The Virgin Mother
by Bishop Fulton J. Sheen


A woman can be a virgin in one of three ways: first, because she never had a chance to marry. This could be involuntary virginity (if she rebelled against her maidenhood), or it could be voluntary and meritorious (if she accepted it as God's Holy Will). No one is saved because of virginity alone --- of the ten virgins in the Gospel, five were foolish women. There are virgins in Hell, but there is no one in Hell who is humble. A woman can be a virgin a second way --- because she decided not to marry. This can be for social or economic reasons and, therefore, may have no religious value, but it can also be meritorious, if it is done for a religious motive --- for example, the better to serve a sick member of a family, or to dedicate oneself to neighbor for the love of God. Thirdly, a woman can be a virgin because she made a vow or a promise to God to keep herself pure for His sake although she has a hundred chances to marry.
Mary was a virgin in the third way. She fell in love at a very early age, and it was with God --- one of those beautiful loves where the first love is the last love, and the last love is Eternal Love. She must have been very wise, as well as good as a young girl of fifteen or sixteen, to have made such a choice. This alone made her very different from other women, who were anxious to bear children. When a married woman did not have children in that time, it was considered sometimes, but wrongly, that God was angry with her.

When Our Lady took the vow of virginity, she made herself "queer" to some people, for there will always be some material-minded people who cannot understand why some souls really love God. The Blessed Mother had a better chance than most women to become the Mother of Cod; for the Bible said that Our Lord would be born of the House of David, the great king who lived a thousand years before. And Mary belonged to that royal family. Without doubt Mary knew the prophecy of Isaias which some had forgotten, namely, that the Messias would be born of a Virgin. But it is more likely, from what she said later, that she considered herself too lowly for such dignity and took the vow in the hope that, through her sacrifice and prayer, the coming of the Messias might be hastened.
How do we know that Mary took a vow? We know it from her answer to the Angel Gabriel. Out from the great white throne of light came the Angel to this beautiful girl kneeling in prayer. This visit of the Angel to Mary is called the Annunciation because it announced the first really good news the earth had heard in centuries. Yesterday's news was about the fall of a man through a woman; today's news is about the regeneration of man through a woman.

An Angel salutes a woman! This would be a perversion of Heaven's order, worse than men's worshipping animals, unless Mary had been destined by God to be even greater than the Angels --- aye, their very Queen! And so the Angel, who was accustomed to be honored by men, now honors the Woman.

This Ambassador of God gives no order, but salutes her: "Hail, full of grace." "Hail" is our English translation for the Greek Chaire and probably is the equivalent of the old Aramaic formula Shalom, which meant "Rejoice" or "Peace be to you." "Full of grace," the rare word in the Greek of the Gospel, signifies either "most gracious" or "full of virtue." It was almost like a proper noun in which God's Emissary affirms that she is the object of His Divine Pleasure.
It was less the flashing visit of the Heavenly Messenger which troubled the humble maid, than the startling greeting and the unexpected tone of Divine praise. A short time later when she would visit her cousin, Elizabeth, she would be asked: "How is it that the Mother of my God should come to me?" But now it is Mary's turn to ask: "Why should the Angel of my God come to me?" The Angel hastens to assure her of the reason of the visit. She is to fulfill within herself that which the prophet Isaias had announced seven centuries before:

"A Virgin shall conceive, and bring forth a Son, and His Name shall be called 'Emmanuel' (God with us)." (Isaias 7:14.) Making clear allusion to that prophecy, the Angel says: "Thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and shalt bring forth a Son; and thou shalt call His name, Jesus. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God shall give unto Him the throne of David His father; and He shall reign in the house of Jacob forever." (Luke 1:30-33.)

God was choosing her, not just because she was a Virgin, but because of her humility. Later Mary herself declared this as the reason: "He looked upon the lowliness of his handmaid," (Luke 1:48.) So Mary was troubled. Nothing troubles a humble soul like praise, and here the praise comes from an Angel of God.

This great honor created a problem for Mary who had vowed to give her body as well as her soul to God. Therefore she could never be a mother. As she put it: "I know not man. I have willed not to know man."

The Bible never speaks of marriage in terms of sex, but as "knowledge," for example, "Joseph knew not Mary." (Matt, 1:19.) "Adam knew Eve and she conceived." (Gen, 4:1,) The reason it does this is in order to show how close a husband and wife should be: they are intended by God to be as close as your mind and that thing which you know. For example, you know that two plus two equals four, and you cannot think of anything coming between your mind and that. Your right arm is not united to your body so closely as anything which you know is united to your mind.
So Mary says: "How shall this be, seeing I know not man?" Mary did not say: "I will never marry, therefore, I cannot become the Mother of Jesus." That would have been disobedient to the Angel who asked her to become the Mother of Jesus. Neither did she say: "I do not want a husband, but let the Will of God be fulfilled," for that would have been untrue to herself and her vow. Mary merely wanted to be enlightened concerning her duty. The problem was not her virginity. She was familiar enough with the prophecy of Isaias to know that God would be born of a virgin. Mary's only concern was, that since up to this point in history motherhood and virginity had been irreconcilable, how will God arrange it? Her objection to the Virgin Birth was on the basis of science. The solution certainly cannot be natural; therefore it must be supernatural. God can do it. but how? Long before modern biology put a query to the Virgin Birth, Mary asked the scientific "How?" The Angel answers that, in her case, birth will come without human love, but not without Divine Love, for the Third Person of the Blessed Trinity, the Holy Spirit, Who is the Love of God, will descend into her, and He that will be born of her will be "the Son of God."

Mary saw at once that this allowed her to keep her vow. All she wanted, anyway, was to love God. At this moment, when the Spirit of Love ravished her soul, so that she conceived the Christ within, there must have come to her the fulfillment of those ecstatic ravishments that creatures seek in the flesh but which they never quite attain. The flesh in its peaks of love when it becomes united to other flesh falls back upon itself with satiety, but here in this union of human love with Divine Love there is no throwback to self, but only the sheer delight of the ecstasy of the spirit. In flesh-love the ecstasy is first in the body and then indirectly in the soul. In this Spirit-love, it was Mary's soul that was first ravished and, then, not by human love but by God. The love of God would so inflame her heart, her body, her soul that when Jesus was born the world could truly say of Him: "This is a Child of Love."

Being told how Divine Love will supplant human love, and how she can be a Mother while remaining a Virgin in the great mystery of generation, Mary now gives her consent: "Be it done unto me according to thy word," that is, as God in His Wisdom wills it, so do I. And at that moment the Word was conceived in her: "The Word became Flesh and dwelt amongst us," Before the Fall, it was woman who came from man in the ecstasy of sleep. Now it is man who comes from a woman in the ecstasy of the Spirit.

One of the most beautiful lessons in the world emerges from the Annunciation, namely the vocation of woman to supreme religious values. Mary is here recapturing woman's vocation from the beginning, namely, to be to humanity the bearer of the Divine. Every mother is this when she gives birth to a child, for the soul of every child is infused by God. She thus becomes a co-worker with Divinity; she bears what God alone can give. As the priest in the order of Redemption, at the moment of Consecration, brings the crucified Saviour to the altar, so the mother in the order of creation brings the spirit which issues from the Hand of God to the cradle of earth. With such thoughts in mind, Leon Bloy once said: "The more a woman is holy, the more she becomes a woman."

Why? It is not that women are naturally more religious than men. This statement is merely a rationalization made by men who have fallen from their ideals. Man and woman each have a specific mission under God to complement one another. Each, too, has its symbol in the lower order. Man may be likened to the animal in his acquisitiveness, mobility, and initiative. Woman may be likened to the flower, which is fixed between Heaven and earth; she is like the earth in her bearing of life; she is like the Heaven in her aspirations to blossom upward to the Divine. The mark of man is initiative; but the mark of woman is cooperation. Man talks about freedom; woman about sympathy, love, sacrifice. Man cooperates with nature; woman cooperates with God. Man was called to till the earth, to "rule over the earth"; woman to be the bearer of a life that comes from God. The hidden wish of every woman in history, the secret desire of every feminine heart, is fulfilled in that instant when Mary says: "Fiat" --- "Be it done unto me according to thy word."

Here is cooperation at its best. Here is the essence of womanhood --- acceptance, resignation, submission: "Be it done unto me." Whether it be the unmarried daughter who cares for the mother with her Fiat of surrender to service, or the wife who accepts the husband in the unity of the flesh, or the Saint who accepts little crosses proffered by her Saviour, or this Unique Woman whose soul submits to the Divine Mystery of mothering God made man --- there is present in varying degrees the beautiful picture of Woman in her sublimest vocation --- making the Total Gift, accepting a Divine assignment, being submissive for Heaven's holy purposes. Mary calls herself ancilla Domini, the handmaid of the Lord. Not to be this for any woman lowers her dignity. Woman's unhappiest moments are when she is unable to give; her most hellish moments are when she refuses to give. Tragedy stalks when woman is forced by economic or social circumstances to busy herself in those materialities which hamper or dam up the outpouring of that specific quality of surrender to Divine Purpose which makes her a woman. Denied an outlet for the bursting need of giving, she feels a deeper sense of emptiness than a man, precisely because of the greater depths of her fountain of love.

For a woman to be the Collaborator with the Divine --- whether it be helping the missions, visiting the sick after business hours, freely offering services to hospitals or mothering her children --- is to enjoy that equilibrium of spirit which is the essence of sanity. Liturgy speaks of woman as fulfilling mysterium caritatis: the mystery of love. And love does not mean to have, to own, to possess. It means to be had, to be owned, to be possessed. It is the giving of self for another. A woman may love God mediately through creatures, or she may love God immediately, as Mary did, but to be happy she must bring the Divine to the human. The explosive revolt of woman against her alleged inequalities with man is at bottom a protest against the restraints of a bourgeois civilization without faith, one which has chained her God-given talents.

What every woman wants in the "mystery of love" is not the bestial burst, but the soul. Man is driven by love of pleasure; woman by the pleasure of love, by its meaning and the enrichment of soul it grants. In this beautiful moment of the Annunciation, Woman reaches her sublimest fulfillment for God's sake. As the earth submits to the exigency of the seed for the sake of the harvest, as the nurse submits to the exigencies of the wounded for the sake of the healing, as the wife submits to the exigencies of the flesh for the sake of the child, so Mary submits to the exigencies of the Divine Will for the sake of the Redemption of the World.
Closely allied with this submission is sacrifice. For submission is not passivity, but action --- the action of self-forgetfulness. Woman is capable of greater sacrifices than man partly because her love is less intermittent, and also because she is unhappy without total and complete dedication. Woman is made for the sacred. She is Heaven's instrument on earth. Mary is the prototype, the pattern --- Woman who fulfills in herself the deepest aspirations of the heart of every daughter of Eve.

Virginity and maternity are not so irreconcilable as it would seem. Every virgin yearns to become a mother, either physically or spiritually, for unless she creates, mothers, nurses, and fosters life, her heart is as uneasy and awkward as a giant ship in shallow waters. She has the vocation of generating life, either in the flesh or in the spirit through conversion. There is nothing in professional life which necessarily hardens a woman. If such a woman does become hardened, it is because she is denied those specifically creative God-like functions without which she cannot be happy.

On the other hand, every wife and mother strives for spiritual virginity in that she would like to take back what she has given, that she might offer it all over again, only this time more deeply, more piously, more divinely. There is something incomplete about virginity, something ungiven, unsurrendered, kept back. There is something lost in all motherhood: something given, something taken --- and something irrecoverable.

But in the Woman there was realized physically and spiritually what every woman desires physically. In Mary, there was nothing unsurrendered, nothing lost; there was a harvest without the loss of the bud; an autumn in an eternal spring; a submission without a spoliation. Virgin and Mother! The only melody that fell from the violin of God's creation without the breaking of a string!

Woman has a mission to give life. The Life which is to be born of Mary comes without the spark of love of a human spouse, but with the Flame of Love of the Holy Spirit. There can be no birth without love; but the meaning of the Virgin Birth is Divine Love acting without benefit of the flesh. As a result, He Whom the Heavens could not contain she now contains within herself. This was the beginning of the Propagation of the Faith in Christ Jesus Our Lord, for in Her Virgin body is celebrated, as in a new Eden, the nuptials of God and man.

Because in this one Woman, Virginity and Motherhood are united, it must be that God willed to show how both are necessary for the world. What are separated in other creatures are united in her. The Mother is the protectress of the Virgin, and the Virgin is the inspiration of motherhood. Without mothers, there would be no virgins in the next generation; without the virgins, mothers would forget the sublime ideal that lies beyond the flesh. They complement one another, like the sun and the rain. Without the sun there would be no clouds, and without the clouds there would be no rain. The clouds, like mothers, surrender something in fecundating the earth; but the sun, like a virgin, recoups and recovers that loss by drawing the gentle drops back again into heaven. How beautiful to think that He Who is generated without a mother in Heaven is now born without a father on earth! Can we imagine a little bird building the very nest in which it is to be hatched? It is clearly impossible, because the bird would have to exist before it could build its own nest. But that is what happened, in a sense, with God, when He chose Mary as His Mother: He thought of Her from all eternity --- He made His Mother as the very nest from which He would be born. We have often heard friends and relatives say of a child: "You look like your father," or, "You look like your mother." Or, "You get your blue eyes from your mother's side," or "You get your smartness from your father's side." Well, Our Lord had no earthly father's side. Where did Our Lord get His beautiful face, His strong Body, His clean Blood, His sensitive mouth, His delicate fingers? He got them from His mother's side. Where did He get His Divinity, His Divine Mind that knows all things even our most secret thoughts, and His Divine Power over life and death? He got these from His Heavenly Father's side. It is a terrible thing for men not to know their father, but it is even more terrible not to know their Heavenly Mother. And the greatest compliment that can be paid to a true Christian is: "You took after your Father's side in grace, but in your humanity, you took after your Mother's side."




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