In the Gospels, the Virgin Mary is the alabaster embodiment of grace and suffering, the mater dolorosa — but also largely voiceless. We know little about her except for her virginity and her grief.
In the grim and lovely Testament of Mary, Colm Toibin gives voice to the mother of Jesus. Elderly and isolated in Ephesus, menaced by the persecutors of her dead son as well as by his followers, Mary narrates her memories of the Crucifixion in cold, vivid detail.
At first, she is bored by her son’s followers, “unshaven brutes and twitchers,” and then she is unnerved. She watches Jesus address them, “his voice all false, and his tone all stilted,” and feels uneasy. As Jesus’ fame grows and he gathers more and more followers, he becomes a stranger to her. She realizes with mounting horror that her son is doomed, and she does not share his conviction that he will rise again.
Now, years after the Crucifixion, two of Jesus’ followers — seemingly St. John and St. Paul, though, like so much else in this novella, their identities are left ambiguous — visit Mary. Cunning and cruel, they intimidate her, wanting her to confirm the story of Jesus’ divinity. But Mary refuses, knowing that the scribe has “written of things that neither he saw nor I saw.”
The work is pointedly not called a gospel — good news — but a testament — a giving witness to, an attestation. “I was there,” she says. And, having seen the Crucifixion, the Mother of God tells the apostles: “I can tell you now, when you say that he redeemed the world, I will say that it was not worth it.”
Much of the elegance of this novella comes from its language, which is poetic but spare, much like cryptic music of the Gospels. And, as in the Gospels, understatement and implication are used to great effect. Most expressively, the name “Jesus” is never used — not once. Neither is Christ. Instead, Mary calls him “my son” or “him” or even “the one who was here.” Part of this is her pain — she cannot bear to say the name — but part of it is also a refusal to contribute to the narrative of the man named Jesus Christ.
Toibin leaves the most important questions unanswered: Did he cure the sick? Raise the dead? Turn water into wine? Mary only hears stories.
Toibin neither confirms nor denies the revival of Lazarus, but makes it clear that if he was raised, it was not a blessing but a curse. He can barely walk and suffers excruciating pain: “If he had come back to life, it was merely to say a last farewell to it.” In Mary’s view, not only was it a bad idea — it was also a violation: “No one should tamper with the fullness that is death,” she says. Of course, that is exactly what the Gospel writers attempt — to change the death of Jesus into a rebirth. And Mary resists all the way, though she knows that their version will triumph: “They will thrive and prevail and I will die.”
Lovely, understated and powerfully sad, The Testament of Mary finally gives the mother of Jesus a chance to speak. And, given that chance, she throws aside the blue veil of the Madonna to become wholly, gloriously human.