May 13th will mark the 10th anniversary of the beatification of Jacinta and Francisco, two young shepherds of Fatima, Portugal. Pope Benedict XVI will be in Portugal to celebrate the event. Pilgrims in Fatima will not only find the Holy Father but will also remember the Holy Mother who appeared to Jacinta and Francisco. Fatima on Mary 13th is the place to be for rosary wielders or anyone who, like Jesus, calls Mary, “Mother”. Devotion to the mother of Jesus is old, much older (and profound) than John Lennon’s Let it be, and still older than the 1917 apparitions in Fatima, Portugal.
Now usually we think “old” means “dying”. A person who is a hundred and nine is nearing death. An idea of motherhood that is 1998 years old is probably also dying. The world today is not the same as it was a long time ago and so motherhood from a long time ago appears of little relevance to our idea of motherhood today. If you rage about Mother Mary’s traditional virtues, obedience and humility, you may sound like a clang from the Middle Ages, an ancient world, an antediluvian period.
The modern mom is different. She feels the need to be proactive, to carve her mark on society with an acute sense of self assertion and pro-activeness. Be different, make a difference. The outgoing, courageous, and going out motherhood of Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side is more attractive than a woman who spent her life in a forsaken town of Galilee. This is the generation that embraces innovation and tosses aside sterile conformity. That is all good. But for outsiders to the upcoming Fatima rave, it may make the event appear as an attempt to plug a dying devotion of the past into a few hours of life support.
Maybe the motherhood of Mary would be anachronistic, if only her humility and obedience made her great. But our oldest authority on Jesus’ mother seems to say there was much more about her. The Gospel of Luke, written in the same century Mary lived, begins the narrative describing a virgin who was betrothed to a man named Joseph. To begin with, virginity was about the most non-conforming commitment a girl could take in first century Israel. It is true that temporary abstinence sometimes had a purpose in Hebrew history. King David imposed it on his soldiers to keep them focused on long campaigns. Uriah the Hittite abstained from visiting his wife though he was home on leave. He did so to maintain solidarity with his comrades out in the battlefield.
A normal person, however, did not simply abstain from relations for life and remain a virgin. The in-thing to do for Hebrew women was to procreate, have a big family with many sons and a couple of daughters. In fact, the only real support group for virgins was the Essene community. But according to the Jewish historian, Josephus, they disdained marriage and others say they even condemned it. The Essene virginity shared little resemblance to the Virgin Mary who hiked to Cana (Jn 2) to attend a wedding feast and then made sure there was more than enough wine for the guests. Mary’s harmonious commitment to virginity and appreciation for marriage made her unique. But even that was just the beginning of a rare show of courage and initiative.
“Let it be…,” she says to the angel (Lk 1:38). In her virginity she agrees to conceive of the Holy Spirit; that is, to conceive without “knowing man” and remain a virgin. To remain a virgin was already somewhat odd. To become an unwed mother was disgraceful. To end up an unwed single virgin mother was really far out. But that was what she was opting for. After all, St. Joseph, would most likely realize that the premature conception during their betrothal period had nothing to do with himself. He was not around while the angel clarified things for Mary. So he would do one of two things: turn her in to be stoned or quietly divorce her. Mary was aware of this custom of her times, and so as she was saying “Let it be” to the angel this disjunctive must have entered her mind. Perhaps she was thinking which would be worse: to die young or to live as a social outcast. Whatever her preferences, her answer was still a courageous “Let it be….”
Luke’s Annunciation passage leaves us with an image of Mary’s motherhood that any mother today could aspire to. She appears obedient and humble, but also courageous, and daring enough to be radically different. She was un-conforming to the point of sacrificing social esteem in order to take up the Hebrew woman’s dream of becoming the mother of the Messiah. Maybe, in the end, humility and obedience will always be some of her trademark virtues and maybe we will always think of her as the young girl in the wrinkle free dress bowing in quiet ascent to the request of an angel. But to the Pope chasers and Marian devotees of May 13th, to every Christian who knows what Christ her son has accomplished—that Let it be will go down as the three most proactive and daring words in world history.
John Antonio, LC studies for the priesthood with the Legionaries of Christ in New York.
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