Usually, when you read secular or even progressive Christian criticisms of the Christian faith, and Catholicism in particular, one of the arguments that inevitably comes up is the sexism inherent in placing so much emphasis on a single woman only as a vessel through which the Savior of Man could come into the world.
In the Catholic Church, today is the Feast of the Assumption, the celebration of the day that Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ, was assumed – body and spirit – into Heaven at the end of her life, marking the end of a pure, sinless life. The belief in the Assumption is actually just the capstone of the story of the most powerful woman in the world.
The critics who would complain of Mary’s treatment in the Bible do so largely by flat out ignoring how influential Mary was in the life and ministry of her son. She was a young woman approached by the angel Gabriel and told she was to bear the Son of God and name him Jesus – despite the fact that she was a virgin. However, if you read the story of the interaction between Mary and Gabriel, it’s quite clear that it was not the command it is usually made out to be.
34 “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”
35 The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. 36 Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. 37 For no word from God will ever fail.”
38 “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her.
The bolded part here is where the power in the conversation actually shifts. Mary is not just accepting this. She is giving her permission. This moment is referred to as Mary’s fiat, a Latin term meaning “an official authorization.” Thus, we see that Gabriel isn’t telling her she will do this. He is saying that it is the Lord’s intention, should she accept. Her response tells both Gabriel and God that, yes, I will bear this child.
Rarely in history do you see any choices given to women when they are ordained by a higher power to take up some holy cause. The choice isn’t there, as though destiny or whatever higher power is in charge simply forced the holy charge onto them. In this case, Mary’s allowance of this charge is one of the most progressive moments in both history and religion. However, simply saying “Your will be done” is not the end of her legacy in Christianity. It is simply the first in a lifetime of responsibility that she will take in guiding Jesus.
In the Gospel of John, we find Mary again at the center of one of the most important moments in Christianity. The wedding at Cana is considered to be the first miracle Jesus performed, and it was at the direction of Mary, not God, that he revealed himself.
3When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” 4And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” 5His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”
In this moment, we see that Jesus doesn’t believe his time has come, but he performs the miracle anyway at the behest of his mother, Mary. She was not simply the means for Jesus entering the world, but instead was the guiding force in his journey to becoming the figure he is.
Mary’s existence wasn’t merely inserted into the Bible to play the part of a birth mother, but rather as the figure that Jesus would respect and listen to even if he felt it was not part of his mission. This deference to his mother grants her a power that no one else had. Jesus did not perform miracles because anyone else told him to. He did it as part of his ministry. But, at the wedding at Cana, Jesus performed a miracle because Mary told him to. He revealed himself to his disciples in that moment, but not because it was part of some grander lesson. It was because of his own love and respect for his mother.
That is not a power that is given out to women so freely during that time, and even if you were to argue that it was an account written much later, the fact is that women did not regularly achieve such a status in religious or historical text. Mary is an exception that stands above other figures in history because of it.
Her influence in the world is not the influence of simply the Mother of God. She is a woman who was given the choice to bear, raise, and follow her son, and she chose this knowing that she would also likely see him killed by the very people he was sent to save. That she is depicted as she is, choosing that life, seeing what she saw, makes her Assumption that much more powerful. She is assumed, body and soul, into Heaven because she accepted the greatest charge one could take on, and in doing so she helped in a big way to shape the world.
This is why Mary is celebrated. If Jesus can be considered the most influential man in history, then it has to be recognized that without Mary, Jesus would not have walked the earth. For this, she did not die, but was granted a perfect reward for her perfect life on Earth.