Christ taking Leave of his Mother’ is the moving subject of a colourful painting by German artist Albrecht Altdorfer. It can be admired in London’s National Gallery. It shows the Virgin Mary swooning with grief while her son says farewell to her before departing for Jerusalem, to his passion and death. Although no such episode is recorded in the New Testament, it is likely to be historical. There is no doubt that Mary knew what Jesus’ awesome mission was, as St John’s Gospel relates that Mary stood by the crucifixion, along with other holy women and the apostle John himself. Supernatural insight apart, it would have been natural for a sensitive mother to feel some presentiment of her son’s impending destiny and that may be why later Mary followed Jesus to Mount Calvary.
t must be admitted that in the Christian Scriptures information on the Virgin is limited. There is nothing about her birth or her death and very little about her life. It is true that countless traditions exist filling in many details but those are only legends or expressions of popular spirituality. The New Testament tells the essentials about her. At the Annunciation by the Angel Gabriel Mary accepted the Word of God and obeyed it. Jesus’ first public miracle at the wedding feast of Cana was worked at her request. Her last appearance was after the Resurrection, at prayer together with the Apostles on the Mount of Olives, before the descent of the Holy Spirit on the nascent Christian Church.
St John narrates how from the cross Jesus, as a loving son, provided for her. ‘Woman, behold your son!’ he intimated, putting Mary under the guardianship of the Apostle. ‘Behold your mother!’ he then told St John. The text adds: ‘And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home.’ Well, that home must have been somewhere but where? It seems that the Apostle went on to become the first bishop of the famous Greek city of Ephesus, in Asia Minor, and of course he would have taken Mary with him. Ephesus is now in ruins but there is a small village nearby where tradition says that the Virgin’s house was located. Following the visions of the German nun Catherine Emmerich, the precise place was identified and a chapel built over it. Again, it is only a devotional practice but I was there once and I can testify to the sense, the feeling of the sacred almost palpable in the air…
A famous passage from the Book of Revelation, the Bible’s last, has been applied to the Virgin Mary from the earliest times. It describes a great portent in heaven. ‘A woman clothed with sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars…and she brought forth a male child, one who is to rule all nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God…and the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent who is called the Devil and Satan…’ A tremendous symbolic narration. The meaning is that out of the pain of Calvary Jesus was born into the glory that was to be man’s salvation and Satan’s defeat. And behind this allegorical imagery stands the Virgin Mary, the mother of the Saviour, who through her pregnancy was the first to undergo the fruitful sufferings demanded by such close association with Christ.
Another key Marian event often portrayed in Christian art is that of the Assumption. Contrary to some uninformed notions, the Church does not consider Mary divine, like her only son, but a created being, no matter how special and set apart. As such, the Virgin had to partake of the final fate of all human beings, death. Yet, she obtained an extraordinary honour or prerogative. After her death her body was ‘assumed’ or taken up into heaven, along with her soul, to preserve it from corruption. Notice that the mother of Jesus was not unique in that because the Old Testament prophets Enoch and Elijah also enjoyed the same privilege. The Roman Catholic Church formalised such belief by declaring it a dogma, a truth that the faithful are obliged to hold, as recently as 1950. By contrast, the Orthodox, Eastern Church does not consider the Assumption an obligatory doctrine. The people are free to hold it or not.
It is fair to mention that Protestants do not accord any particular importance to the Virgin Mary. Indeed, she was one of the chief causes for the enraged controversies and fights which tore Western Christendom apart in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Thus, Calvinists and Lutherans repudiated the Marian cult. In a moderate, reformed church like Anglicanism, devotion to the Virgin has some official place but largely confined to the ‘High Church’ liturgical strand. Most Anglicans do not pray to the Virgin, nor does she play a major part in their spirituality, if any.
Still, Mary has a significant role in Muslim/Christian religious dialogue. There are more references to her in the Qur’an than in the New Testament. She is a common bond between the two faiths. Something to celebrate, I think.
There is a distinct sense of peace and tranquillity by the little house set in the woods near Ephesus, where Mary might have spent her last days on earth. After the amazing upheavals, the joys and sufferings of her life as the mother of the Messiah, what did Mary crave for the rest of her human existence? I like to imagine it was something very simple. Quiet. She just wanted to be quiet.