MOTHERHOOD – VIRGINITY
Two dimensions of women’s vocation
17. We must now focus our meditation on virginity and motherhood as two particular dimensions of the fulfillment of the female personality. In the light of the Gospel, they acquire their full meaning and value in Mary, who as a Virgin became the Mother of the Son of God. These two dimensions of the female vocation were united in her in an exceptional manner, in such a way that one did not exclude the other but wonderfully complemented it. The description of the Annunciation in the Gospel of Luke clearly shows that this seemed impossible to the Virgin of Nazareth. When she hears the words: “You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus”, she immediately asks: “How can this be, since I have no husband?” (Lk 1: 31, 34). In the usual order of things motherhood is the result of mutual “knowledge” between a man and woman in the marriage union. Mary, firm in her resolve to preserve her virginity, puts this question to the divine messenger, and obtains from him the explanation: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you” – your motherhood will not be the consequence of matrimonial “knowledge”, but will be the work of the Holy Spirit; the “power of the Most High” will “overshadow” the mystery of the Son’s conception and birth; as the Son of the Most High, he is given to you exclusively by God, in a manner known to God. Mary, therefore, maintained her virginal “I have no husband” (cf. Lk 1: 34) and at the same time became a Mother. Virginity and motherhood co-exist in her: they do not mutually exclude each other or place limits on each other. Indeed, the person of the Mother of God helps everyone – especially women – to see how these two dimensions, these two paths in the vocation of women as persons, explain and complete each other.
18 . In order to share in this “vision”, we must once again seek a deeper understanding of the truth about the human person recalled by the Second Vatican Council. The human being – both male and female – is the only being in the world which God willed for its own sake. The human being is a person, a subject who decides for himself. At the same time, man “cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of self”.39 It has already been said that this description, indeed this definition of the person, corresponds to the fundamental biblical truth about the creation of the human being – man and woman – in the image and likeness of God. This is not a purely theoretical interpretation, nor an abstract definition, for it gives an essential indication of what it means to be human, while emphasizing the value of the gift of self, the gift of the person. In this vision of the person we also find the essence of that “ethos” which, together with the truth of creation, will be fully developed by the books of Revelation, particularly the Gospels.
This truth about the person also opens up the path to a full understanding of women’s motherhood. Motherhood is the fruit of the marriage union of a man and woman, of that biblical “knowledge” which corresponds to the “union of the two in one flesh” (cf. Gen 2:24). This brings about – on the woman’s part – a special “gift of self”, as an expression of that spousal love whereby the two are united to each other so closely that they become “one flesh”. Biblical “knowledge” is achieved in accordance with the truth of the person only when the mutual self-giving is not distorted either by the desire of the man to become the “master” of his wife (“he shall rule over you”) or by the woman remaining closed within her own instincts (“your desire shall be for your husband”: Gen 3:16).
This mutual gift of the person in marriage opens to the gift of a new life, a new human being, who is also a person in the likeness of his parents. Motherhood implies from the beginning a special openness to the new person: and this is precisely the woman’s “part”. In this openness, in conceiving and giving birth to a child, the woman “discovers herself through a sincere gift of self”. The gift of interior readiness to accept the child and bring it into the world is linked to the marriage union, which – as mentioned earlier – should constitute a special moment in the mutual self-giving both by the woman and the man. According to the Bible, the conception and birth of a new human being are accompanied by the following words of the woman: “I have brought a man into being with the help of the Lord” (Gen 4:1).
This exclamation of Eve, the “mother of all the living” is repeated every time a new human being comes into the world. It expresses the woman’s joy and awareness that she is sharing in the great mystery of eternal generation. The spouses share in the creative power of God!
The woman’s motherhood in the period between the baby’s conception and birth is a bio-physiological and psychological process which is better understood in our days than in the past, and is the subject of many detailed studies. Scientific analysis fully confirms that the very physical constitution of women is naturally disposed to motherhood – conception, pregnancy and giving birth – which is a consequence of the marriage union with the man. At the same time, this also corresponds to the psycho-physical structure of women. What the different branches of science have to say on this subject is important and useful, provided that it is not limited to an exclusively bio-physiological interpretation of women and of motherhood. Such a “restricted” picture would go hand in hand with a materialistic concept of the human being and of the world. In such a case, what is truly essential would unfortunately be lost. Motherhood as a human fact and phenomenon, is fully explained on the basis of the truth about the person. Motherhood is linked to the personal structure of the woman and to the personal dimension of the gift: “I have brought a man into being with the help of the Lord” (Gen 4:1). The Creator grants the parents the gift of a child. On the woman’s part, this fact is linked in a special way to “a sincere gift of self”. Mary’s words at the Annunciation – “Let it be to me according to your word” – signify the woman’s readiness for the gift of self and her readiness to accept a new life.
The eternal mystery of generation, which is in God himself, the one and Triune God (cf. Eph 3:14-15), is reflected in the woman’s motherhood and in the man’s fatherhood. Human parenthood is something shared by both the man and the woman. Even if the woman, out of love for her husband, says: “I have given you a child”, her words also mean: “This is our child”. Although both of them together are parents of their child, the woman’s motherhood constitutes a special “part” in this shared parenthood, and the most demanding part. Parenthood – even though it belongs to both – is realized much more fully in the woman, especially in the prenatal period. It is the woman who “pays” directly for this shared generation, which literally absorbs the energies of her body and soul. It is therefore necessary that the man be fully aware that in their shared parenthood he owes a special debt to the woman. No programme of “equal rights” between women and men is valid unless it takes this fact fully into account.
Motherhood involves a special communion with the mystery of life, as it develops in the woman’s womb. The mother is filled with wonder at this mystery of life, and “understands” with unique intuition what is happening inside her. In the light of the “beginning”, the mother accepts and loves as a person the child she is carrying in her womb. This unique contact with the new human being developing within her gives rise to an attitude towards human beings – not only towards her own child, but every human being – which profoundly marks the woman’s personality. It is commonly thought that women are more capable than men of paying attention to another person, and that motherhood develops this predisposition even more. The man – even with all his sharing in parenthood – always remains “outside” the process of pregnancy and the baby’s birth; in many ways he has to learn his own “fatherhood” from the mother. One can say that this is part of the normal human dimension of parenthood, including the stages that follow the birth of the baby, especially the initial period. The child’s upbringing, taken as a whole, should include the contribution of both parents: the maternal and paternal contribution. In any event, the mother’s contribution is decisive in laying the foundation for a new human personality.
Motherhood in relation to the Covenant
19. Our reflection returns to the biblical exemplar of the “woman” in the Proto-evangelium. The “woman”, as mother and first teacher of the human being (education being the spiritual dimension of parenthood), has a specific precedence over the man. Although motherhood, especially in the bio-physical sense, depends upon the man, it places an essential “mark” on the whole personal growth process of new children. Motherhood in the bio-physical sense appears to be passive: the formation process of a new life “takes place” in her, in her body, which is nevertheless profoundly involved in that process. At the same time, motherhood in its personal-ethical sense expresses a very important creativity on the part of the woman, upon whom the very humanity of the new human being mainly depends. In this sense too the woman’s motherhood presents a special call and a special challenge to the man and to his fatherhood.
The biblical exemplar of the “woman” finds its culmination in the motherhood of the Mother of God. The words of the Proto-evangelium – “I will put enmity between you and the woman” – find here a fresh confirmation. We see that through Mary – through her maternal “fiat”, (“Let it be done to me”) – God begins a New Covenant with humanity. This is the eternal and definitive Covenant in Christ, in his body and blood, in his Cross and Resurrection. Precisely because this Covenant is to be fulfilled “in flesh and blood” its beginning is in the Mother. Thanks solely to her and to her virginal and maternal “fiat”, the “Son of the Most High” can say to the Father: “A body you have prepared for me. Lo, I have come to do your will, O God” (cf. Heb 10:5, 7).
Motherhood has been introduced into the order of the Covenant that God made with humanity in Jesus Christ. Each and every time that motherhood is repeated in human history, it is always related to the Covenant which God established with the human race through the motherhood of the Mother of God.
Does not Jesus bear witness to this reality when he answers the exclamation of that woman in the crowd who blessed him for Mary’s motherhood: “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts that you sucked!”? Jesus replies: “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it” (Lk 11:27-28). Jesus confirms the meaning of motherhood in reference to the body, but at the same time he indicates an even deeper meaning, which is connected with the order of the spirit: it is a sign of the Covenant with God who “is spirit” (Jn 4: 24). This is true above all for the motherhood of the Mother of God. The motherhood of every woman, understood in the light of the Gospel, is similarly not only “of flesh and blood”: it expresses a profound “listening to the word of the living God” and a readiness to “safeguard” this Word, which is “the word of eternal life” (cf. Jn 6:68). For it is precisely those born of earthly mothers, the sons and daughters of the human race, who receive from the Son of God the power to become “children of God” (Jn 1:12). A dimension of the New Covenant in Christ’s blood enters into human parenthood, making it a reality and a task for “new creatures” (cf. 2 Cor 5: 17). The history of every human being passes through the threshold of a woman’s motherhood; crossing it conditions “the revelation of the children of God” (cf. Rom 8: 19).
“When a woman is in travail she has sorrow, because her hour has come; but when she is delivered of the child, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a child is born into the world” (Jn 16: 21). The first part of Christ’s words refers to the “pangs of childbirth” which belong to the heritage of original sin; at the same time these words indicate the link that exists between the woman’s motherhood and the Paschal Mystery. For this mystery also includes the Mother’s sorrow at the foot of the Cross – the Mother who through faith shares in the amazing mystery of her Son’s “self-emptying”: “This is perhaps the deepest ‘kenosis’ of faith in human history”.40
As we contemplate this Mother, whose heart “a sword has pierced” (cf. Lk 2: 35), our thoughts go to all the suffering women in the world, suffering either physically or morally. In this suffering a woman’s sensitivity plays a role, even though she often succeeds in resisting suffering better than a man. It is difficult to enumerate these sufferings; it is difficult to call them all by name. We may recall her maternal care for her children, especially when they fall sick or fall into bad ways; the death of those most dear to her; the loneliness of mothers forgotten by their grown up children; the loneliness of widows; the sufferings of women who struggle alone to make a living; and women who have been wronged or exploited. Then there are the sufferings of consciences as a result of sin, which has wounded the woman’s human or maternal dignity: the wounds of consciences which do not heal easily. With these sufferings too we must place ourselves at the foot of the Cross.
But the words of the Gospel about the woman who suffers when the time comes for her to give birth to her child, immediately afterwards express joy: it is “the joy that a child is born into the world”. This joy too is referred to the Paschal Mystery, to the joy which is communicated to the Apostles on the day of Christ’s Resurrection: “So you have sorrow now” (these words were said the day before the Passion); “but I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you” (Jn 16: 22-23).”
It’s just SO beautiful. To read the whole encyclical, check it out here at the Vatican website.