Back in 1998, cable channel VH1 launched “Divas,” a concert special that featured some of the most successful female pop singers at the time, including Aretha Franklin, Mariah Carey and Céline Dion (apologies if you’re once again hearing the “Titanic” love theme in your head.)
Over the next decade or so, the annual program showcased women with powerful voices and personalities to match. The word “diva” — a term once reserved for distinguished and sometimes demanding female opera singers — became slang for any woman who was talented, confident and determined.
But long before VH1, cable television or opera, one young woman could easily have been crowned as the first true diva. Although she was born in poverty and obscurity, she was sought out by none other than Almighty God for a starring role in his pivotal drama: the salvation of mankind. Shortly after accepting the part, she belted out a showstopper called the Magnificat, which is still sung each evening throughout the world in several languages.
Several hundred years after beginning her career, she confided to a French peasant girl what several church fathers and theologians had long understood: that she had been conceived without sin, spotless and pure for the entirety of her existence.
Given her sinless state, and given an angel’s announcement that she would be the mother of Jesus, “Son of the Most High” (Luke 1:32), the Virgin Mary — the young woman in question — might have been expected to claim a few diva privileges.
She could have told her family that she needed to put her feet up, drink more milk and take a break from the daily chores. She could have asked for extra pillows and extra portions, along with a little peace and quiet around the house. After all, she was preparing to give birth to the Savior of the world.
But Mary did none of those things.
Instead, after the angel Gabriel left her, she hightailed it to the Judean hill country, probably to the village of Ein Karem — a 90-mile trek from her home in Nazareth. Although Mary most likely traveled in a caravan, Luke’s narrative suggests that she did so without her fiancé, Joseph. Alone among strangers, Mary may well have battled morning sickness as she walked mile after mile (or perhaps bumped along on the back of a donkey) for anywhere from four to seven days.
Mary was intent on seeing Elizabeth, a relative who was also, and unexpectedly, pregnant. As with Mary, the angel Gabriel had provided advance notice of the child, advising Zechariah, Elizabeth’s husband, that despite their old age they would conceive a son — John, who would herald the Lord hidden in Mary’s womb. (Luke 1:5-25).
John got a jump start on his mission, leaping with joy as soon as Mary reached the house, and prompting Elizabeth to exult at her arrival: “Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled” (Luke 1:45).
In Luke’s narrative, Mary immediately redirects the focus away from herself toward God: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my savior. For he has looked upon his handmaid’s lowliness; behold, from now on will all ages call me blessed” (Luke 1:46-48).
Mary’s whole life, in fact, was devoted to exalting the Lord. As the first disciple of Christ, Mary didn’t congratulate herself on her preeminence, but instead “(hastened) to share this gospel word with others,” observes biblical scholar Father Raymond E. Brown.
When she visited Elizabeth, Mary was driven by more than family feeling, Father Brown adds: “Precisely because the angel spoke of Elizabeth’s pregnancy as part of the plan of God, Mary’s haste reflects her obedience to that plan.”
That obedience would break her heart. “You yourself a sword will pierce,” Simeon warned Mary when she and Joseph presented the child Jesus in the temple (Luke 2:35).
Pregnancy, birth and new motherhood had already been a crucible. Joseph’s initial disbelief (Matthew 1:18-25), two more difficult journeys (Luke 2:1-5, Matthew 2:13-23) and poor housing (Luke 2:6-7) would have sent any diva into dudgeon. Add in widowhood, the lonely years at home during Jesus’ public ministry and her unfathomable agony during Christ’s Passion, and most divas would have stormed off the stage.
Yet Mary didn’t try to renegotiate her artistic contract with the Lord.
And for that reason, Mary “has much to teach us about quiet, unnoticed and self-sacrificial discipleship,” notes author Judith A. Rossall.
Mary knew that everything she had — her joys, her heartaches, her extraordinary favor with the Lord — was the gift of “a God who simply sees things differently from the way in which most people see them, who honours different people from the people that the world honours,” Rossall writes.
As Mary stood at the foot of her son’s cross, the strangest of thrones, she was keenly aware of that difference — and she embraced it with all her being.
The world has many divas, but eternity has one who lives up to the name, which derives from the Latin word for “divine.”
Mary claims no divine status for herself, but like any great singer, she glorifies the master composer, the Lord, through her flawless performance as his handmaid.
Gina Christian is Senior Content Producer for CatholicPhilly.com.