Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Holy Name of Mary and rebellion

I made my First Communion on the feast of the Holy Name of Mary - September 12. When I was asked to write a reflection on Mary for the Catholic Standard & Times sometime in May, I ended up writing about the meaning of the name "Mary" or "Maryam" as it appears in the Greek texts of the Gospels.

[This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times May 15, 2008]
My soul magnifies the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my savior;
so tenderly has he looked upon his servant,
humble as she is.
For from this forth
all generations will count me blessed,
so wonderfully has he dealt with me,
the Lord, the mighty one.
[Lk 1:46-48]

Rebellion is not a word that most of us would use to describe Mary, the Mother of God. In her response to the angel Gabriel, “I am the handmaid of the Lord, let your will be done in me.” she becomes for us the very model of submission to the will of God. Yet Maryam, the Gospels name her, a name which can be translated as “rebellion”.

Then, as now, Mary was a common name. Perhaps as many as one girl in four was named Maryam in first century Palestine, in honor of Miriam, prophet to Israel in the desert and the sister of Moses and Aaron. As any parent who has thumbed through books of baby names and searched the family tree for just the right name for a son or daughter knows, our choice embodies our hopes and dreams for the new child. What parent - then or now - hopes for rebellion?

The earliest Christian writers found it hard to imagine that any parent, let alone the parents of the Blessed Virgin, would give a child such an unsuitable name, and went to great lengths to find any other meaning besides that given in the book of the prophet Ezra: “rebellion”.

Could it be derived from the Aramaic mar or Lord and mean “Lady”? Or perhaps from the Hebrew for bitter, maror? In the fifth century, St. Jerome suggested, “mar” meant drop or star, and gave us Mary’s title as “Stella Maris” or Star of the Sea.

In truth, the origins of the name Miriam are lost in antiquity, and for the most part overshadowed by the lives of the women who bore it: Miriam, who led Israel rejoicing in its freedom; Mary, the virgin who bore a son to free us all; Mary of Magdala, who first carried the news of a risen Christ.

I’m not bothered by the possibility that the Virgin Mother wore the name “rebellion”, I find it to be a better mirror of the mystery of God at work in her and in us than “beautiful one” or “Lady”.

Mary shows me how to surrender to God, not in her ultimate words, “let your will be done in me,” but in her first moment of hesitation, “But how can this be?” Hers was not the surrender of unquestioning docility. Nor was it an inevitable surrender to an overwhelming power. Hers was the greater and more courageous surrender. A surrender of her free will, in the face of her doubts and amidst the seeds of rebellion.

At times I have doubts; at times I rebel. But I look to Mary and understand that uninformed obedience is not what is required of me, nor will God force me to do His bidding. I can, like Mary, ask to be shown the task and then to be granted the courage, the strength, the grace to trust God to provide all I will need along the way.

Just as her Son brought us life through death, it somehow seems fitting that we should learn surrender through “rebellion”, through Maryam, the handmaid of the Lord.

Photo c. 2007 by Br. Lawrence, OP. St. Mary's Church in Nottingham, UK.


  1. My daughter is named Mary, and the name has become so uncommon (only 0.6% of babies born in 2007 were named Mary) that someone commented that naming my child Mary was a bit like naming her Ida or Gladys. Not.

    It's a small world. On Sunday, my daughter Mary will graduate from the college where you teach. Perhaps we will pass one another under the tent or at Wyndham Green.

  2. Beautiful, Michelle.

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