Colm Tóibín’s spare, unsentimental novella The Testament of Mary presents Jesus’ mother’s perspective on the events described in the gospels. Mary’s account de-mythologizes her son’s story, yet somehow renders it all the more powerful for being completely human. Tóibín strips away any pre-conceived notions of Mary’s piety and presents a brutally honest woman determined to hold onto her own truth about Jesus’ life and death. This puts her at odds with the two gospel writers who visit her in Ephesus (John and perhaps Luke, whose gospel gives us the most detailed description of Mary’s pregnancy and who notes that the events he describes are based on eyewitness accounts*). They question her about details to use in the history they’re writing, but they get frustrated when her reality doesn’t fit into the vision they’re trying to craft. “I will not say anything that is not true,” she defiantly insists.
Mary’s resistance to pressure from John and his companion speaks to the book’s concern about the relationship of men to women and women’s place in society and in the gospels. Mary notes that Jesus’ disciples – in her mind, a rabble-rousing group of “malcontents” and “misfits” – “could not look a woman in the eye.” Jesus, on the other hand, could “look at a woman as though she were his equal.” His words and actions created a “heightened atmosphere,” in which “women spoke almost as much as men.” Mary’s determination to preserve her truth reflects an anxiety about the ways in which gospel writers and church tradition may have diminished or minimized women’s involvement in New Testament events.
Tóibín suggests that Jesus’ message rode a wave of social change and was a threat to the status quo, civic and religious. Jesus challenged the “great order that was maintained to keep the Romans happy.” Mary focuses less on the miraculous aspect of Jesus’ healing acts and more on the fact that Jesus’ loud speech and unruly followers violated the Sabbath. Through Mary’s eyes, Tóibín offers us a different perspective on gospel events, one that makes clear that, even without any assumption of Jesus’ divinity, his ministry was powerfully radical.
Mary stops short of calling the raising of Lazarus a miracle, but even she cannot deny its mysterious, unsettling power. In Tóibín’s imagining, Lazarus doesn’t just spring back to life; it’s a laborious, two-hour process, as though Lazarus is compelled, almost against his will, to cross back over from death. When Lazarus finally emerges from his grave, he is physically unmarred yet forever changed. He doesn’t speak and can barely eat. He “was in possession of a knowledge that . . . unnerved him” because “it was knowledge he could not share, perhaps because there were no words for it . . . he carried it with him in the depths of his soul . . .” The raising of Lazarus inspires Jesus’ followers to contemplate revolt “against everything we have known before, including death.”
In a bookend to the passage in Luke’s gospel about Mary pondering things in her heart at Jesus’ birth, here, near the end of Jesus’ life, she contemplates the passage of “time that turns a baby who is so defenceless into a small boy . . . And then time created the man . . . filled with power, a power that seemed to have no memory of years before, when he needed my breast for milk, my hand to help steady him as he learned to walk, or my voice to soothe him to sleep.” And this is what Mary wants to focus on – Jesus’ humanness, his reality as her son, her flesh and blood. This is what she fights to hold onto in response to the evangelists’ belief in him as the Son of God.
Tóibín presents the crucifixion as devastatingly, shatteringly human, denying us the comfort of any beatific resignation on Jesus’ part. The nails, Mary notes, are as long her hand; Jesus fiercely resists being nailed to the cross and shrieks in pain. By forcing us to confront the unmitigated horror of the event, the text invites us to recognize anew the immensity of Jesus’ sacrifice.
Tóibín also disrupts the traditional image of the Pietà. In the book, Mary isn’t there to hold and weep over Jesus’ body; she flees the crucifixion before he dies, to save herself from the authorities rounding up Jesus’ followers. The familiar image is part of a dream Mary has, a dream that assuages her guilt over running away. Tóibín does leave room for grace and mystery here – both Mary and Lazarus’ sister Mary, who also fled the crucifixion, actually have the same dream, and it offers them both comfort. But Mary is determined not to let the dream supplant the painful reality of that day. She acknowledges the truth to herself and tries to reinforce it with John and his companion. But they make the comforting fiction part of the history they’re writing. “I never saw his grave, I never washed his body,” Mary says. “You were there,” John insists. “You held his body when it was taken down from the cross.”
The divergence represents the central tension of the text – reality, lived and endured in flesh and blood, versus a story, crafted to highlight spiritual meaning, to inspire faith. I think The Testament of Mary suggests that recognition of the former can actually deepen, rather than negate or contradict, faith in the latter.
*My initial thought was that perhaps John’s companion in the book is Mark, the writer of the earliest gospel. But upon further consideration, I think Luke is the stronger possibility. The two writers in Tóibín’s book specifically discuss the details of Mary’s pregnancy with her; this lines up with the first chapter of Luke’s gospel, which includes the annunciation and Mary’s Magnificat. Tóibín’s Mary doesn’t give her experiences a divine gloss, but she does describe her pregnancy as a time of “light and grace.”
Note: I hope to see the New York stage production of The Testament of Mary, which originated as a one-woman show in Dublin. The Broadway production stars the formidable Fiona Shaw, whom I saw onstage in Beckett’s Happy Days (directed by Deborah Warner, who also directs Mary). She gave an absolutely riveting performance, despite being buried up to her waist (and ultimately, her neck) in dirt throughout the play. So I’m excited to see how she commands the stage as Tóibín’s unflinching, fierce Mary.