For 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.
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