Hail Mary!

Here's an article I wrote for Slate.com for Christmas Eve this year....You may have more in common with the Mother of God than you think.

If card manufacturers still think of Mary as a fair-skinned beauty queen, many Christians, especially Catholics, don't even think of her as human: Mary exists on a more exalted plane. For Catholics she is the "Blessed Mother," the "Blessed Virgin Mary," and, according to the Council of Ephesus, which convened in 431 A.D., the "Mother of God." (The dogma-making council reasoned that if Jesus was fully human and fully divine—the two natures inseparable—Mary had to be mother of both, hence Theotokos, or "Mother of God," literally "God-bearer.")


Though I believe in all these titles, such lofty theological images can obscure Mary's earthy humanity and distance her from us. And that's lamentable. The human Mary has a lot to teach Christians—actually, everyone: men and women, from the devout believer to the doubtful seeker to the disbelieving atheist.

Just look at her story as recounted in the Gospel of Luke. Even if you doubt that the narrative is told accurately, you have to admit that buried within this supposedly pious and saccharine Bible tale is the vivid image of a strong, resilient, and self-possessed woman.

To begin with, the first time Mary opens her mouth in the New Testament, it is to question God. "How can this be, since I am a virgin?" she asks, after the angel tells her that she will give birth (a reasonable enough question). Her response to something surprising in her life—and that's quite an understatement—is to question. To doubt. Here is one moment where her entirely human life intersects our own.

Who hasn't wanted to ask in the face of a life-altering change, "How can this be?" Holy confusion is a natural part of the life of any believer—indeed, any person. Ironically, earlier in Luke's Gospel, Zechariah, the soon-to-be father of John the Baptist, doesn't fare as well with his question. When he doubts that his elderly wife will conceive a son, a manifestly testy angel strikes him dumb. When Mary airs her confusion, the angel politely furnishes her with an explanation—albeit a confusing one. It's a striking example of biblical favoritism for women.

Where else does Mary's human life intersect with your own, with your friends, with family members, with parishioners?  Read the rest here in "Hail Mary," on Slate.  

Merry Christmas!

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James Lindsay
9 years ago
Thank you for your comment about the Latin ethno-centric portrayals of Mary's race (which frankly reduce the value of most Vatican art due to their innaccuracy). I suspect she looked more like our current President than she is portrayed in most western art.

What I like most about the Luke narrative is the Magnificant. It shows that Mary is a bit of a radical (which is born out in the naming of Jesus, Simon and Jude during the time of Roman occupation). This means she would likely also have voted for our current President, rather than with a party whose Calvinist worship of the rich is not in keeping with the doctrine of the Magnificant.
9 years ago
Main Entry: hand·maid·en
Pronunciation: -?m?-d?n
Variant(s): also hand·maid -?m?d
Function: noun
Date: 13th century
1 : a personal maid or female servant
2 : something whose essential function is to serve or assist

No matter the efforts to re-write the story, Mary was a servant, come to bear the birth of the helpless Christ Child. Our helpless baby to bear, as Annie Dillard would tell us. Sorry, Joan Chittister, not a terribly palatable notion, but there you have it: SERVANT.
Pearce Shea
9 years ago
I think whether or not Nazareth was some backwater town is debatable. I have read in multiple sources (I can't lay hand to them now as my books and I are apart) that while Nazareth was poor and pretty much one big slum, it was the residence of a number of poor scholars, artists, etc. and served as sort of like the suburbs for a nearby rather large city. Sort of like Brooklyn. (Kidding!) So not really a backwater in the usual sense: not full of uneducated bumpkins but just a lot of poor, culturally sophisticated people.
It's worth noting too that the trek to Elizabeth was over rough, hilly, very dangerous company and Mary made it alone, pregnant, and at an age where most parents won't let their kids wander around the mall without supervision.
I do sort of take exception to the pains Johnson and a few other writers go to to make Mary look like some sophisticated, independent, rebellious young woman. It's not that it's they are wrong on any of it, but that they are trying to make it sound like Mary was some sort of smart, young Bolshevik (ok, well, rebellious I don't agree with. It's stretching it... usually the rebelliousness is suggested by contrasting her actions with those expected by a purported patriarchal hierarchy which likely didn't exist in the large, wealthier jewish communities and certainly never existed in Nazareth). It's likely that she and Joseph both were rather sophisticated. They lived in a town, not a village and one nearby a cultural and financial center. Joseph's job brought in a lot of different sorts of people and it took him to a lot of different places. Women of Mary's age and of her socioeconomic background were expected to do a lot of things on their own. She would have probably already been haggling at the market, going to the market herself, tending to animals herself, caring for younger children. The point here is that there is nothing too shocking about Mary's decision insofar as social and economic considerations go. At 14 or so she would have already been expected to take on a lot of responsibility without making recourse to some man's decision making power. Mary was a tough cookie. Necessarily so. 
9 years ago
Thanks for this post.  Merry Christmas, Fr. Martin  :)
Joseph Farrell
9 years ago
Beautiful piece, Father. Thanks very much, and Merry Christmas!
9 years ago
Thank you Father Martin, for your reflections on Mary.  Blessed Mother, Theotokos, tough Jewish girl, full of courage, accepting of God's will, oh so many ways to think about her.  My own mother who lost her mother at a young age had herself adopted by Mary and for all of her 92 years she derived strength from that relationship.  You wrote of Mary's  question:  "How can this be?'  I have asked that question many times after the births and in raising my mentally disabled children.  I had never thought of it as "holy confusion" and I rather like that idea!  
Perhaps there are as many ideas of Mary as there are people who relate to her.  Each of us with our unique needs and our individual paths to Christ.
The Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth, lately in the news, has a beautiful collection of paintings of Mary and Jesus, each one a gift from a different country and each reflecting that country's people and culture.  There are brown madonnas and Christ childs from Mexico and the Philipines,  My favorite is the painting from Japan. a classic Japanese Mother and Child.     Mary is, after all, the mother of all peoples.
As a tie-in with your article, I'd like to recommend an essay by Kathryn Jean Lopez, editor of National Review Online titled:  "Making Room on Campus".  and dated, 12-23-09.  A young woman, Lacy Dodd had an unexpected pregnancy while a senior at Notre Dame.  She named her daughter, Mary, and tells how Our Blessed Mother inspired her in becoming a mother herself.  Her story gives a positive picture of the university named for Our Lady as being supportive to her in her pregnancy.  She would like to see ND be in the forefront in this cause.
Merry Christmas, Father Martin!  Peace , Joy and Courage.  You are a blessing to us all.
Bill Bordas
9 years ago
Thank you, Father Martin, for this beautiful and inspiring piece! I hope you had a wonderful Christmas and will have a grand new year!
Michael Widner
9 years ago
Can anyone tell me the title and or artist of this painting in the blog piece?


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