My hero Mary
She’s perfect. Her fiat changed the world. She was the first on this earth to know Jesus. Her life was entirely in line with God’s will, all her actions, intentions, and desires wholly pleasing to Him. And for most of my life, I’ve felt completely distant from her.
I wish it weren’t the case. But somehow, for this cradle Catholic, Mary always seemed to me so unreachable and unrelatable, her holiness completely unattainable. Sure, I loved images of her tenderly holding baby Jesus or kneeling by His manger. I was intrigued by the snippets of scenes we see in scripture that illuminate her character. In theory, her motherhood is a comfort. But never did I feel any closeness to her. Until now.
Throughout this Christmas season, I’ve been praying the joyful mysteries of the rosary. It’s occurred to me a few times, but I’ve been especially struck of late: the joyful mysteries, in fact, contain great suffering. And mysterious indeed they are. I’ve begun to wonder how Mary expected her life to unfold before the angel Gabriel came to her. I like to think that she, like me, was a dreamer, that she had great hope and joy and expectation of the goodness God would bring. Surely the annunciation was a departure from the way she envisioned her future. She was “greatly troubled,” not at the sight of Gabriel, which must have been fearsome indeed, but at his message. Yet she did not resist, did not doubt, did not come up with excuses or backup plans or alternatives to God’s staggering invitation, as I am wont to do when He interrupts my plans for my life. Rather, she gives a joyful, courageous, faith-filled yes.
“Behold,” she replies, “I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” Hers is an active receptivity that I long to imitate. She claims her identity as God’s handmaid, one who works and serves, but in the same breath gives God permission to act in her however He wills. Her heroism lies first, before all else, in her receptivity. She is full of grace, a perfect vessel, because she is wholeheartedly open, free of selfishness, seeking to be led. But at God’s invitation, she acts with strength and boldness, too. She immediately departs to visit her cousin Elizabeth. She trustingly journeys with Joseph to an unknown land. She eagerly seeks Jesus when He is not with her. Her life is marked by a beautiful dance with God of receiving and giving.
Mary’s penchant for pondering is one I’d like to imitate, too. She ponders Gabriel’s greeting. She reflects on the shepherds’ visit to Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes in the manger, the sign they had sought of their newly born Savior. She marveled at Simeon’s words in the temple, announcing his life to be complete upon encountering God’s salvation. Mary kept in her heart Jesus’ calm claim that He was, of course, in His Father’s house while she and Joseph had been searching everywhere for Him. She encounters such mystifying marvels in her walk with Jesus, and rather than protesting or questioning or buckling with confusion, she ponders and wonders and keeps these marvels in her heart.
While my life is quite different from Mary’s, I, too, have encountered great mysteries lately. I’ve come up against the unknown as I look to my future. I’ve been surprised by God’s unexpected intervention. I’ve encountered a new poverty of spirit. And while my instinct has long been to protest such mystery, to come up with plans of my own, plans for security and comfort and control, I am finding new hope and peace as I look to, turn to, my Mother. With her prayers and gentle guidance, I am relishing this time of pondering the marvels, of keeping in my heart these perplexing acts of God in my life, of peacefully considering and turning over in my mind the glorious possibilities He is presenting me with.
I know I’m far from perfect, nowhere near full of grace as Mary is. And for years, that reality made me feel alienated me from her. But as she has come to me, again and again, in my unknowing (that she well knows), I am slowly opening my heart to her. And, grace by grace, she is to me not just hero, but Mother and friend.