In January 1858, a young girl was gathering firewood along the Gave de Pau River in southwestern France. When she sat down near a rocky outcropping to take her stockings off, she saw a mysterious lady “dressed in white with a blue belt and a yellow rose on each foot.” This was the first of eighteen times that the girl would see the mystery woman. Two months after that first encounter, the lady told the girl, “I am the Immaculate Conception.” Thus began the story of St. Bernadette and Our Lady of Lourdes.
It is a key doctrine of the Church that Mary was conceived immaculately—that is, free from the stain of original sin. But that doesn’t mean that Mary was miraculously shielded from all temptation. Every day, she was tempted as we are. Every day, she faced the same challenges that we face. Every day, she had to choose whether she was going to stay faithful to the Lord or fall into sin.
It doesn’t take much to imagine some of these situations: the burdens of daily chores could have worn her down and made her irritable with her family. Financial hardships could have made her envious of neighbors who were better off than her. She could have joined in the gossip in the village square. She could have sinned in so many different ways. But she never let these challenges get the better of her. She stayed pure her whole life.
So let’s explore how Mary dealt with these challenges. Let’s look at what we can learn from her when we face our own temptations and challenges.
The Invitation. When the angel invited Mary to be the mother of God, she replied, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).
Can you imagine what went through Mary’s mind as she listened to the angel? She must have wondered, “How will I ever explain this to Joseph? Will I be labeled a sinner and an adulteress? And what about all the extra responsibilities God is placing on my shoulders?” At the same time, you can also imagine the joy and eager anticipation she must have felt: God had chosen her for a special mission! The Annunciation must have been a moment of incredible joy for Mary, but also a moment of uncertainty and hesitation.
It’s important for us to realize that if Mary had declined the angel’s offer, she would not have been sinning. This was more an invitation than a command. If Mary had declined, God would not have rejected her. She still would have been blessed, but in a more ordinary way.
But Mary said yes. Luke tells us she was “greatly troubled” by the angel’s words (1:29). The Greek word used here (diatarasso) implies great confusion and perplexity. A host of questions and fears must have been swirling around in her mind as she tried to make sense of it all. All this turbulence could have led her to say no. It could have led her down a path of fear, self-preservation, and mistrust. But she didn’t let that happen. Instead, she held onto her peace and remained open to the Lord and his plans—something she would have to do over and over as her son grew and took on his role as Messiah.
The Sword. On the day when the baby Jesus was presented in the Temple, an old man named Simeon approached, took the child in his arms, and said, “Now, Master, you may let your servant go in peace, according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation” (Luke 2:30-31). It was a beautiful scene—but then it grew somewhat dark when Simeon turned to Mary and said that “a sword” was destined to “pierce” her own soul (2:35).
Simeon’s words tell us that even in the earliest days of her life with Jesus, Mary had an inkling of the suffering that would follow her. We see signs of this “sword” at different points: when she and Joseph lost Jesus in the Temple (Luke 2:41-52), when she had to flee to Egypt with Joseph and the child Jesus to escape Herod’s wrath (Matthew 2:13-15), and when Jesus appeared to rebuke her and her family when they became worried about him (Luke 2:41-52). But nothing could have been worse than when she saw her son hanging on a cross.
Can you imagine what Mary must have felt at Calvary? How painful this must have been for her! How devastating! No wonder she is called “Our Lady of Sorrows.” If there was one moment that could have caused Mary to sin, it was then. Mary’s heart could have become filled with hatred, bitterness, unforgiveness, and a desire for revenge. She could have cursed God for letting this happen. But she resisted. Sorrow and anguish swept through her soul, but at no point did she give in to sin. She held her peace.
Our Own Mother. So what kind of lessons can these stories about Mary teach us? Let’s take a look.
Be open to God’s plans.
According to St. Paul, God created us “for the good works that God has prepared in advance” (Ephesians 2:10). God has good plans for each of us. Those plans may involve sacrificing our own plans for the sake of making life on earth “as it is in heaven.” Every day presents us with many opportunities to advance this mission, in both large and small ways. Let’s try to be a bit more like Mary this Advent by saying yes to the Lord’s plans a little bit more.
Sometimes God may call us to step out in faith before we know all the answers. If you find yourself in such a situation, try your best to say yes. But if you can’t, don’t let yourself become consumed with guilt. Don’t think that you are a failure or that God has rejected you. Instead, decide to try again the next time.
Mary said yes to God’s plan, and so can we. If we keep our hearts open to the Lord, we’ll find that his plans are deeply rewarding—especially the ones that are the most challenging. Remember Mary’s humble statement of gratitude: “All ages will call me blessed” (Luke 1:48). Mary shows us that everyone who says yes to God receives blessings that far outweigh the challenges.
Hold your peace.
We all know how difficult it can be to stay peaceful in the course of our day. Even small mishaps can irritate us: a spouse who didn’t take out the trash, a driver who cut us off on the highway, a neighbor who made a critical remark about our lawn. Little slights like these can sometimes be enough to trigger a negative reaction.
Mary can teach us how to deal with these. She shows us how to step back and assess what is going on in our minds when we feel irritated. She can teach us to pray, “I don’t have to lose my peace here. Father, help me know the best way to respond to this situation.” She is always ready to pray for us too, asking her son to help us respond with the same trust and surrender she did.
During Advent, we look forward to the birth of Jesus, the Prince of Peace. This is a perfect time to ask for the grace to become more peaceful. And if you should lose your peace, you can always turn to Jesus and hear him say, “Peace be with you”—no matter what situation you face (John 20:19).
Dealing with the sword.
It can’t be avoided: “swords” will pierce our hearts—family divisions, divorce, the loss of a job, the sickness or death of a loved one. Some of these swords are the result of our own sin, and some are simply a part of life. So it’s a wonderful blessing to have a mother like Mary, who will tell us, “I understand how hard it is. I’ve been through it myself. Let me console you with my love. Let me pray for you.”
At the cross, Jesus said, “Behold, your mother” (John 19:27). With these words, he gave us Mary, Our Lady of Sorrows. It wasn’t just a kind gesture. Jesus knew we would need her care and her intercession. He knew too that she would embrace each of us with all the warmth and love she had for him. When you feel a sword piercing your heart, know that it pierces Mary’s heart as well. Go to her and ask her for help.
Holy Mary, Pray for Us. More than any other saint in heaven, Mary is rooting for us. She loves us tenderly, and she will do anything to help us. Mary, the Virgin Mother of God and the Immaculate Conception, wants nothing more than to help us become as pure and holy as she is.