The Humility of the Mother of God

About a year before being received into the Catholic Church in 2004, the biggest obstacle to conversion for me, a Protestant, who had moved in evangelical and evangelical-charismatic circles, was not the Church’s Marian doctrines, but the political and economic positions of many of the bishops, who seemed to be, except for their stances on abortion and same-sex “marriage,” in close agreement to the platform of the Democratic Party.

No, I readily accepted the teaching about Mary because (1) I knew the Theotokos would have to be very special, much like an enfleshed Ark of the Covenant; and (2) I had come to believe in oral traditions in the Church that were handed down through the ages that could enhance and complement my biblical understanding of the God-Bearer’s identity and role: “So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter” (II Thess. 2:15; emphasis mine).

As a new Catholic and as someone who came from a tradition where immersion in Scripture study was a given, a cursory glance at the New Testament made me wish that there were a whole lot more references to Mary. Unlike Peter, James, John, and Paul, but like her Son, she left no writings behind, and like the son of her cousin Elizabeth (John the Baptist), she did no mighty miracle during her earthly pilgrimage.

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Further study and meditation, since those early days, have yielded many treasures of wisdom and knowledge from the biblical narrative, but I’ve also come to realize that her mostly quiet, behind-the-scenes profile in the New Testament (except Revelations 12) is part of her sanctity: she is indeed the icon for the unknown missionary priest on a tributary of a tributary on the Amazon River; the housewife and mother who earnestly goes about her daily duties in obscurity; and the hard-working employee whose labors go mostly unnoticed though they make it possible for someone else to enjoy the limelight.

I think it may have been William Bennett who said that some people are famous without being significant while a great many more are significant without being famous. Mary became both.

In recent years, while immersing myself in the sayings and the lives of the Desert Fathers, I noticed that both were like individual pearls that were connected to one string: humility. Indeed, Abba Or said, “The crown of the monk is humility.”

The same can be said of all the biblical references to the Mother of God. From the Annunciation to the Presentation, from the Wedding at Cana to the upper room in Acts 1 and 2, her life is undergirded and infused with humility.

There is a certain theological congruence here because, as someone who is full of grace, we know that she must also be full of humility because God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble (James 4:6). She has the same heart as her Son: as the British evangelical Roy Hession underscores, the fullness of the Spirit of Grace (Hebrews 10:29) descended on and filled the meek and lowly Lamb of God (John 1:32).

Humility is a Magnet for Grace
Mary was full of grace because she was also full of the Holy Spirit and humility. This is all of one piece, and, as Christ told St. Faustina in disclosing the mysteries of the Divine Mercy, “…meek and humble souls and the souls of little children … most closely resemble my heart” (emphasis mine).

That’s why the biblical passages about Mary are redolent with an undeniable and radiant “soul beauty” or “beauty of holiness” (Ps. 27:4; 96:9), a kind of fragrant moral and spiritual aesthetic that points to and magnifies her Son: her heart is his heart and vice-versa. What passes for beauty in this Vale of Tears, by comparison, is exposed as ephemeral and meretricious, but only the eyes of the truly humble will see this.

Saint James tells his audience to “receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls” (James 1:21; emphasis mine). In the Annunciation (Luke 1:26-38), Mary humbly receives the spoken word of God through Gabriel that she will be receiving the Word of God in her womb.

The difference between her response to Gabriel and Zechariah’s (Luke 1:20) is humility. Zechariah, like Eve in Genesis 3:6, leaned on his own understanding, while Mary, though she understandably took a little time to get her bearings (“How will this be, since I do not know man?”), ultimately proclaimed her obedience as the handmaid of the Lord.

There’s a beautiful picture here for practicing Catholics. We receive the word of God through a divine metanarrative (Scripture, Tradition, and Magisterium), by availing ourselves to a sacramental life, and by embracing spiritual disciplines.

At the same time, Christ, the Word of God, is being formed in us (Gal. 4:19). The former, the word of God, is like all the best foods for a pregnancy (e.g., salmon, whole grains, dark leafy greens, sweet potatoes, colorful fruits and veggies, lean meats, etc.) that produce robust health in the Word of God—i.e. the developing baby.

The analogy provides sobering implications for the “cafeteria” and heterodox Catholic and makes one wonder how many “crack babies” are born when people go their own way and accommodate themselves to the Zeitgeist. In comparison, it calls to mind Mary and Joseph in the presentation of Christ: “And when they had performed everything according to the law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own city, Nazareth” (Luke 2:39).

We have become a therapeutic culture that jettisons the three Rs (rote, ritual, and religion: “I’m not religious; I’m spiritual”) while Mary and Joseph, in contrast, obviously embraced all three. (As an added bonus to this, studies seem to indicate that the more religious you are, in general, the happier you are.)

The Mother of God’s last words and last appearance in the New Testament this side of eternity also reveal the same humble obedience to her Son. Her last words in the biblical narrative at the wedding at Cana are: “Do whatever he tells you” (John 2:5).

In her last earthly appearance in Acts 1:16, she is there with the other followers of Christ in the upper room waiting for the promise of the Holy Spirit because that’s what Christ commanded his followers to do. Her profound humility is demonstrated in the fact that she was already filled with the Holy Spirit, but like her Son, in his baptism by John, she was present “to fulfill all righteousness.”

While Eve took God off the throne and made herself the arbiter of truth and morality, Mary, the New Eve, submitted herself to the divine directives. Today’s practicing Catholic must not hearken to the voices of today’s children of Eve in the West who encourage people to “follow their heart,” embrace “your truth,” (e.g., Oprah Winfrey’s speech at the 75th Golden Globe Awards), and listen, as Elizabeth Gilbert counsels, to “the god within”—all code for nourishing a malignant autonomy.

Christ himself said that he came to serve and not be served and has left a legacy of the Greater serving the Lesser in his washing of the feet of the twelve disciples, his crucifixion, and in his intercession for us in heaven as our merciful High Priest. We see this profound humility of the Greater serving the Lesser in Mary’s visitation and service to Elizabeth, her intervention at the wedding at Cana when the host ran out of wine, her maternal relationship to Saint John, and in her intercession in heaven for the believers on earth.

The wedding at Cana provides a wonderful snapshot of what goes on in the advancement of the kingdom of God since the Theotokos was assumed. In Scripture, wine sometimes represents the fullness of the Holy Spirit (Eph. 5:18; Acts 2:13) and we all come to junctures in our lives when we run out.

Marriages run dry, friendships become desiccated, vocations lose their vitality, our spiritual lives become a desert, a moral failing may even grieve the Holy Spirit in our lives. This is when the Greater (Mary) can serve the Lesser (us) by listening to our prayers and appealing to her Son to replace our desolation with consolation.

Mary is rightly said to have succeeded where Eve (and Adam) failed, but the same could also be said of the nation of Israel. We find out a lot about someone’s humility when their comfort and convenience is challenged and chronic complaining emerges that sends the message that “I’m too wonderful and special to have to endure such discomfort and inconvenience.”

We see this dynamic with the nation of Israel in their journey through the wilderness of Sin. Whether they are too hot or too cold, can’t find water and are thirsty, sick of eating the manna that falls from the sky every morning, or chafing under Moses’ authority, ingratitude is the hallmark of their lives.

We never see any of this in Mary’s life despite all the afflictions that she endured (e.g., flight to Egypt, giving birth in a manger) culminating in her sorrows at the foot of the cross. Instead she seems to turn all her humiliations into humility.

Coffee grounds, eggs shells, and other items of garbage were dumped in her garden, but were then, in time, transformed into an abundant harvest of the highest quality: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal. 5:22, 23). She is like the silkworm who eats the mulberry leaves: the leaves represent all that happened to her that is then converted into one of the finest fabrics in the world.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is “But Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart” painted by Alice Havers in 1888.

  • Jonathan B. Coe

    Jonathan B. Coe writes from the Pacific Northwest. Before being received into the Catholic Church in 2004, he served in pastoral ministry in rural Alaska and in campus ministry at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.

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