Not long ago I was lunching with a group that included a widowed ex-nun who had been married to an ex-priest.
Her late husband, turned out, had been a professor of philosophy at a Catholic university. “And so,” she mentioned airily at one point, “Greg had the honor of disabusing the young girls of their notion of the Virgin Birth and other such fairy tales.”
“ Poor things,” she added with a someone-has-to-be-the-bearer-of-bad-news shrug. “They probably still haven’t gotten over it.”
I couldn’t have been more shocked if she’d casually admitted to being a cannibal.
To disown the Virgin Birth is to disown the power of sacrament, story, and the world beyond this one. It is to diminish the glory of motherhood and to reduce womanhood to a commodity. It is to be part of the cultural “movement” that increasingly threatens the very identity of the human person.
A religion whose central emblem is the Son of Man nailed to a cross is not a fairy tale. It’s a religion deeply in touch with the reality of the human condition.
If the Crucifixion constituted the whole of our religion, however, we’d be merely pessimists, or masochists. The Crucifixion may be our central emblem but our central belief–the stupendous mystery and miracle upon which we’ve staked our lives–is the Resurrection.
Apropos of miracles, the Catholic apologist G.K Chesterton observed: “The mere fact that a thing happens seldom, under odd circumstances and with no explanation within our knowledge, is no proof that it is against natural law. That would apply to the Siamese twins, or to a new comet, or to radium three years ago.”
In Orthodoxy (1908) Chesterton noted that nineteenth-century Western materialists were “as dull as their coats, as dirty as their streets, as ugly as their trousers, and as stupid as their industrial system.”
What would he think 120 years later, when college professors, journalists, and museum directors can be forced from their posts simply for alluding to the fact that men and women are biologically different?
The Angelus, one of the Church’s most beautiful and tender prayers, records Mary’s response to the annunciation of the angel Gabriel: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord. Let it be done unto me according to Thy word.”
The Trinitarian God operates entirely on freely-given choice and on love. Mary didn’t have to say yes—but she did. And that yes, for the believer, is the foundation on which all further faith is built. It is the yes that ushered in the once-in-cosmic history Virgin Birth, that crowned motherhood for all time, that put the seal of freshness, newness and purity on the birth of every child unto eternity.
Motherhood isn’t our only identity as women, but it’s our deepest. Whether or not we’re biological mothers, in our capacities as sisters, daughters, companions, mentors, workers, and friends, we’re gloriously marked by the ability to receive, patiently endure, nurture, heal, build bridges, quietly contemplate, and console. Whatever our age, demographic or station in life, we’re hard-wired to act with an orientation of heart and a grounding of the body, psyche and spirit that is rooted in the capacity to give birth.
Once motherhood, in its physical and spiritual dimensions, is stripped from the female equation, we’re confused, all of us. What’s left is either woman as purely sexual object, or woman as a commodity of labor, both of which can be bought, traded, exploited, and sold.
This existential error generates lies both inane and monstrous. The fiercely independent woman, the culture insists, aborts her children. Isn’t the fierce woman the one who surrenders her life to the endlessly creative, endlessly astonishing work of motherhood?
The “strong woman” we’re told, succumbs to the advances of a “predatory male,” carries on a seven-year-affair, then sues, claiming rape. Isn’t the strong woman rather the one with a sufficiently secure sense of honesty, fair play, and her own inestimable worth to spot the predatory male and say no in the first place?
Materialists—those who would disabuse young girls of “fairy tales”—purport to throw off the rigid chains of religion. In fact materialism, taken to its logical end, gives rise to a terrible bondage of self. Our longing for God, left unfulfilled, creates an aching, bottomless void While real injustice goes unaddressed, many in our own culture who have been given every material gift and civil right on earth thus vie for the title of “most oppressed.”
The Eighth Station of the Cross has it that “the women” were the last people Christ spoke to before falling the third time, being stripped of his garments and being nailed to the Cross. “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me,” he told them; “weep instead for yourselves and for your children” [Luke 23:28].
We are weeping now. In our culture of death, the U.S. fertility rate is at a record low. Children are urged to believe they were born into the wrong body and to surgically and chemically mutilate themselves. Twitter mob thought-police purport to tell us what we can write, who can write it, what we can read, when we’re “allowed” to speak.
“The believers in miracles accept them (rightly or wrongly) because they have evidence for them,” observed Chesterton. “The disbelievers in miracles deny them (rightly or wrongly) because they have a doctrine against them.”
Our “cancel” culture, as it’s been called, has a doctrine against—a hatred of—miracles.
Who better to restore that doctrine than women, who carry the evidence for miracles in our wombs? Who better than women to re-elevate truth, goodness, beauty; art, humor, romance;, mercy, communion, freedom and love to their rightful place as our highest ideals?
Women at our best, women at our most essential, women as we were born to be.
Women like Servant of God Adele Dirsyté, who was tortured to death under Communism rather than renounce her faith. Women like Mother Antonia Brenner, who gave up her life as a Beverly Hills socialite, founded a religious order, and went to live alongside the inmates at La Mesa, a notoriously brutal Mexican prison.
Women like novelist Flannery O’Connor and mystic Caryll Houselander and Servant of God—and of the poor—Dorothy Day. Women like my own mother, who stayed married and faithful for almost fifty years. Who quietly stayed and served, while also being very much her own person, with her own interests and her own inner life.
Women, in other words, who did the impossible, just as the Virgin Birth—by human standards—is impossible.
To do as those women did is no fairy tale. It is to climb up on the Cross and to be nailed there beside Christ.
One recent morning I attended Mass in the outdoor courtyard of my local parish. Masked and appropriately distanced, the usual crowd was in attendance: old people, young people, business people, working people, homeless people, white, brown, yellow and black people, rich people, poor people, tourists: the whole irrepressible pageant of humanity.
At the Sign of Peace, I looked across and saw a young woman with the kind of face that for a minute puts the worst of us right with the world. Solid. Strong. Welcoming. Sure. We gave each other the Wry Smile, the Sense-of-Humor Nod, the little Wave. You bet, sister. Glad you’re here. We love our Jesus.
All through the Eucharist, I thought about how the Body and Blood of Christ fortify us to mother the rest of the world, especially those who are incapable of mothering us: the angry, the conflicted, the transitioning, the lost, the traumatized; the women who have left because they feel the Church diminishes them; the men whose hearts are silently hemorrhaging; the children suffering the burdens of capitalism, consumerism, and technology who simply long, like all of us, to be seen, heard, held.
Afterward I gave my sister-in-Christ one last look—for courage, for strength.
Then the two of us silently shouldered our respective crosses, went our separate ways, and against all reason, all odds, all poor souls blind to the mystery of overshadowing angels, walked out to the streets of Los Angeles with our hearts beating: Yes. Yes. Yes.
14 Replies to “MOTHER LOVE”
Those folk who ridicule the virgin birth of Jesus baffle me. In the next breath they will without reserve welcome the virgin birth of the universe. Inconsistency? Sure thing. Anyway, a nice piece Heather
Fabulous! God bless you.
Oh Heather, what a good article! It is such an honor to be a woman because the world needs mothering. It is so tired and sick. Mary, ever virgin Mother of God, pray for us.
Early in this truly lovely piece, I was thinking, “Well, Heather will never have lunch again in wherever,” but I kept reading and your eyes meeting those of another woman at the outdoor Mass and THEN the concluding ‘yes, yes, YES‘ caught the best moment of grace I’ve come across in a long, long time. Thank you x 1000, Heather.
Thanks, Fr. Pat–to know we have been born into just the RIGHT body, and to embrace everything that entails, both sufferings and joys, is a great gift…Also, I’m in the middle of “This is Happiness,” the Niall Williams novel you recommended. Wonderful!!
I really enjoyed this piece. I have a question about the virgin birth (which I believe in). I worked for several decades for an evangelical bookseller, and many of the employees were evangelical Christians, who believed Mary had other children, and I understood that. But when the movie the Nativity Story came out, they thought I would be horrified because it showed Mary in LABOR! They “believed” that Catholics “believed”, that Mary did not give birth physically because she had to remain a virgin, and remain physically intact. I think they thought Jesus just appeared?
I always understood that she was a virgin because she said to the angel: “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?
I apologize if this is a foolish question, but I really didn’t know how to answer their question. If you can shed any light on it, I would appreciate it.
Hi Kathy, I am far far from a theologian, but good question and I looked for the answer as you could, by googling…This is from a piece from the Univ of Dayton called Virginity of Mary Dogma. They note: “Traditionally Mary’s virginity has been described as ante partum (before the birth), inpartu (during childbirth without breaking the hymen and/or a birth without pain) and post partum (after the birth of Jesus). A question rises regarding the “brothers and the sisters of the Lord.” If they are Mary’s children, then Mary’s virginity relates only to Jesus’ conception and possibly his birth.” Clearly she physically gave birth–otherwise she wouldn’t have had to look for an inn…
I like this observation, too: “Luke makes it clear that Mary is a virgin. Virginity was not valued by the Jews. Thus the daughter of Jephthah goes to the mountains to bewail her virginity because ‘She had never known a man’ (Judges 11:39). Similarly, Judges 12:12 speaks of four hundred virgins ‘who never slept with a man’ as though they were unfulfilled.
Ignace de la Potterie raises the question whether Mary had intended to preserve her virginity despite her marriage to Joseph. He writes: “We do not think that it is a question of a conscious decision to keep one’s virginity. That would be putting too much into the text. At this moment in salvation history that would be an anachronism. It is rather a question of orientation, of a profound attraction to a virginal way of life, a secret desire for virginity, proved and existentially experienced by Mary, but which could not yet take the form of a decision, because that was impossible in the milieu in which she lived.”
The overarching point of the Virgin Birth to me is that things happen on a level we can’t see–also there are all kinds of theological ramifications that flow from the Virgin Birth which we can all explore at our leisure, chief among them the fact that Christ was not conceived by a human man. To get hung up on questions like was Mary’s hymen still intact after the birth reminds me of the disciples asking Jesus about the woman who in turn married seven brothers–whose wife would she be after the Resurrection?/ Christ was like, people don’t give themselves in marriage in heaven. In other words, you’re asking the questions of people of the world–the kingdom of heaven is a different realm–not removed from the world but qualitatively different from the world…Interesting that the Protestant women were so hung up on the question–in a way the dif between Catholics and Protestants is that Catholics believe in the power of Story… mystery, miracles, the supernatural dimension, the Sacraments. It’s because of that that, paradoxically, that we can afford also to be in such close contact with reality. God made man, the Incarnation, human suffering, a lacerated Body on the Cross…Without the marriage of the two, you get legalism. Life flatlines…Thanks for inviting me to reflect upon the Virgin Birth more deeply, Kathy!
Thanks Heather. That is pretty much what I have found also. I found discussions with some of my co-workers to be very either/or. I tend to think more both/and. As Sister Odila would have said, it’s a sacred mystery!
So glad you raised the question, Kathy, my pleasure. And yes, in the end we simply bow to sacred mystery!
Further to Kathy’s comment and you excellent reply Heather, several things strike me.
St Luke tells us that Mary wrapped the baby in swaddling cloths – not a midwife, not Joseph, but Mary. There’s no mention of Mary being knocked out in post natal torpor, no mention of Joseph cutting the cord or cleaning up the mess, just Mary wrapping Jesus is swaddling cloths. And shortly afterward the shepherds arrived to find the Holy Family in the cave or whatever shelter it was & presumably there was some sort of artificial light – candles maybe but hardly the scene we see on Hallmark cards unless the illumination was celestial. So the shepherds encountered the holy family in a state of not abnormal poverty but everything must have been in order. The incarnation of Jesus was miraculous – Gabriel told Mary that. Gabriel also told Mary Nothing is impossible with God. The trouble with the mindset that Mary gave birth normally and had other children is the refusal to acknowledge the miraculous – anything to be different from Catholic doctrine eg Mary was a perpetual virgin. With the miraculous birth of Jesus, Joseph would have have been finally confronted with the enormity and sacredness of his role.
Wonderful, Stephen, as always–thanks so much for your reflection and insight!
Loved this piece–sincere thanks.
Thanks so much, Dave. for the support and for reading–this piece had been rattling around in various forms on my desk for almost a year–so getting it out to the world feels extra good–
You said it all so well. Thank-you Heather.