EXTRAORDINARY to relate there are sonic Christians who think no more of the Mother of Christ than of the donkey that carried him into Jerusalem. This has been a blind spot of much Protestantism. How Catholics understand Mary, like how they understand her Son, is often best exemplified by the way they celebrate the principal events of her existence vis-l-vis God.
Christians have never thought of blessed Mary as just an ordinary Palestinian lass. The orthodox Fathers held a high doctrine of the divine motherhood and never associated serious sin freely choosing what is morally evil — with one who was the dwelling-place of the Father's only-begotten Son, the Ark where the divine Presence came to tabernacle. On the other hand, it was plain to Catholic divines, especially in the West, how exactly the Mother of God could be said to be free from all the consequences of the Fall — could be all-holy from the first moment of her existence without compromising the claim that Jesus Christ saves universally, a claim which surely implies that all men and women without exception need salvation.
The Franciscan theological tradition showed the way out of this impasse. If the Saviour really redeems us absolutely, if he can redeem utterly, perfectly, then there must be at any rate one human being who is absolutely, utterly, perfectly, redeemed — one human being who can demonstrate that being transformed by grace is a real possibility for the rest of us. This person will need, accordingly, to be liberated from sin from the word "Go". He or she will exemplify the way God in Jesus Christ can redeem us perfectly, right down to the very roots of our being. And there is no difficulty about identifying who answers to that description. This is what the instinct of faith has always wanted to say about Mary, heaping up praises of her faith, purity, holiness, in an effort (we can now see) to bring precisely this institution to expression.
The first of the mysteries of Mary has a clear application to the rest of us. If God in Jesus Christ can so redeem as he did in Mary, then he really can change us as well! The Immaculate Conception confronts us with the most full-blooded salvational realism — the mighty power of God to transfigure his human creation as no other aspect of our faith can. On the feast of the Immaculate Conception we celebrate not only Our Lady, but in her and with her the whole Church's hope of becoming holy and immaculate in all its members. All sanctity has a relation to the Immaculate in the unique fullness of her sharing and her Son's redemptive sacrifice and its fruit, the reconciled and risen life."
The Childhood of the Virgin Mary
EVIDENTLY, if Mary lived, she was born. The Church, however, has more to ponder today on the feast of Mary's nativity than just a logical entailment. The birth of the Virgin opens up two perspectives. The liturgy looks first to the past, to the
Old Testament which makes up the history of Mary's people, summed up in the genealogy, her family tree. Through Mary, the Christ Child is rooted in the very human soil. Through her the promises generated by Jewish history can point to him, as we have seen, a knowledge of these promises is requisite for a grasp of her person and work. So Mary links the Old Covenant to the New, introducing each into the other. But second, the liturgy also looks to the future, the future destiny of Mary's Child, acclaiming her in the words of an ancient Latin hymn, the Ave Mar's Stella as "the Gate through which the Light was poured", the departure-point of our salvation.
In the Church's memory, Mary was dedicated to God's service from her earliest years. When invited to be Mother of the Messiah, the answer she will give reflects a formed intention of perpetual virginity. Jewish texts witness to the conviction that contact with the Shekinah the dwelling place of the divine Glory involved abstention from sexual activity (to approach the Glory appropriately takes all one's powers of self-donation). So Mary's virginity puts her in a condition fit for overshadowing by that Glory of the Lord. According to an early Christian tradition, her parents brought her to the Jerusalem temple, centre of Israel's worship, as a sign of her consecration to the "angelic" life. But the life of the angels is also a life of mission, of being at God's disposal, with a view to succouring others who need help on the way of salvation. At the Annunciation, Mary will place herself in the service not only of the Lord (though that first and foremost) but of all those who were awaiting the redemption of Israel.
AMomENT that not only changed the world, but, more than that, the relation between the world and God. No surprise then that the Gospel describes Mary as "much perplexed" (Lk 1:29) at the angelic salutation. Only a great novelist who was also a convinced theological realist could do any sort of justice to the occasion in prose. But there are
many artists who have done just that in terms of form and colour. One thinks of Duccio's Annunciation with its daring portrayal of Mary's physical recoil, as in initial fear she shields herself with her cloak while holding in her hand the text of Israel's sacred writings open at the page of Isaiah's prophecy of a Virgin who will carry "Emmanuel", God-with-us. Many people have said "Yes" to God in various circumstances. But none like this.
Mar's consent is allimportant. In taking flesh in a human mother's womb God could not violate his creature, for what transgress the most basic Creator-creature relationship. So in the nnuneialion he turns to M , appealing to her will, waiting (though not for long) for her reply. Again. this particular mother had to be capable of introducing her Child, as man, into the fullness of Israel's religion, which was the already existing divine revelation to mankind and so would form the indispensable background to Jesus' mission. And, lastly, the matrix into which the Logos entered when he stepped into the created material realm had to be perfectly disposed to union with himself. If modem psychology has any glimmerings of truth at all, there can be no perfect son without a perfect mother and this the Immaculate (she alone!) could be.
Catholics most commonly think of Our Lady in connection with God the Son who as a man is the fruit of her womb that, evidently, is the message of the feasts of the Annunciation and Christmas. They also think of her in relation to God the Father, who chose her from all eternity the message of the feasts of her Immaculate Conception and Nativity. But there is also the question of their relation to God the Holy Spirit whom the Gospel of the Annunciation festival describes as "overshadowing" her (Lk 1:35) with her transforming presence. It is lest we forget this aspect of her mystery that the Church gives us the feast of the Visitation (2 JulyOld Calendar: 31 May -New) In the Gospel of the day (Lk 1:39-56), it is when her cousin Elizabeth hears Mary's greeting that she filled with the Holy Spirit. Although as God the Holy Spirit is immediately related to each and every person, none the less it is when Elizabeth enters into contact with Mary that he is passed on to the cousin of the Virgin in this incarnate way. One way we celebrate, in the season after Pentecost, the Father's sending of the Spirit through the Son, is to honour the effect of that sending in the person of Mary — that effect which renders her an icon of the Spirit's action. Just before his death, Jesus tells the disciples that he will not leave them orphaned comfortless, desolate, afflicted (in 14:18). But Jesus could not be said to have kept that promise if Christians never received
any religious mothering. it is part of the evangelical experience that the Holy Spirit works to mother us, and, we add as Catholics, does so precisely through Mary. The cult of Mary as "Mother of the Church" is all to do with the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the "Paraclete", our gracious Advocate, and we say the same of Mary in the ancient Latin antiphon, the Salve Regina. The Spirit is Comforter of the afflicted, and so, according to her litany, is Mary. The Spirit comes to our aid in our weakness, and the same litany calls Mary the "Help of Christians". We might
even venture the speculation that as Christ is the image of the Father so — in a way proper to one who remains simply human as we are is Mary of the Holy Spirit. But all this is hidden in the mystery of the Visitation, and only disclosed on her Assumption, when she joins her Son in glory and takes on the task of a universal intercession expanding to the dimensions of the Spirit's own.
From Come to the Father: An Invitation to Share the Catholic Faith, by Fr Aidan Nichols OP, published by St Paul's Publishing at f6.95