Sing of Mary, 2: A True Song of the Undeserving Poor
Today is the feast of the Presentation of Mary, and it has a way of focusing our minds on an aspect of Mary’s life that we sometimes fail to consider. In this feast the Church hearkens back as close as we can get in the visible life of Mary to “the beginning”. The feast that takes us all the way to the invisible beginning is the Immaculate Conception (to be celebrated this year on December 9th). What these early-life feasts of Mary do is to remind us that Our Lady was singled out from the first for special favors from God.
When I say that we sometimes fail to consider this aspect of Mary’s life, I mean that we often prefer to accept it only superficially, without serious reflection. There is still at times a lopsided sense among deeply committed Catholics that salvation is something merited or earned. We inherit this from the era of the Counter Reformation; it rightly stands in opposition to the Protestant insistence on salvation by faith alone. But the Protestant claim is not wrong because it emphasizes our dependency on God, but because it obscures or denies the essential cooperation with grace by which the human person is not only saved but sanctified.
We are not Pelagians or Semi-Pelagians. We cannot lift ourselves up to Heaven by our own bootstraps, and in fact we cannot even make ourselves fit for grace. Everything good in us comes from God, including the grace that enables every act of love we perform. Grace is always prior; God has always loved us first. But on sensing the impetus of grace, our wills can either resist it, in which case grace is cut off, or accept it, in which case more graces are given to enable us to accomplish the good to which the initial impetus of grace has awakened us. Our merit consists in nothing more than our cooperation with grace, our willingness to welcome God’s love. But our glory consists in the fact that God loves us first, and desires always to share His life with us, which sharing we call “grace”.
What does this have to do with Mary?
When we look at Mary, we are prone to emphasize how strongly she united her will to God, how much she suffered in the process, how fully her life merited the favors God eventually bestowed on her, such as her Assumption and her Queenship. This is not wrong, but sometimes we forget that Mary was immaculately conceived from the first moment of her existence and that when the Angel told her of God’s plan, she was already “full of grace.” When we fully grasp that Our Lady was, from the first, supremely gifted with grace, we can grow dubious about “her own” accomplishments..
In a sense, it gets “worse”. Most theologians interpret the Church’s teachings about Mary to mean that she was “confirmed in grace” to a unique and pre-eminent degree, even beyond that of the Apostles themselves. What this means is that Mary on earth was not like Eve, who was prone to sin through pride even though she lacked concupiscence. Instead, Mary was on earth already in the moral state we will enjoy only in heaven, the state of being so engraced that we can no longer choose even the most venial of sins. (One can at least see the likelihood of this understanding in the Council of Trent (Session 6, Canon 23): “If anyone says that man once justified can during his whole life avoid all sins, even venial ones, as the Church holds that the Blessed Virgin did by special privilege of God, let him be anathema.”) On this reading, which is almost certainly correct, Mary’s fiat was never in the balance. It was the only answer she would ever dream of giving. This being the case, can we still identify with Mary?
The answer is “yes” because of the nature of grace. In heaven we are not coerced into a continuous “yes” to God; we are freed for it, just as Mary was. Our wills are fully confirmed in grace when we reach the point at which grace has made us so absolutely free that we will never for the least moment consider making a wrong choice, a choice in any way opposed to God. In imagining this state, we may say we cannot make such a choice, but the truth is that, enjoying perfect freedom, we simply will never make such a choice. Nothing any longer diminishes our freedom in Heaven; nothing drags upon our will, disposing it to direct us toward the wrong thing. Quite simply, we will be free of all that; and Mary had this always. But we can identify with her because each time we cooperate with grace we experience this same freedom for a moment, and as we acquire the habit of certain virtues, we experience this same freedom even more. Thus Mary becomes the exemplar of what all Christian life can and should become.
William Wordsworth famously called Mary “our tainted nature’s solitary boast”, but she is that not because of her own merit, but by God’s gift. The Regina Coeli may refer to “He whom thou didst deserve to bear” or “He whom thou hast merited to bear”, but this deserving, this merit, was not won by dint of Mary’s extraordinary moral struggle. It came through God’s gift. Some souls have found this disturbing, but it should not be, for again it is really the essence of the Christian life. Although grace is ordinarily not so strong in us that we cannot possibly refuse it (i.e., that we will never consider the possibility of doing so), it remains true that every time we respond positively to the movements of grace we experience a perfect freedom, and the credit belongs primarily to God. He accords us merit for our cooperation, and that merit is real. But all we have done is to avoid refusing a gift.
Of course God’s grace sustains us all, and He gives all the persons He creates an opportunity to cooperate with it, to love Him with the same love He pours out on them. We do not lack freedom on earth because our souls cannot cease to exist; nor will we lack freedom in heaven because we cannot sin. The first characteristic of complete freedom is liberation from sin. Mary is our model not because she overcame deeper interior struggles to do God’s will, but because she demonstrates what it means for a human person to respond with perfect freedom to God’s grace. Moreover, her giftedness makes her the pre-eminent human intercessor for us, and a constant conduit for the favors of God that we ourselves need. In addition, by no means should we forget how much she suffered for her pre-eminent reception of God’s love, a suffering which once again unites her with ourselves, even as she shares it, all undeserving, with Our Lord.
We need to remember, finally, that God never gives any gift without it being a good gift also for others. He does not give person A gift B to the detriment of person C who has received gift D. Nor does he give either gift B or gift D so that person A or person C may use it to the detriment of others. St. Paul explains: “And his gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (Eph 4:11-12) and “to each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Cor 12:7).
So too did God give incomparable gifts to Mary in order to give incomparable gifts to us. Mary is not only for God and for herself, but for us. She is ours and we are right to boast. But still we must learn to boast with Mary, who recognized the law of the gift, and whose spirit magnified only the Lord (Lk 1:46). Or to take instruction again from St. Paul, who repeatedly rebuked Christians for boasting in his letters, only one sort of boast is permitted: “I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (2 Cor 12:9). It is precisely this that Mary exemplifies. She was all the more in God only because she was all the less in herself.
For a survey of all the reasons Mary is such a wonderful gift—of her role in Scripture, salvation history, the Church, our prayers and our future—see my In Depth Analysis on the occasion of the Solemnity of Mary Mother of God, January 1, 2010. Though nearly four years old, it is likely to be new to most of our current readers. It too is entitled Sing of Mary. And that is why this essay is entitled “Sing of Mary, 2”.
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