They have taken my Lord…and I know not where they have laid him
These well known words of Mary are of course words of Easter, and now we are approaching Advent, so why?
The ‘why’ is serendipitous. Last year my wife told me of a review she had heard of a Man Booker Prize shortlisted book, I promptly added it to my birthday list and my daughter duly gave it to me. I started to read it, but failed to get into it; I put it down. This September I took it up again and have found it revolutionary, or do I mean revelatory?
Colm Toibin’s immensely moving book, the Testament of Mary, seeks to tell the story of Jesus from the point of view of his mother. From this vantage point we are shown a number of the events familiar through the Biblical accounts, principally the Wedding at Cana and the Raising of Lazarus, though nothing can prepare us for the account of the crucifixion. A mother witnessing unbelievable agony in her son is an image for which we cannot prepare. In the book it is short and sharp and stuns.
Whilst this image is central, the theme of the book is that Jesus, a good man, has been ‘hijacked’ by those who want more. They form an hysterical group around him and egg him on. The chill in the story emerges with grey shadowy men who seek to control Mary into her old age. They want from her an account of what happened that fits with their agenda. She resists. Everything seems to be orchestrated by men in power, essentially weak men who exert control through fear.
As she approaches her death, these men tell her what her son has achieved. Phrases which might be recognised as articles of faith are trotted out and fall flat in the context of what Mary, the heart broken mother, knows. She concludes, that, no, it wasn’t worth it.
The whole book is powerful. There are passages which strike strong chords with ‘middle C’ of my previous post. The scene where there are men in hierarchies who demand to be listened to - surely a deliberate construct of the author, but one which seems to fit. The painstaking but angry work of the fictional ‘gospel’ writers as they wrestle with the difference between what Mary remembers and the theme they are determined to project.
The book, as did Philip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, again poses the question of whether the man we know as Jesus was hijacked by the religious men of his time, as, I might suggest, he is perhaps hijacked by the architects of great churches, composers of the great choral works, painters and sculptors, even preachers who use his stories to perfect the composition and delivery of ten minutes of thought provoking Sunday morning prose (present company excepted!).