Acts 9:1-20, Revelation 5:11-14, John 21:1-19
If one reads the Irish writer Colm Toíbín’s The Testament of Mary, one gets a very different view of the Holy Family and of the disciples of Jesus than one ordinarily gets. Toíbín’s Mary is very unhappy with what her son has decided to do with his life, refuses to be there at the last moments of his crucifixion, and forbids any one to sit in the chair that once belonged exclusively to her deceased husband, Joseph—indeed, threatens an evangelist so inclined with a knife in her hand. Her exacerbation is created by a few of Jesus’ followers who try to get her support for what they want others to believe about Jesus, but which she herself does not believe. To put it simply, Toíbín shows that what the Scriptures treat ideally can also be treated familiarly: a mother angry with her son; a widow devoted to her husband’s memory; a woman resisting those trying to tell a story different from hers.
To her the crucifixion “was like a marketplace, but more intense somehow, as the act that was about to take place was going to make a profit for both seller and buyer” (p. 58). Toíbín suggests that human nature doesn’t change: what we see in today’s hateful politics simply had a different set of actors 2000 years ago. Although Garry Wills in Why Priests? A Failed Tradition has a totally different view of Mary—“devotion to the mother of Jesus seems to me a natural corollary of worshiping her son” (p. 258)—he makes the same point as Toíbín: a cabal of priests organized and fomented a crowd to demand the release of Barabas and demand the death of Jesus. It’s a deadlier form of a kind of politics that we recognize in our own time: just think of South Carolina Republican Kris Crawford’s January statement to the Charleston Regional Business Journal that “It is good politics to oppose the black guy in the White House” (Huffington Post 3.13.2013).
With such contemporaneity in mind we could think of today’s first reading from Acts about St. Paul’s conversion as something like cataract surgery in which one’s eyes are open but one can see nothing; we could see the second reading from Revelation as verging on the hallucinatory following an overdose of End-Time talk; and we could see John’s gospel as a genuinely friendly outdoor get-together—so friendly, indeed, that Jesus has the fish cooking before the fishermen’s nets are emptied.
Now I don’t mean to be profane in saying this, but I do mean to put it into the kind of contemporary context that Toíbín set up in his book. If however this seems too secular for post-Easter contemplation, let me say that Mary Gordon, who wrote a very different kind of book from Toíbín’s in her Reading Jesus, reviewed The Testament of Mary for the New York Times and called it a masterpiece that frees us from “centuries of sentimentality—blue and white Madonnas with folded hands and upturned eyes, a stick with which to beat independent women” (2 November 2012). In a word, Gordon sees Toíbín’s Testament of Mary as a supplement to the New Testament by investing it with the personal feelings of a mother and the political realities of the enemies as well as of the friends of Jesus. And it is well to invoke Garry Wills again who denies that the death of Jesus on the cross is a sacrifice demanded by the Father for the sins of mankind. For Wills salvation comes to us by Jesus coming among us and living with us, thus making us a good deal better than we’d have been without him. Christmas for him is the great feast of the Church, not Easter. “The Incarnation,” Wills writes, “means that no matter how we suffer, how we go into the abyss, how fearfully we die, God has been there, he is with us” (p. 210). Jesus is God’s prophet who, like all the prophets, recalls us to the wisdom of living as God would have us live.
A more orthodox reading of today’s passages shows Saul becoming Paul: a man “breathing threats and murder” to the followers of Jesus is stunned so completely by a voice from heaven that he subsequently proclaims Jesus “the only Begotten of God.” Before our eyes a dangerous bigot turns into the Apostle of the Gentiles. And John in Revelation presents a dazzling vision of what a conversion of the kind Paul undergoes and preaches means. What it means is an unimaginable enrichment of the senses—especially those of seeing and hearing. This is the language of ecstasy celebrating the restoration of vision. And Jesus in the gospel in a quietly, friendly, down-to-earth way reminds Peter that he will suffer and die for changing himself from someone who denied him into someone who loves him. This too is political reality, yet another death by crucifixion, already enacted under Nero by the time John’s gospel was written. It is as harsh in its way as anything in Colm Toíbín’s The Testament of Mary—Mary, whom we notice, is nowhere to be found in these scriptural passages. Could it be, as Toíbín imagines, that she has gone to Ephesus and taken herself deliberately out of the picture?
We do not know the answer to that question or to many other questions. But we do know that family, friends, and foes are what the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus are all about. How we interpret these events and the people involved in them gives us more than a little to think about. But, in a sense, such thinking makes us one with St. Augustine, who wrote, “We are, remember, speaking of God when the text says, ‘God was the Word.’ And if we are speaking of God, why be surprised if you do not understand? If you could understand, it would not be God. Devoutly confessing that you do not know is better than prematurely claiming that you do” (quoted in Wills p. 259).
Mary Gordon, Reading Jesus: A Writer’s Encounter with the Gospels. New York: Pantheon, 2009.
Colm Toíbín, The Testament of Mary. New York: Scribner, 2012.
Garry Wills, Why Priests? A Failed Tradition. New York: Viking, 2013.