"Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be [done] to me according to your word."
"At the announcement that she would give birth to 'the Son of the Most High' without knowing man, by the power of the Holy Spirit, Mary responded with the obedience of faith, certain that 'with God nothing will be impossible: Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be [done] to me according to your word.' Thus, giving her consent to God's word, Mary becomes the mother of Jesus. Espousing the divine will for salvation wholeheartedly, without a single sin to restrain her, she gave herself entirely to the person and to the work of her Son; she did so in order to serve the mystery of redemption with him and dependent on him, by God's grace."
"As St. Irenaeus says, 'Being obedient she became the cause of salvation for herself and for the whole human race.' Hence not a few of the early Fathers gladly assert, 'The knot of Eve's disobedience was untied by Mary's obedience: what the virgin Eve bound through her disbelief, Mary loosened by her faith.' Comparing her with Eve, they call Mary 'the Mother of the living' and frequently claim: 'Death through Eve, life through Mary'" (CCC #494).
Coronation of Mary - Master of the Housebook - 1475-90
There are very few records of Mary's explicit words in the texts of the New Testament of the Bible. However, there is no lack of her presence at the most significant events in the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and therefore in the great events of salvation history. She always encountered God - in profound ways - from the beginning to the end of her life. She lived in His presence. In every encounter, she surrendered to love and was changed. She was a woman prepared by God and continually surrendered to His love. This is the meaning of Mary. She is our model as well as our mother.
Mary was there at the Incarnation, Birth, Crucifixion, and Resurrection of the One whom Christians proclaim is God Incarnate, Jesus Christ. She was there throughout what are often called the "hidden years" in His life at Nazareth where ordinary work was ennobled and childrearing forever changed because of His participation. His disciples spent three years with Him, during His "public ministry," but Mary spent thirty three years!
Madonna and Child Enthroned with Music-Making Angels Giovanni di Piermatteo Boccati - 1455
We should remember and reflect on the truth that in the earthly life of the Redeemer, every word he uttered - at every age and stage - and every act he undertook was redemptive, revealing as it does the very life of God and the mystery of heaven touching earth. Because of that, every moment of His presence among us reveals the deeper purpose of our own lives when they are lived entirely for Him.
Mary was there in all those pregnant moments of His complete thirty-three year earthly mission of love. His redemptive presence forever changed the history of the world and can do so in our own personal histories if we learn how to surrender to His invitation to love and choose to live as she did. The mission of the Redeemer continues now for all who have the eyes to see His presence still walking and working among us; and the ears to hear His loving words still being spoken amidst the cacophony of our daily lives. Mary did.
His presence forever changed the world that we are all living in. We are welcomed into a new relationship with Him and therefore with this world that He still loves, if we invite His redemptive presence into our lives, co-operate with grace in order to change ourselves and allow ourselves to be prepared from His coming. Every waking moment can now be filled with the invitation of grace, if we learn to discover their deeper meaning and make them our own. If we learn to live our entire life as, an invitation to love, an encounter with the God of love, as Mary did, we will find our lives transformed by the Son whom she bore for the whole world.
Is it any wonder that the writings of the early "fathers" of the Christian Church are also replete with reflections on this woman who said so little verbally in the biblical text? That is because it is not about an abundance of our words but rather our receptivity to the Word.
The Intervention of Christ and Mary - Filippino Lippi
Justin Martyr and many other early Christian apologists found in her "fiat," her obedient "yes" to the angel, the undoing of the "no-I will not serve" uttered in rebellion by the first woman Eve. They called Mary "The Second Eve", the mother of a new creation, because she said "Yes" and in her womb carried the One whom the biblical authors would call the "New Adam." Jesus Christ was born from her as the first born of a new race of men and women who would themselves come to find a new birth through His life, death and Resurrection through saying "Yes" to him in both word and deed..
That same Redeemer now comes to reside within, and live through, all of those who respond to the invitation of Love like Mary did. All who are prepared and who surrender.
Mary's choice, her response to the invitation of a God who always respects human freedom, is a singularly extraordinary event in all of human history. However, it is meant to be much more. It is meant to be an invitation to each one of us to explore our own personal histories and to write them anew in Him.
More Mary, Mother of God
Appearances of Mary
Apparitions and Appearances
The term "appearance" has been used with Marian apparitions and visions of Jesus Christ. The Church will confirm an apparition as worthy of belief, but belief is never required by divine faith. Read More
A Roman Catholic approved Marian apparition is one that has been examined by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and has been granted approval by the local Bishop or the Holy See. Read More
Approval of Faith Expression
Mary as Mother
Mother of God (TheotoKos)
From antiquity, Mary has been called "Theotokos", or "God-Bearer". The word in Greek is "Theotokos". The term was used as part of the popular piety of the early first millennium church. Read More
Daughter of the Father
Mary is "full of grace," because it is precisely in her that the Incarnation of the Word, the hypostatic union of the Son of God with human nature, is accomplished and fulfilled. Read More
Mother of the Redeemer
Mary was there at the Incarnation, Birth, Crucifixion, and Resurrection of God Incarnate. She was there throughout the often called "hidden years" in Nazareth. In the life of the Redeemer... Read More
Spouse of the Spirit
Throughout God's relationship with Israel He promises to espouse His people to himself (See, e.g. Hosea 2:19). This language of spousal love, of nuptiality, is also present in this overshadowing... Read More
Mother of the Church
Since the Virgin Mary's role in the mystery of Christ and the Spirit has been treated, it is fitting now to consider her place in the mystery of the Church. She is acknowledged as... Read More
Mother of the Domestic Church
Mary is the mother of every domestic church, of every Christian family. She fully understands the naturally supernatural realities of family life because she lived them. Read More
I found that every one of the great influences in my Christian life from that communion of saints to which we are all joined was profoundly "Marian". Francis of Assissi, Bernard of Clairvaux... Read More
Mary as Model
Mary in the Scriptures
Christian Scripture calls the "more excellent way", the way of Love. Mary understands this Way and walked on it with extraordinary humility. Follow her in journey through the Scriptures. Read More
Mary in the Tradition
To understand Mary in the Tradition of the Church we have to understand what is meant by the word "Tradition" - and why it matters. In his second letter to the Thessalonians the Apostle Paul... Read More
Mary and the Councils
A Bishop named Nestorius objected to the title of Theotokos, Mother of God or God Bearer for Mary. The Council of Ephesus met in 431AD and affirmed Mary was the "Mother of God"... Read More
Mary in the Liturgical Year
The Second Vatican Council did not offer one particular document on Mary, the Mother of God. Rather, the Council fathers incorporated the meaning and mission of Mary, as well as her... Read More
Mary East and West
Devotion to - and love for . Mary, the Mother of God, is a foundational part of the Christian Church both East and West. The Eastern Christian emphasis, both doctrinally and devotionally, is... Read More
Mary and the Early Fathers
Among the multiple and profound references to Mary, the Mother of God, found in the writings of the early Church Fathers is one of my favorites in the Cappadocian, Gregory of Nyssa... Read More
Mary and the Saints
Among the titles given to Mary is "Queen of all the Saints". In one of his reflections on this woman whom he loved with such devotion, Blessed john Paul II proclaimed "This woman of faith... Read More
Mary as Disciple
Mary as Disciple
We were made to give ourselves away to the Lord and, in Him, for others. Mary's choice, her response to the invitation of a God, is a singularly extraordinary event in all of human history. Read More
Handmaiden of the Lord
"I am the handmaiden (servant) of the Lord; let it be to me according to your Word." (Luke 1:38) When Mary spoke those few words, human history was forever changed. Read More
Model of Holiness
From antiquity the early Christians reflected on a "mystery" of the faith- how the Incarnation of Jesus Christ came about through the free cooperation of this little Virgin of Nazareth... Read More
She was the first evangelizer and the first disciple of her Son Jesus. She gave the first Gospel testimony to her cousin, Elizabeth, without words, as the Redeemer in her womb drew the child in her womb... Read More
Way of Mary
The Message of Mary
And Mary said, "Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word." And the angel departed from her. (The Gospel of Luke 2:34-37) Read More
The Meaning of Mary
"Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be [done] to me according to your word." "At the announcement that she would give birth to "the Son of the Most High" without... Read More
The Prayer of Mary
Mary's Prayer teaches us to stay afloat in the ocean of life, with all of its undertows. Mary's way is to become an ark within, where the same God who became incarnate within her... Read More
The Song of Mary
"When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the infant leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, cried out in a loud voice and said, "Most blessed are you... Read More
The Titles of Mary
From the earliest theological reflections in Christian history we find the defense of the most important of the titles of Mary, "Theotokos" in Greek. It is translated God-bearer... Read More
Mission of Mary
Mary and the Eucharist
In a beautiful apostolic exhortation entitled the Sacrament of Love, issued in 1997, Pope Benedict XVI wrote these words under a section entitled The Eucharist and the Virgin Mary... Read More
Mary & the New Evangelization
Throughout his pontificate, Blessed John Paul II called for this "New Evangelization." Pope Benedict XVI made this a central pillar of his pontificate. He erected a Pontifical Council... Read More
The Path of Mary
Before they were called Christians (Acts 11:26), at Antioch, they were referred to as "the Way". A Rabbi named Saul spoke of persecuting "the way" (Acts 22:4) before he was profoundly converted... Read More
The Marian Moment
Over the last two decades a recovery of the significance of the life and witness of Mary has occurred among many Christians, even those who descend from the communities of... Read More
"Standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother... When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple there whom he loved, he said to his mother, Woman, behold, your son." Read More
Marian Prayer and Piety
Marian prayer and piety developed very early in the history of the undivided Christian Church of the first millennium. It has been kept alive in a myriad of piety practices in the both the Catholic... Read More
Message of Mary
What Does She Say?
The message of Mary is the message of the Gospel, to repent and believe the Good news. The message of Mary is conversion to Her Son by saying "yes" to God's invitation. That is the path to true... Read More
Marian Prayer and Devotion
The Catechism of the Catholic Church instructs the faithful on just how Mary prayed. Mary still prays. She has a special role in the plan of salvation and is a model for all Christians... Read More
To consecrate means to dedicate. It is used in reference to worship and means to be set aside or set apart for God. It is also a word which speaks to the very core of the Christian... Read More
Devotion of Mary
Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary
When they came to the place called the Skull, there they crucified him, along with the criminals - one on his right, the other on his left. Jesus said, "Father, forgive them... Read More
Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary
My soul magnifies the Lord, And my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; Because he has regarded the lowliness of his handmaid; For behold, henceforth all generations shall call me blessed... Read More
Glorious Mysteries of the Rosary
But at daybreak on the first day of the week they took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb; but when they entered... Read More
Luminous Mysteries of the Rosary
While he was praying his face changed in appearance and his clothing became dazzling white. And behold, two men were conversing with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory... Read More
When I saw Sarah Palin speak at the Republican National Convention, the hair on the back of my neck stood up. I had thought McCain’s choice of running mate must mean that he was in a complete paranoid tailspin, the kind that comes before huge, humiliating defeats. But as I watched her, and the rabid, adoring response to her, I thought something else, which was: This woman is a sadist and she doesn’t know it. And it’s working for her; her people love her for that very reason, and they don’t know it.
By “sadist” I don’t mean a costume-wearing fetishist, and if I did, I wouldn’t be as appalled. I mean something more basic, a person whose driving motive in life is to dominate, control, and inflict pain. Most people don’t know what their driving motive is, and most people have more than one. But some people have one that is so unconflicted and so overwhelming that they fairly drip with it. What I was looking at onstage at the Republican Convention was somebody who dripped with highly charged, puerile cruelty; it was there in her sneering, aggressively charming voice, in her body, in the set of her mouth. It was there also in the roaring response to her, a response that comes from the body, while the head is thinking something else altogether, about loving America, standing up to terrorists, whatever.
When I said to people, “I think Sarah Palin is a sadist,” they reacted like I was making a joke, or being provocative. I suppose that I was. But how far off was I? What do you call it when she incites crowds to threaten Obama with death by calling him a terrorist in that dripping, girlish voice? These are people who are looking to hurt someone, and their urge has just been legitimized, even idealized for them by an attractive woman whom some young men I know consider “hot.”
This election makes me remember Vladimir Nabokov’s essay on Nikolai Gogol’s “The Overcoat,” in which he describes the short story as “a grotesque and grim nightmare making black holes in the dim pattern of life”; it is a beautiful, flexible, and fantastically broad phrase. “The Overcoat” is about a poor, half-crazy little clerk in pre-Revolutionary Russia who, when his thin coat rots off his back one freezing winter, spends his entire savings on having a new coat made for him. The new coat is magnificent, and it transforms his life. For the first time he is invited to a party, where he drinks too much; on the way home he is robbed of his coat; the robbery breaks his heart; he sickens and dies. The story is typically read as an allegory of “the little guy” in a socially unjust world, but Nabokov sees something more terrible, a story of “whirling masks,” through which the tortured human protagonist must wander in desperate confusion, and in which the true plot, as opposed to the literal one, comes from “that secret depth of the human soul where the shadows of other worlds pass like the shadows of nameless and soundless ships.”
How garish are these masks that talk to us nonstop every day, how huge they loom out of television and cyberspace! What secret depths do they come from, what primitive forces are finding expression through them? What the fuck are they doing here? John McCain, having unleashed insane Pandora, is now trying to stuff her back in the box, probably because human beings are horrified at seeing people at his rallies turn into prelynch mobs. But when one of his supporters denounces Obama as “an Arab,” and McCain responds like a person (“He’s a decent family man”), he’s booed by his own. While one of his masks makes nice, the others keep putting out the misinformation. Through it all wanders the human voter—who, if he’s Republican, bought the overcoat years ago and, though it’s been stolen from him, still worships it on his knees.
The most visible story of John McCain has been his “honor” and how important it is to him, how key to the understanding of his mind. The less visible story is his violent temper: how he yells at people for nothing, nearly attacks people who frustrate him, how he once called his wife a “cunt” in front of reporters. Now the anger has come out in a hugely visible form, projected like a demon into the screaming herds that accuse Obama of terrorism as they run bellowing off a cliff.
A melancholy thought: McCain may once have had honor, or at least a concept of it. If he still has enough decency to be ashamed of losing it, he needs anger to hide his shame; without his anger he would not be able to bear his shame.
When Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were still fighting for the nomination, I had a conversation with a woman who said she supported Hillary because “any female” would be preferable to “any male,” and that she thought Obama was no different from anyone else in the male system. When Sarah Palin got nominated, I asked this woman if she supported her. “Of course not,” she said. “Sarah Palin is not a woman, I don’t care how many times she’s given birth. She’s totally bought into the male power system.”
I thought, How ridiculous. Then my husband reminded me of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and the false Maria. In the movie, the real Maria is a working-class girl trying to help her fellows by pure-hearted means. The rulers then build a false Maria to sow division and hatred. It doesn’t quite work as a comparison; Palin is more a combination of what the real Maria claims to be (evangelical) and what the false one is, proud and violent. But the film’s logic is visual, and visually, it pictures America now as it once pictured Weimar Germany. The false Maria’s dance is one of gluttony and power, and it has a demonic force that awakens ancient archetypes of chaos and destruction. And the damn thing even winks.
When Hillary was still running, I didn’t support her because I preferred Obama, and because I didn’t think she could win. Somebody asked me if I thought she couldn’t win because she’s a woman, and I said, “Not because she’s a woman, but because she’s not enough of a cunt.” I meant that she didn’t have a raw female presence equal to that of her husband, Bill. I went on to say that as a liberal (sort of ) woman, I didn’t think she’d dare go there, that the only woman who could do that would be a conservative. I was right, and I have never been more sorry. Sarah Palin has the kind of glandular force I was referring to, some- thing that has nothing to do with her prettiness, but augments it immeasurably. Hillary Clinton was taunted for being strong—privately, even liberals made her out as a castrator, which was brutally unfair: Like many professional women, Hillary never cut off anyone’s nuts but her own. No one’s taunting Sarah Palin like that, and no wonder: Hillary is accomplished verbally; her power comes from the part of the body with teeth. Palin can’t talk her way out of a bag; she doesn’t need to. That’s not the source of her power.
The language aspect of the Obama/McCain debate was the usual rote push-pull. When I turned down the sound, the picture was clearer and more alarming. McCain was malign, contemptuous, and very physical. Obama was weak, vague, and heady. McCain looked like a big, vicious dog, Obama like a smaller dog trying to avoid a fight by looking away and licking his lips a lot. It was very dispiriting to see.
My sister has an eerie ability to look at people and read them very quickly in terms of their character; I have rarely known her to be wrong. She was the first person to tell me, years before the election, that Obama was great, that he needed to run for president. “He has white light glowing around his head,” she said.
The second person to say anything to me about Obama was a writer friend. She said she liked him a lot but that she worried about him as a leader because she couldn’t “feel his dick.” She wasn’t talking about sex. She meant that he didn’t fully, on a bodily level, believe in himself, that his actions came totally from his head. I agree with her. That is what makes him look fragile sometimes, especially in contrast with John McCain, whose dick, like it or not, one can feel. McCain’s confidence is ghastly, because it is so caught up in his violent righteousness—but it is there.
In a strange way, these two qualities, the powerful, glowing mind and the lack of full bodily presence, are part of what makes Obama a compelling and emotional figure. Whatever he has accomplished, it has been through the power of his mind, that almost otherworldly glow that has carried him through so many obstacles, especially vicious race prejudice. So many of us know what it is to lack confidence, yet to will yourself to go on, even though you don’t quite feel the ground under your feet. People are calling McCain the “underdog” now, but this is bullshit. Obama, who’s barely ahead in the polls, was always the underdog here—black people were scared to vote for him at first because they thought he’d be killed. And they had reason to fear. He has incredible courage to be where he is, up against that old bastard, especially if he got there without full confidence. My sister believes he can win. I hope she is right.
POST SCRIPT: Since the election of Donald Trump, I’ve more than once regretted calling John McCain an “old bastard;” I especially regretted it after last night, when his vote stopped the health care travesty from going forward and stopped it with beautiful dramatic timing all the more elegant in the context of Trump’s Nero-The-Clown Show. Old bastard McCain may be, but he is a noble old bastard. Sad day maybe when “noble” means acting in a non-insane, non-stupid, non-craven way. But still: noble.
This essay originally appears as “Worshipping the Overcoat” in Somebody with a Little Hammer. Used in arrangement with Pantheon, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC Copyright © 2017 by Mary Gaitskill.