Mary, great with child, the most beautiful woman in history. The sentence you just read reframes something complicated, and weirdly demeaning to all of us: putting the words "woman" and "beautiful" in the same sentence. Some external measures get stuck on women's bodies; sophomoric frat guys, and some older men too, "rate" women on their "looks." It's belittling to all women, and frankly to all men, this kooky swirl of viewpoints about women and their value (or lack thereof).
If we say Mary is the most beautiful woman ever, we've used the word "beauty" wisely and more profoundly. Mary didn't just win the Nazareth Beauty Pageant when the angel visited her. Artists paint her as very pretty (but not sexy!), with flawless skin, way too white for a middle-Eastern woman, dressed like a nun. Fine - but truly, her beauty was in her humility, her holiness, her humanity. Her beauty was that she was chosen by the angel, singled out by God.
Last week, we contested the familiar idea that "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder," as if it's subjective, a matter of personal opinion. The Irish poet John O'Donohue reverses things: "If our style of looking becomes beautiful, then beauty will become visible and shine forth for us. We will be surprised to discover beauty in unexpected places where the ungraceful eye would never linger. The graced eye can glimpse beauty anywhere." The angel's graceful eye spotted Beauty in a remote village, in a young woman who was like most young women. In fact, the Gospel would be that God doesn't choose some few super-people. God sees the beauty, the potential to carry God, to be the one used by God, in all women, and hence they are all... the most beautiful woman ever.
We talk a lot, and glibly, and yet hopefully, about love. What is love? It's having this graceful eye. Jean Vanier wrote that " To love someone is not to do things for them, but to reveal to them their beauty and value, to say 'You are beautiful. You are important. I trust you. You can trust yourself.' We all know well that we can do things for others and in the process crush them, making them feel that they are incapable of doing things by themselves. To love someone is to reveal to them the light that is shining in them."
The angel said to Mary "You are beautiful... You can trust yourself." Mary surely said that repeatedly to her young son, Jesus. And his whole life was delivering that message, with his words and actions, to everyone he encountered, and to us.
I will spend some time during these days just pondering the beauty of Mary, while I try to cultivate my own graced eye that can spot beauty any and everywhere.