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Mary and the Gift of Life: Motherhood Requires Openness to the New Person   


Marriage has been a dominant symbol in both the Old and the New Covenants of God's love for man and Christ's love for the Church. As such it has both illuminated divine love and been elevated by the comparison. The marriage of Mary and Joseph is both illuminated by sacramental marriage and sheds light on the ordinary marriages of Christians. This is particularly true in our day.

Through the conception and gestation of Jesus Christ in the womb of Mary, the wombs of all women were raised to a new dignity.

Already the womb was a sacred place in Creation as the home of the new human person made in the image of God. Recall Eve's exclamation in Genesis 4: 1, “I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord.” But the incarnation raised it to an even greater dignity.

As John Paul II says in the encyclical Mulieris Dignitatem (On the Dignity and Vocation of Women), “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” (MD §19)

Mary's acceptance: Joseph's fidelity

Let us reflect a moment on the circumstance of the Annunciation. Mary was betrothed but not yet married to Joseph. The angel Gabriel did not initially involve Joseph in Mary's choice of motherhood. So in a fundamental sense the choice of motherhood is a direct encounter between the woman and God.

When a woman agrees to sexual intercourse she consents to God's direct partnership with her in creating new human life. This is an amazing affirmation of her personhood. With it comes a great responsibility.

Mary was well aware of the consequences of fiat or acceptance of God's will . She knew that Joseph had the right not only to put her aside but even to have her stoned. Mary's fiat showed not only absolute trust in God but great courage.

It is significant that the pregnancies of Mary and Elizabeth represent the two periods of a woman's life when a pregnancy can be the most difficult. Mary was in the position similar to that of an unwed teen mother and Elizabeth faced a pregnancy close to the menopause. This is a time when many women in our society are pressured into sterilization or abortion.

But God did not want Mary to bear and bring up her son alone. An angel appeared to Joseph and said, “Do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit.” (Matt. 1:20) Joseph then took Mary into his home as his wife. Mary remained a virgin throughout her marriage to Joseph, and yet theirs was a true marriage in which they lived together and shared a union of mind and heart.

Artists have depicted Joseph as an old man, perhaps because they could not conceive that a young man could live with a beautiful young girl and abstain from sexual intercourse. Joseph, like us, was subject to original sin with its tendency towards concupiscence. The whole Jewish tradition lent its weight to procreation and the blessing of a large family. So how was it possible for Joseph to live chastely with Mary?

Marital love and divine love

Marriage has been a dominant symbol in both the Old and the New Covenants of God's love for man and Christ's love for the Church. As such it has both illuminated divine love and been elevated by the comparison. The marriage of Mary and Joseph is both illuminated by sacramental marriage and sheds light on the ordinary marriages of Christians. This is particularly true in our day.

Sexual abstinence is not considered in modern views of marriage. The aim of contraception is to enable the man and the woman to have sexual intercourse without any thought for pregnancy. But in natural family planning (the way of spacing children by timing intercourse according to the fertile and infertile phases of the woman's cycle) the virtue of marital chastity has an honorable place.

When a couple chooses natural family planning, they resolve to respect the time when a woman is fertile and a new life could be conceived. This calls for great trust on the part of both the woman and the man. The wife makes herself vulnerable to her husband in a radical way.

It was just in this way that Mary made herself vulnerable to Joseph. Mary entrusted herself to Joseph because she had entrusted herself to God.

But Mary also took responsibility for the gift God had given her in her Son. As John Paul II says, “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.” '(MD §18)

Mary's first act after receiving the stupendous news of her own pregnancy was to go to her cousin Elizabeth, who was also pregnant, to share her gift and to aid her cousin. (Luke 1:26)

No mention is made of Joseph accompanying Mary on this journey. In both Luke's and Matthew's gospels, the husbands, Joseph and Zechariah greet the news of pregnancy with either disbelief or consternation As John Paul II observes, “The man -even with all his sharing of parenthood-always remains 'outside the process of and the baby's birth; in many ways he has to learn his own 'fatherhood' from the mother.” (MD §18)

It is especially the role of the woman to protect the “fruit of her womb” , and then the role of the man to protect both mother and child By making a “sincere gift” of herself to her husband and child, a woman calls forth love from her husband.

Joseph was instructed by the angel to take the mother and child out of danger to Egypt and again to return to Nazareth. (Matt. 2: 13, 21 23) He, too, was called to make a sincere gift of himself. He was assigned by God to protect both Mother and Child. In doing so his whole life was disrupted. For the sake of the Child he became a refugee.

The Gospel accounts of the Holy Family show us a surprise ingly complex interrelationship of masculine and feminine roles What is predominant is an attitude of yielding to God, to one another and to the child.

God's plan for marriage

This is the Christian model of marriage and family. But how far we have strayed from this model in our culture!

The majority of Catholic couples have abandoned chastity well before their wedding day. More than 80% use contraception

In a survey shortly before the pope's visit in October I 1995 69% said one could have an abortion for reasons other than danger to the mother's life and still be a good Catholic.

How have we come to this pass that the woman no longer protects the fruit of her womb? How can women call men to their responsibility if they reject the special role that God has given uniquely to women?

God has a plan for marriage and family and every pope in this century has proclaimed it. Only by respecting the inseparability of the “unitive” and “procreative” dimensions of sexual intercourse can a couple fulfill that plan.

For the woman it means cherishing her fertility and any pregnancy that may result. Like Mary she is in a unique partnership with God any time she conceives, even in a difficult pregnancy.

For the man it means honoring his wife's gift of fertility, even if it means forgoing the pleasures of sexual intercourse. God does not ask of the average man or woman in marriage complete abstinence from marital relations as He did of Joseph and Mary.

But respect for the unique time in the cycle when new life can be conceived includes complete chastity before marriage when no enduring commitment has yet been made by the couple. Sexual intercourse is the sign and seal of this commitment

Holy family as model

Joseph was scarcely more privileged than the average man today He did not even have the grace of the Sacraments True, he did have the presence of Jesus and Mary. But we, too, have Jesus and Mary present to us And in the Eucharist we are united with Jesus.

Just as Mary's fidelity to God enabled her to call forth heroic virtue from Joseph, so the Christian woman by this same fidelity may inspire her beloved to the virtue of chastity.

Marriage has been a dominant symbol in both the Old and the New Covenants of God's love for man and Christ's love for the Church.

How different from others are couples who choose to live God's way! Father Bruce Nieli recently observed, “So what does NFP (natural family planning) do? ... It gives us an instrument to grow in holiness.” He said he was “converted” to NFP by the couples who were “very real and very much in love with one another and with God.”

Father Nieli sees a “spirituality, a bondedness, a one “ in couples who practice NFP, “a rootedness in one another and a rootedness in God.” (NFP Diocesan Activity Report, a, no. 4 - Fall 1995 - 13).

Many might say, my child-bearing years are over-what does NFP have to do with me? Well, what does it have to do with a priest who has taken a vow of celibacy? The title of Father Nieli's talk was “NFP and Evangelization” . Whatever makes us holy is a means of evangelization.

The family linked to "civilization of love"

As John Paul II wrote in his Letter to Families, the family in a certain way constitutes the “way of the Church.” (LF, 2) It is organically linked to the civilization of love, he says. (LF, 13 )

How married couples live out their covenant in which they are a sign of Christ's love for His Church concerns us all Grandparents, for example, have a special relationship with their grandchildren and can teach them the beauty of God's plan for marriage and family. Even if they did not know about or practice NFP themselves, or if their families have been buffeted by divorce and sundry social ills, they can still hold out a vision of hope to the young.

I cannot but think that the spread of natural family planning is of special concern to Mary. Certainly, wherever I have found devotion to Mary I have found an openness to life and to the Church's teaching on the inseparability of the unitive and procreative dimensions of sexuality. And where NFP flourishes, the family flourishes, also.

Mary Shivanandan teaches at the Pope John Paul 11 Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, Washington, DC, and writes on family issues. This essay was first presented as a talk to the Sodality Union.


Shivanandan, Mary. “Mary and the Gift of Life: Motherhood Requires Openness to the New Person” Voices Vol Xl: No. 3 September 1996.

Republished with permission of Voices the quarterly publication of Women for Faith and Family.

Women for Faith and Family is dedicated to upholding the teachings of the Catholic Church by:

  • Assisting Catholic women in their effort to provide witness to their faith, both to their families and to the world.

  • Aiding women in their efforts to deepen their understanding of the Catholic faith.

  • Aiding faithful Catholic women in their desire for fellowship with others who share their faith and commitment.

  • Serving as a channel through which questions from Catholic women seeking guidance or information can be directed.


Mary Shivanandan is Associate Dean and Professor of Theology at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, Washington, D.C. Her most recent book Crossing the Threshold of Love: Contemporary Marriage in the Light of John Paul II’s Anthropology is the  “…most exhaustive and scholarly assessment of [John Paul II’s] Christian anthropology ever written.”  It examines the scientific data and the theological analysis that underlie his teaching on marriage and sexuality and is both lucid and multidisciplinary.” She is also the author of Challenge to Love, a book on couples’ lived experience of the Church’s teaching on responsible parenthood. Mary Shivanandan is on the Advisory Board of The Catholic Educator’s Resource Center.

Copyright © 1996 Voices



Copyright © 2004 Victor Claveau. All Rights Reserved