Where Mary Fits in the Review of 2011

Why So Much Focus on Lesser Things?

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, DEC. 22, 2011 (Zenit.org).- The end of the year always brings list after list of “the top this” and “the top that” as the year comes under review. Most popular people, most photographed women, most influential types parade across magazines and TV screens. 

Pop singer Brittany Spears’ ups and downs may be a palliative for reality show addiction, Princess Diana may have been the face that launched a thousand flash bulbs and Oprah Winfrey may make or break books, movies and presidents, but that fame remains fleeting and tinged with more than a little sadness, as celebrity lives rarely live up to their own hype.

On Dec. 8, I spent the feast of the Immaculate Conception at the North American College on the Janiculum Hill. In this beautiful celebration, combining the ancient psalms, a Renaissance office and the prayers and voices of almost 1,000 priests, prelates and seminarians, I realized that there is one name that should top the list every year, that of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

There are two more days until Christmas, and while America is obsessed with movie star babies, it seems to have overlooked the most amazing mother, model and superstar of all, Mary Mother of God.

Think about it. While the world applauds the “courageous” decision of single celebrity mothers, who undergo endless fertility treatments to have a child who will then be raised by an army of nannies and helpers, Mary made a harder choice: to bear the Son of God and play a role in redeeming mankind. When Gabriel came to her, she was facing life as a single mother, with no celebrity income and in a world where a child out-of-wedlock was not considered a badge of honor. Mary, trusting in God, said yes, and so we have a Christmas to celebrate.

Furthermore, Mary was a rarity in the modern halls of fame: a quiet celebrity. She saw, she understood but she rarely spoke — except to tell her Son to get more wine — who wouldn’t want her as a party guest! She witnessed her Son’s greatness without bragging, she comforted all who came to her and she always listened with compassion. There was no “I” or “me” in her vocabulary; wouldn’t contemporary discourse be better if we followed her lead?

While Mary probably wouldn’t be photographed by Annie Leibowitz for the cover of Vanity Fair or invited to the front row at a Paris fashion show, there has never been a woman who inspired more painters, sculptors and musicians than the girl from Nazareth. Think of the ethereal Madonnas of Botticelli with the luminous pearly skin, the solemn Tuscan pillar of strength drawn by Masaccio or the athletic, dynamic mother painted by Michelangelo in the Doni Tondo, a Mary that any film producer would sell his soul (pun intended) to sign as an action heroine. For a woman who kept to a pretty simple wardrobe with no makeup, her images by Raphael, Murillo, Durer — you get the idea — are valued far higher than any couture gown.

No one knows what Mary looked like, but you can be sure height, weight, eye and hair color had little to do with her beauty. Leonardo’s Madonna of the Rocks or Caravaggio’s Madonna of the Pilgrims have never ceased to be mesmerizing despite changes in tastes for physical types . Hers was not a beauty to be maintained by surgery or artifice but one that came from Truth, goodness and sinlessness. Thousands of talented men and women have paid her homage and tried to capture her loveliness. But a woman who could bring out the best in Pablo Picasso in the “Two Sisters – The Visitation” as well as Ingres in his “Virgin Mary” should be recognized a muse greater than any actress or fashion model.

Star watching is the pastime of the idle. A magazine whiles away time, or a TV special helps to pass a few sleepless hours. Their glamor fills a vague void of dissatisfaction and ennui. But while many seem to forget about Mary during their moments of prosperity and amusement, her name is always the first to be called in times of need. In dark hours in a hospital, in loneliness or fear, we can confide in her. She doesn’t think less of us for weakness or doubt. When science, medicine and a can-do attitude fail, we turn to Mary as the one person we believe can influence events that are beyond the ken and control of mortal ability. Velvet ropes, impossible reservations, exclusive parties are nothing compared to what her intervention can achieve. Mary, as we say in the modern parlance, is connected!

Returning to the North American College, as I was caught up in this beautiful liturgy, it occurred to me how much love Mary has inspired over the centuries. Every woman dreams of being loved; fans get caught up in the heartbreaks and dalliances of their idols, hoping for a little of the same excitement of extravagant declarations of romantic ardor. A tinge of envy follows the saga of a starlet and her string of discarded paramours and one wonders, if I were a little thinner, taller, spoke another language, appeared on television, would I be more attractive? Mary is indeed the most beloved woman in history. Marilyn Monroe may have been the most desired, but Mary has commanded and held the hearts of men for their entire lives.

At the Immaculate Conception Mass, dozens of bishops — her silver-head suitors after years of dedicated service — pledged their continual love, while hundreds of young men — some athletic, some intellectual, some rugged, some shy — all proclaimed their undying love. The flighty Guinevere of the musical Camelot asked,

“Where are the simple joys of maidenhood?
Where are all those adoring daring boys?”

How she would have delighted in these scores of young men singing praises and offering their hearts and lives to their beloved.

The most glorious moment was a motet sung by the seminarians of the North American College. Each of the beautiful voices kept its own individual tone yet harmonized into the most transporting of sound. Every note resonated with love, an age old song, intoned generation after generation with renewed admiration.

The modern woman could learn more from Mary than from any magazine or movie star. One of the best resolutions for the coming year is to make Mary our BFF.

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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus and University of St. Thomas’ Catholic Studies program. She can be reached at lizlev@zenit.org

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