The Blessed Virgin in the Faith of the Church

Author: Fr. Jean Danielou


Jean Danielou

Everyone feels how important the problem of faith is today. We know that faith is being fought against externally by all agnostic and atheistic forces. We also know that it is being questioned internally. In many Christians uncertainty exists both as to what concerns the foundation of faith itself or one or other of its tenets.

Let us take one particular dogma of our faith, that regarding the Virgin Mary. We choose this one because the place of the Virgin Mary in Christian faith is actually one of the most difficult, most delicate and most discussed. On the other hand we feel sure, deep down in our hearts, that the place of the Madonna in the history of salvation and our love for her constitute a touchstone of our Catholic faith. Anything that would give offence in this matter would strike something essential in us. With the "Our Father", the Lord's Prayer, the "Hail Mary" is our daily Prayer. Possessing these we are heirs of all the Church's tradition. The Council of Ephesus proclaimed Mary the "Mother of God", thus attesting the reality of the Incarnation of the Word. We know how much the great Christian centuries exalted her; the cathedrals here in France that are dedicated to her, prove how much Our Lady was venerated in those ages. And without going back too far into the past, how many modern sanctuaries bear witness to the important place Mary occupies in the Church and in Christian life.

Justifying Mary's place today

If we were questioned today on the justification of Mary's place in our faith and devotions, or on the essential dogmasconcerning her—the Immaculate Conception, her Assumption—we might often be disconcerted and lacking in arguments to justify what we believe. There is something disproportionate between the place Mary occupies in our Christian sentiments and the place she holds in our Christian convictions. We know whence our difficulty arises. In part it certainly comes from our Protestant brethren Whatever concerns Mary is one of the points that gives rise to the great difficulty in ecumenical dialogue. There is no difficulty at all with our Orthodox brethren who, on the contrary, give her an exalted place. Among their icons Mary is always seen near St. John Baptist at the sanctuary gate. But on the part of the Protestants, there is a fundamental dispute about both the Marian dogmas and the Marian devotions. On the other hand agnostic, atheistic circles connected with the sciences, would be much inclined these days to give a natural explanation to Mary's place both in Christian faith and devotion. They would willingly admit as true the uninterrupted. position held by certain figures in paganism. This is a universal fact in the history of religions. Or on the plane of psychology or psychoanalysis, the place given to Mary in Christian devotion would be the endowment of an ideal woman with the sublimated aspirations that a woman inspires.

Expressing devotion to Mary not sufficient

These difficulties and objections make us go to the very heart of things and ask ourselves what we mean by the various declarations of our faith regarding Mary. It would certainly be evading a duty to be content with merely expressing what the devotion to Mary is, if we do not declare the solid foundation on which it rests. And that, too, with such conviction that we could fully undertake its defense in this epoch of scientific development of technical progress and social change.

Do we still have the right these days to talk about the Immaculate Conception, the Assumption, the Divine Maternity, of Mary our Mediatrix? Are we fully able to affirm these declarations, today, with entire intellectual certainty? This is the question. A Marian devotion that would merely consist in a certain emotional loyalty to childhood memories and fond traditions would not survive for long when confronted with modern life and thought. Faith finds itself face-to-face with a challenge. I prefer the word "challenge" to "crisis" which seems to imply a loss of integrity. Nothing has been lost in the faith of the Church. But the world of today is launching a challenge against her, and the only thing that matters is to know whether we can accept this challenge of proclaiming our faith before the modern world with real conviction. It is not by defeatism, by timidity or by asking questions, that we can soothe the anguish of the modern world, but by carrying our faith once again to its source, to show that the answer it brings today is as valid as it was in the past and will still be in the future.

The person of Mary poses first problem.

Here I shall recall only one point, the fundamental point of all that concerns the Virgin: it is from her that Jesus, our Savior, was born. This provokes certain questions, and in the first place, the problem of the person of Mary. Through certain representations we make, Mary ends up by seeming to be such a celestial personage that we may well ask ourselves whether she really lived. Indeed, she has become a kind of myth.

It is necessary to say here that the very first declaration we have made about Mary is that she is really a daughter of Israel, a young Jewish girl, born of the Jewish race and whose historical existence is indisputable. The principal events that refer to her in the New Testament, namely, the fact she was engaged to Joseph, that she was the Mother of Jesus, that she presented Jesus in the Temple, that she searched for Him while on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, that she accompanied Him in His public life, that she was present at the Descent of the Holy Spirit, are so many declarations which on the historical level, in the strictest sense of the word, have absolutely no reason to be doubted.

Establishing the historicity of events

Because it is well, today, to establish the historicity of the events of Christ's life, I should like to say three things: 1. All real progress in our knowledge of the Jewish conditions of the time—and I am thinking particularly of the discoveries around the Dead Sea—gives surprising proofs of all the Gospel tells us about the milieu it describes, for example, Joseph's adoption of Jesus will find a surprising verification in the customs of the time. 2. Likewise we discover today the extraordinary I place the family of Jesus, his cousins, his uncles occupied in that primitive community. Such a position recalls what the Semitic conditions are when a person becomes important. Mohammed's family took possession of the prophet's inheritance. Historically, one can say the same Of Jesus’ family in Palestinian Judaism. So it is quite natural that the Evangelists received information regarding the childhood of Jesus from the witnesses themselves who had been associated with those events. 3. Finally, we learn that the holy places in Palestine, the home of Mary in Nazareth, the cave at Bethlehem, have been venerated since the very beginnings of Christianity. So it is easily seen that the historical reminders connected with the existence of Jesus and Mary stem from the original environment.

Gospels agree on Virgin birth

Therefore Mary is, first of all, a historical personage who once lived in a definite place. However, the texts in the New Testament produce more evidence that puts real problems before us. In the first place, I allude to what constitutes one of the doctrines of our faith, about which many people today are inquiring, and that is the fact that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of a virgin Mother. This is the essential declaration of the Gospels on the infancy. In Saint Matthew's Gospel the question is asked: How can Jesus be the son of David and at the same time the Prince of David foretold in. the Old Testament, since he is not the son of Joseph? This means that for the Evangelist Matthew, it is something absolutely certain that Jesus is the son of Mary alone and that therefore he has been conceived by the Holy Spirit. But as Mary is not a descendant of David, it is necessary to raise another question: How can Jesus be the son of David? Matthew answers this question by showing how Joseph legally recognized Jesus as his son and that, according to Jewish law, he is considered to be the descendant of David. The Evangelist Luke, more directly, shows us Yahweh sending his messenger to announce to Mary that she is to be the Mother of the Messiah although she is not married to Joseph, and that the Holy One to be born of her will be called the Son of God. Whenever we recite the Apostles' Creed which has been a tradition of our faith from the beginning, we continue to say that Christ was conceived in the womb of the Virgin Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Here we find ourselves with our backs to the wall, so we must get to the bottom of the difficulty. The virginal conception seems to us, perhaps, more or less legendary, or do we take it seriously in a way that we could defend it before anyone who might ask us to explain it? Unbelievers are beginning to be bored with Christians who slip away as soon as a serious question is put to them.

Christian traditions give further attestation

One day an unbeliever remarked that we will not succeed in convincing the men of today with the Canon in French and birth control pills. This looks like demagogy to them. They are waiting for the Church to say something that appears to be valid about the virginal conception, the Resurrection, Heaven, Hell and the Real Presence in the Eucharist. In other words, what we are being interrogated about is the very foundation of our Faith. To the people around us, the rest is secondary. They are waiting for us to tell them why we, normal people, men and women of this age, with the same education as they, can still believe in the virginal conception. One must look at the situation just as it is, for we are actually united on this point. Are we ready to pledge our honour, life itself on the virginal conception, granted that it is an essential element of our Faith, and that on this point every diminution of it touches the very substance of this Faith?

This fact is first of all attested by the total sum of the testimony of Holy Scripture and Christian Tradition without any exception: Catholic tradition, Orthodox tradition, Protestant tradition, and, I shall add, Moslem tradition, for Mohammed professed the virginal conception of Jesus. It would be strange indeed, if some day the Moslems still believed in the virginal conception while Christians no longer believed it. But is it enough to rely on these various kinds of testimony? Is it not necessary to understand what they mean? Are we living in a world of wonders? Perhaps belief in the virginal conception belongs to a pre-scientific period of the intellect, and cannot be accepted in a scientific age? If we should ask ourselves what is Faith, and what is the object of Faith, we must say that the object of Faith is that God intervenes in human existence. Jesus is not merely a lofty figure, a great example for us, a model of humility, charity and the interior life. If Jesus were nothing more than that, he would be a professor of morals, an exemplar. We have no need of a professor; we do need a Saviour.

The object of Sacred Scripture is sacred history, and sacred history is the history of tile great things God has accomplished among men. It teaches us that if men accomplish great things that are the outcome of culture, politics and science, there are other works, however, which are divine works and they are infinitely greater. Pascal once said: "All the acts of the intelligence do not make one act of charity". And Pascal who was an admirer of St. Augustine, knew that love is what God alone can accomplish in hearts. God works through all human history creating the first man, making a covenant with Abraham, liberating his people from Egypt and staying in the Temple. Now the coming of Jesus into the world takes its place in the long line of God's great works. And the accounts of the conception and birth of Jesus are set down to portray these events, not merely as the touching story of a baby boy, but as a marvelous work of God taking place among us.

Denial undermines our Faith

It is extraordinary that the first Word in the New Testament recalls the first book in the Old Testament. It is "the genealogy (genesis) of Jesus Christ, son of Abraham". Now this word is found only once in the rest of Sacred Scripture, in the Book of Genesis itself, incidentally, in the account of the creation of Adam. And when the great Doctor of Lyons, St. Irenaeus in the second century, tells us that it is the same Word of God, who had created the first Adam from the virgin earth, and who came in the fulness of time to raise up this other Adam from the womb of the Virgin, he shows us the incomparable and perfectly intelligible meaning of the virginal conception. It is, as it were, a new creation of man. The same Word who had created man in the beginning, when he did not exist, comes to search for this man who belongs to him by right of creation. Why? in order to create him anew, not by taking him from the slime of the earth, but from the race of Adam itself, forming in it a new creation and a perfectly new beginning. The fact that Jesus was born of Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit is itself the expression of such a radical recommencement. And in this moment the mystery of the virginal conception does not appear to us anymore as a ridiculous tale of some ancient folklore, but as one of those simply Divine acts that are the true object of our Faith. If the Divine character of the birth of Jesus is denied, the object of our Faith is undermined in its very substance, which consists in believing we are in a world where God intervenes, and that there are many things God alone can do. As Guardini says: "Love does these things...". And what right have we to limit this sovereign freedom of Love?

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
22 August 1968, page 6

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