I am so excited to introduce you to my husband, Michael! He’s a bearded classics nerd (Latin & Greek), and enjoys research to a particularly weird degree. But that’s one of many reasons I love him! He is always expanding my vocabulary, grasp of geography, and helping me change the poopy diapers (Poopers gotta poop!). I hope you enjoy this as much as I did!
The humiliation of Mary. Yes. You read that right: the humiliation –not the humility – of Mary. Every Lent the Momma and I like to take up some new devotion. I say “new” because every year we start a devotional habit that we hope will “stick” and we can keep up throughout the rest of the year, but we never do. (This year will be different, Lord. This year will be different.) This Lent we chose to return to one of our favorites: Fr. Andre Ravier’s, SJ, A Do-It –At-Home Retreat: The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius (Ignatius Press). The Fourteenth Day of the retreat is “A Meditation on Two Standards,” which refers to two military standards and all that they represent: Satan’s army of darkness and Christ’s army of light. At the end of the meditation Fr. Ravier calls the reader to “evangelical perfection” through three steps. We must strive after – or at least desire to strive after: (1) “poverty as opposed to riches”, (2) “humiliation and contempt as opposed to worldly honor”, and (3) “humility as opposed to pride”. The first one we’ve heard before, although we perhaps don’t always practice it. The last we’re familiar with – perhaps so familiar we forget what it really means. But the middle one, to strive after, to pray for, to actively seek “humiliations” and even “contempt,” this seems too strange and uncomfortable. But isn’t this the example set by the Apostles and Martyrs and all the Saints? Aren’t we invited to go above and beyond “mere Christianity”? A life lived without worry about the injustices or scorn inflicted by others. I’m not saying this means we roll over and ignore wrongdoing, especially if it’s inflicted on our sacra (our sacred things), but we do not become anxious about how it effects our own reputation. By happy coincidence (or providence) the Momma and I returned to this meditation on March 26th, the day after Annunciation, the day after we were reminded of Mary’s free and humble “Yes”, of her perpetual virginity, of her vow of chastity. And it occurred to me, during our reflections: what if this vow, this unique consecration to God, was not looked on with so much admiration in Mary’s time as we regard it today. Could this act have been looked on with suspicion or even scorn? Could this have been one of Mary’s first acts of seeking “humiliations”? Consider some of Mary’s predecessors: Sarah, Hannah, Tamar, even her own mother Anne. All of these actively sought after children. In fact it was a point of dishonor for them not to have children. Sarah was mocked by Hagar (Gen. 16), Hannah by Peninnah (1 Sam. 1). Tamar risked prostitution and death to become pregnant (Gen. 38). In the Protoevangelium of James, Anne bewails her childlessness. Amongst these desperate wannabe mothers there was a clear hunger, almost need for offspring. Now consider Mary herself in light of this maternal tradition. How would a vow of virginity have been regarded by her friends? By her family? Even by her own parents? Such a vow would seem to fly in the face of Jewish practice, and I imagine it certainly would have raised some questioning eyebrows. But Mary, that finely begraced woman, perceived and pursued a higher end, a Divine good over and above the human goods of marriage and family life (Cf. Summa II.152) by consecrating herself, soul and body, to the LORD. I’m sure it would have come as a shock to many of those close to her and even an occasion for friendly or parental advice. (I cannot help but think of those good Catholic mommies and daddies who might pray regularly for “increased vocations to the priesthood and religious life” – except, God forbid, out of their own quiverfulls.) Many scholars are quick to dismiss the idea that Mary took a vow of consecrated chastity thereby joining the ranks of some select temple maidens, something comparable to Rome’s Vestal Virgins. There seems little evidence to suggest such an institution existed in Jewish traditions. As such it was probably not common practice, perhaps not even practiced at all, unprecedented, which would make Mary the first of her kind, at least among women. Even if such a common practice was historically improbable, remember we’re talking about Mary here. (Last time I checked virgin births were also supposed to be biologically impossible.) A vow of virginity, perhaps unprecedented: Mary freely forsook all the blessings of family life, all the honors her ancestors had desperately striven for and found fulfillment in. She gave it all up, without promise of reward. Of course, now we know what her reward was, but at the time she didn’t. And her friends and family certainly didn’t. But Mary’s humiliations did not end there. What must those same friends and family members have said when they found out she was pregnant? (After all that talk about giving herself to God, sheesh!) What humiliations must she have endured simply because she said “Yes”? And since this is the season of Lent, we can’t forget the Via Crucis and the Stabat Mater. Weekly we are reminded of the Blessed Mother standing at the foot of the Cross watching her son die. It was certainly not a happy place to be, not just because of her son’s tragic and visceral crucifixion, but also the humiliation of watching him executed publicly, like a criminal, stripped naked, between two “real” criminals. But Mary does not retreat. She lingers in the humiliation, ignoring the stares and whispers and perhaps even jeers of ignorant onlookers. Ultimately this is what St. Ignatius and Fr. Ravier are calling us to. Back to the foot of the Cross, back to Mary weeping, back to the questioning disciples, back to the dark day when all the rest of the world looked and mocked or beat or condemned or spat upon or simply looked away again because it was too embarrassing to watch, and the rest of the world didn’t want to get too close. The sun itself couldn’t even watch. But now it is up to us to decide how near to the Cross we are willing to stand, how near to Christ’s banner woven out of bloodstained wood.