Someone once said that humility is not so much thinking less of ourselves, but thinking of ourselves less. And so in this sense, humility is looking beyond ourselves, toward the Divine. It is a submission of ourselves, of our self will, to the Divine Will – and in the process, seeing ourselves as nothing more than a speck of dust illuminated in a shaft of sunlight. But while it is true we are nothing compared to the Infinite God, still this Infinite God loves us deeply – He calls us to Him, He walks with us, He gives Himself to us and He bids us to be with Him eternally.
I think this is reflected well in the words of the Blessed Virgin Mary at the moment of the Annunciation, and later as She visited Her cousin, Saint Elizabeth, both events recounted in the Gospel of Saint Luke.
At the Annunciation, having just learned that She has been chosen by God to be the Mother of His Son, Her response is simple and profound and very much sums up the nature of the Woman, who speaks these words in response to the love song of the Most High –
“I am the Handmaid of the Lord – let what you have said be done unto Me” (cf. Lk.1:38)
Simple, succinct, humble. There is no sense of gravitas or of pride – this would be anathema to the Virgin. She is a Woman of few words – but those words are filled with meaning. And Her first instinct is not to spend time contemplating the wonder of Her situation, or telling the world of the great thing which has been done in Her regard. No. Rather, Her first instinct is laid out in the next lines of the Gospel, which tells us that ‘Mary set out at that time and went as quickly as She could’ (cf.Lk.1:39) to visit Her cousin. Her response, then, is one of service. She who has been exalted above all other creatures, places Herself as the servant not only of the Lord, but also of neighbour. In this, we see something of the Lord, Her Son, Who will later do the same.
Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit as Mary entered her home, and she exclaimed that ‘of all women, You are the most blessed, and blessed is the Fruit of Your womb’ (cf.Lk.1:42). The response of the Blessed Virgin now comes as no surprise to us, for She again places Herself in humility before the Lord, looking beyond Herself and toward Him – and this gives the measure of all that She will say later, and of Her very mission in the Church which the Lord will establish; to point beyond Herself and toward the Lord. She says to Elizabeth –
“My soul magnifies the Lord; My spirit rejoices in God, My Saviour”
Her happiness is in the Lord, not in Herself. He is the Source of Her joy. Her function is to ‘magnify’ Him alone, never Herself. He alone is the reason for Her joy and for Her glory – all is gifted by the Most High.
In his beautiful Apostolic Exhortation, “Marialis Cultus”, published in February 1974, Blessed Pope Paul VI exhorts us to imitate the Blessed Virgin, following the example of the Fathers of the Church since the earliest times –
“Mary is .. a teacher of the spiritual life for individual Christians. The faithful at a very early date began to look to Mary and to imitate Her in making their lives an act of worship of God and making their worship a commitment of their lives. As early as the fourth century, St. Ambrose, speaking to the people, expressed the hope that each of them would have the spirit of Mary in order to glory God.. And Mary’s “yes” is for all Christians a lesson and example of obedience to the will of the Father, which is the way and means of one’s own sanctification.” (Marialis Cultus, para.21)
Pope Paul goes on to remind us that the Mother of the Lord and Her Son cannot be separated – that devotion to Her must, of necessity, always lead to Him –
“In the Virgin Mary everything is relative to Christ and dependent upon Him. It was with a view to Christ that God the Father from all eternity chose her to be the all-holy Mother and adorned her with gifts of the Spirit granted to no one else. Certainly genuine Christian piety has never failed to highlight the indissoluble link and essential relationship of the Virgin to the divine Saviour.” (Marialis Cultus, para.25)
He makes this link even more explicit later in his document; referencing the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, ‘Lumen Gentium’, Pope Paul tells us –
“..It is natural that in true devotion to the Blessed Virgin ‘the Son should be duly known, loved and glorified…when the Mother is honored'” (Marialis Cultus, para.32)
Devotion to Mary always leads to the glorification of Her Son. Any Marian devotion without this characteristic is not rightly ordered. This was the way of the life of Mary in the Gospel, always pointing toward Her Son; and so it is in the life of the Church.
In the glory of Heaven, the Blessed Virgin remains humble now as She was in Her earthly life. Speaking about the Appearances of the Blessed Virgin at Lourdes in 1858, Saint Bernadette Soubirous made an interesting and quite telling observation. She said that as the Lady was about to give Her name, She opened Her arms in a fashion similar to that depicted on the Miraculous Medal and bowed Her head deeply in an attitude of profound humility; then She looked up to Heaven, Her hands joined as though in prayer, and She said ‘I am the Immaculate Conception’. And if you think about it, this is entirely what would be expected – even now, She is deeply aware of Her humility before the Lord Who has glorified Her so greatly.
Pope Paul tells us that –
“..the Virgin Mary has always been proposed to the faithful by the Church as an example to be imitated.. She is held up as an example to the faithful rather for the way in which, in Her own particular life, She fully and responsibly accepted the will of God.. we would like to repeat that the ultimate purpose of devotion to the Blessed Virgin is to glorify God and to lead Christians to commit themselves to a life which is in absolute conformity with His will” (Marialis Cultus, para.35 and para.39)
And so we have a clear example set before us by the Church, by the Popes and by the great Saints throughout the ages; Mary is the one we should seek to imitate in following Her Divine Son, and that path is, of necessity, one of humility. And following this path in such a spirit of humility, we hope that one day we will share with Her in the joy of Heaven.
Mary, Handmaid of the Lord – pray for us.