Mary and the Gift of life
Motherhood requires openness to the new person
by Mary Shivanandan
Through the conception and gestation of Jesus Christ in the womb of Mary, the wombs of all women were raised to
a new dignity.
Already the womb was a sacred place in Creation as the home of the new human person made in the image of God. Recall
Eve's exclamation in Genesis 4: 1, "I have gotten a man with the help
of the Lord." But the incarnation raised it to an even greater dignity.
As John Paul II says in the encyclical Mulieris Dignitatem
(On the Dignity and Vocation of Women),
"Each and every time that motherhood is repeated
in human history, it is always related to the Covenant which God established with the human race through the motherhood
of the Mother of God" (MD §19)
Mary's Acceptance; Joseph's Fidelity
Let us reflect a moment on the circumstance of the Annunciation. Mary was betrothed but not yet married to Joseph.
The angel Gabriel did not initially involve Joseph in Mary's choice of motherhood. So in a fundamental sense the
choice of motherhood is a direct encounter between the woman and God.
When a woman agrees to sexual intercourse she consents to God's direct partnership with her in creating new human
life. This is an amazing affirmation of her personhood. With it comes a great responsibility.
Mary was well aware of the consequences of fiat or acceptance of God's will . She knew that Joseph had the right
not only to put her aside but even to have her stoned. Mary's fiat showed not only absolute trust in God but great
It is significant that the pregnancies of Mary and Elizabeth represent the two periods of a woman's life when a
pregnancy can be the most difficult. Mary was in the position similar to that of an unwed teen mother and Elizabeth
faced a pregnancy close to the menopause. This is a time when many women in our society are pressured into sterilization
But God did not want Mary to bear and bring up her son alone. An angel appeared to Joseph and said, "Do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy
Spirit." (Matt. 1:20)
Joseph then took Mary into his home as his wife. Mary remained a virgin throughout her marriage to Joseph, and
yet theirs was a true marriage in which they lived together and shared a union of mind and heart.
Artists have depicted Joseph as an old man, perhaps because they could not conceive that a young man could live
with a beautiful young girl and abstain from sexual intercourse. Joseph, like us, was subject to original sin with
its tendency towards concupiscence. The whole Jewish tradition lent its weight to procreation and the blessing
of a large family. So how was it possible for Joseph to live chastely with Mary?
Marital Love and Divine Love
Marriage has been a dominant symbol in both the Old and the New Covenants of God's love for man and Christ's love
for the Church. As such it has both illuminated divine love and been elevated by the comparison. The marriage of
Mary and Joseph is both illuminated by sacramental marriage and sheds light on the ordinary marriages of Christians.
This is particularly true in our day.
Sexual abstinence is not considered in modern views of marriage. The aim of contraception is to enable the man
and the woman to have sexual intercourse without any thought for pregnancy. But in natural family planning (the
way of spacing children by timing intercourse according to the fertile and infertile phases of the woman's cycle)
the virtue of marital chastity has an honorable place.
When a couple chooses natural family planning, they resolve to respect the time when a woman is fertile and a new
life could be conceived. This calls for great trust on the part of both the woman and the man. The wife makes herself
vulnerable to her husband in a radical way.
It was just in this way that Mary made herself vulnerable to Joseph. Mary entrusted herself to Joseph because she
had entrusted herself to God.
But Mary also took responsibility for the gift God had given her in her Son. As John Paul II says,
"Motherhood implies from the beginning a special
openness to the new person: and this is precisely the woman's 'part.' In this openness, in conceiving and giving
birth to a child, the woman 'discovers herself through a sincere gift of self.'"(MD §18)
Mary's first act after receiving the stupendous news of her own pregnancy was to go to her cousin
Elizabeth, who was also pregnant, to share her gift and to aid her cousin. (Luke
No mention is made of Joseph accompanying Mary on this journey. In both Luke's and Matthew's gospels, the husbands,
Joseph and Zechariah greet the news of pregnancy with either disbelief or consternation As John Paul II observes,
"The man - even with all his sharing of parenthood-always
remains 'outside the process of and the baby's birth; in many ways he has to learn his own 'fatherhood' from the
mother." (MD §18)
It is especially the role of the woman to protect the "fruit of her womb", and then
the role of the man to protect both mother and child By making a "sincere gift" of herself to her husband
and child, a woman calls forth love from her husband.
Joseph was instructed by the angel to take the mother and child out of danger to Egypt and again to return to Nazareth.
(Matt. 2: 13, 21 23) He, too, was called to
make a sincere gift of himself. He was assigned by God to protect both Mother and Child. In doing so his whole
life was disrupted. For the sake of the Child he became a refugee.
The Gospel accounts of the Holy Family show us a surpriseingly complex interrelationship of masculine and feminine
roles What is predominant is an attitude of yielding to God, to one another and to the child.
God's Plan for Marriage
This is the Christian model of marriage and family. But how far we have strayed from this model in our culture!
The majority of Catholic couples have abandoned chastity well before their wedding day. More than 80% use contraception
In a survey shortly before the pope's visit in October 1 1995 69% said one could have an abortion for reasons other
than danger to the mother's life and still be a good Catholic.
How have we come to this pass that the woman no longer protects the fruit of her womb? How can women call men to
their responsibility if they reject the special role that God has given uniquely to women?
God has a plan for marriage and family and every pope in this century has proclaimed it. Only by respecting the
inseparability of the "unitive" and
"procreative" dimensions of sexual
intercourse can a couple fulfill that plan.
For the woman it means cherishing her fertility and any pregnancy that may result Like Mary she is in a unique
partnership with God any time she conceives, even in a difficult pregnancy.
For the man it means honoring his wife's gift of fertility, even if it means forgoing the pleasures of sexual intercourse.
God does not ask of the average man or woman in marriage complete abstinence from marital relations as He did of
Joseph and Mary.
But respect for the unique time in the cycle when new life can be conceived includes complete chastity before marriage
when no enduring commitment has yet been made by the couple. Sexual intercourse is the sign and seal of this commitment
Holy Family as Model
Joseph was scarcely more privileged than the average man today He did not even have the grace of the Sacraments
True, he did have the presence of Jesus and Mary. But we, too, have Jesus and Mary present to us And in the Eucharist
we are united with Jesus.
Just as Mary's fidelity to God enabled her to call forth heroic virtue from Joseph, so the Christian woman by this
same fidelity may inspire her beloved to the virtue of chastity.
Marriage has been a dominant symbol in both the Old and the New Covenants
of God's love for man and Christ's love for the Church.
How different from others are couples who choose to live God's way! Father Bruce Nieli recently
"So what does NFP (natural family planning) do?
... It gives us an instrument to grow in holiness." He said he was "converted"
to NFP by the couples who were "very real and very much in love with
one another and with God."
Father Nieli sees a "spirituality, a bondedness,
a one " in couples who practice NFP, "a rootedness in one another and a rootedness in God." (NFP
Diocesan Activity Report, a, no. 4 - Fall 1995 - 13).
Many might say, my child-bearing years are over-what does NFP have to do with me? Well, what does it have to do
with a priest who has taken a vow of celibacy? The title of Father Nieli's talk was "NFP
and Evangelization". Whatever makes us holy is a means of evangelization.
The Family Linked to "Civilization of Love"
As John Paul II wrote in his Letter to Families, the family in a certain way constitutes the "way of the Church." (LF,
2) It is organically linked to the civilization of love, he says. (LF, 13 )
How married couples live out their covenant in which they are a sign of Christ's love for His Church concerns us
all Grandparents, for example, have a special relationship with their grandchildren and can teach them the beauty
of God's plan for marriage and family. Even if they did not know about or practice NFP themselves, or if their
families have been buffeted by divorce and sundry social ills, they can still hold out a vision of hope to the
I cannot but think that the spread of natural family planning is of special concern to Mary. Certainly, wherever
I have found devotion to Mary I have found an openness to life and to the Church's teaching on the inseparability
of the unitive and procreative dimensions of sexuality. And where NFP flourishes, the family flourishes, also.
Mary Shivanandan teaches at the Pope John Paul 11 Institute for Studies on
Marriage and Family, Washington, DC, and writes on family issues. This essay was first presented as a talk to the
VOICES Vol Xl: No. 3 September 1996
Copyright ©; Mary Shivanandan 1996
Version: 11th February 2003