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The Word on the Week

The Testament of Mary

The Testament of Mary Word on the Week 12th October 2013.

With the Man Booker Prize for literature coming for grabs next week it is hard for fellow authors to resist the temptation to pick the winner. That the lot has, for at least one scribe, fallen on Colm Toíbín’s novella “The Testament of Mary” was to be expected. The Blessed Virgin is such a compelling subject that she attracts authors and playwrights like iron filings to a magnet.

Part of the attraction lies in the paucity of Scripture references enabling the imagination to engage in some creative constructions of her life and ministry. Colm Toíbín has sought to explore what was in Mary’s heart, as she is questioned by two evangelists, some 20 years after the resurrection. Her memories are at odds with their account and she wonders if multiple re-telling of the Gospel story may have resulted in some exaggerations.

Her tender anguish at the cross with her final surrender to its work plumbs the depth of her suffering which remains fresh in her mind throughout the years.

In an attempt at a corrective to the passive-submissive portrayal of Mary Toíbín has her flee from the cross. She does this because she feels unable to do anything and, rather improbably, because she wishes to save her own life.

In his attempt to rescue Mary from the image of the stone statue and give her a “real” life Toíbín takes her out of range of Biblical data by imagining the scene 20 years on. This interesting device would have worked better if he had built on the Biblical accounts rather than deconstruct them.

For example far from running away from the crucifixion Mary is to be found with her family and the disciples in prayer at Pentecost. St Luke records the scene in Acts Chapter 1 verse 13/4 “They went up to the upper room, where they were staying, Peter and John and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot and Judas the son of James. All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers”.

It may well be that in order to combat the overwhelming sorrow produced by contemplating the wounds of Christ some have focussed on the sinbearing (and therefore unseen) work of Christ. The descriptive language used often lacks passion.

When a person sees their sins laid on Christ and trusts that they are forgiven the expression “personal relationship with Christ” is sometimes employed to describe their new standing. Although this captures the truth for the believer can seem a rather formal way to present the struggle and inner turmoil that is the battle of faith wrestling with disobedient flesh. Perhaps we need to share some of the intensity of feelings that were experienced by Mary as she felt the sword in her own soul (St Luke Chapter 2 verse 35). The truth should never be sanitised to suit society!