Mary: Who She Is and Why She Matters

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Part 13 : Mary, Most Poor

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By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (Feb 14, 2017)
The following is part 13 of a special series on the role Mary plays in the life of the Church.

There is nothing especially virtuous just in having no money or having few material comforts. The Gospel virtue of "holy poverty," therefore, must mean more than that. Primarily, it refers to "spiritual poverty" (as Jesus said, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven," Mt 5:3) — in other words, the detachment from anything and everything that might stand in the way of Jesus reigning in our hearts as Lord and Savior. In This Tremendous Lover, Fr. Eugene Boylan explains what such "detachment" really means:

God will not be satisfied with anything less than everything: [Jesus said, love the Lord Thy God with] Thy whole heart, thy whole soul, all thy mind and all thy strength [Mk 12:29]. Jesus will not be satisfied until we are transformed completely into Him. ...

Unfortunately ... we have, we persuade ourselves, other things to do in life; we have our work, our career, our friends, our loves, and our talents; we have our own life to live — so we fondly imagine. ...

If we have to detach ourselves from various creatures and from our own self, from our own will and our own ways, from our own judgment, from our own strength, from our own pleasure, from our own achievement, from our own life, spiritual as well as temporal — it is only in order to become completely attached to Jesus.

From Mary's first appearance in the Gospels, she is clearly shown to be a person who embraced both material and spiritual poverty. She is one of the Lord's "faithful poor," his "anawim" as the ancient Israelites would have said. Material poverty was the rich soil in which her spiritual poverty grew and matured. In Mary's Journey, Fr. Louis Cameli writes:

Although poverty obviously implies a lack of material wealth, we would be mistaken to limit it exclusively to material things. There is another concept of poverty that is religious, and not merely social and economic. In the Old Testament the "poor of Israel," the anawim, refers to those who are in need of God and open to his will. Their poverty is linked mainly with the possibilities of faith, not with destitution. Their lives reflect the covenant faith of Israel. They sense their dependence on God. They deeply feel a need for God's saving power in their own relatively powerless lives. The anawim remember God and know their dependence. Israel recalled the great acts of God when the people were especially mindful of God and their dependence on him. God led a poor, enslaved people out of Egypt. God brought back a poor, exiled people to their land. God called a poor young girl of Nazareth to be the mother of the Messiah.

In fact, the Blessed Virgin Mary was the purest and most perfect of the Lord's "anawim" in all of Israel. How "poor in spirit" Mary showed herself to be when "she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn" (Mt 2:7). Mary did not complain about suffering this hardship. On the contrary, she rejoiced at the birth of Jesus, despite the poverty of her surroundings. Though she was a homeless young mother, she trusted in God to provide what was most truly needful, and she received with joy, even in the midst of material poverty, the divine gift of the Christ Child.

Saint John Paul II taught that the whole Gospel story of the Nativity of our Lord centers upon the theme of God's special love for those who are poor and humble. They are blessed above all others because they have room in their lives for the coming of his Son:

In informing us about the circumstances in which the journey and the birth took place, the evangelist presents us with a situation of hardship and poverty, which lets us glimpse some basic characteristics of the messianic kingdom. It is a kingdom without earthly honors or powers, which belongs to him who, in his public life, will say of himself: "The Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head" (Lk 9:58). ...

Mary experienced childbirth in extreme poverty. She could not give the Son of God even what mothers usually offer a newborn baby. Instead, she had to lay him "in a manger," an improvised cradle, which contrasts with the dignity of the "Son of the Most High."

The gospel notes that "there was no place for them in the inn" (Lk 2:7). This statement, recalling the text in John's Prologue: "His own people received him not" (Jn 1:11), foretells, as it were, the many refusals Jesus will meet during his earthly life. ... Rejected by "his own," Jesus was welcomed by the shepherds, unrefined men but chosen by God to first receive the good news of the Savior's birth. ... Jesus' birth is the sign of God's merciful love, which is especially shown toward the poor and the humble. (General Audience of November 20, 1996)

Beyond the Nativity story, Catholic Tradition tells us that the Blessed Virgin remained in material poverty throughout her life, and grew ever stronger in the virtue of poverty of spirit. St. Alphonsus sums up what we know about this in his book The Glories of Mary:

Out of love for poverty she did not disdain to marry St. Joseph, who was only a poor carpenter, and afterwards, to maintain herself by the work of her hands, spinning and sewing, as we are assured by St. Bonanventure. The angel, speaking of Mary, told St. Bridget "that worldly riches were of no more value in her eyes than dirt." In a word, she always lived poor, and she died poor; for at her death we do not know that she left anything but two poor gowns, to two women who had served during her life, as it is recorded by Metaphrastes and Nicephorous.

In her Magnificat, Mary shows that God offers a tremendous treasure to those who embrace a life of material poverty — that is, a life of what is sometimes called "Gospel simplicity" — for the sake of the cultivation of spiritual poverty and detachment: "He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty" (Lk 1:53). What are these "good things" to which Mary refers here?

Jesus Christ, born in a manger in the midst of her poverty, signifies the birth of the Christ Child in the center of every human heart that is poor in spirit. Moreover, when Christ is born in the hearts of His "anawim," they receive also the gift of holy joy, for the whole story of the Nativity in the Gospels is about the gift of joy from God fills this poverty: "My spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favour on his lowly servant" (Lk 1:47-48); "Fear not, for behold I bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people" (Lk 2:10); "And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God, for all they had heard and seen" (Lk 2:20).

The question remains: Do we have this "great joy" as followers of Jesus who live in the 21st century? Have we found with Mary the treasure of the gift of the Christ Child, and of holy joy, in the midst of true poverty of spirit? This is the holy joy to which Jesus invites each one of us, and its link with holy poverty was a central theme of His gospel message. Fr. Cameli explains:

[Jesus] said, 'Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God" (Lk 6:20b). The reign of God belongs to those who are not owned by anything else. In the face of material possessions, Jesus poses the sharp question of our root identity. What is at the heart of our lives — what we have, or who we are? "What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?" (Luke 9:25).

The simple fact is that no material thing of great value can be taken away from those who hold material things of no great value. No devastating loss of financial or material goods can happen to those who possess them only as stewards of God's gifts, to be used solely for the sake of Christ's kingdom, and who accept that they are for Him to provide, or take away according to his wise providence. It is from this detachment, this freedom of the heart, that holy joy arises. The human heart finally recognizes that all things belong not to us but to the Son of God, as his rightful inheritance, including ourselves (Col 1:15-16)! There is no longer any need to cling desperately to what is not rightfully ours, and cannot bring us fulfillment and peace of heart anyway.

Access the series to date.

Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy. His latest book is Mary - Who She Is and Why She Matters (Marian Press, 2016).

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