An elderly Mary looks back on her life, refusing to tailor her memories to agree with the legend of her son, Jesus Christ.
And what was it really like at Calvary? Irish novelist Colm Toibín offers us an account from the lips of Mary, now in old age, who seeks the "grim satisfaction which comes from the certainty that I will not say anything that is not true." The setting for this reflective and provocative narrative is Mary's exile, as she tries to assist the two men who have come to write down her memories so they might conform to the divine narrative they have in mind.
Mary's testimony, however, springs from the consciousness of a mother far removed from her son's prophetic mission. She is unwilling to tailor her reminiscences to the needs of the chroniclers who pester her for anecdotes. Mary has no use for the collection of "misfits" who accompanied Jesus (who is never named in the Testament) everywhere with their "high-flown talk." Nor does she respond to the language of divine redemption that consoles his followers.
A profoundly observant (though unlettered) woman, she longs not for the last days but for the times in years past when her son would return from temple with his father: "we could talk again and eat together and prepare with ease for the peaceful night after the day when we had renewed ourselves."
As the son becomes a man, however, these periods of domestic pleasure that sustain Toibín's Mary are replaced by widowhood, disquieting rumors and a growing distance from her son. As she sits next to him at the wedding at Cana, Jesus is now "radiant like light is radiant," icy with a visionary zeal that silences his mother.
Mary's counter-narrative culminates at Calvary, and as the crucifixion scene unfolds to its perhaps ordained conclusion, Mary offers us the immediate details, the minute and the horrifying. She recalls the informers, who circulate through the rowdy crowd, searching for her, and a man who calmly feeds rabbits to a caged hawk. She is acutely aware of her tight shoes. What she sees happening to her son, though, is pure horror, such that when her chroniclers later tell her that his sacrifice would redeem the world, Mary answers, "It was not worth it."
In returning us to 1st-century Jerusalem, Toibín has recast the events that form the crux of Christianity, unfolding them at a time when they had yet to be laden with religious certainty. As Mary considers her actions and her commitment to the truth, she worries that her observations will be replaced by "a sweet story that will grow poisonous as bright berries that hang low on trees."
This beautifully written "testament" speaks to the testimonial nature of other theological accounts. It is a work that will challenge all readers and offend some.
Tom Zelman teaches English at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.