Writer Sue Monk Kidd grew up among Baptists in the south and, like most of the rest of us who did, she learned to pay very little attention to Mary, the mother of Jesus. Kidd says that she was “virtually unaware of Mary, except at Christmas, when she turned up life-sized in the outdoor nativity scene beside the church, wearing a sky-blue scarf and kneeling over the manger.” One year, the nativity scene caught on fire; and, Kidd writes, “our minister dashed in to save baby Jesus and left his mother behind, a story that was retold at the dinner table for years.” She went on to say that the actual Mary was nearly that expendable for her fellow-Baptists and that, like them, she “”acquired the habit of slighting her. Of leaving her behind.” (Sue Monk Kidd and Ann Kidd, Taylor, Traveling with Pomegranates, 48).
I, too, rarely heard about Mary in the church of my childhood. In our Christmas pageants, she was dressed in a bathrobe, held a baby (usually a baby doll), and said not a mumbling word. About the only thing I heard about her had to do with the Virgin Birth, which some grown-ups treated as a gynecological puzzle and a test of true faith.
When I was in college, I developed a friendship with an older Episcopal priest who was the pastor of the church which sat adjacent to Georgia Southern College and next door to the Baptist Student Center where I lived during my last year there. Father John Howells was from England; he was an Anglo-Catholic—a very “high-church” Episcopalian. There were lots of candles, bells and smells, flowing vestments, and smatterings of Latin in the liturgies he led.
Father Howells’ spirituality had a tender and vibrant place for Mary, and he was the first person I knew well who spoke of her so fondly. Innocently but also ignorantly, I told him one day that I just didn’t get it, that I didn’t understand why he paid so much attention to her. He patiently but a bit airily said to me: “She was rather close to our Lord you know. Maybe she could help you be closer to him, too.”
I had never thought about it that way before, and I can only assume that I hadn’t because of the not-so-subtle fear we had of anything that might be considered Catholic. Father Howells invited me to question my prejudices, and I did. I realized that I was willing to learn from the friends of Jesus—from impetuous and impulsive Simon Peter, from competitive and bombastic James and John, from activist and anxious Martha and contemplative and custom-breaking Mary. I was willing to learn from questioners and seekers and sinners who came to Jesus: from the old Pharisee Nicodemus, from the tax collector turned justice-maker, Zaccheus, and from the anonymous Roman soldier who helped to kill Jesus but also confessed “Truly this was the son of God.”
I was willing to take Jesus’ words from the cross, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do,” as words for me, but reluctant to ask what it might mean for me that Jesus also said from the cross to John: “Son, behold thy mother” and to Mary, about John, “Woman, behold your son.” Why did his words about forgiveness of soldiers and conspirators apply to me but not words about making a place for Mary?
Why had it never occurred to me to learn about Jesus from his own mother? It was not necessary to worship her to honor her by learning from her, valuing her as a sister in the family of faith, and recognizing how vitally important she has been to millions of Christians for 2,000 years. She really was rather close to our Lord, after all.
Over the years, I have come to think of Mary as a model disciple who has a great deal to teach us about loving Jesus and following him. She shows us how to listen to the often surprising, sometimes unsettling, and always life-altering word of God. She demonstrates for us what it is like to yield, willingly and freely, to the will of God—to consent to what God wants to bring to life in us. “Here I am, a servant of the Lord. Let it me with me according to your word,” she teaches us to say, over and over again.