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Advent 2008

Part III: Mary in the Mystery of the Church
and of Individual Souls

Advent is in a special way a Marian time. We accompany Mary as she makes her way with the Divine Child along the rough roads to Bethlehem. In this Circular, therefore, we want to continue our meditation on her role in this great mystery of the Redemption, and in particular in her relation to the Church and to each individual Christian.

Mary’s Maternal Solicitude for the Church

In our last two Circulars we have seen Mary in the mystery of Christ as Mother, as the new Daughter Zion, the bearer of the Covenant, who conceives and brings Jesus into this world through faith. We have also seen that her mission extends beyond the Annunciation. As the humble handmaid of the Lord, Mary was totally open for Christ and all He would require of her. In her “pilgrimage to the foot of the Cross there was simultaneously accomplished her maternal cooperation with the Savior’s whole mission through her actions and sufferings” (John Paul II, Redemptoris Mater=RM, 39). Since Jesus came to save souls, this also became the goal and mission of Mary, His “helpmate” and companion in the mission of the Redemption. “In accordance with the eternal plan of Providence, Mary’s divine motherhood is to be poured out upon the Church, as indicated by statements of Tradition, according to which Mary’s ‘motherhood’ of the Church is the reflection and extension of her motherhood of the Son of God” (RM 23). Having been brought into the mystery of Christ as His Mother, Mary also enters into the mystery of the Church, His mystical Body, precisely as Mother. For throughout her life (and still today!), 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” (Vat. II, Lumen Gentium=LG, 61).

St. Paul tells us, “there is one God and one Mediator of God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as Redemption for all” (1 Tim 2:5-6). Yet by the divine will, God calls others to cooperate in His work of Redemption, giving us the privilege of sharing in the work of God. This subordinate mediation “flows forth from the superabundance of the merits of Christ, rests on His mediation, depends entirely on it and draws all its power from it” (LG 60). In the case of Mary, her mediation is “special and exceptional…based on her fullness of grace” (RM 39). Through this fullness, Mary was entirely oriented toward Christ without any tension or division of heart caused by sin. She could devote herself without reserve to His mission of saving souls, surrendering herself in all things and at every moment to the will of God and the saving work of Christ. “With the redeeming death of her Son, the maternal mediation of the handmaid of the Lord took on a universal dimension, for the work of Redemption embraces the whole of humanity” (RM 40). For this reason, beneath the Cross Jesus confirms her role saying, “Woman, behold your son!” (Jn 19:26). “Mary’s motherhood, which becomes man’s inheritance, is a gift: a gift which Christ Himself makes personally to every individual…. At the foot of the Cross there begins that special entrusting of humanity to the Mother of Christ” (RM 41).

But how does this cooperation and spiritual motherhood function on the practical level? In the Gospel of John, we first encounter Mary together with Jesus at the wedding feast of Cana, where the wine fails. Mary also brings the needs of the couple—“they have no wine”—to the attention and care of Jesus. The feast therefore “has a symbolic value: this coming to the aid of human needs means, at the same time, bringing those needs within the radius of Christ’s messianic mission and salvific power. Thus there is a mediation: Mary places herself between her Son and mankind in the reality of their wants, needs and sufferings. She puts herself ‘in the middle,’ that is to say, she acts as a mediatrix not as an outsider, but in her position as Mother” (RM 21). As our Mother and Mother of the Church, she mediates to us Christ’s healing grace and love in every situation in which we find ourselves.

Mystical Bride and Spiritual Mother of the New Covenant

But the events at Cana can also be seen in another light. According to an eminent Scripture scholar, Fr. Ignace de la Potterie, SJ, both wine and wedding feast in the Old Testament announce the beginning of messianic times (cf. Mary in the Mystery of the Covenant, p. 177ff.). In the biblical terms of the New Testament, a wedding feast is clearly a symbol of the New Covenant in Christ, the restoration of the union of God with His people. On the allegorical level, Jesus is the Bridegroom of the wedding feast, the Mediator of the Covenant. But if Jesus is the Bridegroom, who is the Bride? While on the individual level, Mary is the Mother of Jesus, on the allegorical and symbolic level, the Fathers of the Church also call her the helpmate, the “new Eve” accompanying the “new Adam” in His work of Redemption. She is therefore in this sense the “Bride” who collaborates with the mystical “Bridegroom” in the conception of new children to supernatural life, establishing the New Covenant—in and through Christ—of God with His people.

This interpretation of Mary as the Bride is drawn from the events at Cana. When the wine has failed, Mary tells the servants, “Do whatever He tells you” (Jn 2:5). These words are also found in the Old Testament as technical terms used for the sealing of a covenant between God and Israel. Very similar wording is used, for example, in Exodus 19:1-8 where the people of Israel seal the covenant with God saying, “All that the Lord has said, we will do” (cf. also Deut 5:27; Ex 24:3-7). At Cana, Mary makes it evident that the obedience of the Old Covenant is now transferred from God to Jesus, the Son of God and only Mediator between God and men. She becomes in essence the Mediatrix between Jesus and the disciples, inciting them to listen to Him and obey, just as Moses on Mount Sinai mediated between God and Israel in the sealing of the first Covenant (cf. Potterie, p. 234). The water of the Old Testament, as St. Augustine comments, is thereby transformed into the wine of the Gospel, the New Covenant. 

The Gospel of St. John makes this clear by a parallel construction, which emphasizes the obedience of the servants: “Jesus said to them, ‘Fill the jars with water.’ And they filled them… He said to them, ‘…take it to the steward of the feast.’ So they took it” (vv. 7-8). They obeyed the word of Jesus at the counsel and encouragement of Mary. This obedience, this yes to Jesus at the wedding feast, symbolically marks the beginning of the New Covenant in and with Christ, having begun with Mary at the Annunci-ation, and now extended to all believers. Together Jesus and Mary, the mystical Bridegroom and Bride of the New Covenant, the new Adam and the new Eve, bring about the birth of spiritual children of God, born of the Holy Spirit through faith (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 505).

If Cana can be seen as the “wedding feast”, then this New Covenant is consummated on the Cross. Jesus gives Himself wholly to humanity in His redemptive death, while Mary accepts this gift in dark faith and responds in the name of all humanity with the emptying of herself, with a total, spousal gift of self, of her very heart, by witnessing and consenting to her Son’s death. “In Mary’s faith, 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,’ and it continues to exist in the Church, which in Christ is ‘a kind of sacrament or sign of intimate union with God, and of the unity of all mankind’” (RM 28). This mutual self-giving of God and His creature bears fruit in spiritual children, adopted sons of God. “Behold your son…Behold your Mother.” Mary and the beloved disciple, John, become the symbol, therefore, of the maternal relationship Mary has towards all souls.

Living Faith: The Marian Dimension of the Church

According to Fr. de la Potterie, Mary and John “looked [together] upon Him whom [sinful humanity] had pierced” (Jn 19:37; cf. Potterie p. 234), not in despair, but with the eyes of faith. But it is Mary’s faith which strengthens and directs the faith of the Apostle, not vice versa. Before becoming an Apostle and Prince of the Church, St. John was first a son of Mary. Those who were sent to preach needed first to become believers, to put their faith in Jesus. It is Mary who teaches us all to believe. Through “this heroic faith of hers [Mary] ‘precedes’ the apostolic witness of the Church, and ever remains in the Church’s heart hidden like a special heritage of God’s revelation. All those who from generation to generation accept the apostolic witness of the Church share in that mysterious inheritance, and in a sense share in Mary’s faith” (RM 27). She teaches us all to “believe in Him who was sent” (Jn 6:29).

For this reason, Pope John Paul speaks of the “priority of the Marian dimension of the Church over the Petrine” (Mulieris Dignitatem, n. 27, note 55). The Marian dimension is the dimension of faith and charity, by which we adhere to God in intellect and will, while the Petrine dimension refers to the hierarchical teaching, priestly and governing office of the Church. “The structure of the Church is certainly necessary, and the Church’s hierarchy has its importance, however these do not constitute its most profound essence. The essence of the Church, the Daughter of Zion, is to be the People of God, which lives out a covenant relationship with Christ, in Christ, and with God” (Potterie, p. 232). For this reason, “our incorporation as children of God into the mystery of the Church, our mother, is more important than any ministry in that Church” (ibid., p. 230).

This Marian dimension is particularly relevant for women, who see in Mary not only a Mother, but also their most clear model of perfected womenhood. “[By] looking to Mary, [women] find in her the secret of living their femininity with dignity and of achieving their own true advancement” (RM 46). In her, the Imaculata and Tota Pulchra, women can see reflected the greatest of human, and particularly feminine, virtues: “the self-offering totality of love; the strength that is capable of bearing the greatest sorrows; limitless fidelity and tireless devotion to work; the ability to combine penetrating intuition with words of support and encouragement” (ibid.).

Taking Mary as Our Mother

At the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI proclaimed Mary “Mother of the Church” (Solemn Profession of Faith, June 30, 1968). “Mary, who from the beginning had given herself without reserve to the person and work of her Son, could not but pour out upon the Church, from the very beginning, her maternal self-giving” (RM 40). She is given to the Church and to each individual as a mother, establishing a very personal and entirely unique relationship with each child of God. At the word of Jesus, “Behold your Mother”, the Apostle John welcomed Mary “into his own home”. Pope John Paul II comments: “Clearly, in the Greek text the expression ‘eis ta idia’ goes beyond the mere acceptance of Mary by the disciple in the sense of material lodging and hospitality in his house; it indicates rather a communion of life established between the two as a result of the words of the dying Christ” (RM note 130). Taking her “into his home”, the disciple “brings her into everything that makes up his inner life, that is to say, into his human and Christian ‘I’…. Thus the Christian seeks to be taken into that ‘maternal charity’ with which the Redeemer’s Mother ‘cares for the brethren of her Son’ ‘in whose birth and development she cooperates’” (RM 45).

Jesus tells us also to “take [Mary] into our home”, into our lives and hearts as our Mother. She cares for us and watches over us; with tender love, she leads us through all our trials and ever closer to her Son. “Piously meditating on her and contemplating her in the light of the Word made man, the Church with reverence enters more intimately into the great mystery of the Incarnation and becomes more and more like her Spouse” (LG 65). In our daily devotions we should ever include a heartfelt prayer and greeting to our Mother, preferably even a daily Rosary. Pope John Paul II recommends that we take Mary into our lives in an special way through a formal consecration or entrustment to her, following for example the method of St. Louis Marie de Montfort. Wherever we may be or in whatever state of soul, she will help us to find the path to Christ and Christian holiness. “For every Christian, for every human being, Mary is the one who first ‘believed,’ and precisely with her faith as Spouse and Mother she wishes to act upon all those who entrust themselves to her as her children. And it is well known that the more her children persevere and progress in this attitude, the nearer Mary leads them to the ‘unsearchable riches of Christ’ (Eph. 3:8)” (RM 46)

In these days of Advent, therefore, unlike the inn keepers, we want to take Mary into our own home by walking with her in the ways of purity, simplicity and humility. By the light of the angels, we want to be the poor and lowly manger, detached from self and caring towards others, in order to become a warm and loving resting place for her Divine Child on Christmas day!