What do we make of the Virgin Mary?
Is she some distant biblical figure who just happened to give birth to the Son of God?
Or is she much more than this?
Mary, the Mother of God, Our lady, the women clothed in the sun, is known as the first saint.
Thomas Merton says, “In the actual living, human person who is the Virgin Mother of Christ are all the poverty and all of the wisdom of all the saints. It all came to them through her, and is in her. The sanctity of all the saints is a participation in her sanctity, because in the order He has established God wills that all graces come to men through Mary.”
In the history of humankind and patriarchy, Mary has been pushed aside for the “greater” saints who were men. And while Mary cannot be compared to God and her humanity cannot be compared to her Son’s, she is in fact the greatest human figure in our history. Merton expresses that her sanctity was the most hidden “and yet I can find her if I too become hidden in God where she is hidden.” Merton continues, “Without her, the knowledge of Christ is only speculation. But in her becomes experience because all the humility and poverty, without which Christ cannot be known, were given to her.”
Mary said yes to God. In her poverty and humility, she embraced the glorious burden of becoming the Mother of God, and it was her humility that made this so and made her a saint. Historically, saints became saints by their willfulness to sacrifice their lives for the cause of Love. No saint climbed a theological, political, or economic ladder and attained “sainthood.” The people who did this were often Caesers, kings, queens, and Pharisees, and people were often killed if they did not acknowledge their holiness. Sure sounds like a saint to me…
Mary, full of grace, birthed the Son of God, our Lord, who is fully God and who is fully man. She is the Mother of Advent. Merton says she brought him into the world perfectly pure, perfectly silent, perfectly at rest, perfectly at peace, andcentered in utter humility. She is the women clothed in the sun. Mary, without an epidural, without a comfy bed, without a midwife or professional doctor, gave birth to Christ on hay while lying under a manger.
Mary, who was “nobody” and in “her nothingness” became one the most important figures of the Christian faith by simply saying yes to God and saying yes to motherhood.
What does this say about the role of a mother?
Ask any mother, the process of giving birth to any child is the most vulnerable and humbling experience. Even more, the process of raising a child is even more strenuous. In a sense, mothers lose their personhood for a period of time, not existentially, but to the degree of caring for an infant who cannot thank them, acknowledge them, or even love them back until several years of consciousness develops.
Mary is the Mother of all Mothers.
She is the Queen of Heaven, but not in her great power, authority, or sanctity, but in her brokenness, poverty, humility, and willingness to love and carry the burden of Christ.
Thomas Merton says, “The Church cannot separate the Son and the Mother.” He continues, “this is precisely her greatest glory: that having nothing of her own, retaining nothing of a ‘self’ that could glory in anything for her own sake, she placed no obstacle to the mercy of God and in no way resisted His love and His will.
In no way, does this mean all women must become mothers, but I believe the message of humility and carrying the burden of Christ looks different to everyone and can be lived out and expressed in a multitude of ways. Women and men can learn from the grace of Mary.
On top of being a mother, Mary was also a refugee, and this only emphasizes the burden of Christ to a greater degree. In the second chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, we read the story of the “Flight into Egypt” in which, after the birth of Jesus and the visit from the Magi, an “angel of the Lord” comes to Joseph in a dream and warns him to leave Bethlehem for Egypt (Mt 2:12-15). Why? Because King Herod was planning to “seek out the child to destroy him.” Mary and Joseph do leave, along with Jesus, and, according to Matthew, make their way into Egypt. Afterward, King Herod slaughters all the male children in Bethlehem under two years of age. This dramatic episode is part of the Gospel reading for the “Feast of the Holy Innocents,” celebrated on Dec. 28. (James Martin)
Mary and her family fit the definition of refugee.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees defines refugee as:
“Someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence. A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.”
We honor and remember Maryfor her brave journey of giving birth to Jesus, the Savior of the world, and we admire her courage to face persecution that would come with raising him.
If all humans are made in the image of Christ, what does this say about babies born of mothers?
Is there something mystical to raising an infant that is caring for Christ?
What does this say about refugees fleeing their home for safety?
Is there something to “welcoming the stranger” that is actually welcoming Jesus at the borders?
Today, this is what Mary is saying to me: When we care for infants, we are caring for Christ. When we care for refugees, we are caring for Christ. When we become nothing, so Christ can be glorified, we are carrying the burden of Love. We are saying yes to God, but not out of a strict obedience to an angry God, but out of a response to Love.
Do we worship Mary? Of course not.
Do we remember and honor Mary? Of course we do.
Do we pray to Mary? That depends on your view of prayer. Many Christinas believe there is a divine mystery in praying to the saints, because the belief is that they hear us as part of the communion of saints. Whether you agree with this or not, we can all agree that their words from history are always speaking and singing within our cathedrals. And by no means, do we pray or acknowledge the saints, like we do the Trinity.
If praying to the saints freaks you out, then don't do it, but for your interest, this is the stance of the Catholic Church:
The faith of the Church is that the saints are not really dead, but are fully alive in Jesus Christ, who is life itself (John 11:25; 14:6) and the bread of life who bestows life on all who eat his flesh and drink his blood (John 6:35, 48, 51, 53-56). The saints are alive in heaven because of the life they have received through their faith in Christ Jesus and through their eating of his body and blood.
The reason we pray to the saints is that they are still members of the Body of Christ. Remember, the life which Christ gives is eternal life; therefore, every Christian who has died in Christ is forever a member of the Body of Christ. This is the doctrine which we call the Communion of the Saints. Everyone in Christ, whether living or dead, belongs to the Body of Christ.
We must never strive to be a saint. This is like striving to be “humble.” It just doesn’t work. What works is emptying ourselves to the point of nothing, so that Christ may take ahold of our lives. We’ll let history decide if we were saints after we are dead. Again, emptying ourselves and “picking up our cross” looks different for everyone, but I believe Mary is the most important saint who resembles this grace and humility so perfectly. We can’t push her aside.
Thomas Merton says, “This absolute emptiness is true devotion to the Mother of God. To find it is to find her. And to be hidden in its depths is to be full of God as she is full of Him, and to share her mission of bringing Him to all men.”
To close I will share the song of Mary found from Luke’s gospel.
This was her response to after hearing the news that she would be the mother of God.
My soul magnifies the Lord
And my spirit rejoices in God my Savior;
Because He has regarded the lowliness of His handmaid;
For behold, henceforth all generations shall call me blessed;
Because He who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is His name;
And His mercy is from generation to generation
on those who fear Him.
He has shown might with His arm,
He has scattered the proud in the conceit of their heart.
He has put down the mighty from their thrones,
and has exalted the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich He has sent away empty.
He has given help to Israel, his servant, mindful of His mercy
Even as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his posterity forever.