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Summer 2008

Mary in the Mystery of Christ and the Church ~ Part I

The Blessed Virgin Mary, as Mother of Christ, the Incarnate Word, holds a singular and unique place within the mystery of Christ. The angel greets her as “full of grace”, the Immaculate one, who was chosen to bear the Son of the eternal Father. From her flesh, the Divine Word took flesh; in her the mystery of the hypostatic union of the divinity and humanity in Jesus Christ found its first dwelling place. “As a result she is also the favorite daughter of the Father and the temple of the Holy Spirit. Because of this gift of sublime grace, she far surpasses all other creatures, both in heaven and on earth” (Lumen Gentium, 55). In response to this exceptional gift of grace as the Mother of God, Pope Paul VI—during the Second Vatican Council—solemnly proclaimed Mary “Mother of the Church”.  An entire chapter of Lumen Gentium, the document on the nature of the Church, was dedicated to Mary, the “mother and model” in the mystery of the Church. The Council states, “In a singular way she cooperated by her obedience, faith, hope and burning charity in the work of the Savior in giving back supernatural life to souls. Wherefore she is our mother in the order of grace” (LG, 61).

Being our mother in the order of grace, Mary is also “Queen of the Angels”. She far surpasses them in purity and grace, having been preserved from all sin and chosen to be the Mother of God. Moreover, St. Thomas posits that the angels are fellow members in the Mystical Body of Christ, the Church. For angels and men are ordered to one end, eternal beatitude in God. Together, therefore, they form in a sense one Body. As head of the Mystical Body the Church, Christ is also head of the angels, in accordance with St. Paul who says He “is the head of every Principality and Power” (and of all the other choirs as well) (cf. Col 2:10; Summa Theo. III, 8, art. 2). If then the angels are members of the mystical Body, the Church, then we can also suppose Mary, as Mother of Christ, has an influence on the angels. Moreover, the grace of being the Mother of God is the highest of all possible graces since it is the closest possible relationship with Christ; all other graces and elections are in a sense ordered towards her (cf. John Paul II, Redemptor Custos, 7, 20-21).

For these reasons, every member of the Work of the Holy Angels is called to be profoundly Marian, to be devoted to our heavenly Mother with filial piety, obedience and trust, like our heavenly brothers. But is this just popular piety? How can we understand this sublime dignity of Mary and her role in the mystery of Christ and of the Church? In what sense is she our Mother in the order of grace and model of the Church?

Mary Prefigured in the Old Testament

Biblically, Mary can only be fully understood in the light of the Old Testament and its theology of women in general (cf. Cardinal Ratzinger, Daughter Zion—hereafter, DZ, p. 13). She is, however, also the “beginning of the New Covenant” in Christ (John Paul II, Redemptoris Mater—hereafter, RM, 17). In the first part of this two part series in which we contemplate the mystery of Mary, therefore, we want to look at Mary through the types and figures found in the Old Testament. In the second part, we will look at Mary in the New Covenant, her place in the mystery of Christ and her relation to and role in the Church.

Eve, Helpmate and Mother

Although contrasted with Eve by the Fathers in one sense (“Death through Eve, life through Mary”), Mary is also prefigured in Eve, who even after the fall receives the name, the “mother of the living”. In order to understand Eve, the first woman, we must see her in relation to Adam. She is his complement, his helpmate and companion. Only together as a unity, man and woman, does man fully reflect the likeness of God who by essence is a communion of Persons, a unity of Love. In one sense, therefore, the woman, the feminine, represents humanity and even creation in general which is called to union with God. Creation always has the dimension of having received its being, and is hence a reflection of what is feminine, of what receives—and what in receiving the greatest, conceives.

In the New Testament, it is Mary who is the “woman”, the helpmate who “devoted herself totally as a handmaid of the Lord to the person and work of her Son” (LG, 56). As the sinless, pure creation, Mary is totally open for God, total “receptivity” for His word and His will. Through her yes to God—a yes which, according to St. Thomas Aquinas, was made in the name of human nature (cf. Summa Theo. III, 30, 1)—God is received into creation in the greatest possible way and relationship: within her womb in the hypostatic union, whereby God becomes man, with Mary as His own Mother. This relationship is fulfilled also completely in her soul; she lives this union with God, the new life of grace to which we are all called. Empty of self, of her own desires and plans, she was ever led entirely by the Holy Spirit and became the companion of her divine Son in His work of Redemption.

As “mother of the living,” the first Eve, the first woman, still fulfilled the mission as the bearer and defender of life in opposition to the evil one, who seeks only to destroy all that comes from God. Although she had brought death into the world through her sin, nevertheless, “she preserves the mystery of life, the power opposed to death; for death is like the power of nothingness, the antithesis of Yahweh, who is the creator of life and the God of the living” (DZ,  p. 17). Though in the beginning by falling she tempted man, woman still bears the spiritual strength to defend God by defending life. She has a natural instinct to protect and nurture her children with all her being. (We see so clearly how the evil one seeks to attack God through the woman of today by destroying this most fundamental respect and love for life through contraception, abortion, etc.)  

Mary’s yes to God is also a radical yes to life, in which she conceives the Son of God, the LIFE of life, thus collaborating in the victory over death. This response to the angel Gabriel was pure and simple, but it demanded of her a total surrender of self, for it was made in the obscurity of faith, an incomprehensible mystery. Moved by divine grace, she had consecrated her virginity to God, and now God was calling her to conceive and bear a Son “by the power of the Most High” (Lk 1:35). Through the obedience of faith, St. Augustine teaches, she conceived Christ first in her heart before conceiving Him in her womb (cf. De Sancta Virginitate, III, 3). She freely cooperated with the gift and call of God, reversing Eve’s disobedience by her own obedience of faith, and became the true “mother of the living”, the mother of the only true life, the supernatural life of grace in Christ. For divine life can only be conceived and nurtured through complete and loving dependence on the divine will, that is, obedience!

Mothers who Received the Promise

Another type of Mary in the Old Testament can be seen in the barren wives who then finally conceive as a fruit of a divine word of promise. Though the promises of the Old Covenant were given primarily to the patriarchs—to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses—nevertheless, these women were also significant recipients of these promises of the covenant (cf. DZ, p. 18). In Israel infertility was looked upon as a curse, a punishment from God. Children were a blessing, a grace and a sign of God’s favor. (How different is our culture today!) Abraham was promised countless descendents, to be the father of a great nation, yet after many years of waiting, his barren wife, Sarah, out of desperation gives her maid, Hagar, to him and she bears Ishmael. He is the first physical son of Abraham, but not the son of the promise. Sarah is derided and held in contempt by Hagar for her infertility, yet it is Sarah who had received the promise and who finally gives birth to the son of the promise, Isaac. She who was “un-blessed” becomes blessed through faith in the word of God which was fulfilled in her.

Rachel, the beloved of Jacob, also remained infertile while Leah, the first wife, bore many sons. Yet finally, it is through Rachel, that Joseph is born, he who was to become the savior and “blessing” of Israel and all the land (cf. Gen 30). Hannah, too, was barren and provoked by her husband’s second wife, Peninnah, who had many children. As Hannah silently pour out her soul’s sorrow, Eli, the priest, initially took her to be drunk and reproved her. But when he understood that she was praying, he promised her an answer to her prayers, which was fulfilled with the conception and birth of Samuel. In all these instances, she, who by human standards was barren and infertile, “un-blessed”, became through faith in God’s promises truly blessed. This change of events is reflected in Hannah’s song of praise, which gives us our first vague understanding of grace: “The Lord makes poor and makes rich; He brings low, He also exalts. He raises up the poor from the dust; He lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes” (1 Sam 2:7-8). Grace is first and foremost a gift, a free, unmerited gift of God, which we accept and receive through faith.

In these women, too, we see a foreshadowing of Mary. According to the Fathers, Mary had voluntarily vowed virginity before the Annunciation, by which she “wished to be always and in all things ‘given to God’” (RM¸ 38). By human standards she, too, was voluntarily barren and infertile. Yet, through her very virginity, giving herself wholly over to God in both body and soul, she opened herself for the fruits and blessing of God on a spiritual level. Having then been chosen to be the Mother of God, she sings her Magnificat, an echo of Hannah’s song of praise: “He has regarded the humility of His handmaid… For He who is mighty hath done to me great things; and holy is His name” (Lk 1:48-49). It is from grace, not physical accomplishments, that we become truly blessed. St. Paul takes up this theme in the letter to the Romans as well as in Galatians, contrasting those born of the flesh with those born of the spirit. The true son of Abraham is not he who can merely claim physical descent (for this applies to Ishmael, the son of the slave as well), but he who lives Abraham’s faith in God’s promises and receives the blessings of this promise. (cf. Rom 4; Gal 3 and 4).

Israel of the Old Covenant: Daughter Zion

A similar theme runs through the Old Testament in the figures of the women-saviors, especially Judith, who conquered the King Holofernes, and Esther, who overcame the man who would destroy her people. Both are lowly women—a widow and a harem wife—weak and vulnerable. “Both embody defeated Israel: Israel who has become a widow and wastes away in sorrow, Israel who has been abducted and dishonored among the nations, enslaved within their arbitrary desires” (DZ, p. 20). Like Israel, these women rely not on worldly strength, but on prayer and fasting, on fidelity to God and trust in His mercy even when Israel has fallen into sin. “The infertile one, the powerless one becomes the savior because it is there that the locus for the revelation of God’s power is found” (DZ, p. 21). In all, these women, Eve, the barren wives and the women-saviors, come to represent the Chosen People, Israel herself, the Daughter Zion, in her relationship with God. This trustful reliance upon God and His strength through faith, along with the confidence in His merciful forgiveness, is at the essence of the Old Covenant.

The covenant relationship of God to Israel is expressed in the image of marital love. In Hosea, Yahweh loves the unfaithful Israel with an eternal love, even though she falls again and again into idolatry. “He cannot repudiate her without rendering judgment against Himself. ‘My heart turns against Me, My mercy catches fire all at once… I do not act according to the fire of My anger, I no longer annihilate Ephraim, for I am God and not man’ (Hosea 11). God’s divinity is no longer revealed in His ability to punish but in the indestructibility and constancy of His love” (DZ, pp. 22-23). This covenant relationship takes on a new form in the New Testament, precisely through the true Daughter Zion, Mary.

Mary, Daughter Zion of the New Covenant

Mary was wholly open for God’s word and strength; she was among the poor and lowly of the Old Covenant, which was open to receive the election and revelation of God in the New. She was the “new creation”, untainted by the disobedience of sin, totally orientated towards and fully receptive for God and His will. Having been created immaculate, “full of grace”, Mary responds to this gift through faith—“Blessed is she who believed!”—and thus receives a new gift of grace, the greatest of all graces, the gift of God Himself in the Son (cf. RM, 11). Through this faith of Mary, “first at the Annunciation and then fully at the foot of the Cross, an interior space was reopened within humanity which the eternal Father can fill ‘with every spiritual blessing.’ It is the space ‘of the new and eternal Covenant’” (RM, 28).

Another feminine type which appears in the Old Testament is wisdom, Sophia. “He who holds to the law will obtain wisdom. She will come to meet him like a mother, and like the wife of his youth she will welcome him” (Sir 15:1-2). On one level modern exegetes rightly interpret wisdom as referring to Christ, for wisdom is in one sense the Word through whom God creates: “I came forth from the mouth of the Most High, and covered the earth like a mist. I dwelt in high places and my throne was in a pillar of cloud. Alone I have made the circuit of the vault of heaven and have walked in the depths of the abyss…and in every people and nation I have gotten a possession” (Sir 24:3-6).

Yet on another level, wisdom represents the feminine principle of the Old Testament, the side of creation, of that which receives and returns a pure answer to God’s gift of creation. In this latter sense, the New Testament personifies wisdom in the person of Mary, as the Liturgy of the Church professes in its readings for Marian feasts: “I am the Mother of beautiful love, of fear, of knowledge, and of holy hope…I therefore am given to all my children, to those who are named by Him” (Sir 24:18). Here wisdom refers to Mary who gives a pure response of love to the Creator. She is totally open to receive His Word, ponders it in her heart, and allows it to bear fruit in her, the fruit of love. (cf. DZ, pp. 26-27)

Wisdom may also be understood in another manner, as the complete plan of God in creation and the economy of salvation. In this sense, wisdom is like an architectural blueprint which, as a plan, is distinct from the material product which is to be realized. “The Lord Himself created wisdom; He saw her and apportioned her, He poured her out upon all His works. She dwells with all flesh according to His gift, and He supplies her to those who love Him” (Sir 1:9-10). This plan of God entails all His activity outside the interior life of the Blessed Trinity, and is perfectly recapitulated in Jesus and Mary, the “new Adam” and the “new Eve” of a perfected creation. Wisdom remains eternally present in the eschatological fulfillment of creation, as the formal cause or essence of the Heavenly Jerusalem, where “God will be all in all” (1 Cor 15:28).

Mary, in her bodily Assumption, has already reached this eschatalogical fulfillment and cooperates with Christ in leading the Church, of which she is the figure and preeminent member, to this same goal. “In the holy tabernacle I ministered before Him, and so I was established in Zion. In the beloved City likewise He gave me a resting place, and in Jerusalem was my dominion. So I took root in an honored people, in the portion of the Lord, who is their inheritance.” (Sir 24:9-12)

In the biblical tradition of the Old Testament, therefore, we see Mary foreshadowed in what is feminine: in creation itself which receives its being from God; in the figure of the women, who are weak and poor, yet open for God and His strength; in the Daughter Zion, the Israel of the Covenant; and in wisdom, the receptiveness for and pure response to God’s creative word. This feminine dimension, as it is brought to fulfillment in the New Testament, represents creation and receptivity for grace. Mary “emerges as the personal epitome of the feminine principle, but at the same time points beyond herself to the Church” (DZ, p. 28). While Mary remains a daughter of Israel, she becomes through her fidelity the gateway to the new Covenant, the beginning of the new Israel, the Church. With Jesus, there is a new beginning, a new, radical intervention of God in the history of salvation. But in Mary, the continuity of the Old to the New is preserved (cf. DZ, p. 32). God’s word in the Old Testament is not in vain, creation is not fruitless—it bears fruit precisely in Mary.

Having meditated on Mary as the gateway to the New Covenant, in the next Circular Letter we will turn to the New Testament and the Magisterial texts to contemplate Mary in the mystery of Christ and her role in the Church.­­­­