By: Christopher West
Christmas celebrates the marvels of the birth of the Son of God from the virgin womb of Mary. At Christmas pageants, at Mass, and in beloved Christmas carols we will hear the story told again and again each year: “The angel Gabriel was sent from God … to a virgin … and the virgin’s name was Mary. …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” (Lk 1:26-31). Perhaps our familiarity with the story has numbed us to the breath-taking, astounding, incredible mystery that is Christmas. In this article and the next, I’d like to turn to the mystical insights of a certain saint in the hopes of waking us up a bit to the mind-blowing reality we celebrate (or should celebrate) at Christmas.
St. Louis de Monfort’s Reflection on Mary
St. Louis de Montfort, in accord with the whole mystical tradition (those saints throughout history who took as their life philosophy the contemplation of the mystery of God’s Love, and so grew into a special interior union with God), often speaks in very sensuous ways about the Christian mystery. He uses spousal categories and terminology, drawn largely from the Song of Songs (one of the favorite biblical books of the mystics), to illuminate divine truths. He sees the Annunciation, for example, as a divine wedding proposal. But before we get into some of de Montfort’s imagery, let me preface it with something John Paul II — himself a sincere devotee of de Montfort — once said. The Pope admitted that this saint’s writing “can be a bit disconcerting, given its rather florid … style, but the essential theological truths which it contains are undeniable” (Gift and Mystery, p. 29). Bearing that in mind, let’s now turn to de Montfort and allow him to awaken us to some “essential theological truths” about the great “spousal mystery” of Christmas.
As de Montfort put it, God sent his angel to Mary “in order to win her heart.” And on account of the “hidden delights” of his divine proposal, “she gave her consent.” He describes the Hail Mary — the familiar prayer that re-presents this glorious moment when God proposed and Mary said “yes” — as “joy for the angels,” as “a sweet melody,” as the “Canticle of the New Testament, a delight for Mary, and glory for the Most Blessed Trinity.” This divine song is “a pure kiss of love” given to Mary, “a crimson rose, a precious pearl” (True Devotion 252-253). Then, groping for images to describe this glorious moment when the invisible, immortal, eternal seed of God was given to Mary (see 1 Pt 1:23), de Montfort writes of “dew falling from heaven.” In this astounding moment, God poured a “chalice of ambrosia” upon his mystic-bride and, receiving this “divine nectar,” she conceived God’s own Son (see True Devotion 253).
Christmas: A Celebration of the Word Made Flesh
Whoa! Such imagery would have been enough to give my wonderful, but rather prudish grandmother cardiac arrest. For anyone experiencing palpitations, de Montfort reminds us plainly: “These are comparisons made by the saints” (253) — saints who, undoubtedly, were immersed in the holy and sensual imagery of the Song of Songs. The Song of Songs teaches us — as does the spousal imagery throughout all of Scripture — that God wants to “marry” us. Furthermore, through this mystical marriage, the divine Bridegroom wants to fill us, “impregnate” us with divine life. In the Virgin Mary, this becomes a living reality. And this, as the Catechism says, is why “Mary goes before us all in the holiness that is the Church’s mystery as ‘the bride without spot or wrinkle’” (CCC 773).
With great reverence and a kind of “holy daring,” St. Louis de Montfort unabashedly presents the spiritual mystery revealed to us through the Virgin Mary’s feminine body. If we don’t share his comfort — indeed, many find themselves decidedly uncomfortable in the face of such a treatment of the Virgin Mary — we would do well to examine the source of such discomfort. It is much easier to eschew the body (our own body, Jesus’s body, Mary’s body) than it is to face the disorders in our hearts that cause us to eschew the body. Christmas is a celebration of the Word made flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary. May that “great mystery” cast out all the lies we have believed about our own bodies.
As the Catechism states, “The spousal character of the human vocation in relation to God is fulfilled perfectly in Mary’s virginal motherhood” (505). And that is what we celebrate in the Christmas season. God has espoused himself to us forever by sending his Son, born of this woman. My own experience growing up in the Church — and learning of the experiences of thousands of other Catholics around the world in my lectures and travels — has taught me that many Catholics have what I call a “hyper-spiritual” idea of the Blessed Virgin. It’s as if the title “virgin” itself leads us to believe that Mary is somehow opposed to bodily realities, or that her immaculate purity makes her a prudish or even “a-sexual” being. But such impressions of Mary can only stem from projecting our own fallen humanity on to her.
Purity-A Perfection of Sexuality
First of all, purity doesn’t annihilate our sexuality — it perfects it. Far from being “a-sexual,” Mary is the only woman who ever experienced God’s original plan for sexuality in its fullness. Sexuality is not to be equated with sexual behavior. Mary remained a virgin. But virginity is not to be equated with “a-sexuality.” Virginity, from the Christian perspective, is not the negation of sexuality, but an embracing of the ultimate purpose and meaning of sexuality — to point us to union with God. God made us male and female and called the two to become “one flesh” as a sacramental sign of a much, much greater reality — the marriage of Christ and the Church (see Eph 5:31-32).
This is the original and fundamental meaning of human sexuality and this is how Mary must have experienced her womanhood, her sexuality — as a burning desire for union with God. Through the gift of redemption, we can begin to reclaim this original truth, but even for the holiest among us it remains muddled by our fallen condition. To recognize Mary as the “Immaculate One” is to recognize that her sexuality was never muddled by our fallen condition. For she experienced the fullness of redemption right from the first moment of her conception.
The Gift of Mary’s Body
This would mean that Mary’s purity allowed her to experience her sexuality in its fullness — as a deep yearning for total communion with God in Christ. This is why she didn’t have sexual relations with Joseph: not because marital union is “unholy,” but because she was already living the union beyond sexual union — union with God. This is not to knock Joseph, but earthly, sexual union with him would have been for Mary a step backwards. Instead, Mary took Joseph forward with her into the fulfillment of all desire. And she wants to take us forward with her as well, into the fullness of union with God. But this journey demands that we face all of our diseased images and ideas about our bodies and our sexuality. For union with God passes by way of sexual healing and redemption. And there is no detour. Here Mary, too, serves as a perfect guide and help.
As Father Donald Calloway expresses: “Mary shows us how to accept the gift of our embodiedness, and this includes the God-given sex of the body. In this it is important to note that Mary’s exemplarity of what it means to accept the gift of one’s body means that the body is not an obstacle to overcome but, rather, a gift to be lived. Mary delights in her body, especially in its God-given sex: femininity. It is precisely in her gift of being a woman that Mary was fashioned and called by God to be the Theotokos [God-bearer]. The gift of her body is exactly what helps her to become the Theotokos. Just think of what would have happened if Mary had rebelled against the gift of her feminine body! We would be in a very different situation today. (Mary and the Theology of the Body, pp. 55-56).
Mary, all pure Mother of God, show us the beauty of your femininity and teach us, in turn, to embrace the beauty of our own humanity as men and women made in the image of God.