As with the Feast of the Holy Family that celebrates indirectly but substantially the human family, I think the same can be said of our celebration of Mary as the Mother of God. We recognize the unique character both of Mary the person, and of her role in the history of salvation, but beneath this are simple biological realities that God treated as inviolable – human beings are born into this world by women; and they nurtured by mothers through childhood into youth and emerge as adults, hopefully ready for the challenges of the world. So, for Christ to be fully human as he is fully divine, he must be born of a woman, come into the world as an infant to be cared for and nurtured by his mother. That experience of motherly care whether provided by our birth mother, or a stepmother or a woman of similar status, not a slave or servant of the household, is common to most of us through most of human history. To be deprived of the love of a woman as a child is no small matter, it cannot to be remedied through lesser surrogate caregivers.
It is of singular importance for us today to reaffirm this; and by celebrating Mary as the Mother of God, as Mother of the Church we also celebrate women as mothers and caregivers; but also women as that indispensable, integral, irreplaceable half of humanity without which we lose our humanity.
This does not mean that women are consigned only to the traditional roles of wife and mother; that women cannot be scientists, business owners, practice a trade, engage in other endeavours outside the domestic setting; but we cannot overlook or deny the attributes of the human female that make them so important to family life and our community. As St. John Paul II put it,
“…the true advancement of women requires that clear recognition be given to the value of their maternal and family role, by comparison with all other public roles and all other professions. Furthermore, these roles and professions should be harmoniously combined, if we wish the evolution of society and culture to be truly and fully human.” (familiaris consortio 23)
What is disturbing about the trends in late feminism is that they’ve brought to fruition what G.K. Chesterton made as a wry observation a hundred years ago: “the battle of the sexes is over, and men won.” By this he meant that the male pattern of living is seen as the ideal for women to emulate even if their biological reality is in no way suited to such an enterprise. Not only does this leave many women with profound inner conflict; the benefit of the authentic feminine is lost to the world and supplanted instead by feminism. And feminism as we experience today in the world of work, politics and culture, presents a profound paradox: antagonistic toward masculinity even as it advocates women live a parody of the male life that is then described as being “strong women.”
That notion that the strong woman is a female who takes on male character attributes is ridiculous; and, frankly, insulting to generations of strong women who did not have to prove themselves through competition with men.
We often see this in popular entertainment today where women are presented with this ideal in fictional characters who are more physically, intellectually, and spiritually capable than men, and are better in masculine terms. This is offered as if there never were positive, affirming portrayals of women on film and television, or in literature – that the female was always relegated to the role of helpless victim.
That speaks of a tremendous ignorance of our cultural heritage, both in terms of today’s modern society and Christendom which preceded it, and subsists among the faithful in our homes and in our churches.
When we think of Christianity’s legacy to our society in terms of what it has done to bring women’s status to parity with that of men, we need to consider the pre-Christian era in which women truly were regarded as passive, lesser than men, and rarely celebrated. When I think on the historical record of the ancient world, very few women’s biographies have survived; the few we have were usually remembered in less than heroic terms, but rather as villains: Olympias, the snake worshipping mother of Alexander the Great, popularly believed to have murdered her husband and to have had an unnatural relationship with her famous son; then there’s Cleopatra, the temptress queen of the Nile, and after her, Empress Livia, wife of Augustus, and remembered for murdering by poison Augustus’ male relations to pave the way for her own son by a previous marriage to inherit the throne; and so on.
The Biblical inheritance of Christianity, the women of the Old Testament, such as Sara, Rebecca, Rachel, Miriam, sister of Moses, Deborah, Hannah, Rahab, Ruth, Esther, to name just those I thought of as I sat down to compose this homily, is but a partial list of heroines, women to be admired for their cleverness, resourcefulness, wisdom and charm all put at the service of God.
And then, of course, God’s greatest human servant, among both men and women, we have in the person of Mary who has been described as the Old Testament itself made flesh.
And even as we grant that women are demonstrably the physically “weaker sex” it is Mary, the young woman who demonstrates the Christian paradox, seen in her son Jesus upon the cross, but exemplified in her life of dedicated service to God, that there is a power at work in apparent weakness that vanquishes the powerful and strong of this world.
The Church has now for two thousand years, continually lifted up for our edification the good example of women who we have celebrated as saints and recommended to all, men and women, boys and girls alike. We can go all the way back to St. Anne, St. Elizabeth ad St. Mary Magdalene, and then progress through the centuries with great personalities such as Saint Perpetua, Saint Philomena, Saint Lucia, Saint Agnes, Saint Helena, Saint Monica, the Desert Mothers; and I’ve named just a fraction of those of the ancient church. We go onto the medieval period and name Saint Margaret of Scotland, Saint Elizabeth of Hungary, Saint Dymphna, Saint Hedwig, the mystic Julian of Norwich, the great religious sister, Hildegaard of Bingen, theologian, scientist and musical composer; we move to the modern era and the list continues: Saint Edith Stein, Saint Therese de Lisieux, doctor of the Church, Saint Faustina, Saint Katherine Drexel, Saint Teresa of Calcutta – doubtless you can think of more whose names didn’t come to me immediately as I was typing this up.
It worries me that we are fast erasing womanhood: gender theory now being pushed upon our children and sending them into confusion; our society’s elites now celebrating as women, men who take on only the most superficial trappings of female life, who now take athletic prizes from hardworking girls in collegiate sports; and now apparently, on the television gameshow Jeopardy, the greatest “woman” competitor in its history, is a biological male who is regarded as a woman for reasons that defy rationality.
Now, to be clear, this isn’t about sentimentality that arises from cherished memories of mothers or grandmothers; nor is this celebration to be rooted in nostalgia for an era in which women “knew their place” which was strictly in the domestic realm. Indeed, that never really was the sole place of women; but it was an important domain of feminine activity, and likely an essential one: we all need someone to make a home for us.
No, we celebrate Mary as Mother of God, for being a capable, faithful woman, an example for us all, and so worthy to receive our Lord, and be that means by which God took flesh, was born and lived among us as a man who had a home, and knew the love of a mother who treasured every memory of him. This made Christ human, and so made his life and death like ours. Through her, solidarity is created between God and Humanity, and among us all, brothers and sisters in Christ, in the Church whose spiritual mother, Mary is.