Being the mother of the crucified, risen and glorified savior must be a bit like being a retired pope. Just what exactly are you supposed to do? This, in any case, is something of the challenge that the Irish writer Colm Tóibín, him of The Master fame, has assigned himself this Christmas, though a less Christmassy book it would be hard to imagine. Toibin’s novella, The Testament of Mary, reflects on the events of Jesus’s public life and death from the perspective of a mother who understandably wished it had never happened. Looking back from years later, Mary is in some kind of house arrest or at least close supervision at the hands of Jesus’s followers. They seem not to be the disciples he gathered around him during his life, whom she dismisses as “a group of misfits,” but a more deliberate and dedicated generation who will “thrive and prevail,” while she will die. We are, I think, to assume that they are the evangelists who will make Jesus’ life and death into the stuff of the gospels. Mary, meanwhile, has abandoned the synagogue for the temple of Artemis.
Now, of course, all of this is somewhat shocking to believers, but perhaps only because our access to the historical Mary is through the brief gospel references and the myths that grew up around her in the years of the early Christian community. What Tóibín has taken on himself is answering a question that believers have asked all too rarely, just how was it for the mother of Jesus of Nazareth? If one is not satisfied with the idea that Mary simply believed in her son as the Messiah and Son of God–and even if you go that route, the question of how she coped with being the mother of such a creature still remains–then imagining her coming to terms with the brutal events through which, eventually, perhaps after her death, his followers will have come to believe in his divinity, is all that is left to us. This is what Tóibín has attempted, and much of it is persuasive, if not all. Mary in particular is a figure of gravity and plain humanity in equal measure, loving the memory of her son and wanting him back again, the way he was in the years of his youth. Martha, her sister Mary and especially their poor brother Lazarus are thought-provoking expansions upon their gospel personae, rather than distortions, which may not be the way many readers will feel about the picture of the mother of Jesus herself. And whether or not you buy Tóibín’s implication that the Christ of faith is a product of a generation later than the one that actually knew the historical Jesus of Nazareth, there is no question that the Jesus of the gospels is in part a work of the creative imagination of the evangelists, though it does not seem to me that they need to be as menacing as Tóibín has made them. Unless, of course, they are afraid that Mary will give away the secret of how it all actually was.
While the word “cynical” has been used to describe this novella, I do not think this is accurate. The perspective is that of Mary, disturbed and confused whether or not Jesus was self-deluded or the Son of God, not that of Tóibín. “How it was” and “what it meant” are not confused or interwoven, and while the assumption might be that the author is unconcerned with faith or its absence, this is not the point. Mary is the point, a woman who as a human being seems to disappear from Christian history at the moment of Jesus’s death. The Church that followed may venerate her as mother of God and blessed virgin, but hasn’t ever seemed to care about the question Tóibín explores: “how was it, really, for her?”