When we think of Mary, many images come to mind: Our Lady of Lourdes, Fatima, Guadalupe, or even perhaps Czestochowa. These images, usually based on apparitions or artistic representations, fill our mind with a sense of awe. But too often we stop there. We look at the pretty image or statue, and we are struck by the beauty of the marble or canvas. I recently asked a group of students who Mary was. One told me that, “it’s that statue at church”. How sad it would be if that was the endpoint of our understanding of Mary: just a statue. Is that who Mary is? A stone-cold statue, placed in a niche of some church?
Mary is the woman most frequently portrayed in art. Countless artists have used their talents and skills to create representations of this 1st Century woman. But why this fascination with someone that no modern artist has been able to see? Is it not a visual inspiration that typically moves an artist to create? And yet here we have a mysterious woman, who has captivated the hearts of millions.
Mary of Nazareth was just an ordinary girl. Ordinary, that is, from all external appearances; she was born, grew up, and lived as a common girl of her time. She was not highly educated, nor was she famous for a craft. She was just a simple and humble girl, the daughter of Anne and Joachim. But, if one could see with the eyes of God, something was exceptionally different about this girl. This creature was chosen from before her conception to be the Mother of God. As such she was granted certain privileges. Imagine if you could create your own mother from nothing. Would you not desire to make her absolutely perfect in every way? God, who in fact did create His own mother, did just that: He created a perfect mom. She was neither rich nor educated, but she was lovely and pure. The stain of Original Sin, which has left each of us with an inclination to sin (concupiscence), could not darken her intellect or weaken her will. She was, in a word, perfectly holy.
But why preserve her from Original Sin? Why make her the Immaculate Conception? The answer is simple: to undo what Eve did in the Garden of Eden. Mary, as the New Eve, was to undo the chain of corruption which could be traced back to Genesis. In creating her all-pure, God was indicating a fresh start. Just like in the great flood of Noah’s days, there had to be a moment when all was pure again. That moment came to fruition as a little baby girl in the home of Anne and Joachim, and they named her Mariam, or Mary. She is the one spoken of all the way back in Gen 3:15. She is the long awaited Messiah’s mother. She is the New Eve, just as Christ is the New Adam. Interesting how, even in the “new creation” God chose to have a woman as a help-mate. This is a marvelous mystery, because we (of course) realize that God could have hit “refresh” all on His own. And yet He desired to have Mary as a stepping stone towards our salvation.
At the Annunciation (see Luke 2), an angel appears to Mary. Often I have read this, failing to recognize the importance of the scene. In the Old Testament, and appearance of an angel was an omen of ill tidings. That is why, when he appears to Mary, he tells her to not be afraid. What a strange opening thought! Here is an angel of God, appearing to a young uneducated teen-aged girl, and he tells her to not be fearful. In a moment of grace, which only a soul as pure as hers could understand, she obeys. She listens to the angel’s message and she interacts with him. She hears of something that sounds absolutely impossible: she will conceive without sexual relations with a man. Even she, at her young age, clearly must have know that this was not a normal conception. She may not have known about sex, but surely Anne had taught her about the “birds and the bees” or about “storks” in some way! All of heaven and earth waited for her response with bated breath, and she said “yes”. This was the world’s greatest proposal, and Mary accepted it with utmost love and humility. Talk about a fantastic way to pop the question, eh?
Many of us, myself included, fail to realize what this response meant. It was not just a nice thing to say, and then move on with life. Mary, now increasingly pregnant, faced the death sentence for a crime she would surely have been accused of: adultery. Thank goodness her beloved Joseph responded with an open heart to an angel’s message in his dream. He took Mary into his home, being told that the child is not a result of sin. Rather, this child was the Messiah, who would take away the sins of the world!
As Jesus grew up, Mary was at His side, teaching Him to all He needed to know. She played with him, sang to him, and surely cuddled her little boy. And yet she knew that another ‘yes’ was forthcoming. She knew, from the prophecy of Simeon, that a sorrowful acceptance would be asked of her. Little did she know it would take 33 years to get to that moment. And when that moment came, we are told that she stood faithfully at the foot of her Son’s cross, saying her “yes” over and over again. This pure mother, who completely offered herself to God’s plan 33 years before, was now facing the most traumatizing moment of any parent’s life–the brutal murder of a child. She did not fight back, nor did she curse the soldiers. She simply stood and suffered with her Son, hoping beyond all hope, that He would rise again, as He had promised.
And so, in Mary, we find something quite contrary to the marble statue. We find a woman with a heart. We find a gentle mother. We find a martyr. In Mary, we find an image of what we are called to, as well as a solace for the times when we fall short of our call to holiness. In Mary we find proof that, with God, nothing (and I mean NOTHING) is impossible. Finally, in her we find a blueprint of God’s plan for our life and an example of the blind trust, sacrifice, and sorrow to be expected on our pilgrimage to heaven. But rejoice! In Mary, we too have a help-mate on this journey!
Mother of God,
pray for us sinners now,
and at the hour of our death.