The good life can be defined in many ways, and the truest definition may be the most surprising. Let Mary’s simple holiness lead you through your challenges.
What do you think of as the good life? Wealth, fame, popularity, power, security, sexual and other adventures? What if I told you that the best life ever lived by a mortal human being was by a woman who lived in poverty? Was obscure in her lifetime, nearly stoned to death, and had to watch her only Son executed in the most sadistic way ever devised by man? A young widow, whose only security was her trust in God, and the gratitude of those she cared for, and who cared for her? A perpetual virgin, entrusted with the motherhood of all humanity?
What is the Good Life?
I’m speaking of Mary, whose Assumption into Heaven is celebrated by Catholics and other Christians on August 15th. The Gospel introduces her as an adolescent humble enough to shrink from the praise of an angel, yet confident enough to accept the role of which every Jewish girl dreamed.
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin… And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High…and of his kingdom there will be no end.” And Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I have no husband?” And the angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God… And Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.Luke 1:26-38 (NRSVCE)
Mary was the opposite of “bipolar”. She neither assumed she was entitled to the honor, and that obstacles would be swept out of her way; nor did she panic at the seemingly impossible task and run away. She asked how it is possible, and trusted the Lord to fulfill what is beyond her power. Weeks later, in the simple act of helping her cousin Elizabeth, and rejoicing in their expected sons, Mary revealed how glory is manifested in lowliness.
And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden. For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. And his mercy is on those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm, he has scattered the proud in the delusion of their hearts, he has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his posterity for ever.”Luke 1:46-55 (NRSVCE)
The Good Life Through Painful Changes
Once Jesus grew and began His ministry, Mary pointed to Him and played a supporting role. Her last words in Scripture were “Do as He tells you.” (John 2:5) However, just as her “yes” to the Holy Spirit was active receptivity, not passive resignation; so was her “yes” to the Son. And as with her Son, this resiliency would be tested in self-denial.
Just as Jesus emptied Himself of Divine Majesty and took the form of a servant (Philippians 2:3-9), so Mary emptied herself of the honors associated with Queen Mother, and even of motherhood itself. As early as their pilgrimage to the Temple, Mary learned that Jesus’ true home was not that of His earthly mother and father (Luke 2:41-51). Even more strikingly, when Mary and other family members approach where Jesus was preaching, He would not be interrupted, emphasizing that His true family was bound by Faith and not flesh (Mark 3:31-35). It might appear that Jesus rejected Mary, and it may even have felt so to her at the time. Rather, just as Jesus practiced perfect obedience by what He suffered (Hebrews 5:1-10), so did Mary. This training was for the ultimate test of faith in the face of adversity: the Passion of Christ.
While all but one of Christ’s Apostles fled in fear, Mary followed Him to the cross and the tomb (Luke 23:55). She shared the grief of the Apostles and other disciples in the Upper Room, their joy in the Resurrection, and the coming of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:14). All this she experienced more deeply than any, yet in silent spiritual and corporal works of mercy, honoring Jesus’ request that His disciples be her children (John 19:26). If the Archangel Gabriel blessed Mary directly, our Lord Jesus Christ blessed her indirectly, but even more effusively. For who has ever lived more fully the Beatitudes He preached on the mount?
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you…on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.”Matthew 5:3-11 (NRSVCE)
Why Wouldn’t Mary Be Assumed Into Heaven?
Mary teaches us the good life, occasionally in words, continuously in action. She was full of grace, but all of us are given grace. Her distinction was that she never received the grace of God in vain, but rather lived it humbly, courageously, and lovingly to the full. Her faith was not fatalism, but the total gift of herself. Our challenge is to bear Christ into the world through how we live our lives.
We receive Christ spiritually in baptism, even as Mary received Him both spiritually and physically in the Incarnation.St. Augustine
We should be under no illusion that this Christ-bearing life will be easy, any more than it was for Mary. She frequently had to deny herself worldly honors and pleasures to affirm Christ. If Abraham’s faith, even to the point of willingness to sacrifice Issac, was counted unto him as righteousness (Genesis 15:6), then what words can describe the faith of Mary, who stood with Jesus in His Sacrifice on the Cross?
Mary also teaches us to pray unceasingly, both in contemplation and action. She teaches us to receive the Holy Spirit, in solitude and sacrament (e.g., Pentecost) and spread that fire illuminating without consuming, in humble service. If Abraham was God’s friend (Isaiah 41:8) and Holy Wisdom seeks friends of God in every generation (Wisdom 7:27), then it is not too much to call Mary the daughter of God the Father, spouse of the Holy Spirit, and mother of God the Son (and by adoption, ours as well).
Jesus ascended to Heaven because He is Divine. Mary was assumed into Heaven because there was no sin to hold her down. The mother of the Messiah, who demanded no honor on Earth, was crowned Queen of Heaven and Earth. Why? Because as the above scriptures say: the Lord lifts up the lowly, the pure of heart shall see God, the poor in spirit and persecuted belong to the Kingdom of Heaven, the meek shall inherit the Earth, all generations will call her blessed, and of His Kingdom, there will be no end!
On the eve of His Passion, Christ fervently prayed that His disciples be in the world but not of the world (John 17:15-16). It is a tightrope walk that we all must traverse. It’s a comfort to know that one disciple walked it without ever falling and that her example and prayers are always available for us. For more on how to come closer to Jesus through Mary, I highly recommend “Mary: Mirror of the Church” by Raniero Cantalamessa.