Book review: “The Madonna” by Jean Guitton

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Book review: “The Madonna” by Jean Guitton

On the opening page of his text for The Madonna, Jean Guitton, a French philosopher and theologian, notes that, in the Gospels, Mary doesn’t say much.

That got me thinking, and, after a little Internet searching, I came across an article that listed the four times when an evangelist quotes the mother of Jesus — twice before his birth and twice after.

Guitton’s essay in The Madonna, published in 1963, is interesting but seems theologically dated to me.

Instead, I like the idea of considering the many beautiful images of Mary in this book next to the words that Mary says in the Gospels. In presenting them here, I’m not making a direct correlation between image and word. I’m looking at how the two methods of getting to know Mary interact.

“I am the handmaid of the Lord”

The first instance in which Mary is quoted is the Annunciation (Luke 1: 26-38) when the angel Gabriel comes to her, and this conversation takes place:

“Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you. Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

“How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?”

“The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God….”

“Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.”

The handmaid of the Lord — the servant of the Lord. For some reason, this brings to my mind the theological playfulness of St. Thérèse of Lisieux who saw her self as the playmate of the baby Jesus and even as his toy ball.

“My soul magnifies the Lord”

Later, in Luke 1:46–55, Mary goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth who is pregnant with John the Baptist, and sings the Magnificat, perhaps the greatest song in the Bible:

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.

“For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.

“He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate.

“He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”

The stuff about beating the hell out of enemies doesn’t do much for me. However, I really like the lines about filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich “empty away.”

Even more, I like the word “magnifies” which is often translated as “praises” or “proclaims.”

For me, the word brings to mind a magnifying glass. It is through Mary that the rest of humanity will be able to better see Jesus.

And the phrase “my spirit rejoices in God my Savior” seems to go to the heart of life. It brings to mind an approach to every day of joyfulness at the richness of existence.

“Anxiously looking”

Then comes the birth of Jesus, and, twelve years later, after a trip to Jerusalem for Passover, Jesus stays behind in the Temple talking with the elders.

Mary and Joseph don’t notice he’s missing until a day’s journey toward home. They rush back, but it isn’t until three days afterward that they find their son. And, in Luke 2:48, Mary says:

“Son, why have you treated us this way? Behold, your father and I have been anxiously looking for you.”

To which Jesus responds with the line about doing his Father’s business.

Here, Mary is like any mother. The words, so seemingly emotionless, hint at the great toll the four days have taken on her and Joseph, at her terror at her boy’s absence, at their frantic search.

The response of her son is not very consoling. My way of thinking of this moment is that she didn’t know what was going to be coming in her life and her son’s life, but she could tell at this moment that she was raising a most unusual child.

 

“Whatever he tells you”

The last time Mary speaks in the Gospels is in John 2:1-11. Jesus is an adult, and she and he are among the partiers at a wedding in Cana. The wine runs out, and Mary, seeming to have a better idea of just how unusual Jesus is, says to him simply:

“They have no more wine.”

This is the sort of thing a lot of mothers might say. A flat statement of fact, with the expectation that the adult child will respond appropriately.

If my mother had said it to me, the expectation probably would have been for me to go to the liquor store and get more wine. Maybe that’s essentially what Mary expected. Or maybe she was thinking about the water-into-wine thing.

Jesus seems a bit abrupt saying to her, “Woman,” that his time hasn’t yet come. But, mother-like, she ignores him and says to the servants:

“Do whatever he tells you.”

 

A real woman

And then comes radio silence.

The Gospels and the other books of the New Testament never again give Mary voice. It is odd that we have so many images of her over the past 20 centuries but so few words.

She was a real woman. But we are left with these few words that portray her as a nudging mother, as a distraught mother, as a startled maiden and as a singer of praise to the Lord of her existence.

We are left, like Mary, to ponder all this in our hearts.

 

Patrick T. Reardon

4.16.18

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