Last Updated: Tuesday - 01/04/2011
March 5, 2001
Mary in the Apocrypha and Bible
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER
EDMONTON — Catholics typically take for granted that Mary's parents were Joachim and Anne. In Edmonton, our oldest parish is St. Joachim's and the oldest and largest nearby pilgrimage is for the feast of St. Anne. Yet neither Joachim nor Anne are mentioned in the Bible. How do we know they even existed?
We learn of Joachim and Anne, an elderly barren couple, from the Protevangelium of James, an apocryphal account of the life of Mary, likely written in the mid-second century.
The Protevangelium tells us that Mary went to live in the Temple when she was age three. There she was fed by an angel until she was 12. The Temple elders then became concerned that she would soon start menstruating and pollute the Temple. So they found her a husband - Joseph.
In this account, Mary virginally conceives and gives birth to Jesus in a cave. Mary's friend Salome decides to "put forward the finger" to see if Mary remained a virgin through childbirth. Salome's hand is consumed by fire and falls off. But a kindly angel prompts her to touch the Christ child and Salome's hand is miraculously restored.
The Protevangelium, unlike many other apocryphal writings about Jesus and Mary, is considered orthodox in doctrine. Yet the Church decided not to include it in the Bible and some incidents it recounts are considered dubious.
The Church, however, at least in the East, allowed the Protevangelium a sort of secondary status, a decision that did a lot to shape popular piety. Feasts such as the Nativity of Mary (Sept. 8), the Presentation of Mary in the Temple (Nov. 25) and the Assumption (Aug. 15) are not mentioned in the Bible, but are described in various apocryphal writings.
The Koran, the holy book of Islam, also makes considerable mention of Mary - more than the Bible does. Some of the details in the Koran seem to be drawn from the Protevangelium while others are new to Christian ears. In the Koran, when Mary becomes pregnant with Jesus, she withdraws to a distant place by herself and gives birth to him under a palm tree.
The Koran esteems Mary and Jesus as signs from God, but it does not view Jesus as the Son of God. To do so would be blasphemous for a Muslim. In the New Testament, Jesus is at the centre - everything must relate to him.
Mary is mentioned in only a relatively few Gospel passages, primarily in Luke and John, primarily to do two things. First, we have Luke's rather elaborate account of the Nativity to show that Jesus was born of woman - he was really human - and that he was always the Son of God, it was not something he grew into. Second, Mary is presented as the first disciple, the one who was closest to Jesus and who most perfectly carried out his will.
Indeed, devotion to Mary began to develop in the early Church and perhaps that is why the Protevangelium was written. People were eager to find out more about her life than was provided by the sparse account in the Gospels. The Bible was written to pass on faith in Jesus; the Protevangelium was written to satisfy people's curiosity about his mother.
The Gospels emphasize that while Mary is the physical mother of Jesus, a much greater accomplishment is to hear the word of God and keep it. This is a possibility open to all of us, with God's grace. But it is where Mary excelled.
Luke's Gospel presents Mary as the first to hear God's word and the first to keep it. At the Annunciation, Mary tells God's messenger, "Behold! I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word." At the Nativity where she witnesses the praise of the shepherds for Jesus and at the Presentation where she is told a sword will pierce her heart, we find that Mary kept those things in her heart and pondered them (Luke 2:19, 51).
In Mary, we have an example of obedience, humility, acceptance and prayer. She is a woman full of grace. This grace is not her possession but God's gift. Luke's Gospel calls us not to be "devoted" to Mary, but to imitate her. Its interest in her is not in Mary as a person, but as a model for discipleship.
One implicit assumption of modern society is that we are the source of our own (worldly) salvation. Modern technology and medicine have done great things. But we can be tempted to believe they - and all our human efforts at self-improvement - are something more than they are. In the Bible, we see Mary proclaiming that it is God who has done great things. She shows us how to keep life in perspective. She is Jesus' first and foremost disciple.
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