There has been a lot of discussion recently about women, such as with the “Weinstein Effect” and #MeToo. Misogyny in our culture is on notice, and the idea of womanhood has come to the forefront. In many respects, we have never before seen a moment like this, focused on the dignity of women.
Perhaps it is time the modern world should look toward an older idea of womanhood, that which permeates our Catholic faith.
The role of Mary
From the very beginning of Scripture, we find “the woman.” Christians often quote lines from the Old Testament and the prophets regarding the Savior to come. This is all true, but it is not the whole story. The prophetic announcements tell of two intertwined together on behalf of our salvation. In the first moments in Genesis after the fall, God declares to the wicked serpent, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed.”
There is some dispute how to best translate the next line in the passage, specifically if it should be “he” and “his” or “she” and “her.” But St. Jerome, in translating this from the ancient Hebrew, Greek and Latin texts, chose to translate it as “she” and “her” as the most accurate. The Douay-Rheims translation based on the Latin Vulgate into English renders it “she shall crush thy head, and thou shalt lie in wait for her heel.” This was reaffirmed by other Church Fathers and in Ineffabilis Deus on the Immaculate Conception as “unmistakable evidence that she crushed the poisonous head of the serpent.”
The effect is the same. The woman through her seed shall crush the head of the serpent. That is, the Virgin Mary through Jesus Christ shall crush the head of Satan. Jesus is the divine Redeemer, and Mary the creature, but the two together crush Satan and bring hope of eternal life. This is downplayed in contemporary Christianity.
The prophet Isaiah talks of the two as well, a virgin who will bear a son. The fall came at the hands of two, Adam and Eve, and in God’s beautiful symmetry, the restoration is ultimately brought about at the hands of two.
Yes to the Incarnation
The Virgin Mary is the masterpiece of God’s creation. She is conceived without sin, the sanctifying grace of her Son applied to her by way of anticipation, but to the rest of humanity by deliverance. She is unique in all of creation. Mary told St. Bernadette at Lourdes: “I am the Immaculate Conception.” In the heavenly vision to St. Catherine Labouré at Rue du Bac, later forged into the miraculous medal, Mary is standing on the head of the serpent, seemingly answering the question of pronouns in the protoevangelium.
We find “the woman” again at a wedding feast in Cana. The two together, Jesus and Mary, co-launch Jesus’ first miracle and his public ministry. When the wedding party ran out of wine, Mary looks knowingly at Jesus, saying, “They have no wine.” In that one short sublime sentence Mary asks Jesus to perform his first open miracle, and begin his public work of salvation. This is Mary’s first act of motherly mediation too for her spiritual children. Jesus knows what she is asking but answers, “O woman, what have you to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” He addresses his mother as the archetype “woman,” acknowledging her prophetic role. Yet, Mary continues to direct the servants to “do whatever he tells you.” Jesus is the Son of God, he is in charge, but he defers out of respect and love for his mother.
At last, at the final stroke of the salvific drama, Jesus addresses “the woman,” this time from the Cross, saying “Woman, behold your son,” and to John, “Behold your mother.” Mary, “the woman,” became, by order of grace, the spiritual mother of all the living. And, Mary is still our mother. Is it any wonder that Our Lady still comes to us at Guadalupe, Lourdes and Fatima to remind us over the centuries to “do whatever he tells you”?
St. Louis de Montfort called the Incarnation the “greatest event in the whole history of the world.” It is “the woman” who is central to the Annunciation, which leads to the Incarnation and the Redemption. At that critical moment, God sends the Archangel Gabriel to Mary, and he greets her with the Angelic Salutation, “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you” and “blessed are you among women.” In “the woman,” who alone is full of grace, the inherited link of sin is broken. The serpent can only lie in wait of her heel, and only enmity remains between them.
It was not until Mary’s fiat, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord,” that God became man. God made his Incarnation dependent upon the woman. This set in motion the whole drama of the Redemption. This greatest moment in the history of the world, the Incarnation, is memorialized in the prayer of the Rosary.
Every time we pray the words of the Rosary, the words of the angelic salutation, we greet and honor Mary again, just as Gabriel did. We are praying over and over again the words of the Incarnation. In it, we are reliving and honoring that unique theandric event, when the Word became flesh in the woman. In short, the Rosary is the Incarnation in prayer form.
“The woman” is at Eden; she is at Cana; and she is at Golgotha. And she appears again at the very end of time, with the great unveiling of the apocalypse, the final bookend to salvation history: “And a great portent appeared in heaven, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.” Our spiritual Mother appears as Queen of heaven, offering intercession for her children even to the last moment.
Pope St. John Paul II highlighted this in Redemptoris Mater (“Mother of the Redeemer”) in 1987. He declares that the Virgin Mary was “not only the ‘nursing mother’ of the Son of Man but also the ‘associate of unique nobility.’” One of the great modern errors is that Mary was just a human vessel to birth Jesus. Mary did provide Jesus with his physical flesh and blood, hence the profound link between the devotions to the Virgin Mary and the Eucharist. But Mary’s maternal mediation was much more in the order of grace. She was, and is, a collaborator with her Son in the work of salvation, as the encyclical states: “Mary’s motherhood itself underwent a singular transformation” with “‘burning charity,’ which sought to achieve, in union with Christ, the restoration of ‘supernatural life to souls.’”
In this time of women, let us remember “the woman.” The Virgin Mary is the fulfillment of that original dignity in our preternatural past. She offers us the example par excellence of holiness and virtue. Mary is the Theotokos, and based on that unique grace of who she is, her intercession for us is most efficacious. Through our devotion to her, she will crush the head of Satan in our lives. She is the queen mediating on behalf of our salvation before the throne of the King.
This is why we pray: Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.
Brian Kranick writes from Washington.