The priest who says Mass at the hospital where I work, on Our Lady of Lourdes day, preached on the humanity of Mary, the mother of Jesus. She is a venerated woman, a saint with iterations in many cultures. She approaches divinity in the minds and hearts of many faithful Christians. However, the priest said, we must beware of prioritizing her divinity such that we forget she is a woman, a human creature, whom we can relate to.
The next week, the priest said Mass on Ash Wednesday, which is the day after Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday. Ash Wednesday is a day when Christians often give up things they have binged on during Mardi Gras. We give up pleasures and indulgences in order to remind ourselves to be penitent and mindful during the 40 days and nights Jesus spent wandering in the desert, enduring temptations, at the start of his ministry. This 40 day period culminates in Holy Week, when the Last Supper, trial, Crucifixion, death and Easter Resurrection occur. Then we feast again.
Many people give up alcohol, or meat, or chocolate during the time of Lent. But Father Bob, the priest at the hospital, suggested instead of giving something up, we add to the goodness of the world. Instead of giving something up, increasing the dreariness, suffering, and drudgery of the world, why not make the world better? What good can you do for other people; what good habit can you cultivate that will make you more whole? Instead of the “via negativa” or negative way, can we practice the “via positiva”?
I saw recently a play, Testament, by Irish playwright Colm Tóibín, in which Mary is portrayed as a very human mother of a just-Crucified Jesus. She is being guarded and interviewed and watched by Jesus’ disciples in Ephesus, where according to legend, Mary lived out her life after Jesus’ death. She describes the wedding at Cana, considered the site of Jesus’ first miracle, turning water into wine, in very human terms. She interacts with her son at this family wedding and realizes that he is becoming more distant and larger-than-life, that the folks at the wedding are attributing to him a miracle, when she knows him as her son, a rabble-rousing delinquent who was always bringing his gang of friends to the house.
The Mary of Testament is incensed that her interviewers think that Jesus’ father is God. Jesus had a father, Mary said, and Mary misses him dearly. (The play doesn’t explain what exactly happened to the father.) Mary understands Jesus to be nothing more or less than her son. The aspirations of being God’s Son are ridiculous to her.
Did this mother give up anything to bring her son into the world? Maybe. Many human mothers make sacrifices. But I know very few mothers who would give up more if their child were more special, or more powerful, or more divine.
My feminist sensibilities don’t sit well with the idea that a Godly love can be evident in self-emptying or pouring out. God’s love is filling and life-giving. Turning water to wine, the fullness of pleasure in giving a feast to your children, taking joy in their goodness and happiness, knowing that their goodness and happiness does not take away from your own, but adds to it, indeed is your reason for being.
But there is always a via negativa. There is always a path to holiness that involves sacrifice. Does a mother feeding her children with her own food, and not from a bounty, diminish the holiness of her gift? Does a child’s prison sentence diminish the holiness of the mother’s tears, or her willingness to sacrifice for her child’s comfort and well-being?
These two ways, the positive and negative ways, of devotion, of love, they are not mutually exclusive. They are always in all of us. We are created to hold both, in the image of God.
The Mary of Testament has a very human, and very powerful, motherly love of her son that is made no more or less powerful by the idea that Jesus might be divine. The love of this mother knows nothing of achievement or divinity or titles or worth.
It is a perfectly human love.