Sing of Mary
Most Catholic theologians could write a book about Mary, and though I’m not quite a theologian by training, I could write such a book as well. In fact, any devout Catholic who writes easily could probably do the same. And in each case, the book would be a combination of salvation history, Christology, ecclesiology, popular devotion, personal experience, and just plain love. I’m not going to write a book here, but it is a fitting observance of the Solemnity of Mary Mother of God to reflect on the great gift God has given us in Mary, the paradoxical gift by God to us of the woman who gives us God.
Reflection on the gift of Mary has been an occupation of devout Christians from the earliest days. We see Christian writers as early as the second century mining Scripture for references to Mary, whom the Fathers saw immediately as the daughter of the Father, the spouse of the Holy Spirit, and the mother of the Son. She is, of course, central to the very existence of the New Covenant, as amply recounted in the New Testament. Here are some textual references:
- Matthew’s infancy narrative and his later comments on Jesus’ mother and brothers;
- Luke’s incomparable Gospel account of the annunciation, the nativity, the visitation, the presentation and the finding in the temple, plus his quoting of the woman who exclaims how blessed is the womb that bore Jesus; and also his reference to Mary’s perseverance in prayer in Acts;
- St. John’s narrative of the wedding feast at Cana and Mary at the foot of the cross, where her dying Son gave her to us as our mother as well;
- St. Paul’s nascent Marian theology in Galatians chapter 4.
These texts constitute a rich vein leading to the woman clothed with the Sun in chapter 12 of the Apocalypse, or Book of Revelation.
It demonstrates the Marian devotion of the earliest Christian writers that they sought Mary also in the Old Testament. They found her as the “woman” in the third chapter of Genesis, whose offspring would conquer Satan. They found her in Isaiah’s great prophecy of the virgin who would bear a son named Immanuel (God with us) (Is 7:14). They found her in Micah’s reference to Bethlehem, from whom the ruler of Israel was to come forth “when she who is to give birth has borne” (Mic 5:1-2). They also found references to Mary in Jeremiah 31:22 (“The Lord has created a new thing upon the earth: the woman must encompass the man”); in Psalm 45 (“Here, O Daughter, and see…. All glorious is the king’s daughter as she enters”); in Judges 15 (“You are the glory of Jerusalem, the surpassing joy of Israel; you are the splendid boast of our people”); in Proverbs 8 and Sirach 24 (when they describe Wisdom, they seem also to describe Mary); and of course in the nuptial imagery of the Song of Songs.
Having reflected on salvation history, mined Scripture and thoroughly absorbed the Catholic tradition, these early writers and all the Fathers after them sing of Mary—St. Justin Martyr, St. Irenaeus, St. Athanasius, St. Ambrose, St. Jerome, St. Augustine, the list is too long to be completed here. They tell us that Mary is not only the mother of Jesus Christ, but also the New Eve, the model of Faith. She was immaculately conceived in order to become the mother of God; she still possesses a three-fold virginity even after the Savior’s birth; and she was assumed into heaven where she intercedes for all her children. Indeed, she is the mother of all the faithful and even a model, symbol and prefiguring of the Church itself. On this last point, hear Augustine: “The Church, therefore, like Mary, possesses perpetual integrity and incorrupt fruitfulness. For what she merited in the flesh, it has kept in the mind; save that she brought forth one, and it brings forth many to be gathered into one through one.”
What was learned in theology began as devotion, and as that theological understanding increased, it spilled over into still greater devotion throughout the Church. It probably goes without saying that the Apocrypha, which were written out of Christian devotion, also contain many references to Mary. Taking all these things together, the faithful rapidly began to celebrate Marian feasts, which were added to the liturgical calendar at a very early period, such as the Conception of St. Anne, the Nativity of Mary, and the Dormition (or Falling Asleep) of Mary, all of which were inspired in part by the Apocrypha; and also the Presentation of Our Lord, the Annunciation and the entire Christmas cycle, which had more than ample inspiration in the text of the gospels themselves.
Our Debt to Mary
The most important Christian doctrines—all those having to do with the identity of Jesus Christ as both God and man—are intimately bound up with a proper understanding of Mary. This is so true that it is impossible to get Jesus right, so to speak, without getting Mary right. One can take any Marian doctrine, such as the Immaculate Conception, and show how it is necessary to preserve and protect the proper understanding of Who Our Lord really is, and also necessary to fully grasp the Father’s merciful plan for our redemption. Though an exposition would far exceed our space, it is hardly too much to say that Christology and Mariology are forever interlinked.
It is no surprise then that the Church teaches that Mary plays an intimate role in our salvation, describing Mary as our advocate and even as the mediatrix of grace. It was immediately clear to the Fathers that she played a critical role in the redemption. For example, St. Ambrose wrote that “Alone Mary has worked the salvation of the world and conceived the redemption of all.” In an objective sense, among all human persons, this is certainly true because of her consent to become the Mother of the Savior, and so cooperate with the Father’s plan to bring the Son into the world as a man. It is also true in a more proximate sense, for she clearly joined herself with Christ’s sufferings on the cross at Calvary, uniting her sorrow with His holy will in a common obedience to the Father. In a more subjective sense, Mary was also able to cooperate in the work of Christ in the same way that we can, by uniting our own sufferings with those of the Savior, though Mary did this in a preeminent way because she was directly involved with the actual salvific acts of Christ in time.
These ideas have confused many, particularly Protestants. There is no question here of Mary adding something essential to Christ’s sacrifice, which was by itself already infinite in value. But the redemption is brought about by obedience to the Father’s will, not by “changing the Father’s mind” through a sacrifice. And what the Father willed was that Mary would be the subject of what we call the Preservative Redemption (preserved from Original Sin by the merits of Christ’s sacrifice before it took place in time, for God is outside time), precisely so that she could cooperate with the work of her Divine Son for the benefit of everyone else. In somewhat the same way, Christ willed to share his mission with men, particularly through His apostles and their successors in the sacramental ministry, by which the graces of the Redemption are infallibly applied, and in so many other ways as well. Thus even St. Paul, who emphasizes that Christ is the “one mediator” who brings about a radically new relationship between God and man, also writes that by his own (i.e., Paul’s) sufferings he “makes up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ for the sake of his body, the Church” (Col 1:24).
So, yes, Christ has ushered in this new relationship with God called the New Covenant. Without Christ, there would be no new relationship, no divine union of love with men, no filiation—no cry of “Abba, Father!” from men to God. But this means that we must ask ourselves what our role is in this new relationship. What we find is that the Father wills us to participate in the work of His Son. And then we also legitimately ask about Mary’s role in this new relationship. And now we find something as astonishing as it is wonderful. We find that she was asked to play a role so special, so intimate, so sacrificial, so involved in Christ’s work that we owe everything to her magnificent “Fiat! Let it be done to me according to your Word” (Lk 1:38). This fiat was her whole life, first as the mother of God, and then as our mother, cooperating with Christ, seeking our salvation as she rejoices in her own, working now and until the end of time according to the Father’s will for us all. It was no small thing when Simeon foretold that a sword would pierce Mary’s soul, so that the thoughts of many hearts might be laid bare (Lk 2:35).
Confidence in Mary
When it comes to what we might call tenacious tenderness, there’s something about a woman, there’s something more about a mother, and there’s something even more about Mary. It ought not to surprise us, male or female, that our Father’s will for us includes the self-effacing love of not just a woman, but of the woman. Throughout history, countless Christians, including the greatest saints, have testified to Mary’s beauty, love and power. Consider these witnesses, chosen almost at random:
- Asked if she prayed to the saints, St. Thérèse of Lisieux replied: “No, I never pray to the saints. They take too long to answer. I pray to Our Lady. She answers immediately.”
- St. Simon the Carmelite performed miracles by giving a cup of water to the sick in the name of Mary.
- St. Clement Hofbauer converted hardened sinners by praying one devout Rosary.
- Asked which of the Vatican’s treasures was the greatest while giving a tour to visiting dignitaries, Pope Pius IX pulled out his Rosary and said, “This is the greatest treasure in the Vatican.”
- Alexander of Hales had such a strong devotion to Mary that he said he would never refuse a request made in Mary’s name. Among his students: St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Bonaventure.
- St. John Bosco said he founded his institute on the Rosary.
- St. Anselm wrote: “It is impossible that a devotee of Mary, who faithfully pays homage to Her and recommends his soul to her, should be damned.”
- St. Alphonsus de Liguori: “A true child of Mary will never be lost.”
- St. Bonaventure: “It is the privilege of the glory of Mary, that after God, our greatest happiness is from her.”
- St. Robert Bellarmine: “And who would ever dare to snatch these children from the arms of Mary when they have taken refuge there. What power of hell or what temptation can overcome them if they place their confidence in the patronage of this great Mother, the Mother of God, and of them?”
- St. Teresa of Avila: “The devotions we practice in honor of the glorious Virgin Mary, however trifling they may be, are very pleasing to Her Divine Son, and He rewards them with eternal glory.”
- St. Philip Neri: “Believe me, there is no more powerful means to obtain God’s grace than to employ the intercessions of the Holy Virgin.”
- St. Louis de Montfort: “When the Holy Spirit finds Mary in a soul, He enters that soul completely and communicates Himself completely to that soul.”
- St. Catherine of Siena: “Mary is the most sweet bait, chosen, prepared, and ordained by God, to catch the hearts of men.”
If the light is not yet beginning to dawn, here’s more: The Franciscans developed the 7 Crown Rosary, the Dominicans the 5 Decade Rosary, the Servites the 5 Sorrows Rosary, and the Carmelites the Brown Scapular. St. Bernard, commonly regarded as the most brilliant man and the greatest saint of his age, wrote a Marian prayer which has remained in common use for nearly a millennium: the Memorare. Of all the apparitions, locutions and miracles that have been given to us since the close of the Apostolic age, the three commonly regarded as the deepest, most dramatic and most continuing in their effects are the appearances of Mary at Guadalupe (resulting in the conversion of millions), at Lourdes (providing hope for the ill and suffering, and a showcase for the Church’s custody of miracles), and at Fatima (predicting the errors of Communism, a great war, and the triumph of the Immaculate Heart, particularly through Eucharistic Reparation and the Rosary).
Love upon Love
Mary’s role in our salvation, our recognition of that role, and our consequent devotion to her are all the direct result of the will of God. St. Bernard of Clairvaux stated it well when he said that God wishes us to have everything through Mary. That’s simply the Father’s plan for us. And the great truth about the Father’s will is that His will is synonymous with love. So every gift God gives is not only for the benefit of the one who receives the gift directly, but also for the benefit of all those who are to receive the gift indirectly. Every gift is for the building up of Christ’s body the Church. Because the Father loves His only Son, He willed that, when He became man, he should have a mother. Because God loves His only Son and His mother, He willed that His mother should have certain prerogatives, certain special gifts of grace which make her, as Wordsworth said, “our tainted nature’s solitary boast”.
And because God loves His only Son, and His mother, and each of us, He willed that His mother should play an intimate role in the work of redemption so that we also can know and love not only His Son, but the divinely-ordained mother of His Son; not only the Man but the Woman as well; not only the baby Jesus but the one He called “mama”, whose special feast the whole Church so rightly celebrates today: Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ and our mother too—Mary, the Glorious and Ever-Virgin Mother of God.
I have continued writing periodically about Mary, sometimes with years between essays. Feel free to continue with Sing of Mary, 2: A True Song of the Undeserving Poor.
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Posted by: John J Plick -
Jan. 06, 2010 10:02 AM ET USA
Mary is "paradox", old but young, simple yet profound.... She is the utter exhaustion of St Paul's sdmonition to try to be "all things to all men".... She is, next to her Son, "gift" unspeakable.... The trap is this, to attempt to intellectually force this reality down the throats of those who do not accept.... Much harder, almost to the point of agony, is the "proper way", to imitate her virtues in day to day life, and only THEN to speak of her.
Posted by: jeremiahjj -
Jan. 01, 2010 9:20 PM ET USA
Well-stated, Dr. Mirus! All the more reason our church was reasonably well-attended this morning. What a pleasure to be at Holy Mass on New Year's Day, but not simply because it's Jan. 1. It's the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God Day, and that is far more significant than one year ending and another one beginning.
Posted by: -
Jan. 01, 2010 7:43 PM ET USA
Lately, I have adopted such a love for the Blessed Mother. Some people may term it sacrilege, but when you read of the Blessed Mother and her deportment and surrender to God's will you just can't help loving her. Women today cringe at the way she portrayed Love. It was Love at it's sublimist and most perfect. I think if God declared to Mary today that He would take away His Love from her for His sake she would say 'thy Will be done'. She would consider His Will more important than hers. That's Love