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amaryToday the Roman Catholic Church celebrates the feast of the Assumption of Mary, the Mother of Jesus, into heaven. It is one of many feasts observed by Catholics the world over – in both Eastern and Roman rite – and gives pride of place to the woman who said yes to the call of God to bring Christ to the world in the most significant way possible: by birth. In the renewal of the past half century, begun at the Second Vatican Council, we have come to appreciate Mary in perhaps more expansive ways. What I mean is that if we do indeed recognize her as a young woman (probably still a teenager) who lived in a small village in the Middle East, perhaps illiterate and certainly not privileged in any social way, her “yes” to God seems as extraordinary as it always has, but with one additional understanding that generations rarely if ever conceded – or even considered. This seemingly ordinary, humble young woman who cooperated with grace in an uncharacteristic way is the same girl who responded to the recognition by her kinswoman Elizabeth that she was carrying the Messiah with the following words:

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord…From this day all generations shall call me blessed: the Almighty has done great things for me…He has shown the strength of his arm and has scattered the proud in their conceit. He has cast down the mighty from their thrones and has lifted up the lowly…(LK 1:39-56)

Commenting on Marialis Cultus, Pope Paul VI’s apostolic letter on Mary, Elizabeth Johnson writes that the Pope “describes Mary as a strong and intelligent woman, one who has the wits to question back when the angel addressed her, one who experienced poverty and suffering, flight and exile. In the midst of these troubles she consistently gave active and responsible consent to the call of God, made courageous choices, and worked to strengthen the faith of others….In the most quoted passage from this letter, the Pope then declares that far from endorsing the particulars of Mary’s own life as exemplary, the Church proposes her to the faithful as an example to be imitated: not precisely in the type of life she led, much less for the socio-cultural background in which she lived and which today scarcely exists anywhere. Rather, she is held up as an example for the way in which, in her own particular life, she fully and responsibly accepted God’s will (see LK 1:38), because she heard the Word of God and acted on it, and because charity and a spirit of service were the driving force of her actions…(#35)

Johnson concludes that “what has a permanent, universal, exemplary value is the way she walked the path of her own life before God, which can instruct and inspire people’s own creative responses in this new era. We can be inspired by her because we are all human together. Mary is ‘one of our race,’ ‘a true daughter of Eve,’ indeed (as Pope Paul says) ‘truly our sister, who as a poor and humble woman shared our lot’ (#56).”