At the beginning, members of Jesus’ family hear that Jesus has gone out of his mind, so they set out to restrain him. That’s not good.
At the end of our reading, when they arrive, people report to Jesus that his mother, brothers and sisters are outside, and he basically refuses to see them. That’s not so good either.
This would be a sad scene for any family. And this is not just any family! This is Jesus’ mother, the Blessed Virgin who is revered in the Christian tradition as the chief of saints, the model of the faithful and loving disciple.
And yet in this scene, Mary worries that Jesus has lost his mind, and she has to endure Jesus’ apparent rejection. So why does Mark tell us this story? What lesson does Mark want us to learn?
The first thing to keep in mind is that Mary has a role in everything that has happened in Jesus’ life and ministry to this point. At this point, Mary understands better than anyone else who Jesus is.
Before Jesus was born, an angel appeared to Mary to warn her what was coming. Not long after Jesus’ birth, Mary received the wise men with their royal gifts. Mary had Jesus circumcised. Mary and Joseph had to flee with Jesus to Egypt while he was still a child to escape the wrath of King Herod. After their return, while Jesus was still a boy, Mary took him to Jerusalem on pilgrimage. That was all during Jesus’ childhood. But Mary also encouraged Jesus to work his very first miracle at the wedding in Cana.
Mary had faith in Jesus before anyone else. Mary helped get it all started. Mary was always there, supporting and loving Jesus.
But in this story, we see that even someone who has so many reasons to believe in Jesus, even someone who loves Jesus so much, even Mary can lose her way. Even Mary has moments of blindness, moments when she questions everything, moments when she cannot follow Christ as her Lord. In that moment, Mary can see her son, Jesus, but she cannot see the holy Christ, the only Son of God.
If even Mary can have moments like that, then we will, too. Moments when we can’t see the Christ who is right in front of us. Moments when we lose confidence in Christ’s redeeming mission. Moments when we feel excluded from Christ’s movement.
The saints call those moments “dark nights of the soul.” And nobody, not even Mary, certainly not us, is immune to them.
The question is, what do we do in those moments?
When we struggle, we can take some comfort in knowing that even the greatest saints have periods of doubt, despair, and blindness.
But the real good news is not that we all sometimes fail. We know that well enough. The real good news is that, despite Mary’s moment of doubt, Jesus is the messiah, the Son of God. The real good news is that the Son of God remains right in front of Mary even when she can’t see him. The real good news is that Jesus loves Mary despite what she probably perceived as his rejection.
And because of that good news, Mary’s story keeps going. Mary may well have lost sight of Jesus’ divine mission in this reading. But not for long. Jesus stuck with Mary, and Mary stuck with Jesus, and Mary recovered her faith and hope and love in her divine son. We next read about Mary standing at the foot of Jesus’ cross, even when others have abandoned him. Mary was with the disciples when the risen Lord appeared to them and when they received the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
Our times of struggle are not the end of our stories either. It may sometimes seem like we are stuck in the valley of the shadow of death without a glimmer of God’s light to help us through. But Christ is with us even when we can’t see him for who he is. And Christ continues to work on us, to heal us of our blindness, and to lead us through our own crucifixion moments to the new life of resurrection and the Holy Spirit.
Here is a trivial parallel.
Several years ago, I went backpacking by myself. On the very first day I got lost. I was on the Appalachian Trail, which goes for over 2000 miles, and I had come to a dead end. I retraced my steps to the last trail intersection I had passed. There I had four options, and I had already ruled out two—the trail I had come up and the trail that had ended. I went a different way and came to another dead-end. I tried my last option, and it led me to a small graveyard. I remember noticing an interesting tombstone with a big angel. I even thought about checking out the angel tombstone, but I was worried about my time.
So I prayed. I asked God for a sign. I got nothing.
I wandered around for a while, and finally started back down the trail I had first come up. This time I saw the turn I had missed, and I was on my way at last. The trail made a big loop—well over a mile. And then what should I see? The very same graveyard with the angel tombstone.
Now, I am sure that angel tombstone had been there for a long time and remains there still. But in that moment, when I was lost, it was a sign for me. I had prayed that God would guide me to where I needed to go. I noticed a stone angel that turned out to be where I needed to go. And I walked away.
I say again, this is a trivial parallel. But in my own goofy way, my experience on the trail that day was like Mary’s experience in our gospel reading, like every experience of the dark night of the soul.
Like Mary, I was unable to appreciate what God was doing right in front of me. Like her, I was blind to God’s light and so lost my way. Like her, I was forced to backtrack. But like her, I eventually found my way back to where God was directing me all along.
None of us are the Virgin Mary. But what she experiences in our gospel reading, what I experienced when I was backpacking, is what we all experience some of the time. We lose sight of what God is doing in our lives. We wrestle with our doubts and our fears and our pain. We wander off track. And we wonder where God is.
And the answer in our gospel reading is, God is right in front of us. Jesus is there, guiding us even when we cannot see him. In our times of struggle, we can hold onto Christ’s promise to be with us always. When we wander blindly, when we get off track, we suffer. But we can rely on Christ to bring us back on track eventually.
My prayer for us is that we can follow the example of the Blessed Virgin Mary in our own times of struggle, that we can walk the way of Christ even when we have a hard time seeing, and that we can come to know the joy of Christ’s resurrection and the power of the Holy Spirit. In Jesus’ name. Amen.