31 December 2014
Blessed Mary: A Treasury of Truth
The earthly life of the Blessed Virgin Mary marks one of the great pivotal points of history, because of the task given to her by God. And yet, this earth-shattering event took place in a surprisingly quiet way, as St. Luke tells us:
“The angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you!” But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and considered in her mind what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” And Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I have no husband?” And the angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God...”
And so to this, Mary said “yes,” and in her “yes” to God is a treasury of truth. Just as God heard Mary’s “yes” and so the Son was conceived in her womb, so the Church has listened to Mary’s “yes”, and it has communicated the great truths about Mary in a voice loud and clear – truths which we accept, and around which we form our devotion – because these truths about Mary speak impressively about her divine Son.
First, the Church teaches us that Mary was immaculately conceived. At the instant of Mary’s conception in the womb of her mother, St. Anne, she was, by the special grace of God, protected from the stain of original sin. This was done because of the great destiny which was hers – that of being the Mother of God. It was her flesh which would give flesh to Jesus; it was her body which would be His tabernacle for nine months; therefore, it would be beyond possibility that the Mother of God should bear the sin of Adam, since God can endure no sin. This was taught implicitly and explicitly from the earliest days of the Church, and was confirmed and solemnly proclaimed by Pope Pius IX in 1854, when he stated infallibly, “The most holy Virgin Mary was, in the first moment of her conception, by a unique gift of grace and privilege of Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ the Redeemer of mankind, preserved free from all stain of original sin.”
Second, the Church teaches us that Mary was impeccable. In other words, she was never stained with any personal sin, and she was free from every moral imperfection. Certainly, she lived a human life. She had to labor, and was subject to pain and tiredness; but she, like her son Jesus Christ, had nothing in her which led her to act against the perfect moral law of God. This formal teaching of the Church is deduced from the words of the archangel Gabriel, when he addressed her as being “full of grace,” since moral guilt could not be reconciled with being filled completely with God’s grace. Once again, this teaching is defined because of Mary’s relationship with her Son, and not through simple merit of her own. She did not sin, and she could not sin, because of a special grace and privilege given to her by God, because He had chosen her to bear the Incarnate Word.
Third, the Church teaches us that Mary was perpetually a virgin. Three states of virginity are professed in this teaching: Mary conceived her Son without a human Father; she gave birth to Jesus without violating her virginity; and she remained a virgin after our Lord was born, for the rest of her life. The virginal conception is contained in all of the ancient creeds: “Jesus Christ… who was conceived by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary...” The biblical basis of this, of course, is the prophecy of Isaiah (“A virgin shall conceive and bear a son...’), and it is confirmed by St. Matthew’s Gospel, which quotes this directly from the prophecy of Isaiah. All of the early Church Fathers confirm this teaching. The virginal birth was not questioned until a monk named Jovinian, teaching in the 4th century, said that “a virgin conceived, but a virgin did not bring forth,” and he was condemned by a synod of the Church meeting at Milan in the year 390, which was presided over by St. Ambrose. This was confirmed by the fifth general council of the Church, which was held at Constantinople in the year 553, where Mary was confirmed as being “perpetually virgin.” Certainly, the ancient theologians did not go into the physical details, but they speak in modest analogies, such as the “emergence of Christ from the sealed tomb,” his “going through closed doors,” the “penetration of light through glass,” the “going out of human thought from the mind.” The Church also teaches us of the perpetual virginity of Mary, that she remained a virgin after Christ was born. Her marriage to Joseph was a spiritual one, which was not consummated physically, and so she bore no other children. From the fourth century on, such formulas as that of St. Augustine became common: “A virgin conceived, a virgin gave birth, and a virgin remained.”
All of these truths about Mary have to do not only with her, but they are intimately related to Our Lord Jesus Christ. All of them are true, because of the one great truth of history: that Almighty God took human flesh upon Himself, and was born of this special woman, a virgin, chosen by God Himself, a Virgin prepared for this task through her immaculate conception, a virgin preserved for this task through her impeccability, a virgin honored for this task through her perpetual virginity, as a constant witness to the fact that it was her pure flesh which was given to the Incarnate Word. These truths are not simply esoteric theological statements. They are truths which impact history. They are truths which prepared for that ultimate moment of history when God entered personally into time and space.
It was at that time that Caesar Augustus, the master of the world, determined to issue an order for a census of the world which was ruled by Rome. To every outpost – to every corner – the order went out: every Roman subject must be enrolled in his own city. How far it was from the mind of Caesar Augustus, that his imperial order was a part of God’s great plan that the Saviour of the world should be born of the chosen Virgin Mary in a little-known place called Bethlehem. An order of Caesar Augustus – perhaps thought of by him only incidentally, and then ordered casually – meant that countless lives were interrupted as people gathered the necessary supplies for their various journeys.
And so it was that Joseph and Mary, this couple visited by angels and touched by God, were traveling in eternity at the order of an earthly ruler. And because of that, how things were to change! In a dirty stable, Pure Love was born. The “Living Bread come down from heaven” was laid where animals had eaten. The ancestors of Joseph and Mary, the Jews, had worshipped the golden calf, and now the ox and the ass were bowing down before their God.
As Mary fulfilled the plan of God, by conceiving and giving birth to the Christ, his passion began: He was born in a borrowed stable; He was buried in a borrowed tomb. The swaddling clothes which Mary wrapped around him when he was born looked forward to the grave-clothes which she would help to wrap around His lifeless body some thirty-three years later. The wooden manger in which His mother had laid him foreshadowed the wooden Cross from which she would receive His body into her arms.
And so in Christ, heaven came to earth, and it came through the Blessed Virgin Mother. God’s glory was announced to shepherds and to kings. And they came, as men and women have been coming ever since, to worship the Word Made Flesh. The Blessed Virgin, holding the Child Jesus, becomes truly our Mother and our example, as God calls each one of us to hold out Christ to the world – to hold Him out in our actions and in our words – so that all may come to worship Him, the Incarnate God.