. She did not understand but she trusted in her God in the ordinary and extraordinary events of her life.
That is why she is a model of faith for today in the stresses of our lives.
I now understand better Jesus’ response to the woman who shouted, “Blessed is the womb that carried you and the breasts that nursed you.”
He said, “Rather, blessed are those who hear the word of God and observe it.”
That both comforts… and challenges me in the ordinariness and confusion of my life.
Does Mary teach us to be trusting of God in the midst of all our stresses?
*By way of exception, see “Mary – Seat of Wisdom” (St. John’s University – Reason 131), which up close shows an aging Mary.)