Ironically, in this season proclaiming peace and goodwill, perpetual controversy seems to swirl around the Virgin Mary. The problem is not going away. . Her prominence in the Christmas story is quite unavoidable if you believe in the Incarnation. Although Luke is the only Gospel to detail the story, Jesus has a Mother if he is human, and therein lies a story if he is also divine. Some trendy modern exegetes scoff at the idea, contending that Jesus’ own existence cannot be proved, as Albert Schweitzer concluded.
Using the same logic, it is also impossible to prove, of course, that Albert Schweitzer existed. Our knowledge of the past depends on the reports of those who were there, handed down to us over the generations, with occasional corroboration from archaeology. Luke’s witness is further validated as inspired authority by its inclusion as Canon by the assenting community of the Faithful, in the working of the Holy Spirit, but still requires belief. Even without such powerful authority, most of us also tend to believe Schweitzer existed, too.
Beyond exegesis, the very veneration shown to Mary by some makes others nervous and dismissive. Part of this is misinformation asserting “Catholics worship Mary” and similar propaganda. Others know that to be incorrect but are still reluctant to grant the full role that Mary plays in salvation history.
Terrence W. Klein uses the analogy of the successful recount to describe what is happening here. Adam and Eve voted themselves and humanity out of Paradise. God refuses to accept that as the final answer and gives a second chance, instead of automatically applying the consequences of their decision. We call that salvation history, the persistent love of God for his creation that says, to quote the song, “I can’t stop loving you.”
The events of the second chance, long foretold, come in the First Century. It seems essential to God’s plan that human cooperation is requested, but is not forced. The point of it is that God creates mankind to be the stewards of his earth. In return, humanity can live in a perpetual paradise. Adam and Eve, speaking on behalf of all of us, vote a resounding “no” to the idea, and in rebellion, propose to become gods themselves.
Out of the wreckage of this, God returns, again seeking human cooperation. We don’t know if he tried others before Mary and received refusals. Mary certainly has a lively discussion with the angel, and the matter does not proceed until her decision. Her assent is fraught with consequences. Even though betrothed, her pregnancy would be considered scandalous, and punishable. And she has no assurance at the time that Joseph will accept this. In short, she risks ruining her life. No wonder Luke reports she is “greatly troubled.”
Yet where Eve says “no” to God, Mary says “yes.” Just as Jesus, as the second Adam, will be obedient to the Father and go the way of the Cross, Mary as the second Eve will make it possible. It is easy for Eve to assent, yet she refuses in her arrogance. It is very difficult for Mary in her circumstances to assent, yet in an enormous leap of faith and courage, she is obedient in her humility. The Magnificat which she expresses to Elizabeth establishes that humility as a foundational principle for the whole event.
What do we take away from this? Elizabeth comments that it makes Mary “blessed among women.” As creedal formations developed in the first centuries of Christianity, Mary was designated as “Theotokos,” literally “bearer of God.” For an orthodox Christian who believes in the Incarnation and the Trinity, it is the obvious designation.
But it is possible to miss the human being in the theological formulation. “No hay dos,” as the Spanish expression puts it, there is only one. She is arguably the first Christian chronologically. But equally, as someone essential in the process of restoring the Lord’s earth to its intended original condition, her obedience and action serves as role model for all Christians, first in status as well as chronology, as the humble are eventually exalted, according to her Magnificat.
The Roman Church goes in another direction with the fairly recent decree of the Immaculate Conception. But is not the whole point that Mary, like Eve, has the choice to accept or decline the offer? The very greatness of Mary is that she is like us, fully sharing the human condition. In spite of that frailty, she is yet willing, greatly troubled though she is, to give her assent to God. For a sinless Mary, it wouldn’t be all that troubling. But this woman, shaken, confused, doubting, terrified, as I would have been, nevertheless says yes, overcomes her sinful nature by faithfulness, tramples the snake as it were. This is what catapults her up past the cherubim and seraphim. She does not shed her humanity, remaining mired in the human condition. Yet she fulfills her humanity, pulls it back to where it ought to be, on the glory road.
She thus becomes first among equals of the people of God. The humble last indeed become first. And the birth of her son is most humble. He is born to a humble unmarried virgin, in the extremely humble circumstances of the stable to a humble poor family from a backwoods town, and in an equally humble womb. Nor should we expect otherwise from someone whose kenosis could not be more drastic than surrendering heavenly glory. Even if a little glory leaks through the angelic choir to the shepherds, it is a story of tough times which get worse as the family become refugees to escape a violent evil dictator. In short, the divine Son doesn’t come on a state visit to tour the disaster scene. He comes to be part of it. His Mother is likewise not recused from sharing in it.
Mary’s crucial, voluntary and sacrificial participation in all this deserves our gratitude and veneration. Even more, we note a quality of leadership to follow, her example of a “yes” to God regardless of how difficult the circumstances or consequences. There can be many times modern Christians feel “greatly troubled,” up to and including martyrdom. And we, like Mary, are frail sinful humans. That is precisely why we so need her example and leadership.
The veneration we give to Mary is usually to note her humility, mildness and faithfulness. All of these attributes are true. But do not forget also her great courage and fortitude in accepting this mission. If this woman, who is like us, can achieve this level of faithfulness, so can we. Let Mary be your guide, not only to the manger but to the feast at Cana and to the foot of the Cross, as her faithfulness continues. Marian controversy can be replaced, through her example of navigating troubled waters by focused faithfulness and assent to God, until we stand with the immense host at the very throne of her God and ours, those who were often greatly troubled but nevertheless said “yes” to their Lord.