Mother Mary teaches her son Jesus

Christ and His Mother Studying the Scriptures by Henry Ossawa Tanner
Henry Ossawa Tanner (American, 1859–1937), Christ and His Mother Studying the Scriptures, ca. 1909. Oil on canvas, 48.8 × 40 in. Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, Texas.

“The Son of Man” by Charles L. O’Donnell

He lit the lily’s lamp of snow
And fired the rose’s sunset heart,
He timed the light’s long ebb and flow
And drove the coursing winds apart.

He gathered armfuls of the dew
And shook it over earth again,
He spread the heaven’s cloth of blue
And topped the fields with plenteous grain.

He tuned the stars to minstrelsy
As twilight soft, as bird song wild,
Who learned beside His Mother’s knee
His prayers like any other child.

This poem was originally published in The Dead Musician, and Other Poems by Charles L. O’Donnell (New York: Laurence J. Gomme, 1916) and is now in the public domain.

***

Mary gave her son everything she had—body, mind, and soul. These three served as the seedbed of his maturation. She surrendered her womb, where Jesus progressed through the various stages of embryonic and fetal development as he took in the nutrients supplied by her blood. Once born, she gave him her body’s milk, and often forwent sleep to attend to his cries, a deprivation all mothers have known. But her provision was more than physical. She also nurtured, with the help of Joseph, his intellectual, emotional, and spiritual growth, fulfilling as best she could that universal parental calling.

O’Donnell’s poem juxtaposes the deity of Christ—in particular, his role as Creator and Sustainer of the universe—with his humanity, highlighting how he is one who both shapes and was shaped. He chose the color of each and every flower, he programmed the angular speed of Earth’s rotation and its atmospheric circulation patterns, he wrote the laws of thermodynamics, he makes energy-rich grain to grow under his vast expanse of sky, and he conducts the choir of Nature: makes the stars to sing in soft duet with the twilight, then cues in the wild avian melodies of the morning. Monumental feats—all these. Testaments to his mastery and might.

And yet as the incarnate boychild Jesus of Nazareth, he sat at his mother’s knee, learning from her the sacred stories of his people, and how to address the Father they had in common.

We know from her Magnificat that Mary was a woman of deep passion and yearning, gratitude and praise, and from the Annunciation account, we get a sense of her courageous trust. Luke 2:19 points to her contemplative nature, and the Passion narratives attest to her faithfulness. These qualities characterized the way she lived, and infused the spiritual instruction she gave her son.  

Maybe it seems heretical to suggest that Jesus could learn anything from Mary or anyone else, especially how to interact with, interpret the word of, and honor the I Am he had coexisted with since eternity. [1] But I don’t think so. In chapter 2 of his Gospel, Luke says that Jesus “grew and became strong, filled [becoming full of, increasing] with wisdom” (verse 40), and again, that he “increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man” (verse 52). It’s possible that this wisdom was imparted to him gradually by the Spirit—but the Gospels don’t mention the Spirit’s descent on him until his baptism as an adult. It’s only reasonable to believe that his parents played a role in his growing knowledge and understanding.

Mary and Joseph would have steeped Jesus in all the beliefs and ritual practices of Judaism. (He didn’t have a rabbinical education, John 7:15 tells us, so their influence was all the more important.) They taught him the meaning of his name (“Yahweh’s salvation”), and probably the story of his miraculous conception. They taught him how to recite scripture and sing the traditional psalms, how to wear his tzitzit (prayer tassels), and how to observe the seven great annual feasts. They also brought him regularly to synagogue, establishing what Luke 4:16 refers to as “his custom”; here he heard the word of God read aloud and exposited, week after week. His knowledge and understanding would soon surpass that of his parents and the rabbis, and he would end up teaching them how to follow God. But until that turn, he was himself a student, absorbing most readily the words and living example of Mom and Dad.

I love Henry Ossawa Tanner’s tender visualization of one such moment of maternal teaching. In Christ and His Mother Studying the Scriptures, Mary sits on a stone bench with an unfurled scroll, her other arm around her boy’s waist. Jesus nuzzles close and points to a particular verse, maybe asking, “What’s this mean, Mama?” or requesting, as children so often do, “Read it again!”

An earthen jar sits to the left, suggesting a domestic space. It alludes to Jesus’s first recorded miracle, where his mother too plays a part: turning water into wine at a Cana wedding. It also calls to mind the future episode of Jesus in the house of Martha and Mary, in which he praises Mary for not being anxious, like her sister, over household chores, but rather choosing “the good portion”: listening to the Word.

Tanner used his wife, Jessie, and their son, Jesse, as models for the painting.

It’s unlikely that the Holy Family would have had home access to any of the biblical scrolls [2]—though maybe they made the investment for one or more (or were gifted them), who knows. In any case, collections were maintained at the local synagogue and could be read there.

What a ministry Mary had—to raise the Son of God! There was no precedent she could look to for guidance, so she just threw herself wholeheartedly at the task, learning as she went. Her religious zeal, devotion, and insight were no doubt formative in Jesus’s life.

***

Charles Leo O’Donnell was born in Greenfield, Indiana, in 1884, the son of Irish immigrants. He studied Anglo-Saxon literature at Harvard, then went on to receive his doctorate at the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. In 1910 he received ordination into the Congregation of Holy Cross (CSC) and forthwith began a professorship in the English department of the University of Notre Dame, all the while maintaining his own writing practice, which centered on religious poetry.

In 1916 O’Donnell published his first collection of poems, The Dead Musician, and Other Poems, which he dedicated to his mother. His other two volumes—published in 1922 and 1928, respectively—are titled Cloister, and Other Poems and The Rime of the Rood, and Other Poems. (Collected Poems was published posthumously by his nephew in 1942.)

During World War I, O’Donnell served as a military chaplain, stationed first in Austria, then in Italy. When he returned, he continued teaching at the University Notre Dame up until 1928, when he became president, successfully steering his predecessor’s campus expansion projects through the Great Depression. He filled that role until his death from a strep infection in 1934. He was forty-nine.


NOTES

1. ^ Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, thought so. He allegedly received new revelation on the topic, which he inserted, in his 1833 revision of the Bible, between what traditional Bibles enumerate as Matthew 2:23 and 3:1:

And it came to pass that Jesus grew up with his brethren, and waxed strong, and waited upon the Lord for the time of his ministry to come. And he served under his father, and he spake not as other men, neither could he be taught; for he needed not that any man should teach him. And after many years, the hour of his ministry drew nigh. (Matthew 3:24–26 JLT, emphasis added)

2. ^ According to Alan Millard, professor emeritus of Semitic languages, personal ownership of scripture scrolls among the Jews of ancient Palestine was probably only for the well-to-do. He estimates that a complete Hebrew Bible would occupy fifteen to twenty scrolls and cost about half a year’s wages—not exorbitant, but not cheap either. See the book Reading and Writing in the Time of Jesus (Sheffield Academic, 2000).

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