Looking at today’s Gospel reading there is one obvious point of controversy. I don’t think we should ever avoid controversies for wherever there are questions and disputed matters we must address them directly.
Mark quotes the people in the synagogue of Nazareth asking the question: Is he not the carpenter, the son of Mary, and the brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?
The question is how does this square with the Catholic doctrine of the Virgin Birth and more particularly the doctrine of the Perpetual Virginity of Mary?
Historically there are three positions that have been taken:
1) These were the natural children of Mary and Joseph. Mark quotes the people of Nazareth and they ought to know. This is the position adopted by many Protestant scholars.
2) These were the children of Joseph by an earlier marriage and so they are Jesus’ stepbrothers and sisters. This was the position held by most Christians in the first four centuries and is the view that has been consistently held by the Orthodox Church.
3) These were the cousins of Jesus, perhaps the sons and daughters of Mary’s sister. This view asserts that the word brethren has a looser meaning than we use today and there are many references in the OT which can be brought forward to support this. It was the position put forward by St Jerome towards the end of the fourth century. And this is the position most frequently taken by the Roman Catholic Church.
If you are to look straightforwardly at the pages of the scriptures one might think that the first of these positions has to be the correct one. But things are never so clear as one would imagine or want them to be; because if you look at the scriptures very carefully you become aware of several other things that might have a bearing on the point at issue.
It is interesting that while there are several references to Jesus’ brothers, including this one, there is no single reference in the New Testament to Mary’s sons even though she is repeatedly mentioned in the same context as her supposed sons (cf. Mt 12:46; Mk 3:31; Lk 8:19; Acts 1:14).
Furthermore in Luke 2:41 we are told that Jesus parents used to go up to Jerusalem for the Passover every year. But if Mary went on to have four sons and several daughters this would have been improbable.
But perhaps the most important scriptural argument used is this: from the Cross Jesus put his mother under the protection of St John who made a place for her in his home (Jn 19:26-27). If Jesus had three or four brothers and several brothers-in-law then there would be no question of John taking her into his home.
From this controversy we realise several things. The first is that we do not rely solely on the written word of scripture but also place a heavy emphasis on the continuous tradition and belief of the Church.
The second is that a high value is placed on the virginity of Mary. Now this might not strike you as being all that important in the great scheme of things but throughout the entire history of the Church chastity has been very highly regarded.
It is only in the last forty years or so that a tremendous relaxation in moral standards in the area of human sexuality has taken place. Chastity is totally sidelined and people view being a virgin as somewhat embarrassing. This is not a Christian approach; our bodies are the creation of God and the Temple of the Holy Spirit and we ought to have a very high self-regard and see value in purity and sexual continence.
We Catholics place great significance on the role of Mary and we look on her as having a special role in the salvation of the world. It is our belief that God prepared her for the task of bringing Christ into the world by preserving her from sin. If she was sinful, like the rest of us, how could she possibly be a worthy vessel to bear the Son of God? This doctrine affirms our deeply held belief in the divinity of Jesus.
We regard Mary as truly holy, as the first among us to believe in Christ and to experience salvation. And her perpetual chastity is an important aspect of her holiness. In the biblical tradition holiness is about being set apart for God. And Mary was set apart to bear Christ into the world and she chose to keep her virginity intact and dedicate her whole self to the service of God.
Because Mary was the Mother of God, she is in a real sense also the mother of us all. Through her our salvation was made possible, and we all benefit from her assent to the will of God.
These are the reasons why the Church has such a great devotion to Mary and always turns to her in times of need. Yes, of course, we pray to Christ directly but we also pray to Christ through the intercession of Mary.
Many people rejected Jesus. Here in our reading we learn how even the people of his own hometown rejected him. There are numerous instances in the Gospels of others turning away from him. You will remember how the people of the Gadarene district, after they heard about the exorcism of the demoniacs and the destruction of the herd of pigs, urged Jesus to leave them for fear of what else might happen. And on the day of his trial the people even begged Pilate to have him executed.
Although his fellow townsfolk rejected him and even members of his own extended family, Mary did not. She was there from his conception to his birth, and on through his hidden life to the first miracle at Cana. Mary was there during his public ministry, she was there at the foot of the Cross and also there on the Day of Pentecost. Mary was his first and most devoted follower and we can surely therefore take her as our example and guide and inspiration.