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Good Letters

I’m planning a party for the Feast of the Assumption on August 15. I always wanted my home to revolve around the liturgical year, if for no better or holier reason than to enchant my children and give life a rhythm that’s more inspiring than the endless tick of deadlines and doctor appointments.

But it seemed more urgent when we lived in the city to create a little Eden at home. Since we moved to the country, much of my job has been made easy by geography: my daughter is growing up in the kind of place I only knew in books. Bells toll the hours, and every night she watches hundreds of fireflies blink like fairies taking flight at dusk. We hear the hoof beats of horses as often as the crunch of car wheels on our gravel road.

But now that Charlotte is approaching four and her princess mania is reaching a peak, I’m looking forward to hosting a party for a queen.

I’m concerned about all this saccharine Disney princess business, as I know many other parents are, and the emphasis on a prettiness over strength and courage. I’m constantly offering counter examples of strong brave women who take up their banners and lead the battle, whether historical figures like Joan of Arc, or fictional, like Tolkien’s Eowyn.

And above all, there’s Mary. She might seem like an odd addition to the list, but she shouldn’t. She shares the company of all the greatest heroines. She leads their charge.

As a Catholic I’ve never had a very strong Marian devotion, and I wonder if it’s because the image I had of her as a child was that of the distant Madonna, the Immaculate Conception of Our Lady of Lourdes, the pure, pious vessel that stared glowing and mute from her perch in the grottoes of our churches and homes.

Her image couldn’t have seemed more distant from my sarcastic, hot-tempered mother, whom I loved far more than I could ever have imagined loving this Mary, who seemed not gentle and meek (though that might have been distasteful enough) but cold and distant. We heard about the God who became man. But what about the woman who became the Queen?

Thankfully many artists have given us an imaginably human Mary. The particular painting that I love more than any other, though it terrifies me, is Nativity by Edward Burne Jones. Mary rests on a pallet of straw and hay, and the infant Jesus sleeps in the curve of her body. Three angels approach like spectres, bringing the cross, the nails, and the crown of thorns.

Mary is trying to sleep—I imagine her fatigue, and how she’s enjoying the warmth of her baby’s gently breathing body—but she’s awakened by a nightmare. It’s a posture I’ve assumed so many nights since Charlotte was born. This is a Mary I can pray with—a Mary with love, fear, even resistance in her eyes.

Looking at that painting, I wonder if Mary had any days when she could pretend that she and her son were like all other mothers and sons. Or were those angels always near, snapping out their wings like clean sheets in the breeze, silently reminding her of her duty?

I wonder what it would be like to summon the courage to persist in the face of death. Then I remember that it’s the task of every human parent: to bring up the child the best we can, to pray that she fulfills God’s plan for her. We all do so at great risk of peril, heartache, injury, and death.

Parenthood takes more courage than I ever imagined. This is why I love to celebrate the Feast of the Assumption—it tells the story of one human mother who stared death in the face and yet persisted in hope.

In Greek Orthodox icons of The Dormition of Theotokos, Mary sleeps on her funeral bier, and Jesus stands above her, her soul in his hand. Roman Catholics believe that she was assumed both body and soul. Either way, the claim is extravagant: the victory over death was not reserved for the divine, but extends to humankind. If it’s a fairytale, then it’s among the greatest: the handmaiden becomes the Queen of Heaven. Death’s blow won’t last. The heroine wakes from her sleep to join the beloved.

The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

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