This article focuses on the vocation of motherhood and womanhood (looking also at fatherhood and manhood), in light of Mary’s role as Mother, Sister and Midwife, drawing on the Visitation account.
When Mary was visited by the Archangel Gabriel, receiving the revelation and the concrete realization of her motherhood of the Word, she was also informed about the pregnancy of her cousin Elizabeth. We read that she went “with haste,” animated by zealous sisterly charity, to help in the preparation for the birth of the Baptist.
Luke tells us that Elizabeth “was advanced in years,” “in her old age,” thus at the very least comfortably past the years of fertility (Lk 1:7,36). This explains why Zechariah her husband doubted the news when Gabriel told it to him. Elizabeth was not just barren (1:7) but had gone through menopause.
Mary’s visitation to Elizabeth is animated by a desire to assist a fellow sister in the Semitic sense, and faithfully fulfils the cultural norm whereby a woman relation would help another in the role of moral support and midwife, even if Mary might not have been the only one. Mary’s haste in going to visit Elizabeth is likely motivated in part by the added need of Elizabeth for help. After all, Elizabeth is “in her old age”. Old age plus pregnancy equals a lot of support needed!
The gift of Mary’s motherhood was realised once she pronounced “Yes” to the proposal to conceive the Word by the Holy Spirit. The fact that in the same revelation whereby Mary received the gift of her motherhood that the secret motherhood of Elizabeth is also revealed, teaches us something about the gift of motherhood. This in addition to the interconnected revelations of Zechariah and Joseph concerning their respective paternity. Motherhood does not exist in isolation. Like any vocation, it is not an individualistic vocation, it is not something merely bestowed upon an individual woman. Motherhood is intrinsically relational. It includes not just the bond between mother and child—the child the simultaneous fruit and source of motherhood; a relational horizon to which modern society often reduces motherhood to; but it also includes the bond between husband and wife, father and child, and the trinal dynamic between all three.
According to the natural order and ideal ordained by God, a wife receives the gift of motherhood from her husband, in the same very act in which she receives that part of the life needed to form the child in her womb. Alas, this can sound shocking to modern ears! A secular blasphemy against the individualistic and reductionist view of motherhood. But hang on… in turn, the wife gives to her husband the gift of his fatherhood. In this view no-one can claim their maternity nor paternity as a self-created phenomenon that exists outside of relationality and the integral complementarity between the sexes. Thus neither maternity or paternity are brought into existence with warring rights, as though ordered toward hostility against one another as the cultural Marxist narrative would have us believe, but rather, with a shared and common responsibly, with shared and common rights, and a shared dignity resting on a single foundation.
Motherhood is given to woman by God, through man, and fatherhood is given to man by God, through woman. The perfect objective exercise of these parental vocations depends upon the loving cooperation between both parties, relying on the gratitude of man for woman, and woman for man, honed-in as such gratitude is on a concrete “wife” and “husband” and on the fruit of their union—the child.
In Mary’s instance the physical agency of man was substituted with the moral agency of Joseph, God working super-naturally, beyond the natural order. In Elizabeth’s, and all other mothers’ instance, the physical agency of a man is involved.
We live in a fallen world. Thus, unfortunately, without there being any place for us to judge, things do not always go according to the natural design, nor does reproduction always transpire in a context of love, but sometimes in fractured relations, the laboratory, or through sexual violence. Then there’s simply instances of one parent dying prematurely. In all such cases, the perfect objective exercise of motherhood and fatherhood cannot be realised, and instead, a perfect subjective exercise of either vocation remains possible, with or without mutual cooperation between natural parents, but the exercise of either a mother or a father will not attain relative perfection if hatred and resentment abides between the parents of a child and/or of one sex against the other.
Only the rock of love and forgiveness serves as a stable foundation for a relationship, including the relation between mother and child, father and child. To build such a relation on envy and bitterness against anyone, especially of a mother against the father of her child, and a father against the mother of his child, even when humanly justified, will only be to build one’s relationship with their child on sand. The child will grow insecure, since a parent’s love, if poisoned by a lack of forgiveness, cannot be fortified by God’s love which can only enter in power within a forgiving heart.
Nevertheless, through the mystery of the Crucified Christ, the absence of one parent’s love, or even both, can serve as wounds through which a child can grow in receptivity to the love of God as Father who pours out His love in the full maternal and paternal power of His Spirit. Ideally however, the love of two parents, a mother and a father, nurtures a child and through natural parallels disposes their child to the higher and supreme love of God.
However, motherhood does not exist in the vacuum of the nuclear family. Of course, the “nuclear family” consisting of the trinal relational of mother, father and child, is its sanctuary, but just like the temple of old, the sanctuary formed only a part of the temple, the main part, but not the only part.
As mentioned previously, Mary’s motherhood was revealed to her simultaneous to Elizabeth’s motherhood. This reveals to us that the vocation of motherhood (the same with fatherhood, but we’ll focus on motherhood here) is intrinsically shared: first with God, the Maker of all things, and secondly, with fellow women who are mothers. The motherhood of one woman is intrinsically ordered towards a communis sororitas, a common sisterhood, a sisterly communion, what could also be called a communio matrum, the communion of mothers. Such a communion is of course not divorced from the Communio Sanctorum, the Communion of Saints, nor is it somehow separated from or at odds with the unique sub-communion/s between men, but simply describes a sub-communion, a special shared relation between those called to motherhood — and all woman are, at least spiritually, if not, physically.
Indeed, the Body of Christ is One, and there is one Communio, but this does not take away from the unique and distinct relations, communiones, friendships if you will, that abide between various members of this Body, who while all One, are also many. Each member of Christ’s Body shares in unique relations with each and every other member of this Body, and some of these relations can be grouped and are likewise shared with others. The martyrs share a unique small “c” communio with other martyrs. The holy virgins with their fellow virgins. Priests with their fellow priests. Those who are mothers with other mothers, and so on. These communiones are concrete relational horizons of participation in the Communion of Saints, and since each communio is part of a concrete participation in the Communion of Saints, it is not something that must wait for heaven. It is a reality within our mortal lives too, integral to our identity and vocation. We must seek it out, and nurture such fellowships in order to grow as persons.
Thus, without denigrating the fraternity between men and women, men should also seek fellowship with other men, fathers with other fathers; and women should seek fellowship with other women, mothers with other mothers. This is how we are strengthened to grow as the men and women, fathers and mothers (physical and/or spiritual), we are called to be.
As Mary came to Elizabeth’s aid, so too Mary comes to each woman’s aid to help her live out her maternal office. Mary comes to mothers to help them be mothers after God’s own heart. To become both mothers and saints.
Mary comes to all women, perhaps yet to have their natural vocation to motherhood fulfilled, or who have been called to fulfill it only spiritually along the path of consecrated religious life, or in a single life of godly dedication, or in a marriage stuck with the heavy cross of infertility.
Mary is there for every woman. Yes, Mary is there for every person, every human being, man or woman. But human beings do not exist in the abstract (although, human nature as a universal does exist in the mind of God), instead, in concrete reality, human beings exist as either men or women. “Male and female he created them” (Gen 1:27). Even those born with intersex organs or who are confused about their biological sex are either one or the other (pastoral care, patience and sensitivity are needed to help guide such persons towards a direction of understanding their own innate, natural and God-appointed sex). Thus, just as Mary comes to each man as a woman coming to assist a man; Mary comes to a woman as a woman coming to a woman, as a Mother coming to a mother. She comes as a sister to work alongside her sister to help her love the Lord Jesus and to raise children in the faith — whether biological children, or other souls. Mary comes as a midwife to help each woman in her time of pregnancy and birth, but more importantly, to help each woman in giving birth to the love of Christ in the world, in each woman’s home, family, workplace and community. Mary wants to teach each woman the art of nurturing love in the hearts of men. From their fathers, to their husbands, to their sons, and in all souls, male or female, nurturing such love through a life of service and prayer.
Both Mary and Elizabeth shared peculiar circumstances. The gift of their motherhood was given in unusual contexts. Mary was a virgin, her motherhood was substantially a divine gift, and its existence was precarious in view of the misunderstanding of human minds. Thus, Joseph was appointed to veil the gift of Mary’s unique motherhood, to help it grow freely in hiddenness.
Elizabeth on the other hand was a barren woman past the age of child-rearing, and yet beyond the dictates of nature she received the gift of motherhood, having to struggle with the difficulty and nuances “old age” brings to such a vocation.
Throughout the Old Testament we come across various mothers whose motherhood was intricately tied to suffering and difficulty. We need only think of the matriarchs, Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah. All these suffered with barrenness, and each in their turn was healed and brought forth offspring. Elizabeth shared literally in the lot of her maternal forbears, and Mary too in respect to relying on the miraculous intervention of God the Father, working through the Holy Spirit, in the Person of the God the Son.
Then there’s Eve. Eve suffered the loss of a son, the innocent and righteous Abel. Mary too suffered the loss of her Son, the Righteous and Innocent One.
All the matriarchs, Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah, including Eve, all these also suffered the maternal pain of experiencing divisions between their biological and/or legal children. Cain against Abel, the descendants of Cain against Shem’s, the tension between Isaac and Ishmael, the animosity of Esau against Jacob, of the sons of Leah against each other, and above all against Joseph, the son of Leah.
Mary too suffers the maternal pain of seeing her children at odds with one another. The world is not a peaceful place, and the division that fractures the communion of Christians from the Catholic Church, and the internal divisions on top of that, breaks Mary’s heart as a Mother.
There is no experience of any mother, any woman, that at its core, Mary has not suffered. She suffers in communion, in solidarity, with every man as a woman, as a fellow human being, and so too with every woman as a fellow human being, a fellow woman.
Whoever we are, man or woman, Mary comes as Mother, Sister and Midwife. The way a woman shares with Mary, and receives God’s grace through Mary, according to these three aspects will be a little different to how a man does so, paralleling the different role Elizabeth played compared to Joseph or to Zechariah, and vice versa, in the visitation narrative.
Regardless, we are all called to invite Mary into our hearts, homes and lives, and she will come. Not that she isn’t already present, but how much more actively can Mary fulfil her God-appointed role in our lives if we let her and ask her to.
Whatever the difficulties of our lives, no matter whether we are male or female, called to be mothers or fathers, called to live this vocation out naturally and supernaturally, or only supernaturally, if we welcome Mary into our lives, as God so wants us to, we will come to enter into the joy of the One whom Mary infallibly brings — Christ the Lord. It is God who sent Mary to Elizabeth through her conviction of love of neighbor, and it is God who sends Mary to us through the conviction of her love for us. In turn, Mary brings the one who sent her, even as the one who sends her already abides in us.
Those who call upon Mary, in vocal prayer or in the silence of their heart, can be confident that Mary and the fruit of her womb is with them in a special way, and so too her hidden spouse, St. Joseph, all three mediating and witnessing to the presence of the Holy Trinity.
For those who pray the Rosary, the Rosary is as it were, a sign of the umbilical cord that ties the child to its Mother, a bracelet shared between siblings, the hand of a help-maid. Those who pray the Rosary are nourished by Mary as Mother, accompanied by Mary as Sister, and strengthened by Mary as Midwife in enduring the labour pangs of the cross, appointed to every Christian.
However we do so, those who call on Mary, whether they feel Mary’s maternal presence or not (because the reality is, she is there), can exclaim in faith:
“And why is this granted me,
that the Mother of my Lord should come to me?
For behold, when the voice of your greeting came to my ears,
the babe in my womb leaped for joy.”
~ Luke 1:43-44
Yes, man or woman, male or female, a pregnant woman or not, all Christians share in the blessing of bearing the life of Jesus in the womb of the heart, and this babe leaps for joy, sanctifies and consoles, and increases in stature within the soul that calls on the name of Mary and opens their heart to her maternal love.
Originally published at Ten-Stringed Lyre of the New Israel.
Image: Visitation (1320-30), Museo Matris Domini / Wikicommons / PD-US