The Testament of Mary

One of my Christmas gifts from Dave was a slim book by Colm Toibin titled The Testament of Mary.

The short novel is told in the first person by Mary late in her life. The book jacket refers to the Mary presented here as “a solitary older woman still seeking to understand the events that become the narrative of the New Testament and the foundation of Christianity.”

The Mary of this book is not the Mary we have come to know from the Gospels and Church teaching. This Mary did not ask anything of her son at the wedding feast at Cana – a feast she didn’t even want to attend and went only to try to persuade her son to come home. This Mary doubted the stories about the raising of Lazarus. This Mary did not stay at the foot of the cross until her son died, but ran away to avoid capture. This Mary goes, not to the Synagogue, but to the temple of the great goddess Artemis.

But the worst offense to the Mary we have come to know occurs near the end of the book, in the final conversation Mary has with the men who are presented as something between her caretakers and her captors – the men who are writing about Jesus to spread his story. The men are (im)patiently explaining to Mary that Jesus died to redeem the world, that his suffering was necessary so that mankind could be saved. And in response to this claim that Jesus was sent by God to redeem the world, Mary says, “if you want witnesses then I am one and I can tell you now, when you say that he redeemed the world, I will way that it was not worth it. It was not worth it.”

The book is a novel and so I take no offense of the image of Mary presented (although I am aware of the angry reviews by many offended by the picture of Mary presented). Rather, although it did nothing to tarnish Mary in my eyes, I found it thought-provoking. I like the encouragement to try to go beyond the little we have in scripture about many figures – including Mary – to try to understand what they must have been feeling. The book is a reminder that the figures about whose lives we read only snatches in the Gospels were real people with real – and complex – emotions.

As for Mary herself, we know that she pondered many things in her heart. And perhaps she did ponder – at least in some fashion – some of the things the book presents her as pondering. Perhaps she wondered if Lazarus really rose from the dead. Or if her son really fed 500 people with a few loaves of bread. And perhaps she even talked (or argued) with God about whether her son’s death was “worth it,” trying to come to grips with the loss of her son. If she did, she would be like many of us, struggling to make sense of things that are not easy to make sense of. But whether she did or not, we do her a disservice when we fail to treat her as a real, complex woman – and as a mother who lose her beloved son.