December 19, 2022 Wayne Northey

Mary and John: Troubled Families

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photo above: WN: My friend Ron Dart, amongst many scholarly pursuits and prolific writing, was awarded in 2022 a Degree of Doctor of Ministry and Humanities, Honoris Causa by St. Stephen’s University. He has often, gratefully, contributed to this website.

See Ron’s  hooding remarks below:

Mary and John: Troubled Families

When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Dear woman, here is your son”, and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” From that time on, this disciple took her into his home.                             John 19: 26-27

There is a worrisome tendency, amongst some, to project an idealized and romanticized version of the family. Was this the experience of Mary and John? Let us, all too briefly, enter the family realities of both Mary and John, the Biblical text often lean but suggestive—much, though, can be read between the historic lines.

We know Mary would have been on a difficult journey in which she was frequently misread and misunderstood. The pregnancy would have raised multiple eyebrows and if not for Joseph’s dream, the pregnancy would have been yet more trying for her. The fact that Roman taxation upped the taxes, meant Joseph and Mary had to leave Nazareth to Bethlehem near delivery time must have been painful—no supportive parents close by when birth occurred. Was there extended family in Bethlehem after the birth?

Where was God in all this? Seemingly absent from a certain perspective! Then there was Herod’s death squads (worst of the Roman military), the slaughter of the innocents and flight to Egypt—not quite the sanitized and domesticated Christmas we celebrate, religious festivals aplenty, songs and carols, door to door caroling, presents opened on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. The 1st Christmas was fraught with uncertainty, ambiguity and threats from various places and angles—certainly no secure, warm and predictable few months.

Did Mary and Joseph have extended family in Egypt? And did Mary have other children when in Egypt (church tradition differs on more children or none)? The text is silent on such a question. And, when did Joseph die? How many children (if there were more) did Joseph-Mary have before his death? How did Mary raise the children, and more to the pertinent point, how many of her children truly and deeply understood Mary’s internal life and Jesus’ vocation? Much she must have kept quiet within her heart, her honesty often ignored or opposed, questioned and doubted. What were the years like with Jesus and Mary as he aged and his vision and vocation became more obvious and clearer? And, most of his siblings probably thought his unfolding journey most questionable and dangerous (given Roman occupation and Sanhedrin ideology).

We know James and John were called “sons of thunder,” their lives, initially, oriented to making a living with nets, water and fish. How did their families respond when they left their jobs for a vocation? It seems there were, as we read between the lines, tensions with their decisions: mother, father and siblings thinking such a decision naïve and foolhardy, both men expected to remain near kith and kin to provide for growing families. And, being “sons of thunder” (when young and such a tendency never fully disappearing) what were discussions like when points of differences emerged about Jesus, job and vocation. Did John, in time, feel less and less comfortable with his blood family? And Mary, much the same?

We know that as the disciples dispersed, John moved to Ephesus and the Johannine community took root and flourished there, Ephesus being a strategic Greek port city and hub of trading in the Mediterranean.  But, for a moment, let us linger with Jesus’ final few words to Mary and John and, perhaps, the reasons for them. John records Jesus’ final words to Mary and himself in John 19:26-27 when Jesus was hanging on the cross. Why did Jesus not ask his siblings (other friends or extended family) to care for Mary? What was it about John’s potentially difficult family (parents and siblings) that Jesus suggested to John that Mary was to be his mother? Both Mary and John’s larger blood family, it seems, were not the most sensitive and aware of their deeper vocations and supportive of them. Were there simply indifference, opposition, betrayals? We can only guess and speculate but we do know as Jesus was hanging on the cross, he understood the sadder story of familial disappointments and lack of sibling support and understanding. There is much to reflect on in Jesus’ words to John (Mary is to be his mother) and Mary (John is her true son). There is an obvious back story to such a compassionate concern for both Mary and John. What was the nature of the many discussions Mary and John had with Jesus about their families that led to Jesus’ final acts of concern for them, knowing he would soon depart and life would go on. How would the life of Mary and John go on?

As mentioned above, John and Mary moved to Ephesus, a layered and complex Christian community in existence there: John the Abba and Bishop of sorts, Mary his true mother in faith, John her true son on the faith journey. We know, in Ephesus, there remains, as a tourist destination for Christians and Muslims, “The House of Mary” or “Our Lady of Ephesus” a sacred shrine, certainly worth a visit or a watch on Youtube (click on the above; accompanied by a beautiful song from James Kilbane).  What was it like for Mary for John (the beloved) to be her protective and pastoral son? What was it like for John for Mary to be his soul mother? They shared so much history together, such tales to tell about Jesus and the growth of the young church. Needless to say, such a relationship certainly transcended the more natural families of birth.

It is significant that in the Greek language and Christian tradition there are two notions of family. There is the Greek term, oikos, which means family of birth or extended families. There is no guarantee such families will be ones of concord, unity, support and understanding—this was, probably, not the experience of Mary and John. There is also the Greek term, paraoikos, from which we get the notion of the faith family, a version of the family that transcends the natural family—such is the supernatural and eternal family, those whose souls are knit together for a higher and fuller end and journey. We derive our English word, parish (meaning broader area and people who faithfully live within such an area) from such a Greek and Latin word. Mary and John certainly understood the notion of paraoikos on all three levels: supportive soul companion, faith community in Ephesus and the broader area of which Ephesus formed the geographical and cultural context.

In sum, Mary and John offer a distinct Christian notion of family that is not necessarily at one with the natural family—such a vision goes much deeper, is more comprehensive but knows the soul suffering of being misunderstood and often betrayed by the natural family. Mary and John have much to teach us if we take the time to sit with them and hear their deeper version and vision of the family that ever grows closer and closer, deeper and deeper, ever maturing like fine wine.

Amor Vincit Omnia by Ron Dart

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