The MOST Theological Collection: Vatican II: Marian Council
"Chapter 8 - Virgin most faithful"
A problem arises when we begin to take the advice of the Council to heart, and seriously begin to study the details of imitating the virtues of Mary. For we recall how often in the passages we have quoted so far, the Council places great stress on her faith and obedience: it speaks more often of these than it does of her love. Now of course no one denies that love is the greatest of all virtues. So we must ask why the Council chose to stress her faith so greatly.
We can make a beginning by noticing how the Council describes faith itself. The word had long been used in a rather narrow sense of intellectual acceptance of a truth given us by God. The Council of course does not mean to object to that use of the word faith: usage has surely sanctioned it. But the Council prefers to go back to an older way of speaking, one which it forms by putting together the many things St. Paul says about faith, to form a synthesis, a unified picture. In the Constitution on Divine Revelation we find this:1 "We must give to God the2 'obedience of faith' in which a man freely commits himself wholly to God." So faith is really the total adherence of a man to God. What would that entail? Chiefly three things, depending on the situation. If God speaks a truth, we adhere totally to Him by intellectual acceptance of that truth. This is, of course, the sense in which faith has been employed so much m modern times. But there is more: if God makes a promise total adherence means absolute confidence that He will keep that promise. If He gives us a command, then we adhere by obedience to that command. Of course, all these things-intellectual belief, confidence, obedience-are to be carried out in love.
St. Paul, from whom the Council takes this fuller conception of faith, speaks often of the faith of Abraham. When he was ninety-nine years old, and his wife Sara was of similar age, and sterile at that, Abraham was given a vision in which God promised to make him the Father of a great nation through a son yet to be born, Isaac. Humanly, such a thing seemed impossible. Yet Abraham did not hesitate, he put full faith in God. His faith entailed both intellectual belief of God's word, and confidence in His promise. Because of this faith, says St. Paul, Abraham was just in the sight of God. A few years later, a further trial of faith came to Abraham. That son Isaac had been born, but was still only a young boy. Abraham had believed the word of God saying that he was to be the father of a great nation through Isaac. But then God appeared again, told Abraham to take that son Isaac and offer him in sacrifice on a nearby mountain. Before, Abraham had been asked only for intellectual acceptance and confidence. Now there is added a demand for obedience, an obedience that was most difficult. He was to sacrifice his son. But the difficulty was not only that coming from the natural love of a father for his son: there was the impossibility, humanly it would seem that way, of reconciling God's promise of a great posterity through Isaac with the command to kill Isaac as a sacrifice before the promise could even begin to be fulfilled.
A lesser soul probably would have felt fully justified in saying to God: "Now I want to do your will. You have told me to believe I will be the father of a nation through Isaac. You have commanded me to kill Isaac as a sacrifice.
Obviously, I cannot do both. So I beg you to tell me which one you wish me to do. I am ready to do either one."
But Abraham did not question. did not seek to see how the two incompatible demands could be reconciled, He simply went ahead and began to do what God had commanded. He knew both things had to be done: it was enough to know God willed both. It was not necessary to understand, to see the how.
This was a faith that had to work in the dark, that is, to go ahead without being able to see, to adhere to God when it seemed impossible to carry out His will. When there are little or no obstacles present, not much force is required to adhere to God: faith does not have to be strong. But Abraham was placed in a situation in which he had to either have a faith of heroic strength, or to fail utterly in faith.
To judge from this and many other incidents in Scripture,3 God often is pleased to put human beings to such a test. It is not that He wants them to suffer: rather, it is because in His love He wants them to grow spiritually. Then He will be able to give much more lavishly of His love and favours to them.
If we think only superficially of the relation of Mary to her Divine Son, we might think all would be sweetness and light, all would be easy and full of every delight. But precisely because He loved her more than all angels and saints, He wanted to enrich her to the maximum. As a result, He placed her many times in situations that demanded a great faith, a faith that would adhere to God even in the darkness of impossibility.
It all began with the annunciation. We call it a joyful mystery, and so it is. But we must not forget that the joys of this life are often mixed with difficulties, even sorrows The annunciation was a blend of joy with extreme difficulty.
She, like all devout Jews, had been taught, with insistent emphasis, that there is only one God. Now the angel told her that the Holy Spirit would "overshadow" her. To one who had long meditated on Scripture, that word would easily recall how the divine presence had overshadowed and filled the tabernacle in the desert. The angel added: "For this reason, the holy one to be born will be called Son of God." The connection St. Luke records is important: Precisely because she was to be overshadowed and filled with the divine Spirit, for that reason, her Child would be the Son of God.
Here a seemingly impossible demand appeared before her eyes: on the one hand, she knew, she had to believe there is only one God; on the other hand, the archangel told her her Son would be God.
Some modern commentators have reasoned this way: She could not possibly have accepted both points. We can, for we know the distinctions of later theology, especially those given us by the Council of Chalcedon (451 A.D.) about the two natures and one person in Christ and about the one nature and three persons in God. But, they say, Mary did not know these distinctions. Therefore, she could not have accepted. Therefore, she could not have understood that her Son was to be divine.
What these commentators forget is how faith works. Faith is at its strongest when it must hold on in the dark, in the face of seeming impossibility. Abraham did not say: "I can either believe I will have a great posterity through Isaac; or I can sacrifice him. But I cannot do both." Abraham simply went ahead, holding to both, without knowing how it could be done. Similarly Mary, far stronger in faith, could hold to both truths, the unity of God, and the divinity of her Son-to-be, even though she could not understand, For that matter, neither do we understand the Blessed Trinity, even after so many centuries of Councils and of theologizing.
Further reason for thinking she did know His divinity appears when we notice that not long after the annunciation Elizabeth4 "filled with the Holy Spirit" as St. Luke says exclaimed:5 "How does it happen to me that the Mother of my Lord comes to me?" That word Lord at that time commonly meant God. The ancient Greek version of the Old Testament regularly used the word Kyrios, Lord, to translate the most sacred name, Yahweh. Now, is it likely that Elizabeth should know, and Mary should not? Again since Mary meditated so much on the Old Testament, would she not have understood the words of Isaiah6 who said that the Messiah was to be El gibbor, that is, God the Mighty? Of course, many say that the Jews in general at that time did not understand. Probably they are right (though there is the puzzling, and eloquent, silence of the Greek version7 of the Old Testament, which simply refuses to translate El gibbor at all) apparently, finding it impossible to reconcile with the unity of God. What the weak faith of the translators could not comprehend, Mary's strong faith would surely take in.
We should add this: our Scripture scholars have long insisted, and rightly, that we should interpret the meaning of a Scriptural expression in light of the use of the same expression throughout all Scripture. Now that phrase, El gibbor does occur elsewhere in the Old Testament. Every time it occurs, it means always and only one thing. God the Mighty. So why not in Isaiah?
And we should also notice that the same commentators today tend much to deny that Christ Himself knew who He was, until rather late in His life. They say He Himself did not know He was divine. This is really not a new advance in theology: it is an ancient error, condemned long ago, in 553 A.D. by Pope Vigilius,8 in the aftermath of Nestorianism, which said there were two persons in Christ. If there were two persons in Him, it would follow that the human person might not know he was joined to a divine Person. It would make Christ practically schizoid, a split personality: two persons inhabiting one body.
Now history shows that Mary and her Divine Son are joined in theology as well as in the work of Redemption. Errors about Him normally imply errors about her. And so it seems to be in regard to her knowledge. If He did not know who He was, naturally, neither should she.
Whatever one may think about her knowledge at the annunciation, we cannot doubt the trials of faith she had to undergo so many times. To have to rescue a child, who was at least the powerful Messiah, by fleeing into Egypt; to have the most obedient of sons suddenly seem to turn, and cause what would appear needless anguish in the three days loss before He was found in the Temple; to have that same Son seem to reject a very charitable request of hers at Cana:9 "What is it to you and to me?", to have Him seem to reject her, when she came to the edge of the crowd to see Him, when He said:10 "Who is my Mother?" Of course, we know she must have understood, when He added:11 "Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven, is my brother and sister and mother." As Vatican II said, referring to this very incident:12 "she received His words in which He, her Son, praised the Kingdom [of God] more than the ties of flesh and blood, and proclaimed blessed those who heard the word of God and kept it, as she herself was faithfully doing." Yet, even knowing that He was merely stressing that adherence to God in faith is more important than the dignity one holds, even if it be the dignity of the Mother of God, it still would be far from easy to accept.
But the heaviest trial of her faith came at the Cross. There, when all the Apostles except only John had given up their faith and fled, she stood firm and13 "cooperated in the work of the Saviour ... by obedience, faith, hope, and burning love." She had to believe this besmirched, disgraced, dying wretch was really the salvation of the world. She had to14 "consent to the immolation of the victim that had been born of her."
It would be a frightful demand to place on any Mother, to ask her to consent to the death of her Son in the obedience of faith. But that difficulty is multiplied by two factors, by the depth of the suffering she sees him undergoing, and by the love she has for Him. As for His sufferings, who can adequately describe them, whether we think of their physical aspect of fiendish torment, or the even more bitter psychological aspect of total heartless rejection? The difficulty that reached such an immense peak from seeing the intensity and depth of His suffering would be multiplied by her love for Him. How great was that? It was the love of the best of Mothers for not just the best of Sons but for a Divine Son. It was a love that,15 as Pius IX said was so great, even at the beginning of her existence that16 "none greater under God can be thought of, and no one but God can comprehend it."
Here then was a faith that adhered totally to God, believing His word, confident in His promise, obeying His will, in spite of a degree of difficulty which, when we carefully calculate it, is so great that only God can comprehend it-for one of the factors that multiplies that difficulty is measureless, while the other, as we have just seen, is so great that no creature can understand it: that is reserved to God Himself.