The Blessed Virgin, the Holy Mother, Mother Mary, the Mother of God, Theotokos, etc. These are just a few of many the names given to the mother of Jesus Christ–Mary of Nazareth. Her influence on the sphere of Christian spirituality is far-reaching, whether you consider yourself to be a low-Church Protestant or a huge fan of the Argentinian Jesuit living in Vatican City.
However, regardless of your personal view of Mariology, there is a common denominator in most descriptions of Mary: She had humility. This concept is everywhere, and it is not simply in highly traditional Catholic or Orthodox communities. For example, I have a non-denominational poster in my bedroom that says “Mary, Mother of Jesus: With Gentleness and Humility She Accepted God’s Plan for Her Life.” Also, my favorite religious order, a non-cloistered, progressive, environmentally conscious group of women, is called the Sisters of the Humility of Mary. Neither of these examples are from “radically traditional” sources. It is clear that Mary’s humble nature is a common theological concept.
If the humility of Mary is taken as an demonstration for us to see that we are all equally called to avoid boastfulness and pride, and to understand that we do not exist alone, then Mary’s humility is a very good thing. We are all interconnected, and excessive pride makes us think that we stand by ourselves. Humility could correct this problem. On the other hand, humility has disproportionately been used as a means to make women submissive, to lessen their roles in spirituality and society, and to create divisiveness.
In addition, an overemphasis on humility can cause us to question confidence, certainty, and the notion that possibilities are limitless. We feel too unworthy to ask God for what we really want, and when we do ask, we do not believe that we will really get it. But there is no reason why I cannot believe I am deserving of what I want if I have loving intention behind my desire. There is no reason for me to wait for God to write a customized billboard that says “I choose you! You may have what you prayed for!” There is also no reason for me to accept circumstances that I am unhappy with–I can change them if I rely on love and remain in God’s frequency. Humility should not mean that I must be unfulfilled.
Now, let’s look at a different aspect of Mary’s personality. In the Gospel story of the Annunciation (Lk 1:26-38), we see Mary “humbly accept” God’s plan for her: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord. Let it be done according to your word” (v. 38). We know that this was a frightening encounter–Mary is having a mystical experience, just like the prophets who came before her. However, there is an important aspect missing from her response to God’s call–she lacks hesitation. She only asks how it can be done, since she is a virgin, but she never says, “Please God, pick someone else!” In contrast, God’s most significant prophet of the Jewish Testament does not believe he is fit for the job: “But Moses said to God, ‘Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?'” (Ex 3:11).
Mary does not say “I am unfit, I am unworthy, I am unholy.” She merely asks a biological question, and then she accepts. That does not sound excessively humble, but rather fiercely confident. Mary could have been stoned to death for being pregnant and unwed, but she knew she was right for the job of God-bearer. The Holy Mother fit in no one’s spiritual or social box. Mary was not a man, she was not wealthy, and she was not educated, but she never acted like she was beneath her role. She thrived at being the greatest prophet to ever live, as the first to believe in Jesus, and the first to tell others to do so. Mary knew that all things were possible if she believed them to be, because God would make all things possible for her. Mary held her head high and took a chance.
There is definitely a place for humility, and it is certainly a quality that the Mother of God possesses, but it is a missed opportunity to skip over her self-assurance, her boldness, and her fearlessness. These are the qualities that we should teach our daughters, and these are the qualities that will help us fulfill our own vocations. We do not need to be uncertain, bashful, or lowly, we need to lift ourselves up and do what we are called to do. Society will not always agree with our decision, but Mary’s society did not agree with hers, either.
Art by Esmond Lyons: A Modern Mary