“Lovely Lady, dressed in blue…” I sang this lyric every spring with my classmates as we festooned with flowers the statue of Mary during the annual May crowning at my high school. This annual ritual was a sweet way to honor Mary, if a bit sentimental. Her portrait in the Bible is quite different. She appears infrequently in the Gospels, but when she does, the scenes are powerful and poignant. As the only person to know Jesus from his birth to his death, Mary offers a unique view of his humanity and a model of discipleship that we strive to emulate today.
It wasn’t until I became a mother myself that I began to appreciate the complexities of her story. It was then that I saw her, not as a lovely lady in blue, but as a flesh-and-blood figure who experienced an astounding transformation over the course of her life. No wonder that women have turned to her over the centuries for comfort and understanding as they struggle with concerns ranging from the routine to the radical.
We often refer to Mary’s “yes” in the account of the Annunciation as the doorway to redemption. She cooperates with the Divine Plan, thus becoming a critical part of the Incarnational event – God become flesh. Her open-heartedness is all the more touching when one recalls that she was just a young girl – perhaps only thirteen – when she received startling news from an angel. Nevertheless, her prayer of praise for a God who has demanded more than she could imagine, is a model of faith and trust. “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my Spirit rejoices in God my Savior…” (Luke 1:46-47). The exuberance in the prayer we call “the Magnificat” is truly an example of her abiding love for God and respect for his Divine Power.
My friend, Father William McNichols, captured her maturation beautifully in an article called “Mary’s Fiat”. “She is a wide-eyed child, spellbound by the apparition of an angel, or a little slip of a girl with a baby almost too big for her arms…A frightened teen-ager being led away from the violence and mayhem in the middle of the night… A frantic mother of a lost child… The perceptive woman who quietly nudges her son out of the nest and into his ministry… The Mater Dolorosa…[who] cradles, once again, her naked child in poverty…” (Jesuit Bulletin. Spring/Fall 1984. Used with permission). Mothers across miles and millennia can relate to the mixture of joy and sorrow, confusion and clarity, anguish and exhilaration that comes with giving birth to and raising a child.
Perhaps my favorite image of Mary is at Pentecost. I picture her sitting amidst the disciples with a wizened and yet expansive heart. She alone knows the experience of the Holy Spirit first-hand, so perhaps she doesn’t flinch in the midst of wind and flame. Does she recall the first time she knew the workings of the Spirit in her life? Does she reflect back on the twists and turns of her wondrous story? And does the same prayer rise to her lips as she recalls once more the “mighty things” her God has, indeed, done for her?
I spent Saturday doing something wonderful: leading a retreat for mothers of young children. Our time together included conversation, laughter, prayer, and lots of good food. Part of the retreat focused on ways to simplify our lives. This is no easy task for women who balance the myriad details of domestic life while standing on the shifting sands of a child’s needs. The media has recently fanned the flames of a “mommy war” – one that is supposed to be taking place between those who work at home and those who hold out-of-the-house jobs. I didn’t hear any conflict between the two over the weekend. Instead, I found solidarity among women who understand that motherhood is a 24/7 commitment.
We also discussed motherhood as a vocation. Since the word is connected to the Latin vox, I asked them to reflect on what voice they want their children to hear and remember. The responses were rich and varied. Some hoped for voices of strength and affirmation. Others talked about the desire for warmth, love, and patience. Someone wanted her child to remember her “tucked-into-bed” voice, which is calm and soothing. Another noted that she longed for her voice to lessen so that silence could foster an attitude of listening on the part of both mother and child.
We could all take a lesson from these wise women about the value of calming, compassionate voices. It’s, in essence, what the voice of God must sound like, if we’ll simply stop and pay attention.