Was Mary quiet and submissive or very assertive?

In my church, there’s a chapel dedicated to Mary. Above the altar is a very traditional white statue of Mary, holding her hands in prayer, her eyes downcast. But on the wall above that statue, there is a large woodcarving of Mary in a totally different pose: her arms outstretched, looking straight at you, strong and determined. It’s easy to miss that triumphant Mary, because unless the light is on above the altar, she’s very hard to see. In fact, I attended the church for a few years before I even realized that woodcarving was there.

I share this story because I’ve come to think of these two images as a great metaphor for how we see Mary.

Certainly, it’s tempting to think of Mary as being passive, probably due to all the paintings and statues where we see her head bowed and her eyes downcast. And yes, she did sacrifice her own life plans once she heard what God wanted of her. But it’s a mistake to think that her submission to God’s will is a sign of weakness. Think of what she risked: by agreeing to this miraculous pregnancy, she was opening herself up to public scorn and rejection, and even to the possibility of stoning under the Mosaic law. That took some serious strength.

The more I’ve learned about Mary in the past several years of writing about her, the more I’ve seen that she must have possessed extraordinary courage and determination. In addition to putting her own life on the line to become the mother of God, she also had to flee to a foreign country to save her baby’s life. She nudged her adult son into his first miracle at the Wedding of Cana, even over his initial protests. And as a mom myself, I find it hard to imagine anything worse than the pain she endured while watching her son die. She had to be a tough woman to survive all of this.
Mary’s own words, in fact, paint her as a woman who is far from passive. In her prayer the Magnificat, she glorifies a God who “has thrown down the rulers from their thrones but lifted up the lowly. The hungry he has filled with good things; the rich he has sent away empty.” (Luke 1:52-53) These words show a woman who believes in a God who subverts the expected social order. Pope Paul VI, in his 1974 apostolic exhortation Marialis Cultus, affirmed this when he wrote that “Mary of Nazareth, while completely devoted to the will of God, was far from being a timidly submissive woman or one whose piety was repellent to others; on the contrary, she was a woman who did not hesitate to proclaim that God vindicates the humble and oppressed, and removes the powerful people of this world from their privileged positions.”

So while Mary was submissive in the sense of aligning her life with God’s will, the Gospel evidence points to a woman who drew on remarkable reserves of courage and initiative as she did so. And while this strong Mary may not leap out at you at first glance, keep looking. She’s there.