A western full of cruel, blood-thirsty scoundrels blasting innocent people off of stagecoaches could be a great source of entertainment on a Friday night, but it isn’t a likely well from which to draw lessons about the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Unless it’s 3:10 to Yuma. Even without the Mariological implications, this 2007 remake starring Christian Bale and Russell Crowe is one of the best westerns in film history. As a husband and a father I find it impossible not to watch it and come away with a renewed sense of purpose and a desire for self-sacrifice. The movie challenges the viewer to examine the relationship of evil to good, of justice to mercy, and of pride to humility. But it also has something to tell us about the Mother of God.
Mary (in case you didn’t realize it) has been a very busy woman for the past couple of centuries. At Tepeyac Hill in Mexico in 1531 she sparked the largest mass conversion in history (9 million souls in less than a decade), but beginning in the 19th century she radically increased the frequency of her appearances. In 1830 she gave the Miraculous Medal to a French nun, Catherine Laboure. In 1846, she appeared in France again as Our Lady of La Salette, conveying a deep sadness and pleading for the world’s repentance, a theme she would repeat as Our Lady of Lourdes in 1858. Thousands of pilgrims in Portugal in 1917 fell to their knees as the sun changed colors and tumbled out of the sky, giving urgent emphasis to Mary’s call to frequent recitation of the Rosary and mortification on behalf of sinners. In Belgium in 1933 not one but two separate but strangely similar apparitions invited self-sacrifice on behalf of Jesus and Mary. Beginning in the early 1970s Our Lady manifested herself in Akita, Japan by way of a statue which wept, perspired, and eventually spoke, delivering messages of loving chastisement: “…if men do not repent and better themselves, the Father will inflict a terrible punishment on all humanity.” In the 1980s Mary appeared with similar messages to three adolescent girls in Rwanda. The rapport that she had with the visionaries was strikingly intimate and tender; in fact, many were at first scandalized because the visionaries were so informal with her—they called her “darling,” for instance, and (much more often than “mother”) “mama.”
This is only a brief sample of her appearances, a kind of “Greatest Hits, Volume 1.” The more one looks at the past century and a half the clearer it becomes that Mary is on a globe-spanning mission to draw modern people out of their sinful ways and into a closer relationship with her Son.
One could ask: why her? God obviously seems to think that our current wickedness is threatening our heavenly destiny, but why send Mary to deliver the message, and not St. Joseph, or St. Theresa of Avila, or St. Benedict, or any one of a million wonderful holy people who already intercede on our behalf in Heaven?
This is where 3:10 to Yuma comes in. Russell Crowe’s character, Ben Wade, is charming and charismatic but also very, very bad: a thief and a murderer in command of a vicious gang of like-minded thugs. He has his own code of honor, regardless, and a few last burning embers of good which Christian Bale’s character eventually gets through to in the end. Before that happens, though, there’s a great scene where Ben Wade has been taken into custody by a crooked lawman played by Peter Fonda. At one point Fonda’s character, feeling cocky and cruel, accuses Ben Wade’s mother of being a diseased whore. Seconds later Wade gets loose. He grabs Peter Fonda and throws him off a high cliff to a bloody death. By way of explanation for his action Wade then murmurs: “Even bad men love their mamas.”
That is why, I think, God sends Mary to us. We might listen to her. It isn’t too much of a stretch, I hope, or excessively morbid, to compare us to a world full of selfish criminals. As we gallop ahead with plans to improve our lives through technology and bioengineering, culling the oldest and youngest members of our species, stripping off traditional religion, we resemble more and more a gang of hard-hearted scoundrels chasing down an Old West stagecoach for thrills and loot. Ordinary prophets might as well be wallpaper for people like us. But even bad men love their mamas.