Lady Mary and Her Mission

In his lovely little book on the Mysteries of the Virgin Mary, a rare treasure trove of Catholic theology and prayer, Fr. Peter John Cameron, O.P., distinguished Editor-in-Chief of Magnificat, reminds us that the first Corpus Christi procession took place when Our Lady journeyed into the hill country to visit her cousin Elizabeth. “The Blessed Virgin’s initial response,” he tells us, “once God takes up residence in her body, is to bear that presence to others.”

She was the first Christian. Not only because she bore God’s Word in her body—whom she first conceived in her heart—but because she was willing to carry Christ to others, beginning with Elizabeth, whose unborn son becomes the beneficiary of an entirely unforeseen encounter with the living God. And while the stunning news reaches John’s mother in the course of an outwardly ordinary visit between two cousins, his response takes place in the hidden regions of divine grace. As a result of which, the startled child leaps before the Mystery of a fellow fetus, who, mirabile dictu, happens also to be the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity. St. Ambrose has rendered this amazing moment in an epigrammatic way: “The woman recognized the woman’s arrival; the child, that of the Child.”

Annunciation, in other words, is always to be followed by Visitation. Both in devotion and in discipleship, the order remains the same. How else do we observe the Joyful Mysteries if not by a sequence that begins with Mary’s free acceptance of God’s gift, followed by her willingness to give it to others?   First she assents; then she ascends. Mystery followed by ministry.

Here, then, is the whole splendor and sweep of Catholic theology. “That devouring fire,” Hans Urs von Balthasar calls it, “burning in the dark night of adoration and obedience, whose abysses it illuminates.” Not for a single moment, therefore, may theology forget either its source in the one, or its finality in the other. The roots of theology reach deep down, insists Balthasar, “from which all its nourishment is drawn: adoration, in which we see, in faith, the heavens opened; and obedience in living, which frees us to understand its truth.”

It is the worship of the one, followed by the work of the other, that furnishes those two bookends between which all of Catholic theology—and life—moves in its steady rhythmic procession through time into eternity, history into heaven.  The saints know this, of course, having intuited the connection between their adoring gaze upon the face of God and their constant looking for others who have yet to glimpse the light. How God must strain to shine his glory upon the least and the lost amid the dark night of holy obedience!

And who can see this light, asks that sublime poet of the Baroque, Angelus Silesius, which shines “in the breast of night”?   Only a heart, he says, “whose eyes keep watch, e’er bright.” And thus while it is certainly true that, “in the evening of our lives,” as St. John of the Cross warns, “we shall be judged on love,” it is necessary that we first savor that love in the adoring gaze of the Beloved, before whom we kneel in adoration, before setting out to share it with those to whom we are drawn in the work of the apostolate. You can’t give what you haven’t got.

Why then did God make such a small splash when he first condescended to appear among us?   Why so modest a manifestation of the Lord’s majesty and might? Especially if, as one naturally supposes, God wishes all to find their way home to him. There are no bells or whistles. No dazzling cosmic displays. Those first few stirrings could hardly have impressed anyone. Certainly the wise and the worldly saw nothing of which they needed to take account. How utterly unobtrusive are the ways of God!

So how exactly does he do it? Quite simply, and without any fanfare, he sends an angel to ask a young Jewish girl named Mary to become his son’s mother. That was it. At the origin of all that God intended to happen, including an inexorable institutional expansion that continues even now to extend its reach into everything, appears this momentary ripple in the great sea of history.   That it should take place in the life of an ordinary young girl seems a fitting backdrop to so banal a beginning. And yet its shattering impact is such that the whole cosmos will be convulsed by God’s coming among us as a child. As an old professor of mine used to say, “Once the Incarnation happens, nothing remains the same.

So it all begins with this mysteriously expectant young mother of the Hebrew persuasion, who, not wanting to keep the secret to herself, goes and tells Joseph, her husband. And what does he do? Well, against every instinct of outraged manhood, not to mention massive societal norms rooted in the harsh and exacting ethos of Israel, he does not turn her out, does not have her killed. Rather he renews his astonishing offer of love and protection. Go figure, as they say.

So now there are two Christians.

And for the next thirty years there will be no apparent increase. Only with the dawn of the public life of Christ will the numbers slowly begin to grow.  Why is that? What catalyzing event causes the figures to start to swell, indeed, in a very short time, to explode? Three events, actually, conspire to produce the contagion that will soon enough sweep everything away: The compelling witness of his life; the protracted horror of his death; the climactic vindication of his resurrection.

And, really, how easy it is for us to picture those three events, around which everything suddenly comes clear. We are not so terribly different from those first disciples, Andrew or Peter or John, who so fell in with him, eating and fishing in his company, listening to his stories, drawn as if by magic to a presence that instantly compels attention. There cannot be much, humanly speaking, that they knew that we do not now know about him. And so, like them, we too reach a certain point, a threshold in the relationship we have to this man, when it becomes absolutely, commandingly clear that if we refuse to follow in his footsteps, disdaining the company of God-made-man, we consign ourselves everlastingly to a life without hope or joy or salvation. An eternity of self-inflicted loss—who could endure it?

“In the Gospel,” asks Luigi Giussani, “who was able to understand the need to trust that man? Not the crowd looking for a cure, but those who followed him and shared his life.” Who, in a word, were willing to put themselves at risk, venturing everything in the hope that the Mystery itself having entered their human history, they could not lose, their lives would surely be saved.

“What is the formula,” Giussani asks, “for the journey to the ultimate meaning of reality?” The answer, he says, is simple: “Living the real.” It is the only way, he says, “for being truly human and faithfully religious.” If one really wishes to set out in search of the meaning of being, to find the ultimate reaches of reality, to commune even with God himself (he who is supremely real … I AM WHO AM!), then one must, insists Giussani, “live always the real intensely, without preclusion, without negating or forgetting anything. Indeed, it would not be human, that is to say, reasonable, to take our experience at face value, to limit it to just the crest of the wave, without going down to the core of its motion.”

Who more than those drawn to Christ, to the attraction awakened by the encounter with Christ, are the ones who live the real with the greatest possible intensity? So much so that they draw others to Christ. To live any other way is to choose death, to join the ranks of the living dead, the walking dead, who will not cast their nets down into the depths. Who evince no eagerness to unearth the hidden seed. They are like the dead man in Hardy’s poem, whom others “hail as one living/  But don’t they know / That I have died of late years / Untombed although?”

Editor’s note: The image above titled “Holy Family with Infant St. John the Baptist” was painted by Sebastiano Ricci in 1710.

Regis Martin


Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar's Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, also published by Emmaus Road, is called Witness to Wonder: The World of Catholic Sacrament. He resides in Steubenville, Ohio, with his wife and ten children.

  • Dick Prudlo

    It is clear that Mr. Martin has not forgotten what he learned and that St. Thomas’ theology was not lost on him. This is a beautifully written piece that has not forgotten what was done for us by our Father in heaven.

    • cpsho


  • BillinJax

    I fell in love with our Holy Mother immediately after my conversion. Having lost my mother as a child of nine, followed closely by all (four) of my older brothers joining the marines and going off to WWII, I was longing to find someone to fill that terrible void of maternal affection and close companionship which helps calm ones fears and provides guidance and faith for your future. Mary’s example gave me hope and assurance in both cases.
    I firmly believe that the Divine Love of father God, in giving the world Jesus as a way to salvage humanity for Him, revealed to us through Mary the way to show our love for His Divine Mercy and humbly live our lives for His great glory. Here is one of my many praises in honor of one whom we profess as the Queen of Heaven.

    There is no greater blessing on earth among mankind than a mother’s birth
    of her child. Faith, Hope and Charity are combined and revealed in this
    greatest of all human events.

    No conquest would have ever been achieved; no city ever built; no discovery
    revealed; no instrument brought to use; nor song or praise given breath to be
    heard had it not been for a mother’s labor of love for life.

    Motherhood involves risks and sacrifices as a matter of nature which no man
    has or will ever have to face. The things which take place in a mother’s womb
    during pregnancy surpass all the amazing realities of the universe that have
    been revealed to us throughout the ages. How can we be in awe of what has
    become known to us in the heavens or on earth and not be overwhelmed by the
    mysteries which occurred within a mothers womb?

    Science tells us that man can neither create nor destroy matter. This is
    true, however, the woman God created accomplishes more naturally on her own
    with matter than any scientist has ever dreamed of doing. This is why we “thank
    heaven for little girls” and also why it is such a disgrace and source of shame
    that in some areas of the world they are degraded, defiled, discarded, or sold
    into slavery. It seems only God knows woman’s true value.

    In the beginning the superior “deceiver” wanted to unravel paradise but he
    also wanted to inflict as much damage as possible to God’s plan. His attack was
    aimed at the very “heart” of mankind, the woman. This is why, as a result, God
    spoke to him in no uncertain terms of the “woman” who would in time, with the
    Holy Spirits help, ultimately triumph over him and “crush his head with her
    heel”. Having heard this, instead of centuries of finger pointing submission, I
    think “the man” huddled back there in the corner of the garden, should have
    been cheering his head off for the “woman” God made perfectly for him. I suppose
    his ability to envision the promised confrontation and the role planned for
    her, was a stretch for him. It would be a while before he and the world would
    come to see and understand the foretold “triumphant” woman’s true capabilities.

    (Oh virgin mother Mary most pure and full of grace, God’s promise for
    mankind has been fulfilled in your acceptance to be his chosen one to bring
    forth his divine mercy by your complete obedience to his will through and with
    his beloved Son our Lord Jesus.)

    This time it would be God the Father making the proposal to the “woman” he
    had chosen to fulfill his Will and she accepted, not to gain anything for
    herself but to offer freely and willingly not only the fruit of her womb but
    her entire life and being for the salvation of the world. Mary became
    “Christian” before Christianity had its own identity. Humble and devout husband
    Joseph also followed the will of God. Though he did not immediately understand,
    faithful and gentle Joseph listened, followed God’s plan for him, and without
    any finger pointing, willingly cared for and protected his pregnant fiancé.
    Mary surely told him all that had been revealed to her. This along with the
    angelic messages spoken to him was enough to convince him he was doing the
    right thing no matter how it appeared to others.

    Does anyone doubt Mary’s complete understanding of Jesus and his mission?
    She knew what the Spirit had asked her to do and she accepted because it was
    her desire to do the Will of God at all times. Those 30 years spent in a divine
    love arrangement with Jesus at her side had to be the ultimate bonding
    experience. Their lives and thoughts became one in union with the Father which
    is evidenced in their interactions recorded in the gospels.

    “Mother, (not to worry) did you not know that I must be about my Fathers
    business”? “Son, they have no wine!” “What would YOU have me do?” “Do whatever
    HE tells you!” “Woman, behold your son; John, behold your mother”. Though
    little of their discourse is recorded in scripture there is no doubt they shared
    an infinite consciousness of their divine and eternal union and the Father’s
    plan for them throughout eternity.

    Awareness, knowledge, and trust were so evident in Mary’s conversations
    with our Lord. She knew who he was and why he had come. It would be totally
    unreasonable to imagine that Mary and Jesus spent all those years together
    without discourse regarding his being, his mission, and his destiny. She was
    the active and ordained “co-participant” in all of it like any mother only more
    so because of it’s divine origin and purpose as foretold by the annunciation

    Mary was really God’s bride and that was alright with Joseph. He was
    privileged to share the nurturing of Jesus through childhood in and around his
    carpenter shop. (There is no doubt in my mind that Joseph was amazed at some of
    their creations.) And I’m sure he became more and more aware of his purpose,
    his faith, and Christ’s mission as the years passed. Joseph is a great role
    model for husbands and fathers. Mary and Joseph were the first “Christians”,
    giving their lives for Christ day in and day out as long as they lived.

    Today as husbands and fathers we need to see Joseph as our patron saint and
    be devoted to our wives as he loved and honored Mary and Jesus. Our wives are
    often referred to as our better half and we honestly have to admit they do have
    capabilities beyond our reach. Also they are wonderful loving, thoughtful, and
    compassionate companions and mothers when we allow them to be just that and not
    ask or suggest they imitate the hollow versions created of them in Hollywood or
    the fashion industry. We need to let them know we will be perfectly content with anything close to the humble faithful servant of God’s holy will who set an example for them in Bethlehem and Nazareth and we are here always to love and honor them as we faithfully care for the family and/or home they hope to provide us.

    I firmly believe the many problems associated with marriages and family
    life today are directly or indirectly a result of the removal of women from the
    pedestal which they rightfully should occupy. There are several reasons for this demise but all have tarnished the elevated image I believe God intended us to have of man’s
    soul mate.

    When Adam was in paradise with all of nature at his disposal he knew he was
    not complete. God must have wanted him to come to this conclusion and tested
    his judgment and selectivity. Nothing on earth suited him and it was up to the
    creator Himself to establish the perfect mate for him. Someone who would
    compliment his nature and enable him to be the crowning earthly creature the
    Creator desired.

    It is safe to say that women originally and unto this day have provided the
    “link” needed by man to reach the heights of human perfection designed for him.
    Yes, thank heaven for little girls and the wonderful mothers they can become,
    like our savior’s mother, Mary Queen of Heaven.

    Mothers are special.

  • DE-173

    “Pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of hour death”

  • cestusdei

    Devotion to Mary is integral to Catholic life.

  • cpsho

    Was Blessed Mary, ever-virgin? Was Mary a virgin before she conceived our Lord Jesus? Was she a virgin during the pregnancy? And was she a virgin after the birth of our Lord Jesus? Did she deliver other children after our Lord Jesus?
    Read more:

    • GrannyTandy

      Suggestion ~ read Alone of All Her Sex by Marina Warner. Although a proud, practically superior-sounding, fallen-away Catholic, her scholarly compilation of long-held beliefs and mysteries surrounding the Virgin, is revealing. What stands out for me is the story that survived through the centuries … that of the woman whose hand withered when she sought to discover for herself Mary’s virginity, or lack thereof. God can do what he says He can do. He is God, and we’re not.

      • cpsho

        i will look it up; and get back later. Thanks

  • BillinJax

    Today, as we are having our faith tested and our very spiritual lives challenged on all sides by the seen and unseen forces of Evil, we need all the help we can get to hold on to the traditions and
    teaching which have kept the lamps of truth and light burning over the centuries for the children of God.

    Unfortunately many of us, through the scattering of the flock, lost all appreciation of and devotion to Our Blessed Mother. It is particularly shameful that so many Catholics, both practicing and
    non-participating, have chosen to leave even the “Mother of God” out of their daily lives and prayers. Mary was, is, and always has been the spiritual womb through which we were and are graciously given passage to be born again and become brothers and sisters with Christ. If we can believe in the real presence of the Eucharist why is this so hard to understand?

  • mugger malcolmridge

    I have a serious question. Much is made of Mary’s acceptance; she said “yes” to be the Mother of God. But, she seemed to be preselected for this honor, by her immaculate conception. So, did she have any choice but to say “yes”?