Is Mary Missing from the Theology of the Body?

shutterstock_42898051For the Catholic Church, a frequent reference point for many parts of her theology comes in reflecting upon the Blessed Virgin Mary.  Since she was the perfect example of obedience to God’s will, Catholics could spend a lifetime pondering these examples and still barely scratch the surface of things we could learn.  The Wednesday general audiences that comprise Man and Woman He Created Them (known in theological circles as the Catechesis on Human Love, or in lay circles, the Theology of the Body) are no exception to this Marian principle.  John Paul II spoke very highly of the Blessed Virgin throughout his pontificate, and devoted one of his general audiences to how Mary lives out the theology of the body to the utmost.  (General Audience of 3-24-82.)

Yet when you see a lot of the commentary on these Wednesday audiences by the pop evangelists of TOB, a Marian dimension to the teachings really is missing.  When it is covered, it normally consists of just pious reaffirmations of Mary’s centrality, without really examining why.  On the rare occasions it is examined, it is done solely through the examination of how Mary, in her body, is female, and why we should celebrate that fact.  Why is this topic so difficult to cover for a lot of the TOB evangelists?

I believe we can identify two areas that explain this shortcoming.  As I mentioned in my previous essay, “What Theology of the Body is Really All About, a lot of the coverage on these Wednesday audiences is reduced to a catechesis on sex, rather than what it truly was, a catechesis on how the family (and the love which unites it) is central to Christianity.  When we focus on just sex, there are obvious reasons why Mary is not really a relevant choice:  she was a Virgin before, during, and after the birth of Christ.

Some will counter that instead, we must look at Mary’s sexuality in the term of being a female.  Yet even here, the applications of the Wednesday audiences are limited.  Far too often, we celebrate sexuality for the sake of sexuality.  Male and female are celebrated as male and female, just for the sake of celebrating male and female.  Celebrating Mary’s feminine nature in and of itself offers little relevance for understanding our own sexuality, especially for the male in the audience.

I am not saying that we can learn nothing from these reflections.  We can, and we can learn some pretty insightful stuff.   In a culture in which women are devalued, celebrating the feminine genius of Mary can help us men view women as a more exalted creature.  Women can look at Mary and see that God’s highest creation was a woman, and by identifying with her, they can live a life of holiness to get to heaven, where they as well will be like Mary, completely free from the effects of sin.  These are good things, yet the beauty of the Wednesday audiences is that they offer so much more.  We could almost say that the Blessed Virgin offered a life built on a theology of the family.

The first way to understand this truth is to reflect upon the maternity of Mary. In the maternity of Mary, we find a woman perfect in love and self-denial towards raising the Messiah.  When Mary is addressed in the Scriptures, she is frequently warned of the great suffering she is going to endure (for a sword shall pierce your heart), and Mary never turns away from this destiny.  She knew full well that a Messiah would not receive a warm welcome from the world, and her worst fears were realized as she watched her Son die in the most excruciating and humiliating manner possible.  Yet Mary always follows things through.  She accepts the Incarnation so her Son, God incarnate, can live on earth. She accepts Joseph as her spouse, she accepts fleeing to a strange land for her child’s safety, she accepts from the beginning not only His royal lineage, but His death in the gifts of the magi.  There were a thousand opportunities Mary could’ve said this was all too much for her, and things were just too big for her.  Yet she never does this, she ponders everything in her heart, and realizes that everything she does must be for the sake of her son Jesus.  In Mary we find the perfect gift of self, and who we should ultimately give that gift to.  Male and female alike can learn something from this example.

Another way is through Mary as a spouse. In her marriage, we see marriage as it was meant to be, where a male and female unite together, returning us to the initial moments of mans creation.  Yet we also find someone perfectly focused on her spouse.  When Joseph goes somewhere, Mary is always by his side.  She never once decides to go strike out on her own, viewing Joseph as irrelevant.  The race of man is comprised of male and female, and both male and female must participate in the raising of the Messiah, since His goal is to redeem them both.  As a result of this truth, she is never focused upon herself, but rather on her union with Joseph, and striving to make sure that union is always centered upon Christ.

The final (and perhaps most important!) way is to understand Mary through her virginity.  Her perpetual virginity (even in marriage) says more about her than she merely abstained from sex.  That abstention was ultimately a sign of something greater.  She lived every moment of her life on earth as if she were already in heaven.  She had a perfect communion with God from day one; she had no need for the earthly symbol that is marital relations.  We who lack (right now) that perfect communion can keep her example always before us, to remember that all things of this world, no matter how much we enjoy them, are nothing compared to the joys communion with God provide.

There is a lot more to be said, but I think this gives a good outline on the Marian character that our understanding of the Wednesday audiences is sorely lacking, and is key to understanding this and any work of Blessed John Paul II.

 

Image credit: shutterstock.com

Kevin Tierney

By

Kevin Tierney is the Associate Editor of the Learn and Live the Faith Section at Catholic Lane. He and his family live in Brighton, MI. Connect with him via FB  or on twitter @CatholicSmark.

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage

  • QuoVadisAnima

    One of the things I appreciate about the much-maligned Christopher West’s coverage of the TOB is that it has helped me understand that TOB is about more than sex. Previously I had only ever been exposed to the negative understandings of our physicality – that our bodies are a weakness that drag our spiritual selves down, etc, and something we can look forward to leaving behind when we die.

    But that doesn’t actually fit with the reality that (a) God initially made us BOTH spiritual & physical and saw that as a good, and (b) in the hereafter we are going to get our bodies resurrected & glorified & given back to us – so apparently God still sees our bodies as such a good thing (He even gave Himself such a physicality) that He intends for us to continue as BOTH body & soul for eternity.

    It helped me realize that the body is so much more than what I had previously understood — and helped to appreciate Mary’s donation of self so much better. It is more than an act of submission; it is an imitation of God’s perfect love: immersive, sacrificial and complete. Ultimately, that is the answer for everyone, regardless of their vocational call – to love God as He loves us, with our bodies as well as our souls.

  • http://commonsensecatholicism.blogspot.com/ Kevin Tierney

    I really don’t want to turn this into a whole “much maligned” aspect. I just think its something people of all walks of life can use, and help them understand the audiences better.

  • keenforgod

    Thanks, Kevin, for the post,

    I’m reflecting on JPII’s Theology of the Body (TOB) myself, as a layperson. I am learning that TOB is more than just about sexual morality, it’s about our identity as an image of God. Just in the first dozen or so talks, JPII develops theological concepts that are so profound (i.e. Original Solitude, Original Unity, Original Nakedness, etc.) I took a stab at reflecting on Original Solitude recently (http://wp.me/p2QE6j-mA) and have been scouring the Internet to see who else has written about.

    It’s nice to run across your post because I didn’t expect Mary to be a major focus in TOB. I don’t see TOB as a work of Mariology. But, I can certainly see how our Blessed Mother can help us understand TOB better by reflecting on her life with Christ. Again, thanks for your post prompting this reflection.

    Regards.

  • http://commonsensecatholicism.blogspot.com/ Kevin Tierney

    When it comes to the Blessed Virgin, insight about her can permeate the work without being Mariology. JPII stated the members of the Holy Family lived the theology of the body “perfectly” and that the communio personae between Mary and Joseph was one the deepest communio between two human beings (when one of those human beings isn’t Jesus Christ.)
    Will give your work a read tomorrow. Original solitude is one of the more interest aspects, and its rammifications are a lot larger than typically assumed (its influence in sacramental theology is very large for example, a theme I’ve developed a lot over at my weekly column at catholic lane, cheap promo!)

  • keenforgod

    Thanks, Kevin, you make a good point about how the Blessed Virgin can permeate a work without it explicitly being Mariology. I’m barely into JPII’s talks. So, I have yet to see how he develops TOB beyond Original Nakedness… but I can certainly anticipate how the Holy Family lives out TOB perfectly. I’m going to look for your post about Original Solitude over at Catholic Lane ;-)

  • QuoVadisAnima

    While I am definitely appreciating the insights & perspectives you are sharing, it is difficult to see how your reference to “the pop evangelists of TOB” was not yet another potshot at West. If you want to leave him out of the conversation, then please leave him out of the conversation – including remarks that can easily & readily be taken as veiled jabs.

  • QuoVadisAnima

    Keenton, interesting article! I’m going to share it with my teenager who has often asked me about that sense of “aloneness” and has graduated past the Donut Man’s “Life without Jesus is like a donut – there’s a hole in the middle of your heart” and St. Augustine’s “Our hearts are restless till they rest in Thee” and would like to explore this concept on a deeper level as well!

  • keenforgod

    Thanks for the positive response! I’ll take that as God indirectly encouraging me to explore JPII’s ideas further :-) Please share what your teenage son/daughter thinks of JPII’s concept, as well. God bless.

  • http://commonsensecatholicism.blogspot.com/ Kevin Tierney

    When I say “pop evangelists” I mean the message that is typically presented about the Wednesday audiences. I have no problem stating that while that message does a lot of good, it gets a few things wrong, and leaves out even more.

    So in that sense, the stuff I’m writing certainly is a “challenge” to that line of thought, but it isn’t in an adversarial sense. We did that a few years ago, people now know there’s more than one way to look at things, case closed. I hope it gets taken in a complementary sense.

  • QuoVadisAnima

    And yet, while one might rightly note a lack of depth (I prefer “fullness” ;-) ) to my understanding of Mary as relates to TOB, the deficits that you assert to be there – are not. Unless I have gotten things wrong?

    I’m sorry to be dogging you on such a relatively minor point to your otherwise excellent article. Even if unintentional, it still projects a tone of uncharitable superiority that undermines the noble effort of the rest & I would ask – no, beg – that the discussion continues without any further hints or references to an attitude of “those other people who don’t know or cover TOB as well”.

    In “Our Father’s Plan”, Jeff Cavins described his coverage of Scripture as a sort of traversing the surface of an ocean while Scott Hahn was ‘the scuba diver’ – that would be a much healthier way to view this. After all, TOB is likewise incredibly broad as well as deep – it makes sense that we will have those who swim and those who scuba dive, right? :-)

  • Lauretta Sesock

    keenforgod, I, too, was profoundly touched by the Popes’ discussion of those 3 “Originals”. As I was reading about Original Solitude I had a memory of standing out in a pasture with my dog, and cows and horses but feeling very alone. I was a young teen at the time and just beginning to be aware of the “other”.

    The topic of this article is the lack of Marian emphasis. Is that the fault of the “pop evangelists” or the fault of Pope John Paul II? Did he talk about her in his writings and that is being ignored by the evangelists or did he just not write about her in relation to this topic? If he didn’t write about her in TOB then I would say that the evangelists are merely being consistent with what he was doing.

    I think that the term “pop evangelist” is a good term for many of those presenting TOB. I think this because they are out there trying to reach the masses of uncatechized, totally secular people with a very countercultural message. It is much different doing that than preaching to the choir, so to speak, and I think their methodology reflects that. While the method may be somewhat jarring to the choir, it is exactly what the masses can hear and understand.

MENU