Circular Letter: Fall 2008
Mary in the Mystery of Christ and the Church (2 of 3)
In our last Circular Letter, we contemplated Mary in the biblical figures of the Old Testament. We found that she is prefigured in the once-barren women, who having put their hope in God’s benevolent mercy became mothers of “saving” figures in Israel. Mary is the image of Israel, the Daughter Zion, the Chosen People of the Old Covenant. Whereas Israel proved unfaithful, Mary, the new Israel, remained faithful. She is the Immaculate one who, through her “yes” to God, is the model of receptivity for grace and of fidelity to the word and will of God. In her, therefore, we find the biblical theology of the woman and receptivity recapitulated, the theology of the covenant and the theology of grace all linked together.
Fullness of Grace
In this second of three parts, we turn now to the New Testament and the Tradition of the Church to look at Mary again from a different perspective, beginning with her relation to the mystery of Christ. The first revelation we have into the mystery of Mary is from the Archangel Gabriel, “Hail, full of grace!” (Lk 1:28). “Full of grace” refers on the one hand to her Immaculate Conception. Predestined to be the Mother of God, already in anticipation of Christ’s merits, she is prepared by a fullness of grace, such that she was preserved from every taint of sin, any disordered passions of the flesh and any resistance to God. From the very first moment of her existence, as Pope John Paul II teaches, she already “belonged to Christ, sharing in the salvific and sanctifying grace and in that love which has its beginning in the ‘Beloved,’ the Son of the Eternal Father, who through the Incarnation became her own Son” (Redemptoris Mater, 10). In Mary we see that grace is “more powerful than evil and sin”, that God’s election can overcome “all that ‘enmity’ which marks the history of man. In this history, Mary remains a sign of sure hope” (RM, 11). She is hope for us who still struggle with sin, our hope of victory over sin with the help of God’s grace and the guiding light of the holy angels.
The fullness of grace primarily refers, however, to the election of Mary to be the Mother of God and the superabundance of gifts which pre-pared her to receive and bear this grace. In the preface of the Holy Mass in honor of Our Lady of Good Counsel it is written, “[O God, You] filled the Blessed Virgin Mary abundantly with the gifts of the Holy Spirit that she might become worthy to be the Mother and companion of the Redeemer.” In the mystery of the Incarnation, God reveals and gives Himself to humanity in a supreme manner (cf. RM, 9). While the call to be the Mother of God was free and gratuitous on the part of God, Mary did not receive this gift without her own free cooperation. God does not force His plans of mercy on any creature; hence, He waited for her free and loving “yes” to the revelation of His designs of grace and salvation (cf. Vat. II, Lumen Gentium, 56). “This ‘Fiat’ of Mary—‘Let it be done unto me!’—was decisive, on the human level, for the accomplishment of the divine mystery” (RM, 13). In order to be capable of receiving this sublime gift and to bear the enormous weight of her so very important vocation—a vocation upon which the salvation of humanity depended—Mary needed to be prepared by extraordinary gifts of grace. These unmerited gifts in turn helped her to meritoriously bear the tremendous trials and sufferings which her mission at the side of Jesus entailed.
“Blessed is she who believed!”
St. Elizabeth gives us the key to understanding the Annunciation scene: “And blessed is she who believed that there would be fulfilled what was spoken to her by the Lord” (Lk 1:45). Faith is the response God seeks to His self-revelation, that is, to His self-giving through revelation. Through faith man receives this gift and gives himself to God in return. For faith, as Vatican II defines it, is that obedience “by which man commits his whole self freely to God, offering the full submission of intellect and will to God who reveals, and freely assenting to the truth revealed by Him” (Dei Verbum, 5). God reveals and, in a sense, offers Himself to Mary in calling her to be the Mother of God. He gives Himself to her in bestowing upon her a “fullness of grace”. Mary’s faith and her obedience to the message of the angel “indicate how the Virgin of Nazareth responded to this gift” (RM, 12). “Blessed is she who believed.” Through her “obedience of faith” she gave herself totally to God and opened the door for Christ into the world. For this very reason, she holds a unique and exalted place in the mystery of Christ and the Incarnation.
Though our sensitivity may have become dulled by familiarity with the text, we should not underestimate the magnitude of Mary’s faith at the Annunciation. The Fathers compare Mary to Abraham, the “father of faith” under the Old Covenant, who “hoping against hope” believed God that he would become “the father of many nations” as was promised, even though he was already about 100 years old and Sarah was beyond the child-bearing years (cf. Rom 4:18). Like Abraham, so Mary for her part “inaugurates the New Covenant” through her profound faith. For although she had vowed virginity, she believed the word of the Archangel Gabriel that she would become a mother, not by a man but “by the power of the Most High” (cf. RM, 14; Lk 1:35). The very fact alone that she, a lowly human being, was to become the Mother of God, also demanded a great act of faith and trust on the part of Mary. By faith she put her trust not in her own worth, but in the condescension and mercy of God—in His power to do great things for “the little ones”. Moreover, Mary certainly knew and understood the prophecies of the Old Testament concerning the Messiah: that he would be “a man of sorrows,” “a worm and no man,” “despised and rejected by men” (cf. Isaiah 53). Here again, Mary, empty of self and completely receptive for God and His loving plans, abandons herself to the incomprehensible will of the Father, regardless of what it may cost her, for she believes God is wisdom and love.
Trials of Faith
Pope John Paul II offers another definition of faith: “To believe means ‘to abandon oneself’ to the truth of the word of the living God, knowing and humbly recognizing ‘how unsearchable are His judgments and how inscrutable His ways’ (Rom 11:33)” (RM, 14). We see that throughout her life, Mary lives “in the dim light of faith, accepting fully and with a ready heart everything that is decreed in the divine plan” (RM, 14), even the Cross! At every moment, the cross was deeply planted in the heart of Mary as she watched her divine Son grow. Already at His birth, she brought forth the “King of Kings” in the poverty of a stable, since from the very beginning men had “no room in the Inn”—in their hearts—for the God-man (cf. Lk 2:7). And Simeon, while he gave comfort to the holy couple in that he shared their knowledge and faith in the Child Savior, he also confirms that Jesus would be a “sign of contradiction” and that a sword would pierce Mary’s heart (cf. Lk 2:34-35). And shortly thereafter, at the word of the angel, they must flee into Egypt in the middle of the night, with no time, humanly speaking, to prepare or provide.
Even during His hidden years at Nazareth, living in daily contact with the divine Child was not without its side of suffering. For though Mary knew from the Annunciation the divine origin of her Son, nevertheless, living in daily intimacy with this great mystery required enormous faith. For she had been introduced into “the ineffable mystery of God made man, a mystery that surpasses everything revealed in the Old Covenant”, a mystery that no one knows in its depths except the Father (cf. Mt 11:27). Yet despite her joy at this “good news” of the Gospel, she bore this truth with “a particular heaviness of heart, linked with a sort of ‘night of faith’—to use the words of St. John of the Cross—a kind of ‘veil’ through which one has to draw near to the Invisible One and to live in intimacy with the mystery” (RM, 17).
An indication of the darkness of Mary’s faith is seen in the finding at the Temple. When they had finally found Jesus in the Temple, Mary and Joseph “did not understand the saying which He spoke to them” concerning the Father (Lk 2:50). “Jesus was aware that ‘no one knows the Son except the Father’ (cf. Mt. 11:27); thus, even His Mother, to whom had been revealed most completely the mystery of His divine Sonship, lived in intimacy with this mystery only through faith!” (RM, 17).
The Way of Total Abandonment
Mary’s faith, however, undergoes its supreme test of generosity, of total surrender, beneath the Cross. The angel had promised, “He will be great…and the Lord God will give to Him the throne of His father David, and He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of His Kingdom there will be no end” (Lk. 1:32-33). Now beneath the Cross these words are, for a time, in some sense contradicted as Mary watches her Son die in extreme torment and abandonment, having been condemned and tortured by His own people. Yet, Mary does not despair, does not doubt. She well knew the prophecies. All her life she had prepared for this moment, having pondered the word of God concerning her Son, the “man of sorrows”, and having faithfully accepted every cross that came her way in daily life.
She had kept in her heart all that was said by or about her Son, as He taught her the way of true discipleship. She was empty of self, filled by the word of God, unwavering in faith, and totally receptive for the call of grace, even when it entailed renunciation and pain. Pope John Paul II comments, “How great, how heroic then is the obedience of faith shown by Mary in the face of God’s ‘unsearchable judgments’! How com-pletely she ‘abandons herself to God’ without reserve, ‘offering the full assent of the intellect and the will’ (DV, 5) to Him whose ‘ways are inscrutable’ (cf. Rom. 11:33)! And how powerful, too, is the action of grace in her soul, how all-pervading is the influence of the Holy Spirit and of His light and power!” (RM, 18). As Christ died on the Cross, she died with Him in spirit through faith and love.
Mary’s whole being was penetrated and marked by her union with her Son through faith. In fact, it is faith “which unlocks for us the innermost reality of Mary” (RM, 19). She lived this faith not only at the Annunciation when she became “eternally present in the mystery of Christ”, but throughout her entire life, such that “she became a sharer in that mystery in every extension of her earthly journey” (RM, 19). Through the depth of her union with Him in faith, Mary radiated only Christ. Just as with the great saints of today, like Blessed Mother Theresa or the servant of God, John Paul II himself, Mary in an even more exceptional and unique way, “in a discreet yet direct and effective way, made present to humanity the mystery of Christ. And she still continues to do so” (RM, 19). Seeing Mary, we see Christ. And wherever we meet Christ on our own journey, in the Eucharist, in the word of God, or through the cross, we know Mary is also there with us. For “through the mystery of Christ, she too is present within mankind. Thus through the mystery of the Son, the mystery of the Mother is also made clear” (RM, 19).
In our next Circular Letter, we look to Mary in the mystery of the Church, in the mystery of our own lives and of our striving for union with Christ.
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