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A Miracle of Humility: The Obedience of Jesus to Mary

On the eleventh day of February 1895, on the forty-first anniversary of the revelation of Our Lady at Lourdes, M. Jaurès spoke as follows in the French Chamber of Deputies:

The most priceless good conquered by man through all his sufferings and struggles, and despite all his prejudices, is the idea that there is no sacred truth; that all truth that does not come from us is a lie… if God Himself ever appeared before men, the first duty of man would be to refuse obedience and to consider Him an equal with us, not a Master to Whom we should submit.

This affirmation of man as against God is not new, except in its verbiage. From the very beginning, man was a rebel against his Divine destiny; consider the steward, who pretends to be the master of the vineyard and then kills the messengers of the Lord—the prodigal son who demands his share of the substance and then squanders it. Man has acted thus in the past, and now the revolution is again in full swing.

A modern writer, explaining why he became a Communist, answered that one must go back to the garden of Eden to understand the real reason. There Satan tempted man, promising that “he would be like unto God.” This desire of man to deny his dependence on his Creator and to set himself up as an absolute is the basic cause of men’s becoming Communists. They are, fundamentally, already in revolt against God, and Communism gives the social pattern for that rebellion. The copy or the carbon then tries to be the original—but it could never strive to be the original unless it was already conscious that it was a carbon. Man is the shadow, who would be the substance; the pendulum, which would swing without being suspended from the clock; the painting, which would deny that an artist’s hand ever touched it. The most daring of all sins is that of self-deification, and it is possible only because of a Divine Creation—for who would want to be God unless he had come from the hands of God?

The human “I” was not made for the “I” alone, but for God’s service. The man, therefore, who refuses to seek the perfection of his personality, namely, God, must do one of two things: he must either inflate himself into an infinity and identify himself in a fantastic swelling with the dimensions of God, or else he must suffer a terrible emptiness and void within his ego, which is the beginning of despair. Thus there is pride at one end of the mystical self and hopelessness at the other. The will that breaks away from God always becomes an assertive will that will tread anything, ruthlessly, underfoot. All that a will divorced from God cares about is power.

Nietzsche’s will-to-power is synonymous with atheism—not the mental atheism of the sophomore, who knows a smattering of science and of comparative religion, but an atheism of the will, which sets itself up as God. Through all the ages, and until the consummation of time, there will be those who will shriek before the Pilates of this world: “We will not have this Man rule over us!

Behind this rebellion, or disobedience of God, there are two basic assumptions. The first is that the intelligence invents or originates truth and does not discover or find it. In the nineteenth century it was very common for materialists to believe that they originated the laws of nature because they discovered them. They forgot that the scientist is actually a proofreader of the book of Nature and not its author. The second assumption is that subordination to another implies subjection. This implies a denial of all degrees and hierarchy in nature and in creation, as well as the reduction of mankind to an egalitarianism in which each man is a god.

This philosophy of pride assumes that independence must mean the want of any form of dependence. But independence is conditioned upon dependence. Our Declaration of Independence affirms certain basic freedoms, such as the right to life, to liberty, and to the pursuit of happiness. But in a previous sentence it ascribes this independence to the fact that all of these are the endowments of a Creator. Because man is dependent on God, he is not dependent on a State. But once dependence on God is lost, then the State takes over the attributes of Divinity and, being material in its structure, crushes the last vestige of the human spirit. To correct this false deification of man, it is important once more to investigate the meaning of obedience.

Obedience does not mean the execution of orders that are given by a drill sergeant. It springs, rather, from the love of an order, and love of Him who gave it. The merit of obedience is less in the act than in the love; the submission, the devotion, and the service that obedience implies are not born of servitude but are rather effects that spring from and are unified by love. Obedience is servility only to those who have not understood the spontaneity of love.

To comprehend obedience, one must study it between two great moments. The first moment was when a woman made an act of obedience to the will of God: “Be it done unto me according to thy word.” The other moment was when a woman asked man to be obedient to God: “Whatsoever He shall say to you, that do ye.” Between these historical facts is the story told by Luke: “And after they had performed all things according to the law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee to their city Nazareth. And the Child grew and waxed strong, full of wisdom, and the grace of God was in him….

And he went down with them and came to Nazareth and was subject to them, and His mother kept all these words in her heart. Jesus advanced in wisdom and age and grace with God and men” (Lk 2:39, 40, 51, 52).

For the reparation of the pride of men, Our Blessed Lord humbled Himself in obedience to His parents: “And he was subject to them.” It was God who was subject to man. God, Whom the principalities and powers obey, subjected Himself not only to Mary but to Joseph too, because of Mary. Our Blessed Lord Himself said that He came “not to be ministered unto, but to minister.” Now He makes Himself the servant not only of His parents but even of the community, for later on the townspeople will speak of Him as the Son of the carpenter. This humility, abstraction made from His Divinity, was exactly contrary to what one would expect of a man destined to become the reformer of the human race. And yet, what did this carpenter do during these thirty years of His obscurity? He made a coffin for the pagan world; He fashioned a yoke for the modern world; and He fashioned a Cross upon which He would be adored. He gave the supreme lesson of that virtue which is the foundation of all Christianity—humility, submission, and a hidden life as a preparation for duty.

Our Lord spent three hours in redeeming, three years in teaching, and thirty years in obeying, in order that a rebellious, proud, and diabolically independent world might learn the value of obedience. Home life is the God-appointed training ground of human character, for from the home life of the child springs the maturity of manhood, either for good or for evil. The only recorded acts of Our Blessed Lord’s childhood are acts of obedience—to God, His Heavenly Father, and also to Mary and Joseph. He thus shows the special duty of childhood and of youth: to obey parents as the vice-regents of God. He, the great God Whom the heavens and earth could not contain, submitted Himself to His parents. If He was sent on a message to a neighbor, it was the great Sender of the Apostles who delivered the message. If Joseph ever bade Him search for a tool that was lost, it was the Wisdom of God and the Shepherd in search of lost souls who was actually doing the seeking. If Joseph taught Him carpentry, He Who was taught was One Who had carpentered the universe and Who would one day be put to death by the members of His own profession. If He made a yoke for the oxen of a neighbor, it was He Who would call Himself a yoke for men—and yet a burden that would be light. If they bade Him work in a little plot of garden ground, to train the creepers or water the flowers, it was He Who was the great Dresser of the vineyard of His Church, Who took in hand the water pot and the gardening tools. All men may ponder well the hint of a Child subject to His parents, that no Heavenly call is ever to be trusted that bids one neglect the obvious duties that lie near to hand.

There is an Oriental proverb that says: “The first deities the child has to acknowledge are his parents.” And another says that “Obedient children are as ambrosia to the gods.” The parent is to the child God’s representative; and in order that parents may not have a responsibility that will be too heavy for them, God gives each child a soul, as so much clay that their hands can mold in the way of truth and love. Whenever a child is given to parents, a crown is made for it in Heaven; and woe to those parents if that child is not reared with a sense of responsibility to acquire that crown!

Although the words “He was subject to them” apply especially to that period of Our Lord’s life between the finding in the Temple and the Marriage Feast of Cana, nevertheless they are also a true description of His course in after years. His whole life was one of subjection and submission. He said that He had come to do His Father’s will, and now He was obeying it, for it was His Father’s will that He have Mary for a Mother and Joseph as a foster father. Later on, He submitted to receiving John’s Baptism, although He had no need of it. He also submitted to paying the tax for the support of the Temple, although He, as the only-begotten Son of the Father, was rightfully exempt from that tax. He bade the Jews submit themselves to the Romans who had conquered them and to render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. He bade His Disciples observe and do all that the Scribes and Pharisees enjoined, because they sat in Moses’ Chair and held a position of authority; finally, He became obedient under the sentence of death, drinking with the utmost meekness—even to the dregs—the cup of suffering that His Father had appointed to Him.

What adds particular emphasis to the fact of His obedience was that Our Blessed Lord was subject to parents so much His inferiors—even as a creature is far below a Creator. One day the sun in the heavens, in obedience to the voice of a Man, stopped in its course. So, obedient to the voice of Mary, the Light of the World submitted for thirty years—I might almost say that it stopped in full midday to illumine, embrace, and enrich her for all eternity.

The Apostles had the advantage of only three years’ teaching to prepare themselves for the establishment of His Kingdom, but the Blessed Mother had the advantage of thirty years. When one tries to imagine how much insight and inspiration would come from catching only a momentary glimpse of Wisdom Incarnate, one is appalled to think how much inspiration and wisdom Mary must have received from the years of communing with her Divine Son. She must have been instructed in the Paternity of God and learned how the Person of the Father could not be born or proceed from others, but how He was rather the origin of all else. She must have understood, too, the eternal generation of the Son by the Father, as being not inferior but equal in Divinity and Eternity. She must have understood, too, how the Holy Spirit, the Third Person, proceeded from the Father and the Son as from one principle, by an act of will, equal to the other Persons in the Divine nature. If Our Blessed Lord after His Resurrection could so inspire the disciples of Emmaus in the interpretation of Scripture, then what must have been the thirty years’ rehearsal of the Scriptures to His Mother, as He explained to her how she was to be the new Eve, and how she was to share in His work of redemption beginning at Cana and ending at the Cross? Let those who think that the Church pays too much attention to Mary give heed to the fact that Our Blessed Lord Himself gave ten times as much of His life to her as He gave to His Apostles.

If the mere touch of the hem of His garment could cure a woman suffering with an issue of blood, then the human mind can hardly contemplate what thirty years of residence with the eternal Logos of God must have done for a human mind. After the years of companioning with Philip, Our Blessed Lord said to him, somewhat impatiently, at the Last Supper: “Have I been with you all this time and still you do not understand?” How much greater an understanding of His mysteries He must therefore have expected of His Mother, who had suffered with Him during all His hidden life!

Returning again to the idea of His obedience: the Gospel indicates immediately three effects of Our Lord’s submission and obedience, namely, growth in age and grace and wisdom. The first effect of obedience is age, or bodily perfection. The inverse of this truth is that disobedience to nature destroys bodily health—disobedience to God’s law spoils spiritual health. By submitting Himself to the laws of human development, He consented to an unfolding that in childhood should exhibit a perfect child; in youth, a perfect youth; and in manhood, a perfect man. It was the unfolding of a perfect bud in a perfect flower. Whatever age one accepts as the one in which the body reaches its natural perfection, the fact is that it lasts only a short time, then begins the decline. As the moon begins to lessen as soon as it reaches its fullness, so too the human body grows to its peak of development and then begins its age. If thirty-three be taken as the age of full bodily growth and development, it would seem that Our Blessed Lord’s ardent love for humanity waited until that age, when He had attained perfect growth and vigor, in order that He might offer His life in sacrifice at its very fullness. As the act of His will was total and complete, so the human nature that He would sacrifice on the Cross would not be wanting in anything for its perfect oblation. Obedience to the law of nature produces physical maturity; obedience to the law of parents produces mental maturity; obedience to the will of the Heavenly Father produces spiritual maturity. Our Blessed Lord, therefore, as the Lamb of God, submitted Himself to the shepherding of His Mother so that He might be physically perfect and without stain for the great day of His sacrifice on which He would be offered without opening His mouth.

The flower that is planted in the right place to absorb out of the earth and atmosphere the nutritive forces that it needs will grow. It toils not, neither does it spin, and yet its invisible machinery captures the sunbeams and converts them into flowers and fruit for the welfare of man. So children placed in the right environment grow in age, too.

Place a waterwheel in a stream, and it turns; place it in the rocks, and it does not move. So long as we are in the wrong place, we cannot grow. The secret of the growth of Our Lord is that He started in the right place; He was bathed with the warmth and the light and the refreshment of a home that was dedicated to God. One cannot put a bomb under a child and make him a man. Each thing has its own appointed law of growth, provided its roots are properly fixed. All growth is silent, and there is not a word out of the home of Nazareth in these eighteen long years between the Finding in the Temple and the Marriage Feast. Thus, when nature is baptized in the fullness of the powers of spring, there is hardly a rustle. The whole movement takes place secretly and silently, for the new world comes up like the sound of a trumpet. The greatest moral structures grow from day to day without noise; God’s kingdoms come without observation. So Our Blessed Lord stayed in His place, did His carpentry, was obedient to His parents, accepted the restraints of His position, met His cares with a transcendent disdain, drank in the sunlight of His Father’s faith, possessed His soul in perfect patience, although urged by deep sympathy and a throbbing desire to save man. There was no hurry, no impatience, no quick maturing of power, no marring of strength by haste. When Perseus told Pallas Athena that he was ready to go forth, young as he was, against the fabled monster Medusa, the strange lady smiled and said: “Not yet; you are too young, and too unskilled, for this is Medusa, the mother of a monstrous brood. Return to your home and do the work that awaits you there. You must play the man in that before I can think you worthy to go in search of Medusa.” If it is hurry that enfeebles us, it is the silent obedience to God’s law that serves to strengthen us.

In addition to the growth in age, which is the fruit of obedience, the Gospel also indicates that there was a growth in grace and wisdom. These are both properties of the soul. As His human body grew in stature to fair and comely proportions, so His human intelligence and experimental knowledge unfolded gradually into full blossom. Growth in wisdom and grace or fervor for God imply that the person who grows is, at a more advanced age, wiser than when he was young—he knows something and he understands something he did not know and understand before. But how could this be in His case, since He is the Son of God? Was He not God even when He was a child? And how can God be ignorant of anything—or fail to understand anything? How could He grow in wisdom? Our Lord, even when He was a child, was Everlasting God, but it is also true that He was “manifest in the flesh.” He became really and truly, and for our sake, an infant, a child, and a man. He did not merely seem to be human; He actually was human. In order that He might be really and truly a man, He consented, in His wonderful condescension, not to call into exercise those powers that He had as God. It is not too difficult for us to understand how a person, having strength, may refrain from using it. For example, a father can gently pick up a child, or a giant can turn the pages of a book. In like manner, a man may have strong and good eyesight, but he need not use it farther than he pleases. He may shut his eyes altogether; in that case he will see nothing. He may only half open the eyes—in that case he will see only dimly and confusedly. Or he may live in a dungeon, where there are only a few straggling rays of light to pierce the gloom.

So with Our Blessed Lord—He had in His Divine nature all wisdom and power; yet when He made His appearance among us as man, He did grow in that experimental knowledge which comes from living and doing certain things. He came into our dark nature, just as a free man might come out of the light of day into a dungeon and consent to be shut up. For a man in a prison may have the power to walk many miles, but the dungeon will permit him to walk only a few paces. He may have the power to see many miles, but his vision is limited to the prison walls. So Our Blessed Lord took a nature like ours in all things save sin and accommodated Himself to the feebleness of that nature—limited Himself, if we may use the expression, to the walls of it. That is why Our Blessed Lord never worked a miracle in His own behalf. Taking upon Himself a human nature, He subjected Himself to its limitations. But what is most interesting is that the subjection to His Blessed Mother is associated with growth in wisdom and favor with God. It is in His human nature that Our Blessed Lord gives us a perfect example of obedience.

This leads us to a forgotten aspect of obedience to law, namely, that intelligence is related to obedience. It is only by obedience that we grow in wisdom. A scientist who would know the laws of nature must sit passively before nature. He may not dictate to nature its laws, nor may he impose his own intelligence upon nature; rather, the more passive he is before nature, the more nature will reveal its secrets. And he who would play golf well must know how to hold the clubs aright, for here, too, wisdom is related to obedience. The more we obey the inherent laws of anything, the more that thing reveals itself to us. To obey God’s laws because they are the ordinance of an All-wise and an All-loving God is the best means to discover the wisdom and the beauty of life.

One whole Psalm of the Scriptures, Psalm 118 (119), is devoted to the idea that in obedience to the ordinance of God we grow in intelligence. Our Blessed Lord, developing this idea later on in His life, said: “If any man will do the will of my Father he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God or whether I speak of myself.”

Because obedience is the secret of perfection and wisdom (which Our Lord revealed by being subject to His parents), He insisted in His great upheaval of values that: “Unless you become converted and become as little children, you shall not enter the Kingdom of Heaven” (Mt 18:3). The great gates of the Kingdom, which are resistant to the poundings and the thumpings of the mighty, will swing back at the simple touch of a child. No old people ever enter the Kingdom of Heaven—certainly not those who have grown old in their own conceit. Child-likeness, with its accompanying obedience, is an indispensable qualification for membership in His community. Christianity began with the worship of a Babe, and only by the continued recognition of childlikeness will men be recognized as children of God. But childlikeness is not childishness. To be childish is to retain in maturity what should have been discarded at the threshold of manhood. Childlikeness, on the contrary, implies that with the mental breadth and practical strength and wisdom of maturity there are associated the humility, trustfulness, spontaneity, and obedience of the child. It is the proud and the prigs and the bullies who make social life difficult—the people who love the first places, who insist always on their own right, who refuse to serve unless they can be chairmen, who throw their weight around whether by fair means or by foul. Against all of these Our Blessed Lord sets Himself: first of all, by being obedient to His parents, and then, at the end of His life, by taking a towel and washing the feet of His disciples. “So it is that the Son of Man did not come to have service done him; he came to serve others, and to give his life as a ransom for the lives of many” (Mt 20:28).

What makes the obedience of this Child all the more impressive is that He is the Son of God. He Who is the general of humanity becomes a soldier in the ranks; the king steps from His throne and plays the role of peasant. If He Who is the Son of God makes Himself subject to His Mother and foster father in reparation for the sins of pride, then how shall children escape the sweet necessity of obedience to those who are their lawfully constituted superiors? The Fourth Commandment, “Thou shalt honor thy father and thy mother,” has been broken by every generation since the dawn of man. At Nazareth, children were taught obedience by Him Who really is the Commandment. In this particular instance, where the Child is Divine, one might think that He at least would have reserved for Himself the right of “self-expression.” Mary and Joseph, it seems, could have, with great propriety, opened the first “progressive school” in the history of Christianity—in which the child could do whatever He pleased: for the Child could never have displeased. And yet Our Lord says: “And He who sent me is with me: He has not left me all alone, since what I do is always what pleases Him” (Jn 8:29).

But there is no evidence that Jesus limited Mary and Joseph to the mere nominal right to command. The Gospel says: “He lived there in subjection to them.” Two great miracles of humility and exaltation are involved—God obeying a woman, and a woman commanding her God. The very fact that He makes Himself subject endows her with power. By this long span of voluntary obedience, He revealed that the Fourth Commandment is the bedrock of family life. For, looking at it in a larger way, how could the primal sin of disobedience against God be undone except by the obedience in the flesh of the very God Who was defied? The first revolt in God’s universe of peace was the thunderbolt of Lucifer: “I will not obey!” Eden caught up the echo, and down the ages its infraction traveled, winging its way into the nook and crevices of every family where there were gathered a father, a mother, and a child.

By making Himself subject to Mary and Joseph, the Divine Child proclaims authority in the home and in public life to be a power granted by God Himself. From this follows the duty of obedience, for the sake of God and of one’s conscience. As later on He would tell Pilate that the civil authorities exercised no power except that given them from above, so now by His obedience He bears witness to the solemn truth that parents exercise their authority in the name of God. Thus parents have the most sacred claim on their children, because their first responsibility is to God. “Every soul must be submissive to its lawful superiors; authority comes from God only, and all authorities that hold sway are of his ordinance” (Rom 13:1).

If the parents surrender their legitimate authority and primary responsibility to the children, the state takes up the slack. When obedience in conscience in the home vanishes, it will be supplanted by obedience by the force of the state. The glory of the ego, which infects the twentieth century, is so much social nonsense. The divine glory of the state that is now taking the ego’s place is a social nuisance. Believers in ego consciousness and collective consciousness may regard humility and obedience as vices, but they are the stuff of which homes are made. When in the one family of the world where one might legitimately excuse “child worship,” for here the child is God, one finds, on the contrary, child obedience, then let no one deny that obedience is the cornerstone of the home. Obedience in the home is the foundation of obedience in the commonwealth, for in each instance conscience submits to a trustee of God’s authority. If it be true that the world has lost its respect for authority, it is only because it lost it first in the home. By a peculiar paradox, as the home loses its authority, the authority of the state becomes tyrannical. Some moderns would swell their ego into infinity, but at Nazareth Infinity stoops down to earth to shrink into the obedience of a child.

This article was excerpted from Fulton Sheen's The World’s First Love: Mary Mother of God, Ignatius, 1996.

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