“Your birth, O Virgin Mother of God, proclaims joy to the whole world, for from you arose the glorious Sun of Justice, Christ our God; he freed us from the age-old curse and filled us with holiness; he destroyed death and gave us eternal life.”
- Antiphon for the Canticle of Zechariah, Morning Prayer for Sept. 8
I was struck this morning at mass by the Gospel reading, which was the genealogy and Annunciation from Matthew. The whole list of patriarchs and fathers, with the occasional mention of the mother:
“Judah became the father of Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar. . .Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab. Boaz became the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth. . . .David became the father of Solomon, whose mother had been the wife of Uriah. . .”
It goes on like that, and then,
“Achim the father of Eliud, Eliud the father of Eleazar. Eleazar the father of Matthan, Matthan the father of Jacob, Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary.
A genealogy goes down the line and then suddenly, there is a twist; suddenly a man is named, but he is not noted as the father or someone, or the son of someone but as the husband of the mother, who is -O mystery- the Mother of Completeness, the Mother of Our Creator, the Mother of the Christ.
A subtle twist in the narrative signals that everything is different, now.
There is a giant spike driven into the line of patriarchy, here; suddenly it is not the father who matters most, but the Mother, and before Jesus is even born -while he is gestating, being “knitted in secret, in the womb” and taking his own flesh and blood from Mary’s- we understand that nothing will ever be as it was.
Good St. Joseph contented himself with doing the will of God, as expressed to him by an angel. He quietly assented to the unprecedented role of Guardian and Parent over both the Ark of the New Covenant and the Eternal, respectively, so that the very Word of Creation might Incarnate and set His tent with us.
Consider: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. – John 1:1
In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless wasteland, and darkness covered the abyss, while a mighty wind swept over the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. -Genesis 1:1-3
…something from nothing, voids and space – I’m describing Mary’s virginal womb at the time of the Annunciation. But perhaps I am also describing the condition of Mary’s own soul at the time of her own conception. The God of No Accidents, who Is, Was, Ever Shall Be, the God who breathed forth Creation with it’s Incarnational mirror already in place, knew his Vessel. He knew from where the Ark of his New Covenant would come, for he would provide it, and in the necessary – pristine (not perfect, but pristine – there is a difference) condition.
Gabriel called her “full of grace.”
Mary had free will – she could have said no to the angel’s message – but being “full of grace,” why would she? She was born for her role in the pageant of salvation, that of assenting virgin, full of trust. If we think back to those lines from Genesis, and John, we can almost consider Mary-in-utero to be a sort of mirror of the quiescent “nothing” that existed before Creation. A created creature, loved into being and marked by grace, lies waiting to be born. She lives and grows obscurely, still this model of quiescence.
Then there is movement. God stirs, but this time, instead of saying, “Let there be…(light, etc)” it is the created creature who says the Word as she utters her Fiat. “Yes,” she says, “let it be…”
The words of Creation, of positive assent, affirmation, words that permit life rather than refuse. Thus creature co-operates with creator and there comes a second, more muted, but not discreet “big bang” (what’s discreet about angels, shepherds and kings?) and the world is made anew. New Creation. New Creatures.
From the stillpoint “nothing” of Mary’s physical and spiritual blank sheet, comes…the rest of the story. Salvation. Return. The Way back to where we started.
Why is Mary so important to Catholics, why do we honor her so greatly and call her “Blessed”? Why do we even go to the trouble to recall her birth? She was “just a woman,” right? Well, no. She was “full of grace.” She would have to be. I am just a woman. Billions of people are “just women,” and most of them are very good, very decent people, but could any of them have been the exceptional vessel meant to carry, nourish, enflesh and deliver to the world its Creator and Savior?
Mary’s goodness was by no merit of her own; she was given the grace to be this pristine entity. She was given the grace, also, to say “yes” to Gabriel, when a “no” would have been perfectly understandable, given her age and era. She acknowledges all of that in her splendid Magnificat in the Gospel of Luke.
But we remember and celebrate the fact of her birth because -whether merited or not- she was the one chosen by God to ignite a force that still burns in mankind.
It all began when it began. But the beginning of Completeness is what we celebrate today, when we celebrate the birth of Mary, the Theotokos, the God-bearer. The sublime Mother who Jesus, at the foot of his cross, gave to all of us.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our deaths.
If I have time today, I will record a podcast of the Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary, to go along with the Rosary Podcast you see in the right-hand sidebar.
UPDATED: I note that Webster at Why I am Catholic also picked up on the twist in the genealogy, today, and he has a typically terrific and thoughtful post up for the day, but I found this especially interesting:
I spent long enough in the Congregational and Episcopal churches to understand that there is a certain prejudice against our devotion to Mary. I find this ironic, coming from Churches that are now in a rush to ordain women. Our Church, the Holy Catholic Church, has honored the Blessed Virgin Mary as not just an important woman but as Theotokos, the Mother of God, for Gosh sakes, for the better part of 2000 years, but that wasn’t good enough for you, my Protestant brothers and sisters? So now, by act of human will, and in the times in which we live, you’re going to set matters straight by elevating the ecclesial status of women? Cool.
Ah, snark. But he’s right. Mary, like the Virgin Martyrs and so many females in the church, are routinely denigrated by some of the more gender-fixated among us, who seem to feel that a woman given the role of God-bearer, or the many women given roles as Martyr, Witness & Chronicler, Pope-Corrector, Warrior, Theologian & Reformer, Education Innovator, Hospital-builder, Global Media Entrepreneur, Champion of the Elderly, Champion of Poorest of the Poor, Champion of the Working Poor, Minister to the Oppressed, and so forth are women who have been given “lesser” roles, and “lesser” gifts, all because they have been denied a specific ordination. What a narrow way of seeing things.
I wrote many moons ago, service to God begins not with a “give me” but with a “please take”. And, as Archbishop Timothy Dolan expressed so well in this video, each of our ministering roles is “pure gift from God, not a trophy earned.”
Fr. John Hardon The Blessed Virgin in the History of Christianity