The Father William Most Collection
A Papal First
[Homiletic and Pastoral Review 91 (August-September 1991) 72 - 76]
Pope John Paul has done something quite remarkable that probably has never happened before. He has announced that he would set out to deepen the theology of Vatican II on Our Lady's faith.
In his Apostolic Exhortation on Saint Joseph of August 15, 1989, he wrote in § 4, speaking of the words of Elizabeth to Our Lady: "These words were the guiding thought of the Encyclical Redemptoris Mater, in which I sought to deepen the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, which stated: "The Blessed Virgin advanced in her pilgrimage of faith" [italics in original here and in all the following quotations].
Before reading his words from Redemptoris Mater, we need to review what it was in Vatican II that the Pope set out to deepen. The passage he quoted is found in Lumen Gentium §58. Let us read the complete passage the Pope had in mind: "The Blessed Virgin advanced in her pilgrimage of faith, and in faith bore with [sustinuit] her union with her Son even to the cross, where she stood, in accordance with the divine plan, vehemently grieved with our Only Begotten, and associated herself with His sacrifice with a motherly heart, lovingly consenting to the immolation of the victim born of her."
The Council said her faith, in fact, the "obedience of faith" to use St. Paul's phrase (Romans 1:5), continued from the consent she gave in faith at the annunciation, even to the cross. There she joined in the sacrifice, and even consented to his immolation. This is filled out a bit further in §61: " . . . by design of Divine Providence, she was, on earth, the loving Mother of the divine Redeemer and in a singular way, beyond others, His generous associate and the humble handmaid of the Lord. In conceiving Christ, in bringing Him forth, in feeding Him, in presenting Him to the Father in the Temple, in suffering with her Son as he died on the cross, she cooperated in the work of the Savior, in an altogether singular way, by obedience, faith, hope, and burning love, to restore supernatural life to souls."
So she was present at the Cross, not as a private person, as St. John was, but by plan of Divine Providence as the one appointed for the role, as the New Eve. There she actually cooperated in the work of the Savior in an altogether singular way—no other person had the sort of role she was given. She cooperated by faith, hope, burning love, and especially obedience—for the Council had stressed her role of obedience earlier in §56. Further, in §3 the Council had pointed out that it was precisely obedience that gave the value to his death: "By His obedience He brought about Redemption." St. Paul had said the same thing in Romans 5:19. For had his death been a mere physical thing, it would have been a tragedy, but no redemption. Obedience gave its value. For obedience was the condition of the New Covenant, as it had been the condition of the Sinai Covenant (Exodus 19:5).
Obedience is part of faith
So then the Council brings out that she shared precisely in that which gave his death its value, in obedience.
As we remarked before, obedience is a major component of faith, in St. Paul's concept, as we see in Romans 1:5.
This is a remarkable cooperation; it is taking part in the very covenant condition itself and therefore in winning the claim to all forgiveness and grace.
But we notice that when the Council focused more precisely on just what she did in obedience, it said she "consented" to his immolation. That would have been tremendously difficult, so contrary to her incomprehensible love for him!
But now we can read what the Holy Father added in Redemptoris Mater, in §§ 18-19: "How great, how heroic, then, is the obedience of faith shown by Mary in the face of God's 'unsearchable judgments'! How completely she 'abandons herself to God' without reserve 'offering the full assent of the intellect and the will,' to him whose 'ways are inscrutable' (Cf. Rom 11:33)! . . . Through this faith Mary is perfectly united with Christ in his self-emptying.... At the foot of the Cross Mary shares through faith in the shocking mystery of this self-emptying. This is perhaps the deepest 'kenosis [self-emptying]' of faith in human history. Through faith the Mother shares in the death of her Son, in his redeeming death.... [her faith] becomes in a certain sense the counterpoise to the disobedience and disbelief embodied in the sin of our first parents."
To see the full import, the power of the Pope's words, we must recall a basic principle of the spiritual life. Since the only thing in us that is free is our will, if we could make that will of ours completely match the will of the Father-—there would be nothing more to do.
But it is not enough for us to just acquiesce, as it were, in what he wills. When we know his positive will, we need to positively will what he wills Vatican II had limited itself to the word "consent." But beyond consenting, or acquiescing, is positively willing what the Father wills. Now at that dread hour, it was the positive will of the Father that his Son should die, die then, die so horribly. The will of the Son was exactly the same. Therefore, for her to carry out the obedience of faith, she was called on to not just acquiesce, but to positively will what the Father willed, to positively will that her Son die, die then, die so horribly.
This of course required that she empty herself of her deepest personal will, her love of him. Pius IX, in defining the Immaculate Conception, wrote that even at the start of her life, her holiness—and love in practice is interchangeable with holiness—was so great that "none greater under God can be thought of, and no one but God can comprehend it!" So her love was so great that not even the most exalted Cherubim and Seraphim are capable of understanding her love. Only God himself can do that. He could, of course, create a creature capable of understanding it. But as a matter of fact, he has not done that.
Therefore the deepest self-emptying or kenosis consisted in positively willing what the Father willed, that is, that her Son and his should die, die then, die so horribly. And to do this was to go counter to a love so great that "no one but God can comprehend it!" Without even slight exaggeration we may say, we must say, that her self-emptying, her obedience of faith, was carried out at a cost of suffering that is literally beyond the comprehension of any actually existing creature. Only God himself can comprehend it!
Yes, we do owe a debt to the Holy Father, for this magnificent deepening of what Vatican II had begun. We have a most rich font of profound meditation on her greatness, on her love for him, and for us, that could lead her to go to a point that only God himself can comprehend.