Mary, the woman who stood by the cross

By John Wijngaards
Pulbished in the Universe June 19th 1987.

A friend of mine, although a committed Catholic, used to admit to having a secret dislike for Our Lady. “She gives me the creeps”, she once told me. “So sweet and eerie; without the zip or the passion of a real woman”.

Recently she saw a modern mystery play in the US in which Mary was presented as broadminded, resourceful and witty. “Suddenly I realised I did not resent the real Mary but the image pious men have wished on her”.

I am not sure it is only men who created this image. What I know is that many Catholics do Mary a great injustice in what they imagine her to have been or to be.

In fact, I believe it is worse. I think there are women permanently put off the Church by the sort of Mary they are expected to identify with.

Mary has been made the perfect plaster saint, the lady “who would never sit with her legs crossed”, as one nun used to tell her teenage students.

In popular art, she has been presented to us as the submissive housewife or as the spotless lady floating on a dustfree cloud.


The Marian Year offers a marvellous opportunity to remember the true Mary as Scripture reveals her, to discover her as a person of character.

Put yourself back on Golgotha. The sound of the relentless blows that hammered the nails into Jesus’s hands and feet had just died down. The cross has been erected, had slid into its base with a dull thud. Jesus groaned with pain. But close to him, right under the cross, stood his mother (Jn 19,25;.

The disciples had fled, out of fear. She was there. She was overcome with pain and sorrow. But she stood. She knew that only thus, by the strength of her standing next to him, could she give him the support he needed.

Is this the action of a plaster saint?


Courage and determination must have been characteristics of Mary throughout life. Mary had a mind of her own.

If Jesus was the kind of person who commanded immediate respect, who could drive a marketful of merchants out of the Temple square single-handed, Mary, his mother, must have been a strong woman who fostered such traits in her son.

Mary was not a feminist. Social conditions in her days were so different. Nor is her role restricted to a partial or single sex salvation. But we can have no doubt about Mary playing a key role in God’s plan of righting the wrongs inflicted on women.

The Genesis story tells us that woman’s submission to man was one consequence of human sin.

Woman was created equal to man as his full partner. But when Adam and Eve had sinned, she was told: “You will be subject to your husband” (Gen 3,16).

This does not mean that God condemned woman to a subservient state; rather that the oppression of women would be one aspect of human suffering, like pain, hard work and ill health.

Mary was the New Eve, appointed by God to crush, the serpent’s head. Within her universal task she was also called upon to restore the full dignity and equality of women. Which human being, apart from Jesus, has received such outstanding privileges as she has? And it was not a coincidence that she was a woman. Mary received her special position precisely as a woman so that in her the sinful dependence of women could be reversed.


The condition of women all over the world leaves much to be desired, as the International Women’s Year (1985) clearly brought out.

In almost all countries women are less literate, earn less than men, have less access to professional and managerial jobs, are given less freedom.

This means women are simply not given the status of full dignity and equality that is their right.

And, more often than not, this discrimination springs from a religious bias.

How does Islam look on women? Or Hinduism? Or Communism? Or the tribal religions of Africa? And what about Christians?

Even in our own Catholic Church women by no means occupy the place in life and in the ministry which they should have as persons baptised into the royal, prophetic and priestly dignity of Christ.


All this concerns Mary deeply. With the Apostles she was there, among the first to receive the Spirit at Pentecost. Let us honour her in this Marian year by more than lip-service. Let us respect her wholeness as a full-blooded, human and profound person. Let us vigorously pursue the new creation she began by her being the New Eve: trampling underfoot every vestige of sin, which includes discrimination.