Our blessed mother has been especially visible these last few weeks as we have been in the throes of Advent. She may be seen on Christmas cards, in nativity sets, and essentially any kind of artistic representation of Jesus’ birth. During the rest of the year Mary tends to fade into the background for the sake of her son rising in the foreground. Mary serves for us as the prime role model of humility.
When the visage of Mary appeared on the tilma of Juan Diego, she was clothed in garments which bore special significance for the Mayan people (i.e. she wore a black belt symbolizing pregnancy) and she looked like one of the indigenous people. Her stupendous power and glory are implicit in the rays of light emanating from her figure and in the angel carrying her. And yet, despite her splendor, her eyes are tilted downward in deference to one who is even greater.
Mary’s humility was so deeply embedded in her spirit that she willingly sacrificed her personal welfare for the sake of others. For example, when she accepted God’s call to deliver Him into the world she also accepted the destruction of her personal reputation and the possibility of being stoned for adultery. When Simeon told her in the synagogue of Jesus’ destiny and of her own projected pain in the future (“And a sword will pierce your own soul too”—Luke 2:35), Mary did not resolve to shield her innocent boy from the world. She again accepted the will of God at her own expense. Her sinless nature enabled her to lose herself entirely in the service of others, thus epitomizing the nurturing mother-role.
Unfortunately, Mary’s sinless nature often makes it all too easy for us to dissociate from her and turn her into an icon. After all, how could a poor sinner like me relate to the mother of God?
First I think it is necessary that we clarify the actual definition of a sin, which is any thought or action which somehow distances you from God. When so many actions in life are arbitrarily labeled as sinful it becomes difficult to imagine a life without sin. Mary demonstrated for all of humankind that it is possible to live an average human life with a constant awareness of God and His will. Granted, it may have been a bit easier for her to maintain consistent daily contact with the Lord after Jesus’ birth since she actually got to interact with the physical manifestation of God.
Regardless, Mary was as human as you and me. When the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary she was afraid. When Jesus was born she was probably just bursting with admiration and joy. And when Jesus died, Mary certainly felt the kind of deep sadness which wracks the entire body with sobbing. Mary’s holiness did not in any way numb the intensity with which she felt emotions, nor did it diminish the strength of her personality.
One of my favorite scenes from the Bible which exemplifies Mary’s dynamic, strong personality takes place at a certain wedding in Cana.
After the hosts run out of wine for their guests, Mary feels moved by empathy to somehow help them. She knows that there is nothing that she can do to remedy the situation, but she is confident in her son’s capabilities.
“They have no wine,” she says to Jesus.
I can imagine the two of them locking eyes for a moment before Jesus quietly protests that his hands are tied—he can’t do any miracles just yet because his appointed time has not come yet. Rather than arguing further, Mary simply turns to the servants and says, “Do whatever he tells you.”
So he told them... (you know the rest)
This passage cracks me up because it shows a side of Jesus’ and Mary’s relationship which we don’t often glimpse—the intimate, almost playful side.
“Oh, he says no now, but I know him,” Mary might have chuckled to herself. “Oh yes, I know my boy.”
Perhaps Jesus rolled his eyes at his mother and then got up to comply with her wishes. Note that Jesus’ love and respect for his mother prompts him to act in such a way that he modifies his own predetermined plans for her request.
I personally recommend watching the film “The Passion” (though probably during Lent rather than Advent) for the beautiful, creative representation of the relationship between Jesus and Mary. There is one scene in which Mary interrupts Jesus at his carpentry to offer him lunch and after a light-hearted conversation Mary pours water on Jesus’ hands to help him wash up. Jesus splashes the water playfully at his mother and as they both laugh he gives her a kiss (here is a link with the scene: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mzzVwci8qJY).
This scene reflects their incredible intimacy—the same intimacy, in fact, which Jesus calls each of us to share with his mother. When Jesus, dying on the cross, said to John, “This is your mother,” he truly broadened Mary’s role as mother to all of us alive throughout time.
Mary loves and cares for each of us, as is evident in her numerous appearances to saints. For example, when she appeared in Fátima, she alerted the children who saw her as to the consequences of human actions on our relations with God (in short, we need to shape up). Her message was alarming, but necessary; she came for the purpose of protecting us.
Indeed, our spiritual mother is always looking out for us and, with head bowed, she is always directing us back to her son. Here is one quote which I think succinctly captures the importance of Mary in our faith:
“The trust you have shown shall not pass from the memories of men, but shall ever remind them of the power of God.”
In all that she did Mary strove to make herself lesser so that she could allow God’s influence in her life to become greater. This holiday season it may be a good idea to reflect on how to better emulate the love and humility of Mary so that you can encourage others to be the best that they can be.