As we reflect on Mary as Mother of God we are naturally invited to reflect on the first home that she offered to the Incarnate Word, namely her own body. To be more precise, she offered her womb. The Motherhood of Mary invites us to reflect on the meaning of a womb and normally when we reflect on the Motherhood of Mary, we reflect on this womb, which is full of God. But Mary’s full womb was unique in that it had been a virginal womb. In Mary’s initial response to the angel, we come to understand that the womb of Mary was ready to remain empty her whole life (Luke 1:34). There is no more definitive way to ensure that a womb remains empty than to make a promise of virginity. So, on this Solemnity we are invited to reflect on the meaning of a virginal womb that has been filled with God.
Departing briefly from the Motherhood of Mary, let us reflect on God’s pedagogical approach. Part of God’s method for teaching us, as seen throughout the Scriptures, is to show what He is doing spiritually by demonstrating it bodily. We can think of the paralyzed man who is spiritually set free through forgiveness, but so that we may believe, he is also physically set free from his paralysis by a miracle of healing (Mark 2:1-12). We can think of the man born blind, the healing of the deaf man or the healing of the crippled woman and we readily make the spiritual analogy to see how God removes our spiritual blindness, opens our hearts to hear his word and cures our crippled spirits. The primacy of the spirit is evident (as we can see from Jesus’s preference to forgive the paralyzed man and free his spirit rather than first healing his body), but at the same time, “the body, and it alone, is capable of making visible what is invisible: the spiritual and the divine” (TOB #18) and so God allows us to see manifested in the body what He is doing in our souls.
To return to the Motherhood of Mary, we can consider the spiritual meaning of the womb. Given that we detect spiritual sight in the healing of the blind man’s eyes and spiritual freedom in the un-paralyzed body, what does the womb teach us? The womb is a place deep within the woman that is fundamentally empty. It is incapable of filling itself and so it is also profoundly poor and helpless. As demonstrated by the women of the Old Testament who lamented virginity or barrenness (Jephthah’s daughter, Sarah, Hannah, Elizabeth), it also has an ache to it. It longs to be filled, but is incapable of filling itself. It needs an other and not just any other but one radically other–specifically a man who is a person so different than the woman that he himself has no womb.
Spiritually we can relate the womb to the spiritual poverty of being human. What most genuinely belongs to us is our finiteness, or as many spiritual masters described it, our nothingness. Deep within us, we have a poverty, a weakness, a helplessness. We did not create ourselves. We cannot fill our own lives with a meaning. We cannot even sustain ourselves in being. We are fundamentally contingent. We experience this as hunger that can never be fully satisfied and desire that can never be fulfilled. We long for more than we can provide for ourselves. The poverty of our humanity is a kind of spiritual womb that lies deep within us and is definitive of our humanity even as a woman’s womb is definitive of her femininity.
Fortunately, there is One who is radically Other, a Father who does not have the spiritual poverty of being human. God gives us great news through the Virginal Conception that brought about the Motherhood of Mary: the womb that could never possibly be filled–a virginal womb–was filled with God by the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit. Likewise, our poverty, our utter nothingness as human creatures, can be filled with God who is radically Other. How does this happen? It happens by the loving initiative of God and is received through our belief. Jesus proclaimed that, “Whoever believes in me, as scripture says, ‘Rivers of living water will flow from within him.'” (John 7:38). The Greek word used here for “within him” is koilia, which means “womb”, meaning that the river of living water actually wells up “from the womb” of the one who believes. God fills our spiritual poverty with Jesus, the river of living water, as soon as we open to Him through belief. In belief, through the gift of faith, we are able to see and trust in God’s superabundant love. This gives us the courage to remain poor and to be filled.
All our efforts to make ourselves powerful–to prove ourselves and make our own way, to become self-sufficient and achieve independence always fall short. We become more desperate as we face our own poverty through debilitation and old age or face the poverty of others through infirmity and death. We run into our poverty constantly. It arises as insecurities, failures, fears, and big dreams limited by small means, not to mention our sins. We feel the pain of barrenness as we experience our helplessness to fill ourselves. Sometimes success seems to be within our grasp until it suddenly slips through our fingers. Our hearts are sometimes filled with hopes that sour into disappointments as we try so hard to help someone or envision a better world that never seems to come about. We are so poor.
How do we allow God to fill our poverty? It is simple: “Blessed are you who believed” (Luke 1:45). Strengthened by Mary’s example and intercession, we can hold our poverty open before God’s gracious love, neither burying it nor fixing it, but simply sitting with it open in hope and trusting that God is able to fill this spiritual womb of poverty within us. The virginal Motherhood of Mary gives us the courage to remain poor, trust in God’s love and let Him fill us with Himself. Just as human life can only enter into the emptiness of a womb, so divinity can only enter into the emptiness of our spiritual poverty, for “power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor 12:9)
To Download a PDF Version of this Homily, Click Here: January 1 – Mary Mother of God Year A
Father Boniface Hicks, O.S.B. is a Benedictine monk of St. Vincent’s Archabbey and is the program manager and a host for We Are One Body (WAOB) Catholic radio in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. Father Boniface has attended the Theology of the Body & the Interior Life course, as well as Theology of the Body I: Head & Heart Immersion course as a participant and a chaplain. Father Boniface served as a chaplain for the first International Theology of the Body Congress hosted by the Theology of the Body Institute in 2010. Father Boniface was a part of the Clergy Enrichment Program focus group, as well as writing and providing consulting on the curriculum for the Theology of the Body and Priestly Prayer