Miriam of Nazareth
I have chosen to represent Miriam of Nazareth, the lovely “Virgin and Child” of Murillo (1617-1682). But beautiful as it is and much as I like it, I recognize that its Virgin is surely more European than the historical Miriam of Nazareth. Though we do not know what Miriam actually looked like, Murillo’s painting portrays her union with her son, something which is central in the biblical texts that describe her, and the deep serenity that flowed from it.
With this first image, we reflect on the Mary of history of whom we know so tantalizingly little. Let me try to express the little that we can say historically of the Virgin Mary.
Mary was actually called Miriam, after the sister of Moses. She was born probably in Nazareth, a small village of about 1600 people, almost all of whom were Jews. If she was not born there, she at least lived much of her life there; her son came to be called “the Nazarene,” as stated in the inscription placed above his head on the cross. Her birth took place most likely between 20 and 15 BC. She, Joseph, and Jesus lived in territory occupied by a foreign power, the Romans, whom many Jews hated. The atmosphere was often tense.
Her husband, Joseph, and her son, Jesus, were woodworkers. The language that she and they spoke at home was Aramaic, though perhaps she also understood a little Hebrew from hearing it read in the local synagogue services. She may also have understood some Greek phrases; they would have been helpful in the woodworking business since many of the merchants at that time in that area of the Roman Empire were Greek-speaking.
Like mothers of that and many other eras, she would have breast-fed her child, cooked meals regularly, and done lots of housecleaning and washing. She would have carried water home from nearby wells or streams. Of course Mary too, like most mothers, would have taught her son to walk, to talk, to pray, and to do many other things.
Women in Palestine in that period were rarely given the opportunity to study, so it is likely that Mary did not know how to read or write. Her learning came orally through family traditions she imbibed at home and from the reading of the Scriptures, along with homilies, that she heard in the synagogue.
Mary, Joseph, and Jesus were poor, but, since Joseph had a trade, they were probably no poorer than most Galileans of their time.
Joseph seems to have died before Jesus’ public ministry began. Mary herself, however, was alive throughout that ministry. Her separation from Jesus as he began his ministry was probably painful for her. Mark tells us that Jesus’ family thought him mad and that Jesus resisted a request of his family to see him. She was present at his crucifixion. At that time she would probably have been around 50 years of age herself. She lived on at least into the early days of the Church.
What does this first face say to us? It says that Mary was rooted in real life. She was one of us. Like most women of her time, she was hardworking, had little formal education, and was rather poor. She was a deeply believing Jew whose faith was nourished by the word of God which she heard in the synagogue. She loved and nourished her child and her husband. She kept house. She probably helped in the carpenter shop from time to time. She may well have experienced some confusion when her son left the shop and set out on an extraordinary ministry. She must have known joy at his successes and she certainly felt anguishing sorrow when he was condemned as a criminal and put to death. All of us can identify with that kind of life. It was not easy. Nor was it very glorious. Yet it had a noble beauty about it. Mary was so real that people of every age have felt that she understands their joys, their needs, their sorrows.