“It’s the most wonderful time of the year!” or so the song says. For the secular world, Christmas is over and it is time to sell Valentine’s Day. For Catholics who celebrate traditional Christmastide, it has only still just begun and will continue until February 2nd and the Feast of the Purification, or Candlemas. Now that we have celebrated Epiphany, our heads may still be swimming with the information, opinions, homilies, and blogs that inundate us throughout Advent and the Christmas Octave, all focused on different aspects of the Christmas story and what it could mean for us today. We may be tempted to take the scandal of the Incarnation (as C.S. Lewis called it) and reduce it to something to which we can relate. We can get caught up in the idea that if God became man for us, then we must reduce the wonder of Christmas to our confusing present. This temptation, however, tends to generate misunderstandings. Arguably, it is the Blessed Virgin Mary who is perhaps the least understood and most misrepresented figure in the narrative of the Nativity. Since we have just recently celebrated her Solemnity as Mother of God, let’s take some time to dive into the deep and often paradoxical truth of the amazing act of God that is the Incarnation and His miraculous birth at Christmas and correct some of the Marian misunderstandings that circulate this time of year:
Misunderstanding: Mary didn’t know
Mary did know. The popular Christmas song “Mary Did you Know?” poses several questions as verses and assumes that Mary was a rather ordinary girl, but there is nothing ordinary about the Blessed Mother – thank God! In fact, the premise underneath most of the Marian misunderstandings around Christmastime stem from our very human inability to fathom what being preserved from even the effects of original sin really means. When we think of Mary’s Immaculate Conception, we often think in ambiguous or narrow terms. “Her Immaculate Conception means she was preserved from original sin and its effects” but we tend to not think about what that really means, and perhaps we should; because it is the foundation of getting Mary “right” at Christmastime.
Mary’s preservation from original sin and its effects mean that she had a perfect intellect. The way she understood God, His Will, and the Truth of Salvation was much more as that of the angels than that of us imperfect humans. This does not mean she was omniscient or all-knowing, but like the angels, her intellect would have been so perfect that she would be able to understand, intuit, and connect things that would never occur to fallen (and redeemed) humans. She would basically have had infused knowledge of God and His plans and His Truth. She would have been so closely united to God throughout her entire life that sin would have been repulsive, and that she would have been spared the concupiscence, pain, sickness, and disorder that sin created. She also, therefore, would have been spared the labor pains brought about by our first parents’ sin…but more on that later.
This level of perfection may tempt us to say that Mary is therefore unrelatable. That she is too unlike us to matter. We think that we want a Heavenly Mother who understands us as one of us in our brokenness and who has been through what we have been through and who has had to grapple with understanding why. But do we? Do we really? Or do we actually desire (and need) a Heavenly Mother who constantly elevates us to the way we were intended to be? A creature who constantly points us to the One who saves and who teaches us how to strive for perfection? This is the great paradox of Christmas. Heaven came down to earth not to be trapped here and spoiled by our sinfulness but to in turn raise us up to Heavenly perfection, to restore the relationship sin severed, and save us from that sinfulness. Mary, in her perfection, is a guide and example for us.
Misunderstanding: Mary was an unwed, teenaged mother with an unplanned pregnancy
The time around Christmas is often ripe with memes and soundbytes that speak of Mary as though she was a potential client for a crisis pregnancy center or pregnancy resource program. Even excellent movies like Christmas with the Chosen and a Nativity Story perpetuate the idea that Mary and Joseph would have been ostracized and shunned in their home for Mary’s pregnancy. This is historically inaccurate. Joe Heshmeyer gives an excellent synopsis of why this line of thinking is false in his Catholic Answers article No, Mary was not an Unwed Mother. He encourages readers to read through the pertinent Bible passages “with Jewish eyes” to understand the cultural norms of the time and he outlines why it would not have been scandalous or even irregular for Mary to be pregnant before “Joseph took her into his home.”
As for the pregnancy being unplanned, this is also false. This particular pregnancy was planned. Very planned. Since the “happy fault” of Adam and Eve, creation awaited a Savior. Mary’s perfect intellect would have informed her that there was something about her and God’s plan for her that would involve our Salvation. She would have been able to read the scriptures with this in mind and understand the ancient prophesies in a way unlike any other human could have. Her perfect humility would have led her to ponder these things in her heart and to know it was not for her to speak of until God revealed it to be so.
Misunderstanding: Mary experienced a painful, “normal” labor and delivery
Let’s revisit the effects of original sin. One of the consequences of this sin was that God said, “I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children…” (Gen. 3:16). In his blockbuster podcast, “Bible in a Year,” Fr. Mike Schmitz points out that the consequences of original sin are not punishments, rather they are the remedy. That through the toil and suffering God said would come upon them as a consequence of original sin, humanity would purify themselves and restore the relationship that they had broken. They would discover their need for God.
Mary, as we have already seen, did not need to restore this relationship. She was already living in relationship with God the way He had always intended because she was preserved from original sin and its effects. Therefore not only is it illogical to think that she would have experienced labor pain, it is redundant.
St. Bridget of Sweden, in a private revelation, was given the grace of witnessing the birth of Jesus. Afterwards the Blessed Virgin Mary spoke to her and explained what she experienced. These are recorded in the Revelations of St. Bridget on the life and Passion of Our Lord and the life of His Blessed Mother. In this private revelation you are invited to discern and contemplate what St. Bridget recorded from Our Lady. Here is a short excerpt:
“My daughter, know that I bore my Son as you have seen, praying alone on my knees in the stable. I bore Him with such joy and exultation of mind that I felt no pain or difficulty when He left my body.”-Revelations of St. Bridget on the Life and Passion of Our Lord and the life of His Blessed Mother, the Blessed Virgin Speaks, pg. 27.
In his Summa Theologica, St. Thomas Aquinas supports this revelation when he ascertained that “…the pain of giving birth of his mother did not pertain to Christ, who came to make satisfaction for our sins. And therefore, it was not necessary that his mother should give birth with pain” (ST III, 36.3).
Misunderstanding: Mary did not understand the words of Simeon
When Mary and Joseph took Jesus to the temple for the Purification, Our Lady, being unlike any other creature, did not need to be purified – she already was. However in her humility she would have assented to the customs and the law and not drawn attention to herself. It was at the Temple for the Purification when Simeon spoke his words to her, “Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted, and you yourself a sword will pierce, so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed” (Lk 2:34-35). Luke’s Gospel tells us that Mary and Joseph were “amazed.” This amazement was not surprise, rather an awe, and amazement at how God works His plans and awe of Him.
It was at this moment that Our Lady perhaps becomes more relatable than any of us tend to think. It is easy to get caught up in her perpetual virginity, her painless birth, her perfection, and think, “see! I can never be like her. She is too perfect. She must have had it all so easy!” Yet Our Lady suffered more than any mere mortal, any creature ever created. Her suffering began the moment the Angel appeared to her and she gave her fiat. It increased at the Purification at Simeon’s words and it came to its climax at the foot of the Cross.
Physical suffering is terrible. Pain is awful. Yet, almost anyone who has had to battle both physical and emotional suffering will say that it is the emotional, the spiritual, the mental suffering that is worse than anything physical. In her perfect knowledge of Her role in our Salvation and her Son being the Second Person of the Trinity, Mary would have also known that for which He came to the earth. She would know He would suffer and die. And yet in her humility, she accepted all as God’s will and gave her “yes” every day. In her Revelations to St. Bridget, Our Lady explained how, upon the words of Simeon, her suffering increased, “and a grief pierced my heart more keenly…and until I was assumed in body and soul to Heaven, this grief never left my heart, although it was tempered by the consolation of the spirit of God.”
Our time on this earth is marked by consolation and desolation, by joy and by sorrow. Our Lady knows both. She knows the joy of holding the God-man in her arms. She knows the sorrow of watching this same Son suffer and die. And she lived with the knowledge of His mission to suffer and die for His whole life. Our Lady therefore is accessible to us. She can accompany us in both our joys and our sufferings and she will not only console us as the Spirit consoled her, but she will remind us to give our own “fiat” and to look to her Son with Hope and trust, just as she did.
Our Lady of Christmastide, pray for us!