The Testament of Mary
There are more portraits of the Virgin Mary than of any other woman in the world and all of them portray her as passive and submissive. Colm Toibin has written a book about a different Mary, one who is resentful, defiant, broken-hearted, lonely and guilt-ridden. No wonder it is controversial.
Mary’s darling son, the joy of her life, has given up his job and taken to roaming the countryside, disturbing the peace with a band of grown hobbledehoys. When she meets him at a wedding in Cana, he says to her, “Woman, what have I to do with you?” How is a mother to feel?
This is Mary’s version of events, not a gospel, because Toibin thinks that she did not believe that Jesus was the son of God. He was her beloved son and he moved away from her. She watched him tortured and killed on a cross and she had to flee her home and die in a foreign land because of the persecution of his followers. Even though the disciples now tell her that Jesus has saved the world, she retains the image of her son’s tragic death and she says, “It was not worth it.”
As Toibin recreates the time, the culture and Mary’s state of mind, he changes some events as they are traditionally told. He thinks that the bloodlust of the crowd at the cross would have made it unsafe for Mary and the other women to stay with Jesus until the end. He also takes a new look at the miracles that took place close to Nazareth, which Mary would have known about. At the wedding in Cana, why did the host run out of wine? Because there were so many uninvited guests, the followers of Jesus. It behooved Jesus to rescue the host from his embarrassment. The family of Lazarus were good friends of Mary’s family. Jesus was too busy preaching to come to the bedside of Lazarus, his childhood friend who was suffering, according to Toibin, from intolerable headaches. When Jesus raised his friend from death, the pains continued and furthermore, he had to deal with the reactions of his friends. What exactly do you say to someone who has returned from the other side?
All mothers know the pain of separation as their loving and dependent little boys grow to be independent, unrecognizably adult men inhabiting a different world. Mary is no different and furthermore, she has witnessed her son’s tragic death which has left her scarred and bitter, with no patience for the men who encouraged his intransigence.
We know that after Jesus’ death, it took the disciples, with help from Paul, some years to make sense of his life and teaching. Christian orthodoxy says that these men were inspired. Toibin suggests that not all of their conclusions were based on the truth as Mary saw it.
Reviews of this book vary greatly depending on reviewers’ Christian beliefs. The most critical don’t even acknowledge Toibin’s sensitivity and fine writing. They do not mention the consistency of Mary’s voice, the urgent flow of the storytelling or the perception of the characters. I would like to hear more discussion about Marcus, a cousin of Mary’s who seeks her out in order to betray her. To me, this is an unbelievable scenario which is not fully explained.
To those of us who have been over-exposed to sentimental Christmas cards and Great Master’s paintings in churches and museums, all of which serve to manipulate Mary into a model of female behaviour according to a patriarchal society, much of the thesis of this book is refreshing. It is clever, original and well-written, but there is no doubt that Toibin takes delight in stirring up controversy and challenging the androcentrism of Christian teaching.