The Greatness of Mary
In the Gospel Reading, in a dream, God tells Joseph to marry Mary, even though Joseph had discovered she was pregnant.
According to Jewish law, premarital sex is punishable by death; and, in the ordinary course of things, pregnancy doesn’t occur without sex. So, Mary’s pregnancy out of wedlock exposes her to the penalty of death. Even apart from legal penalties, Mary’s pregnancy jeopardizes her flourishing. As Joseph’s own attitude shows, in Mary’s society, no one wants to marry a woman who looks like a sinful woman and has an illegitimate child to support.
It is clear, then, that Mary’s pregnancy exposes her not only to legal penalties but also to suffering and shame in her society.
It is noteworthy, too, that Joseph needs to hear from God himself that God, and no man, is the father of Mary’s child. Presumably, Joseph had already asked Mary how she came to be pregnant, and Joseph didn’t believe her when she told him. That’s why God had to confirm Mary’s story for Joseph.
How shaming for Mary to be thought a little liar as well as a sinful woman!
Why would God put Mary through this?
As the First Reading indicates, it helps us to recognize Jesus as Emmanuel—God with us—to know that Jesus did not have a human father; and we are helped towards that view by knowing that Mary was pregnant before she was married.
But why didn’t God protect Mary from the shame and suffering of being an unmarried pregnant woman by having the conception of Jesus result from some great public miracle involving Mary, so that everyone knows Mary’s pregnancy stems only from the miraculous workings of divine power? God doesn’t have to expose Mary to humiliation to make her pregnant, does he?
Well, here’s one way to think about the matter. Mary’s steadfastness and trust in God even in the trouble of being an unmarried pregnant woman are a training for her and a sign for us, aren’t they? Mary will eventually find the greatness of soul to love God and her son at the foot of the cross, in the shame of having her son die a shaming death. And, from watching Mary standing by the cross, we learn that human greatness has at its core fidelity through shame and suffering, don’t we?
And so the greatness of Christ on the cross is foreshadowed by the greatness of this small woman, pregnant, shamed, and faithful.
Eleonore Stump is Professor of Philosophy, Saint Louis University
**From Saint Louis University