The Blessed Virgin Mary was the subject of an exhibition at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in 2014. She drew record-breaking attendance at the Washington D.C. museum, proving Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen’s description of her as “the world’s first love” was very apt.
“What Is It About Mary?”
The exhibition, “Picturing Mary: Woman, Mother, Idea,” represented Marian artwork from the 14th-19th centuries. In December 2015, National Geographic put Mary on the cover. Just a year after the exhibition— the cover declared Mary “the most powerful woman in the world”. Susan Goldberg, Editor in Chief, posed the question: “What is it about Mary?” Many of us would answer, “everything”.
Scholars, artists, theologians, and lay people throughout history have asked Goldberg’s question. Mary (as the Council of Ephesus affirmed) is the Theotokos, ‘Bearer of God’. Her presence is known throughout the world. As the National Geographic story reveals , Mary unites people who “share little but a belief that Mary stands up for them, approves of them, and watches out for them.” Her significance transcends “disparate cultures” and “places”. Catholics around the world will celebrate the 100th Anniversary of Fatima this year. The universality of Mary’s love is a message for all people.
Mary’s Universal Presence
Goldberg cited Melissa R. Katz, an art history professor at Wesleyan University, and her reflections on the impact of Marian imagery. Katz affirms Mary’s global influence: ‘You see yourself and your concerns reflected.’ Father Bertrand Buby, interviewed for the story, stated Mary is ‘the universal.’
Mary has a big data number cruncher named Michael O’Neill who is a Stanford University graduate. He has “codified every known apparition of Mary back to A.D. 40.” Mary is no curiosity, though. Her image and her maternal love reflect the ineffable mystery as ‘Bearer of God’. No matter how big the data is or how wide her influence, she is always personal and sacred. While the Church is respectfully and prudently cautious toward Marian apparitions, one thing is certain: A good mother she is, indeed. The author, Maureen Orth, noted Pope Francis once said, ‘She is my mama.’
Mary’s Divine Maternity
The world needs a divine mama.
To suggest that we have a relationship with a divine mother is not superstitious, immature or banal. Neither should it be dismissed as idolatry. To turn to Mary is to turn to a spiritual mother—whose maternal love nurtured Christ in her womb and in the home of the Holy Family. It is Mary’s motherhood which captures our hearts. In her Immaculate Heart many find protection and solace. Her compassion and humility are not a mere historical or biblical footnote, or simply reflective of feminine subordination—rather, she is the “the woman” who is prophetically foreshadowed in Genesis 3:15. It is her humility and love that conquer souls. She is a tender warrior.
Mary is “the woman” preserved from original sin by her Immaculate Conception. Father William Most confirmed the importance of the doctrine:
Now, the Church continues to elucidate the scriptural basis of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. Pius XII, in Fulgens corona, 1953 wrote: “… the foundation of this doctrine is seen in the very Sacred Scripture itself, in which God … after the wretched fall of Adam, addressed the … serpent in these words… ‘I will put enmity….’ But if at any time, the Blessed Virgin Mary, defiled in her conception with the hereditary stain of sin, had been devoid of divine grace, then at least, even though for a very brief moment of time, there would not have been that eternal enmity between her and the serpent … but instead there would have been a certain subjection.
How a Soul Grows in Grace
We should ponder the eternal maternity and perfect love of Mary. Her will was supremely united to God’s will. She was obedient and receptive to grace. If we desire to grow in grace, Mary is the model.
Fr. Most explains how a soul grows in grace:
In general, a soul will grow in proportion to these things: (1) The greater the dignity of the person, the greater the merit. In her case, the dignity of Mother of God is the highest possible for a creature. (2) The greater the work, the greater the merit: her cooperation in the redemption was the greatest work possible to a creature. (3) The greater the love, the greater the merit. Love of God means the attachment of our will to His. Her will adhered supremely, with no obstacle at all, so that even ordinary household duties, which she saw as the will of the Father for her, were supremely valuable.
Holiness, Everyday Effort
I am learning to see household duties in a new light (most days!) as Mary might see them. I will admit that finding empty soda cans on the coffee table and candy wrappers left by teen-aged children provokes some head-scratching and words. Likewise, it leaves me with an opportunity for spiritual meditation. Mary helps me to “clean up” my messes when I fail to act charitably or when I succumb to spiritual discouragement. She is compassionate toward our weaknesses and teaches us about holiness as a 24/7 vocation.
Consider that Mary might have despised us as a natural expression of her grief for Jesus’ suffering. Yet also consider her words at the wedding at Cana: “When the wine ran out, the mother of Jesus said to him, ‘They have no wine.’ And Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.’ His mother said to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you’ (John 2:3-5).
Mary urges a miracle that is the beginning of Christ’s journey to the cross. At the foot of the cross, she does not despise the cry of sinners nor hold them in contempt. Surely, she prayed perfectly amid deep natural grief and mysterious joy for what God accomplished.
The Church and Mary
But while in the most Blessed Virgin the Church has already reached that perfection whereby she exists without spot or wrinkle, the faithful still strive to conquer sin and increase in holiness. And so they turn their eyes to Mary”:306 in her, the Church is already the ‘all-holy’. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 829)
We turn our eyes to Mary because she is a perfect mother—even non-Christians (as the National Geographic story points out) acknowledge her maternal wisdom and love. There is something special about motherhood—in Mary, virginity and motherhood are united and maternity is both sublime and ordinary.
Maternal wisdom is honored by families throughout the world, especially in Judaism. For example, it is tradition for a Jewish mother to light the Shabbat (Sabbath) candles. The mother illumines the darkness of night by lighting the candles. She offers peace and blessing to the home—a sanctuary from the chaos of the world. The Blessed Virgin Mary, similarly, lights hearts with the flames of charity. She brings us Jesus, the light of the world. We are sheltered by our eternal spiritual mother. Her love is a spiritual sanctuary for refugees who flee the spirit of the world.
We are assured of her love for us and her divine aid. When I consider the objections that some might have about Mary—most of them arise out of misunderstanding. More importantly, as Catholics, a picture or image of Mary helps us to remember the call to holiness, the universal vocation of love. It is interesting to consider, as Archbishop Sheen did, that before people would look upon sacred artwork or an image of Mary, God “had her in mind” from eternity, “before the world was made”.
Sheen wrote, “His Mother was not like ours, whom we accepted as something historically fixed, which we could not change; He was born of a mother whom he chose before He was born. It is the only instance in history where both the Son willed the Mother and the Mother willed the Son.”
The Perfect Mother
We should not be surprised that she is spoken of as a thought by God before the world was made. When Whistler painted the picture of his mother, did he not have the image of her in his mind before he ever gathered his colors on his palette? If you could have preexisted your mother (not artistically, but really), would you not have made her the most perfect woman that ever lived—one so beautiful she would have been the sweet envy of all women, and one so gentle and so merciful that all other mothers would have sought to imitate her virtues? Why, then, should we think that God would do otherwise? When Whistler was complimented on the portrait of his mother, he said, “You know how it is; one tries to make one’s Mummy just as nice as he can.” When God became Man, He too, I believe, would make His Mother as nice as He could—and that would make her a perfect Mother. (World’s First Love, Mary Mother of God, 15)
Remember, O Most Gracious Virgin Mary…
God made his mother to be the most perfect woman that lived. Should it please our Lord to know that we love the woman He gave us? So loved is she that her image is sought after by crowds. Her spiritual children bear a resemblance to their heavenly mother when they strive to live the vocation of love. In the midst of our troubles, comfort comes to us from a mother’s heart. Thankfully, God, in his infinite mystery, has given us the wisdom of the Church and the motherhood of Mary.
Remember, O most gracious Virgin Mary, that never was it known that anyone who fled to thy protection, implored thy help, or sought thine intercession was left unaided.
Inspired by this confidence, I fly unto thee, O Virgin of virgins, my mother; to thee do I come, before thee I stand, sinful and sorrowful. O Mother of the Word Incarnate, despise not my petitions, but in thy mercy hear and answer me.