The MOST Theological Collection: Mary in Our Life
"Chapter II: Gabriel and the Mother of Christ"
IN SPEAKING of Mary as the New Eve, the Fathers have shown us that Mary in some way co-operated in redeeming us. Only the guidance of the Church can tell us whether or not Mary's role as the New Eve extended even to Calvary, but before we examine the words of the Popes on this matter, it is worth while to look more carefully at that part of her share that is entirely clear: the divine motherhood.
Mary could not, of course, merit that the Incarnation should take place, nor could she merit that she be chosen Mother of Christ, for these are part of the very foundation on which all merit depends. But she could and did merit an acceleration of the time of the Incarnation. Even the saintly patriarchs in the Old Testament had done this; how much more she must have tone! Now if Mary could not, strictly speaking, merit that she should be chosen to be the Mother of Christ, how is it that in the hymn, the Regina Caeli, we sing: "For He whom thou didst merit to bear ... has risen"? St. Thomas gives this explanation:
That is, with the initial grace given her as a foundation, she merited such a degree of sanctity as was fitting for the Mother of Got to have, so that it was becoming that God's gratuitous choice of her be put into effect.2
Let us try to reconstruct the scene. Mary is a young girl, probably about the age of fifteen. She is known by her neighbors in the insignificant town of Nazareth as a very good person, but remarkable in no other way. We do not know for how many years she may have lived at Nazareth; a very old and quite respectable tradition states that she spent her early life at the temple in Jerusalem. The liturgy of the Feast of the Presentation on November 21 seems to imply that she was at least presented there. And the old tradition may be correct.3
Whether her early years were spent in the temple or elsewhere, she obviously was a devout girl, meditating carefully on whatever instruction she was able to obtain, and on the Scriptures that she heard read in the synagogues or temple. Mary was betrothed to Joseph, who, in spite of the many unfortunate portraits of him, was probably a young man (the idea that he was old is based on a thoroughly unreliable tradition found in some apocryphal works). This betrothal had all the legal effects of a marriage, except that it was not customary for the betrothed persons to live together until after another ceremony, the marriage itself. Mary had obviously made a vow of virginity, and, doubtless, Joseph had learned of this and agreed.4
For many centuries all God's works had been aimed at one day-the day on which He sent His archangel Gabriel to the house of Mary at Nazareth. The angel greeted her: "Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women." Such a greeting, coming from a messenger of the heavenly court, was an overwhelming honor. It was a jolt to the humility of Mary. No wonder that she "was troubled." The angel continued:
Imagine the impact of these words on Mary's mind. God had endowed her with a good mind5 and she had used it well, pondering in her heart all the words of the Old Testament. She would naturally think on this occasion of the awful might of the omnipotent God who appeared to Moses in the burning bush, the God who destroyed the armies of Egypt, the God who gave such glory to the face of Moses that the people could not look on his face when he came down from Mount Sinai. Yet the angel tells her that her Son is to be "the Son of the Most High"! She must have thought of the Messianic Psalm 2, in which the seventh verse said, "The Lord hath said to me, 'Thou art my son; this day have I begotten thee."'
Could Mary have forgotten the words of the prophet Isaias:
We who have become so accustomed to the idea of carrying God in our hearts in Holy Communion that many people, for no reason at all, omit remaining after Mass for a short thanksgiving; we have lost the sense of awe for the terrible power of the God within us. Not so Mary: her matchless fidelity to all the graces given her made her realize what a staggering proposal was being made to her.
But now she remembers her vow of virginity. Not doubting the power of God, but rather by way of inquiring what is God's will in regard to that, she asks: "How shall this be done, because I know not man?" Gabriel quickly reassured her:
Even before Gabriel had finished speaking, Mary's thoughts probably went back to that other line of the Prophet Isaias: "Behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel."7 Gabriel states that Mary's Son is to be called "the Son of God." Isaias says He will be Emmanuel, which, translated, means: God with us.8
As the Fathers never tired of retelling, Eve had ruined us by disobedience. Now, at the beginning of the restoration, all is obedience. Mary looked to the depths of her soul. She, the blessed among women, the one full of grace, the only one conceived immaculate, the Mother of God-what is her reaction? "Behold the handmaid of the Lord!" The word handmaid is but a poor translation of the original Greek word doule. For to us the word handmaid means merely a hired servant. But doule meant a slave girl. Here is an obedient humility to balance the proud disobedience of Eve. Mary had just been raised to the peak of all creation, yet she replies by calling herself a slave girl: "Be it done to me according to thy word." Heaven itself waited in obedience for this obedience. For, as St. Thomas Aquinas tells us, "At the Annunciation, the Virgin was asked to give her consent in the name of the whole human race."9 The world had been created by the fiat of the Word of God. Now the beginning of the recreation in grace is ushered in by the fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum of the one who calls herself the slave of the Lord.
At this moment Mary became the Mother of Christ. Now Christ, the Son of Mary, is the New Adam. He is the new head of the human race. He is the head of the Mystical Body. Hence, at this time Mary became the spiritual Mother of the Mystical Body as well as the human Mother of the Head of that Body. It is true, the formal announcement came later, when on the cross the dying Son said: "Woman, behold thy son."10 But the reality began long before, on the day of the Annunciation. Speaking to the Marian Congress at Ottawa, Canada, on June 19, 1947, Pope Pius XII said:
One of the early heretics, Nestorius, denied that Mary could be called the Mother of God. For, he objected, Mary is only the mother of the human nature of Christ. At first sight the objection seems difficult. For it is not to be denied that Mary did not produce the Divinity itself. But the answer lies in the fact that Christ, the Son of God, though He has two natures, divine and human, is yet only one person, a Divine Person. Mary, being the mother of Him who is a Divine Person, may therefore rightly be said to be the Mother of God. For her Son is God. A comparison may help: the mother of an ordinary son produces only his body, not his soul. God directly creates the soul. Yet we say, without hesitation or qualifications, that she is His mother. This reasoning was brought out centuries ago by St. Cyril of Alexandria, and echoed by countless others since him. Nestorius and his heresy were condemned by the Council of Ephesus in A.D. 431.
Mary is the Mother of God, and Mary is full of grace. Which of the two is the greater prerogative: the divine motherhood or the fullness of grace? Some have thought to find the solution in the answer that Our Lord gave to an unknown woman in the Gospel. For when this woman cried out one day in a crowd: "Blessed is the womb that bore thee ..." His reply was: "Yea rather, blessed are they who hear the word of God, and keep it."12 It might seem at first sight that Mary's Son is saying that it is greater to be a son of God by grace, obeying His word, than to be the Mother of God. Even, then, of course, Mary would still be the greatest of those who "hear the word of God and keep it." But there is another explanation.
The woman in the crowd probably thought of Christ merely as a great prophet, rather than as divine. Therefore He might well answer her according to her own form of thought, and assure her that it is greater to have grace than to be the mother of a prophet. But even if the woman recognized His divinity, there was need to correct a too carnal way of looking at things, such as the Jews commonly had. For if Mary had been Christ's mother only in the physical sense, without being holy, her motherhood would have been of a lower order than grace.13 The truth, however, is that Mary's motherhood was more than merely physical: it was accomplished by a free and meritorious consent to the mystery of the redemptive incarnation. She really did conceive Christ by hearing the word of God and keeping it: her Son is the Word of God.
Recent Popes have made it clear that Mary's divine motherhood, properly understood, is her greatest dignity. Pope Pius XI is quite explicit in his encyclical written for the 1500th anniversary of the Council of Ephesus (the council that defined Mary's divine motherhood):
Pope Pius XII, in his historic encyclical in which he announced the Marian Year of 1954, echoed the very words of Pope Pius XI, and singled out for special mention the relation of the divine motherhood to the unique grace by which Mary was ever free from all sin:
Since she was the Mother of God, Mary needed to be full of grace. We say that Mary was full of grace, not in the sense that she had as much grace as Christ Himself, for His fullness was absolute, so as to be incapable of any increase: His humanity had the closest kind of union to the Divinity itself. But Mary comes next in order, for she was closest of all to Him. Her fullness was relative to the mission God gave to her: her grace was such as was a worthy preparation for the divine motherhood.
Her fullness of grace was not, however, such as to exclude future increases, for her capacity for grace16 could and did increase constancy throughout her life. It is difficult to conceive the rapidity with which her grace must have grown all during her life on earth It will help us to get some slight idea of her spiritual growth if we recall that among the principles regulating the growth in grace of any person, one of the most important is this: The increase we obtain depends not so much on the greatness of the things we do as on the fervor of love with which we do them, and on the grace we already have when we do them. Now, since Mary's grace increased in proportion to the grace she already had, on that ground alone the increase is staggering to imagine. Add to this the fact that all her actions were performed with the maximum love and generosity, and it becomes impossible for us to imagine how great her grace became, especially when we remember that this increase continued steadily throughout her life.
We can only be certain that from the very beginning of her life Mary possessed greater grace than that which the highest of angels and men have at the culmination of their growth, when they enter Heaven. It is likewise certain17 that her final fullness of grace, now that she reigns in Heaven, is higher than that of all angels and saints combined. Indeed, according to most theologians, it is likely that even her initial grace-the grace with which she began-surpassed the final grace of all angels and saints taken together. The incomparably exalted position in which God has placed Mary seems to call for so great a measure of grace as this, for her dignity is, as St. Thomas says,18 in a certain sense infinite. No wonder then that Pope Pius IX, in the document in which he defined the Immaculate Conception, could assert of her fullness of grace that, "... none greater under God can be thought of, and no one, except God, can comprehend it."19