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Epiphany : a theological introduction to Catholicism

by Aidan Nichols O.P.

Chapter 10: Mary and the Saints
Part 1

The Blessed Virgin Mary

Men are men, wrote G. K. Chesterton, but man is a woman. For Catholic Christians, Mary is the icon of how humanity should be before God, the paradigm of what it is to be a hearer of the word of God, a disciple. This she is by virtue of her special place in the interrelation between God in Christ, on the one hand, and the Church and ourselves, on the other. Mary is the mother of God: the Theotokos, the "God-bearer." The main significance of this divine motherhood is that it expresses a truth about Jesus Christ, and so is located within the whole scheme of the mystery of our salvation where he is fulcrum and center. Yet the divine motherhood cannot help but tell us something as well about Mary herself, as the daughter of God's predilection, a human being filled to overflowing with his redeeming grace, and so the preeminent witness to the transforming power of the gift of the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, Mary's motherhood has a value in connection with the life of grace in each of us: Mary is our exemplar because of the special link with her of each baptized person. She is the highest member of the mystical body of which all form part.

Clearly, the general picture which Marian doctrine gives us, as well as its specific details, has meaning in relation both to God and to ourselves. And this implies the special prerogative of Mary, what is called her "privileges." Those privileges in turn cannot be understood unless we bear in mind the double function she serves-towards God, towards us because it is in that function that the degree and importance of her glory consist. Mary is totally relative to God. She is totally correlative to the Church. And she is these things in, through, and for her Son, Jesus Christ.

Mary is related to God by a total dependence which makes her unreservedly his. In being totally relative to God she must also be immediately relative to Christ, the way to the Father; she is indeed a sign pointing us to him (as in the Byzantine icons where. under the name Hodegitria, the "Way-pointer," she indicates her Son) by all she is and does. At the same time Mary is related to the Church. In two senses is she prior to the Church: chronologically, she preceded the Church born at Pentecost; ontologically, there is concentrated in her all that the grace of God brings about in the Church. The Church is precontained in Mary's spousal answer to the Father's messenger, her motherhood of the Word. Yet this does not prevent her from being a member of the Church also, and the highest member since her acting is consistently selfless in the Church's favor. Reciprocal dependence, mutual inclusion: these join Mary and the Church. Mary has priority as setting up Christ's relation with humanity, and so with the Church. Yet the ultimate finality is the Church where is made present the mystery of human salvation, the end for which the Son took flesh in the womb of his human mother.

The incarnation, so as not to overthrow human freedom, required the consent of the mother of Jesus to this unique mode of divine in­dwelling. At the Fall, humankind's original mother had received the promise that one of her descendants would triumph over the evil One (so the Hebrew and the Septuagint, the Syriac and the Old Latin Bible), and in that way the woman herself ("ipsa": Vulgate) would triumph through her seed. There would be a new Eve, a mother of all the spiritually living (Gen 3:15, 20). In the Hebrew of Isaiah, the woman is a maiden, "almah," an unmarried woman; and in the Septuagint, the authoritative Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, this great woman who is to "conceive and bear a son whose name will be called Emmanuel" (Isa 7:14) is understood, unmistakably, as a virgin. (Those two concepts were in any case closer in traditional society than after the "sexual revolution" today.)

The teaching of the Catholic Church about Mary of Nazareth, the "Blessed Virgin," takes its rise from both the New Testament and the internal memory of the ancient community. Given the great prominence of the father in the birth narratives of the Bible, and his preeminence in social reality, there is no reason why Matthew and Luke should have wanted to sideline Joseph save under the pressure of reality. Luke, who stresses the parallels between the births of two prophetic children John the Baptist and Jesus leaves a gaping hole in the fabric of his literary construction, with the father singled out in one case, absent in the other. In the Creed, accordingly, the Catholic Church confesses the virginal conception of the Word made flesh: he was "born of the Virgin Mary." Sexual- generation brings before us man as willing, achieving, creating, and so is unsuited to be the expression of the incarnation, which depends on the grace of God alone, while virginity, by contrast, sums up the helplessness of human beings in the face of God's sovereign grace: our human nature cannot, as such, con­tribute anything to the coming of the divine Word, now personally en­fleshed, into the created world.

The Mysteries of Mary's Preparation

To be the mother of the Savior, Mary needed the special grace of God, indicated by the words of the angel at the annunciation, "Hail, full of grace!" (Luke 1:28), and described in Catholic doctrine as the "immaculate conception," solemnized in the Liturgy on 8 December. Although this dogma was only promulgated in 1854, it is a product of the exploration of a memory, for, as we have seen, the development of doctrine is anamnesis a process of reactualizing an original awareness. She whom the Greek Fathers termed Panaghia, the "all-holy one," shared, from the first moment of her existence, in the saving and sanctifying grace of the only Son of God, he who, by the incarnation, would be her Son also. The Second Vatican Council speaks of the "unique resplendent holiness," coming to her from Christ, whereby she was "redeemed in a more exalted manner" than any other human creature.[1] The medieval Franciscan doctor Duns Scotus called this the praeredemptio Mary's redemption by anticipation which made feasible the historical coming of humankind's Redeemer. The Roman liturgy audaciously applies to Mary a messianic prophecy from the book of Isaiah: Mary is the radix sancta, the "holy root" of salvation; through her the incarnation was possible. At the same time, Catholicism regards Mary's past as a clue to humanity's future: in the radically holy virgin is seen the destiny of the virgin mother Church, which is to be "without spot or wrinkle or any such thing . . . holy and immaculate" (Eph 5:27). Pope John Paul II summed up the tradition in his Marian encyclical, Redemptoris mater:

From the first moment of her conception which is to say of her existence she belonged to Christ, sharing in 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. Consequently, through the power of the Holy Spirit, in the order of grace, which is a participation in the divine nature, Mary receives life from him to whom she gave herself in the order of earthly generation gave life as a mother. . . . And since Mary receives this "new life" with a fullness corresponding to the Son's love for the mother, and thus corresponding to the dignity of the divine motherhood, the angel at the Annunciation calls her full of grace?[2]

In Mary's immaculate conception, then, she becomes the image of holy Church. The Pope continues, saying that the liturgy salutes Mary of Nazareth as

"the Church's own beginning, for in the event of the Immaculate Conception the Church sees projected and anticipated in her most noble member the saving grace of Easter."

In the Old Testament, the more charged with significance election was, the more interior it became. The grace of the elder covenant reached its acme of maximal penetration in Mary's conception by enabling the whole constitution of one Jewess to be transformed by God. The bull promulgating the dogma of the ''all-gracing" of Mary reads in the crucial passage of its doctrinal definition:

By the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, of the blessed apostles Peter and Paul, and our own, we declare, pronounce and define that the teaching, according to which, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, Saviour of the human race, the most blessed Virgin Mary, from the first instant of her conception, was preserved from all stain of original sin, is a doctrine revealed by God and must consequently be firmly and constantly believed by all the faithful.[3]

As we saw in chapter 6, that "stain," or muddying of the waters of human living, means first and foremost the loss of divine friendship, and with that those gifts both preternatural and supernatural­which God bestowed on human nature at its origin. But that very unbalancing of the human creature brings with it "concupiscence" the phenomenon of misdirected desire, in the redeemed the raw material of our necessary spiritual warfare but otherwise the very badge of culpability. Mary, so Ineffabilis Deus explains, stands among the redeemed; yet she was redeemed "in a more sublime manner" than the rest of the faithful. As with the other just people who lived before Christ the saints of Israel and the "holy pagans" who crop up from time to time in the Old Testament's pages are the main examples used in Catholic theology to her were applied by way of anticipation the merits of the Redeemer. The crucial difference is that the just men and women of ancient times had first contracted the hereditary fault of humanity and were subsequently delivered from it, whereas Mary was preserved from this sin in the first moment of her existence in her mother's womb. Her redemption was not so much deliverance as preservation.

Mary was always adorned, therefore, with sanctifying grace, as an adopted daughter of God, enriched with all the privileges of the state of first innocence those gratuitous gifts which make up "original righteousness." If in point of fact she lacked some of those gifts (e.g., she certainly suffered, and her body was mortal), these negativities did not flow from original sin, in her case, but from her role as the new Eve, intimately associated with the new Adam. As with Jesus himself, passibility and mortality were not now sinful things. They were less deficiencies contracted than infirmities accepted in view of sin's reparation, humankind's salvation.

There are many ways in Tradition of expressing the immaculate conception. The Fathers and other writers may say that Mary has always been blessed, or enjoyed the grace of God, or that she was justified from the first moment of her conception. More tacitly the doctrine is expressed by saying that Mary is the holiest of all creatures, "more holy than the cherubim and seraphim," the Panachrantos or "spotless one," the virgin earth from which the new Adam was formed. Here speaks true radicalism, for the holiness given Mary by Christ reached right down to the roots of her being. From the very first moment of her coming to be, she belonged to him.

"To be in the world and yet to be prevented from ever falling under the domination of the world is to be not less but more dependent on Christ our Redeemer."[4]

Mary is more thoroughly redeemed than we are, and has the greater cause for gratitude to God in Christ.

In the symbolic thinking of the prophets about their people, "virgin Israel" has been set apart from the world, reserved for Israel's God alone. They called her "virgin" to symbolize her sacredness her transcendence vis-à-vis all other nations of the earth. She has to do not just with the present age but with the world that is to come through the union of God and humanity. In Mary this union of the Lord with the virgin Israel truly takes place, concentrating the holiness of the people of God in one unique person. The Holy Spirit did not come down out of the blue at the annunciation; he had already taken a radical hold on humankind as redeemed in Mary, just as he would on humankind as Redeemer in Jesus.

Mary's redemption is, then, presacramental she has Christ in her existence in her very flesh. Accordingly, her redemption is a foretaste of the postsacramental life of the risen body, the world of the kingdom. She is, therefore, as immaculate, the image of our final condition, when there will no longer be any need for sorrow for sin, and we shall at last be fully free.

At the angel's greeting at the annunciation, Mary is declared to be all-enveloped by the divine favor: full of grace already, in the moment when the angel arrives, prior to the descent of the Holy Spirit. After Ephesus, and until the end of the Byzantine Middle Ages, the Greeks too (with few exceptions) held that Mary resembled Eve before her sin. Only in the sixteenth century did the idea gain ground that Mary was not "purified" until the incarnation itself. Catholicism holds, however, that she was redeemed in the very moment of incurring original sin. The immaculate conception is a demonstration of what the Greek Fathers so lovingly expounded: the cosmic power of Christ's redeeming death as that stretches both backwards and forwards in time.

Why was the doctrine defined? At a time when in Protestantism (not least in England) the doctrines both of baptismal regeneration and of original sin were under attack (and rejected completely in the increasingly secularized culture beyond the churches), it was a sign to a world full of self-sufficiency and pride. Bishop William Bernard Ullathorne defended the dogmatization of the doctrine in part as the ultimate in counter-culturality, a stumbling-block to give people pause in a society bent on perfection through human effort. In place of endless perfective amelioration through the industrial transformation of nature, exponential growth in commerce, new social arrangements based on ideology or force, rational enlightenment defined as the rejection of traditional wisdom, secular education, and mechanistic schemes of philanthropic improvement, the Church proposed in the foundational grace of Mary's life strength in weakness, stature in humility, glory in purity. She is the

"one bright star which, in the universal night of human conceptions, makes the darkness still more visible."[5]

In art, the immaculate conception creates a problem: the iconographer is treating not of a narrative but of the visual representation of a concept. Not till the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries did the iconography of the Immaculata achieve a certain stability: the woman of Revelation, complete with crescent moon, solar rays, and a crown of stars; or the Virgin replete with all the symbols of her litanies, notably the Lauretana, the litany of Loreto. In Renaissance and medieval times, "immaculist" artists refrained existing Marian images the tree of Jesse, the embrace of Joachim and Anna to their new purpose, though often it is only the interrelation of image and text that brings this out. The Flemish manuscript known as the Rothschild Canticles is more transparent: its miniature of the Virgin alone in prayer, clad with the sun, standing upon the moon, gives overwhelming importance to a sun that nearly blots her out. Fulbert of Chartres had hailed the immaculate conception in the words "In gremio matris fulget sapientia Patris" ("From the mother's bosom the Father's Wisdom shines forth"); here the artist stresses how the Virgin had received her immaculate condition from Christ, the Sun of righteousness.

The Church's liturgy celebrates not only Mary's conception but also her birth. From the vantage point of the feast, two perspectives open up. First, the Church looks to the Old Testament, the story of mingled grace and shame which makes up the history of Mary's people, summed up in her "family tree," the genealogy, read at Mass on this day (8 September). Through Mary the Christ-child is rooted in this very human soil. Through her, the promises generated by Jewish history can point to him, and a knowledge of these promises is necessary for the understanding of his person and work. Mary links the old covenant to the new, introducing each into the other. But second, on this feast the Church also looks to the future destiny of Mary's child, acclaiming her as the "Gate through which the Light was poured" (as in the hymn Ave marls stella), the "exordium of our salvation," the place whence, humanly speaking, our salvation arose. Mary did not just lend her biological functions to God the Word. A mother does more than lend her body as a site for gestation. She builds up her child's life with her own flesh and blood, and forms their souls by her address and affection. Without a perfect mother, no perfect son can be imagined. Nor is calling Mary the matrix of human salvation simply a human façon de parler: the story of the immaculately conceived is from the outset a story of what was divinely given. As the mother of God, the Virgin united in her life the creation with its Creator, such that every creature can find in her person the gate of the true life, Jesus Christ.

On 21 November (possibly the dedication day of a Marian basilica in Jerusalem), the Church recalls the tradition, contained in the pseudonymous Jewish-Christian work known as the Protevangelium of James, that Mary's mother had promised, should she be fruitful, to dedicate a child to God, and that the infant Mary was indeed welcomed into the Temple of Zion by Zechariah, and dwelt in the sanctuary until she was twelve. Since Zechariah's wife was Mary's kinswoman it is possible that this Jewish priest played a part in her upbringing. But the legend of her living in the Temple's most holy place cannot be historical.

The Byzantine liturgy uses this commemoration to speak of Mary as the true temple: the dwelling place of God incarnate will be, not a shrine made by human hands, but the altar of Mary, the whole woman, body and soul. It likens Mary, on her entrance to the sanctuary, to a sacrificial offering dedicated to God. It takes the story of her presentation to represent the entire process of her predestination and preparation to be the mother of the Savior. As the "mother preordained before all ages," the entire history of the old covenant looks forward to her. The great Byzantine doctor Gregory Palamas sees Mary as prepared for her vocation by acquiring that inner depth which is conferred by silence. She is the supreme contemplative. The evangelists stress this, emphasizing her attitude of attentive listening, how she "kept" the sayings she heard (in Luke), and (in John) told those present at Cana to listen to her Son. She understood through stillness, acted out of it, conquered in it.

"Her presence. in the midst of Israel a presence so discreet as to pass almost unnoticed by the eyes of her contemporaries shone very clearly before the Eternal One, who had associated this hidden 'daughter of Zion' with the plan of salvation embracing the, whole of humanity."[6]

That connection becomes clear in the annunciation.

The Mysteries of Mary's Childbearing

Though the feast of the annunciation (25 March) is more centrally a feast of Christ than of Mary, its Marian component is, evidently, essential to it (and justifies the medieval English name, "Lady Day"). Unless Mary was prepared to turn her whole life upside down, by moving in faith toward whatever obscure future God was pressing upon her then the Word could not have become man. Her words to the angel, "Be it done to me according to thy word" (Luke 1:38), are the disclosure of her inner life, her basic attitude to God, and compose a model for how Christians themselves are to live. In Mary's receptive openness to God, we find the secret of living religiously. Here the human creature cooperates in humankind's redemption on the basis of prevenient grace, and to that extent constitutes the principle and type of the Church. This is how Catholic theology would understand the Irenaean doctrine (already encountered in chapter 4) that God made Mary "cause" of our salvation.[7] The Anglo-Welsh lay theologian David Jones draws attention in one of his haunting poetic sequences to the weightiness of that testimony to a high Mariology from a witness only one generation removed from the apostles:

"This Irenaeus had known the holy man Polycarp who in turn had known Ieuan Cariadusaf [John the Beloved (Disciple)] to whom had been committed the care and safeguarding of Mair the Mother by the direct mandate of the Incarnate Logos, even when he was going from the terrible stauros [Cross], his only purple his golden bloodflow."[8]

Mary conceived Jesus, then, not only in her womb but also in her heart by faith. Her "fiat" ("let it be so") is discussed by the Fathers in the context of the typology of Eve and Mary. Just as the infidelity of Eve led to death and disaster so the fidelity of Mary led to salvation and life. Eve's disobedience is reversed by Mary's obedience. In the traditional iconography of paradise in the Eastern tradition, the mother of God is shown enthroned, with her Son on her knee, amid the trees and flowers of Eden, alongside Abraham, with Lazarus in his bosom, and the other patriarchs.

In the annunciation Mary stands as exemplar of obedient faith. In classical theology we do not speak of the "faith" of Christ, and the deepest reason for this is given by Cardinal Newman when he speaks of a "range of thought" where Mary, not her Son, is the proper center. Where common creatureliness is concerned,

"If we placed our Lord in that centre, we would only be dragging him from his throne and making him an Arian kind of God: that is, no God at all."[9]

Jesus remains the One who strides ahead of his disciples; the love and loyalty of their heart's devotion can never lose the awe due to One who is different in kind as well as in degree.

"Rejoice,"then, says Gabriel to Mary "O lady full of grace!" (Lk 1:28a). The most memorable texts containing the verb "to rejoice" in the Old Testament signify the joy that comes to the whole people of God when God actively intervenes to deliver them from distress and bring them salvation. Here Mary embodies the corporate personality of Israel, and the language implies that the era of the fullness of grace is come (whereas, for instance, the language used of the parents of the Baptist marks them as saints of the old dispensation). "The Lord is with you" (Lk 1:28b): in the Old Testament these words are addressed to someone for whom God has great plans. Such is certainly the case here, for the Messiah will come to Israel only by coming to Mary. The creative power of God's Spirit will "overshadow" her, descend upon her, as the glory of the Lord had once descended on the tent of witness and filled it with a divine presence. Jesus enjoys divine sonship from the first moment of his conception (it will be manifested later, at the baptism and transfiguration).

In art, the annunciation is associated with two Old Testament figures: Moses and the burning bush, aflame but not consumed, as Mary's creaturehood was on dire with the divine presence; and Gideon, whose fleece received dew from heaven while the rest of the ground stayed dry, a type of Mary receiving the Spirit 'of God while the rest of the world remained parched by sin. Had Mary been an ordinary lass, the incarnation would still have been possible, but it would have been reduced to the level of a means or tool a stage on the way to Calvary, with Mary just an instrument, to be cast aside once the need was passed. For the Logos to have an internal relation with his own embodiment in humanity, he had to have an internal relation with the humanity of his mother. And so at the annunciation, the Spirit came upon Mary just as in all eternity he had rested on the Son. As a result, the humanity of the Logos taken from Mary corresponded to, or was fit for, the being of the Logos himself. The annunciation is the Pentecost of the Virgin but this would not have been possible had she not been uniquely open to the Holy Spirit before the moment of the annunciation itself.

At the visitation (2 July), Elizabeth bears witness to Mary, proclaiming that before her stands the mother of the Messiah. The babe in her womb shares this witness, leaping at the approach of Mary big with Jesus. Just so at the Jordan John the Baptist will point out Jesus as Messiah. Elizabeth exclaims in admiration at Mary's faith, "Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord" (Luke 1:45). The obedience of faith is given to the self-revealing God: by it Mary entrusts her whole self to God. Mary becomes by the exemplary quality of her faith the mother of all believers in the New Testament, just as Abraham was their father in the Old.

Luke by his choice of language implicitly compares Mary's journey over the Judaean hills from Nazareth to Ain-Karem, the home of Elizabeth, to David's bringing of the ark of the covenant into the citadel of Zion from its resting place in the fields of Yearim. The same exultation and leaping for joy marks the arrival of the glory-seat of the Lord in each case. The Coptic liturgy is particularly rich in its vocabulary for Mary as bearing the glory.

O blessed among women, you are rightly called the Second Tent, which is called the Holy of Holies, and within which are the Tables of the Covenant written by the finger of God. They signify for us in advance the Iota, the name of salvation, Jesus. He it is who received flesh in you without change and has become the Mediator of a New Covenant. Through the sprinkling of his holy Blood he has purified those who believe into a people that he justifies.

The Ark which was covered with gold on every side was made of imperishable woods. It was made as a sign beforehand of God the Word, who became man without separation. He is one from two, perfect Godhead without corruption, consubstantial with the Father and consubstantial with us according to the economy, sacred humanity without confusion, which he took within you, O spotless one, and was united with it hypostatically.

The Mercy-seat which rested upon the Cherubim forms an icon of God the Word who took flesh in you, O most pure, without change. He became a purification of sins and a pardoner of iniquities.

If Christ is the mercy-seat who rests upon the cherubim, then Mary is herself the cherubim throne, the Merkavah. The Syrian hymn-writers thus apply to Mary what the prophet Ezekiel has to say about that throne of Glory, central as it is to Jewish mysticism.

At the nativity (25 December), Mary's babe is declared by Luke to be a sign, because he is already preaching humility in his birth: he is already teaching the lesson of Calvary. For the New Testament, signs are not so much surprising events intended to stimulate confidence in a promise as they are things that can condense the gospel message, and so have power to pierce the heart. For the Fathers the manger is the mirror of the Cross.

To declare Mary to be mother of God is to proclaim the humility of God. The preexistent One humbled himself to be a little child. He emptied himself in the sense that he accepted the whole slow development of human life from conception to its last breath. "The Word was made flesh" means he became a woman's tiny baby.

"The Word was made flesh, weak flesh, infant flesh, tender flesh, frail flesh, flesh incapable of work or labour."[10]

In the words of John the Monk, taken up in the Byzantine liturgy:

O marvel! God is come among men; he who cannot be contained is contained in a womb; the Timeless enters time; and, strange wonder, his conception is without seed, his emptying is past telling, so great is this mystery! For God empties himself, takes flesh, and is fashioned as a creature when the angel tells the pure Virgin of her conception: "Hail, thou who art full of grace; the Lord who has great mercy is with thee."

The doctrine of Mary's divine motherhood is the foundation of all other teachings of Catholicism about the Virgin. The Council of Ephesus proclaimed Mary Theotokos, the "God-bearer," the mother of God, in the course of its effort to preserve the Christian community's sense of the unity of Jesus,Christ, at once human and divine. Jesus Christ is so thoroughly one in his Godhead and his manhood that this human mother really did carry in her womb the person of the eternal Word. She conceived one who was personally her own maker and Redeemer. As the Nun's prologue in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales puts it, "Thou Maid and Mother, Daughter of thy Son." She gave her own flesh in order that the Creator of all things might be born as a human creature and so know our human experience from inside. She carried, bore, nursed and educated One who in his own person is the almighty upholder of the universe and the all-holy foundation of morals. The medieval Irish poet Blathmac in his hymns to Mary never forgets the divinity of Mary's Son to whom all nature belongs: "Your Son of fair fame owns every bird that spreads wings; on wood, on land, on clear pool, it is he who gives them, joy."[11] Nonetheless, she is simultaneously mother of a human child as the iconography of Mary's breast-feeding, Maria lactans, underlines. He on whom all creation hangs hung from the breast of his human mother.

Tradition has much indeed to say in words and in images about the Madonna and Child. John Damascene regards the title Theotokos as a compendium of the entire dogma of the incarnation.

"The name expresses the whole mystery of the Economy. If she who gave birth is the Mother of God, then he who was born of her is definitely God and also definitely man. This name signifies the one hypostasis and the two natures and the two births of our Lord Jesus Christ."[12]

The reference to the two births alludes to the 649 Lateran Synod which had affirmed a birth incorporeal and eternal from the Father before all ages, and another, corporeal and in the last age, from holy Mary, ever-Virgin, the mother of God. The Gnostics had taught that the Word merely passed through Mary "like water in a channel," while for Irenaeus it is only because he receives real humanity from Mary that Christ can "recapitulate" us, sum us up, unite us under himself as head, join us with himself as the new man. We are related to Christ on his mother's side: we are his maternal relations.

The seventeenth-century French spiritual theologian Francois Bourgoing stresses how Jesus, in Mary's womb, is like every other child in dependence on his Mother for physical life: "Attached to her, like fruit to its tree, taking life from her and growing constantly in and through her."[13] But between any expectant mother and the child in the womb the physical co-presence is the foundation of an interior personal intimacy of knowledge and love. The depth psychologist C. G. Jung identified the qualities associated with the "mother archetype" as motherly solicitude and sympathy, wisdom and a spiritual exaltation that transcends reason, all that is benign, that cherishes and sustains and fosters growth. Though Jung warned against our offloading the whole of this archetype that "enormous burden of meaning, responsibility, duty" onto the shoulders of "one frail and fallible human being" who was the "accidental bearer of life for us," " the election of Mary means that in her case, thanks to the light and power which was hers from the Holy Spirit, she could be all of this for her child. She mediated to him all the vitality of mother nature, he who was nature's own origin.

Recognition of the fact, and the appropriateness, of Mary's unique holiness came about in the Church before other Marian mysteries were explored. The Gospel of Luke notes her stalwart faith (1:45), profound humility (1:38-55), and prompt obedience (2:5, 22), and the singular engracing to which these testify make Mary, for Catholicism, the model of both the active and the contemplative lives in the Church.

Yet Mary's holiness is for a wider purpose: it is inseparable from her office. At the annunciation, she represented all humanity, giving her consent to a spiritual marriage between the Son of God and human nature. For this she needed some knowledge of the divine status of her child. This came perhaps in an unarticulated way through a supernaturally illumined understanding of the texts of the Hebrew Bible, referring as these do both to a human mediator and a new presence of the God of salvation: the child that is Emmanuel. Mary's function within the mystical body of the Church was well expressed by the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. As the bride of the Holy Spirit she brings forth Christ spiritually in human lives by her intercession:

Merely a woman, yet
Whose presence, power is
Great as no goddess's
was deemed, dreamed.

Her role in the economy of grace adds the touch of feminine and maternal humanity to the work of her Son:

Through her we may see him
Made sweeter, not made dim,
And her hand leaves his light
Sifted to suit our sight.

The Mysteries of Mary's Suffering

At the presentation of the Child Jesus in the Temple (2 February), the prophecy of Simeon reveals the conflictual or agonistic character of the coming of that kingdom of Christ which was promised at the annunciation. Simeon's words tell Mary of the actual historical situation in which the Son is to accomplish his mission, namely in misunderstanding and sorrow. It is as though a second annunciation by Simeon follows the first by Gabriel, the second revealing the modality in which the first will be achieved. The "sword" that shall pass through the soul of Mary/Israel is disclosed in Revelation as the sword of the word of revelation: coming from the Son of Man, it becomes, by reason of people's reactions to it, an instrument of God's judgment. Mary would watch the physical torments and hear the mockery directed at Jesus on Calvary. But in addition she had the sorrow of knowing that the appointed leaders of God's people had refused the message of salvation.

At Nazareth Mary was the first to whom the Father chose to reveal the Son. Yet not all was light: the tonality of the Gospels is chiaroscuro. Mary has to live through the night of faith in order to come to true contemplation of her Child. The infancy gospels show Mary as sometimes heavy of heart, baffled by the mystery of her Son's behavior, notably when she lost the twelve-year-old Jesus in Jerusalem. The child must be about the Father's business. Everything in Luke's Gospel leads up to Jerusalem, just as everything in Acts leads away from it. But the mystery of Jesus means a hard school for Mary: this is the first experience of the sword of Simeon. What form her suffering would take she could not know in advance, but the loss of the child Jesus in the Temple, and his uncomprehended avowal that there is where his place must be, provides a premonition of it that the public ministry will confirm.

In John's Gospel, the mother of Jesus is present at the first manifestation of his glory, at Cana of Galilee. By that glory, he testified to his "descent" from above and anticipated the hour of his "ascent" which, for John, is not only the ascension but also, and more fundamentally, the lifting up on the cross: the means of his return to the Father in glory. So even at Cana the intermingling of suffering and joy is found. Yet Cana does foreshadow the later spiritual motherhood of Mary, what Redemptoris mater terms Mary's

"solicitude for human beings, her coming to them in the wide variety of their wants and needs."[15]

More specifically, by her motherly solicitude, Mary's brings those needs within the radius of Christ's messianic mission and salvific power. In other words, she acts as a mediatrix, putting herself in the middle between her Son and humankind, not as an obstacle but as a facilitator.

In the Synoptics it is the darkness more than the light that Mary experiences during the public ministry. After the start of Jesus' public activity she evidently lived in close contact with relations who, as John reports, did not believe in him (7:3-5). In Mark, they fear indeed for his sanity (3:21). We need not suppose that Mary agreed with the opinion of the family council, but she evidently agreed with their purpose. When she comes with his brethren, he lets her wait outside the door and go home without achieving anything (Mark 3:31-35). In the Marian tradition of the Church, this is her training for the Cross.

The grief-stricken mother at the cross is celebrated with a feast of her own (14 September), but also in Lent and Passiontide. In the Stabat mater, the sequence of the Roman liturgy for the feast of the Virgin of sorrows, her pain on Calvary is presented as arousing and focusing sympathetic suffering in the heart of the onlooker.

Come then Mother, the fount of love,
make me feel the force of your grief,
make me mourn with you.
Make me weep lovingly with you,
make me feel the pains of the Crucified
as long as I shall live.
I long to stand with you by the Cross,
and to be your companion in your lamentation.
Grant that I may carry within me the death of Christ,
make me a partner in his passion,
let me relive his wounds.
Who is there would not weep,
were he to see the Mother of Christ in so great anguish?

Here the Western liturgy appropriates the poems in which, in the Book of Lamentations, the weeping woman who is Jerusalem bewails her desolation. Woodcuts of our Lady of pity, in the later Middle Ages, were bordered by the emblems of the passion so that all Christians, in the words of the mystic Margery Kempe, should "think of the doleful death he died for us." Francois Poulenc's setting of the Stabat mater for orchestra and chorus (1950) retains a startling power to place the listener in touch with that event ending with an alternation of passionate cries and the plea to be admitted, through Mary's intercession, into the glory of paradise. No wonder that Christians have sought to identify with the mother of sorrows. In the poetry of eighth-century Ireland, Blathmac describes himself as seeking out Mary's company so that he may keen with her, and so come to the quality of her response to the Word.

"Had I, being rich and honoured, power over the people of the world as far as ever sea, they would come with you and me to keen your royal Son."[16]

In the Book of Revelation we read that "the woman . . . cried out in the pangs of birth" (12:2). Tradition sees this as a reference not to the literal birth of Jesus but to the interior torments which Mary experienced for his sake from the annunciation to the resurrection and ascension. Jesus' "birth," therefore, represents his entire earthly life and encompasses, in the perspective of the seer of Revelation, the hidden life and the public life, the passion and death and the resurrection. The Virgin would not have fully brought forth the Savior unless he had become fully the Savior. According to the redeeming plan, he became so in completeness only with the passion, death, and resurrection. In saying yes to the incarnation of the Son, Mary says yes to his redemptive work, and repeats that yes throughout his life, supremely at the foot of the cross where she is God's privileged collaboratrix in the new covenant. Mary standing beside the Crucified is the prophetically envisaged daughter of Zion on the great and terrible Day of the Lord. As Lumen gentium puts it, Mary "associated herself with his [Christ's] sacrifice in her Mother's heart and lovingly consented to the immolation of this victim who was born of her." Nor is this a merely passive virtue. On the contrary: such unfailing readiness to surrender herself to the ever-greater demands of her Son's saving mission requires supremely active qualities generous love, eager obedience. Mary's tears do not flow helplessly, simply in reaction to the tragic historical events in which she was involved. The tears of the socia Redemptoris, the "Redeemer's woman-companion," symbolize in a participatory way the purifying sacrifice of her Son, which washes sinners of all stain, and gives them new life.

Part 2


1. Lumen gentium, 53, 56.

2. John Paul II, Redemptoris mater, 10.

3. DH 2803.

4. H. McCabe, "The Immaculate Conception," " in God Matters (London, 1987) 212.

5. W. B. Ullathorne, The Immaculate Conception of the Mother of God (Westminster, Md., 1904) 207.

6. John Paul II, Redemptoris mater, 3.

7. See above, p. 117.

8. D. Jones, The Sleeping Lord (London, 1974).

9. J. H. Newman, Certain Difficulties Felt by Anglicans in Catholic Teaching Considered (London, 1907) 2:84-85.

10. Bernard, Sermons on the Nativity 3.2.

11. J. Carney, ed., The Poems of Blathmac son of Cu Brettan, together with the Irish Gospel of Thomas and a Poem on the Virgin Mary (Dublin, 1964) stanza 195, cited in P. O'Dwyer, Mary: A History of Devotion in Ireland (Dublin, 1988) 53.

12. John Damascene, On the Orthodox Faith 3.12.

13. F. Bourgoing, Méditations sur les divers états de Jésus-Christ notre Seigneur (Paris, 1648) 42.

14. G. M. Hopkins, "The Blessed Virgin Compared to the Air We Breathe," in The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, ed. W. H. Gardner and N. H. Mackenzie, 4th ed. (Oxford, 1970) 93-97.

15. John Paul II, Redemptoris mater, 21.

16. Carney, The Poems of Blathmac, stanza 1, cited in O'Dwyer, Mary, 49.

Part 2

©; 1996 by The Order of St. Benedict, Inc., Collegeville, Minnesota. All rights reserved.

This version: 6th February 2008

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Fr Aidan Nichols

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