2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1
One can’t say Jesus is very respectful of his mother in this Sunday’s gospel. When told his mother and siblings are outside asking for him, Jesus’ response, as quoted by Mark, is: “Who are my mother and my brothers?... For whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” This sounds more like a rebuke than an affectionate welcome for his mother and relatives. Has Jesus forgotten the 4th commandment – honor thy father and thy mother? Could this be a sin committed by Jesus, who is supposedly sinless? Let’s reflect a little more before rushing into such a conclusion.
Put under the microscope in the first reading is Adam and Eve’s violation of God’s command not to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and bad (Gn 2:16-17). The consequence of our first parents’ disobedience is immediate and catastrophic: their nakedness, for which they have “felt no shame” before the violation suddenly makes them feel unsafe (Gn 2:25). But how is this catastrophic? Doesn’t everyone feel unsafe when naked? Hang on. There’s something more to this problem than meets the eye. Hidden underneath Adam’s seemingly harmless feeling of vulnerability is a devastating reality that necessitates God’s immediate action.
“I was afraid, because I was naked, so I hid myself,” Adam explains on God’s probing (Gn 3:9-10). When does a man feel like he needs to hide from God’s piercing eyes? You guessed it: when he is living in a state of grave sin. Such is the state that Adam and Eve find themselves in after disobeying God’s command. Since true happiness can only be found in God, our first parents can’t possibly be happy when they don’t want to be near God. In fact, there’s a place that is so far removed from God that His presence absolutely cannot be felt. It is called “hell”. When they choose not to follow God’s way; when they intentionally avoid God, desiring not to dwell in His abode of eternal happiness; hell is the only dwelling place left for them. Clearly, humanity is in dire straits after Adam and Eve’s fall from grace.
But God, who is loving and merciful, does not want the human race to fall away from Him forever. As a result, He announces His redemptive plan as soon as the first sinful act of our first parents is committed. To the serpent – identified later as “the Devil and Satan” by John (Rev 12:9) - He pronounces His judgement: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike at your head, while you strike at his heel” (Gn 3:15). This passage is what the Christian tradition has always referred to as “the first Gospel” or Protoevangelium, because we see in this ancient event a prophetic announcement of Jesus’ redemption which will crush Satan’s head and save us from eternal damnation (CCC410).
Note that apart from the Savior, whose job it is to crush Satan’s head; strategically placed in this confrontation between the good and the evil forces is “the woman” whom the Church traditionally understands as Mary since it’s her offspring, Jesus, that will strike at Satan’s head (CCC411, LG55). Her pivotal appearance in “the first Gospel”, just as the indispensable role she plays in the actual Gospel, is rich in meaning for many reasons, including her restoration of Eve’s mishaps, her immaculate conception, her singular mission as the Co-operatrix of our Lord in the salvation of mankind, etc. (CCC 411, 968). But for the purposes of this reflection, let’s focus on just one important reason: her obedience of faith.
Why is “the woman” – Mary – present in this decisive and monumental struggle between the forces of good and evil? She is there because she agrees to with the obedience of faith. When asked to play a pivotal role in God’s plan of salvation, Mary’s response is affirmative: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Lk 1:38). Her “yes” made God’s plan possible; her “yes” gave the Son the body that he needed for his sacrificial offering and made it possible for the Son to do the Father’s will (c.f. Heb 10:5-7, Redemptoris Mater n.13). Mary is “full of grace” because she believed – “And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord” (Lk 1:28, 45).
Now back to this Sunday’s Gospel reading that has planted so much doubt in our heads. The crowd feels obliged to announce Mary’s arrival out of respect for her identity as Jesus’ mother. Far from being a rebuke of his mother, Jesus’ reply on hearing the announcement is a strong endorsement of her supreme honors and privileges, reminding the crowd – and the world - that Mary deserves our utmost respect not so much because she is his mother, but because she believed and obeyed the word of God. Mary’s obedience reversed the disobedience of Eve; her belief untied the knot created by Eve’s unbelief. “For whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother”, our Lord insists (Mk 3:35).