Virgin Mary, Mother and Daughter of Your Son

Author: Hans Urs Von Balthasar


Hans Urs Von Balthasar

Reflections drawn from Hans Urs Von Balthasar’s "Marie Première Église"

At the heart of the Incarnation Mary exercises lasting mission

The place of Mary in ecclesial doctrine and devotion in the last twenty years has been a source of tensions within the Church. On one hand, a group of devout persons promote the maxim, "there is never enough said of Mary", while on the other hand, those on the frontier of the Church sense dangers for converts and for ecumenical relations. These have been emphasizing the hierarchy of truths centred on the Trinity and Christ, from whom comes all grace, while noting that Mary is a creature, even though she is the highest and the greatest, who has received the greatest grace possible. Ecumenists have to deal with groups in the communities born of the Reformation for whom Marian devotion seems to be a dangerous growth of something secondary. Many seeking full communion find that the last barrier to their becoming Catholics is Catholic Marian devotion. There may be a way of reconciling the two tendencies.

It is true that there is never enough said about Mary when one leaves aside a quantitative approach which seems to want more devotions, more apparitions, more dogmatic definitions and moves to a qualitative approach. The qualitative approach does mean that we seek a greater understanding of Mary's mission in God's plan of salvation and appreciate Mary's corresponding grace. Those who show some hesitation due to their reliance on the historical critical approach to the Gospels must consider that in Scripture no woman is spoken of in such detail and in so many places as Mary. Wherever she appears in the Gospels the event or the word is in strict relation with the Incarnation of Christ, his infancy, his public activity, his passion, his continued life in the Church. Even though the occasions in which Mary appears are scattered throughout the Gospels, they form, when one thinks more deeply about them a set of relationships where the persons involved react with one another like Mother and Son, Mother, Servant of the Word and Word, in a history of salvation in which the persons enjoy eternal life and glory. The richness of personal aspects may make it difficult to speak of Mary with restrictive definitions, that is why we use the Litany of Our Lady. There is a kind of parallel with her Son. No one title fully captures all the riches of his Person and of his work. In our wonder we can explore infinitely the love that led One of the Trinity to suffer for us.

Veneration of Mary glorifies God's gifts as Scripture suggests

The celebration of a human being should not be confused with the worship due to God alone. For example, at the end of the Old Testament era, devout Jews venerated their great ancestors, the patriarchs, Moses, and the prophets (cf Sir 44-50) with a veneration which they never saw as taking anything away from the worship due to God. In the New Covenant the relationship with people truly worthy of veneration is yet closer in virtue of the mysterious bonds of the "communion of saints". Through a special gift of grace that God makes to his Church, he is owed a homage of gratitude which can only be given if his great gifts are properly appreciated and, when this gift is a person, venerated. With great wisdom, Mary shows that she knows this law when, in the Magnificat, she celebrates God's great action in her, which all generations will celebrate by calling her blessed.

In his Apostolic Exhortation Marialis cultus Pope Paul VI gave the devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary in the liturgy a comprehensive treatment. First he showed Mary's place in the feasts and prayers of the revised Roman liturgy. Then he described Mary as the model of the Church in divine worship. Lastly, he offered guidelines for the successful renewal of Marian devotions: they should express the Trinitarian, Christological and ecclesial dimensions. They should draw on the Bible and be open to understanding in other Christian circles. They should deal with the needs of faith and life of men and women today. The liturgical perspective reveals the profound veneration, Marian but always with biblical overtones, of the Church in her official devotion. From the point of view of women today, Mary of course appears as the strong woman who (with other holy women) remains at the foot of the Cross in the place of anguish that was abandoned by the male disciples. However, it is difficult to detect in her the features of an emancipated and militant woman. The main claim on our devotion is the fact that Mary is entirely at the service of her Son, and wants him to dispose of her as he so requires or desires. This type of service is relevant to all Christian ages, independently of changes in the image of woman.

Mary lived in faith at Nazareth and helps us live in faith

Catholics hold that the veneration of Mary is the surest and shortest way for us to approach Christ. Mary is only to be understood in relation to her Son. In meditating on all the stages of Mary's life, we learn what it means to live for Christ and with Christ in our daily lives in an intimacy, which has nothing exalted about it but a perfect inner closeness. In contemplating Mary's life, we are also putting ourselves in the darkness that is imposed upon our faith; however, we learn to be constantly ready when Jesus suddenly asks something of us.

The most commonly used Marian prayers help us on the path to this concrete closeness to the Lord and to the mystery of Redemption. We mention only three of them:

The Hail Mary, with the exception of the final request, consists solely of words from Holy Scripture: the angel's greeting (Hail Mary, full of grace the Lord is with you) and immediately afterwards Elizabeth's marvellous words which at the same time show us what the true Marian devotion is (Blessed art thou among women,and blessed is the fruit of thy womb). The final request which gives Mary the Christological title of "Mother of God", formulates as simply as possible the intention of Christian sinners in the Church: it asks for her intercession now and at the hour of the decisive event that decides everything. Likewise the Angelus in no way exceeds the preconceived model in the Bible: the three short formulas are Christocentric: the announcement of the Incarnation, the Virgin's consent, the accomplishment of the Incarnation itself. The three additional Hail Marys bring us close to the human creature in whom the miracle of the Incarnation is worked and thereby, as it were, into the radiance of the miracle. Every Christian who prays knows that the Incarnation of the Word also immediately concerns him, that it must also be wrought in him if he wants to be called Christian.

Imitate Mary in her total consent to God's will for Her Son

A veneration that is removed from life would be useless if Mary's attitude did not spur us to imitate her, and even in a certain way follow in her footsteps. Here one could object that it is Christ alone whom we must follow and—as Paul says—imitate, and the imitation of any other person might cause trouble. But it is not like this. If, with Mary, everything relies on her "yes" to God and logically develops from it. It is nothing more than the perfect human echo of Jesus' divine-human "yes" to the Father: I have come to do your will, O God (Heb 10, 7). I have come down from heaven not to do my own will but the will of the one who sent me (Jn 6, 38).

The Our Father containsthe same formulas for all Christians: Thywill be done, the prayer that Jesus on the Mount of Olives himself struggles to say as he faces the anguish of death.

The centre of the Marian "yes" is found exactly at the centre of the Son, but does not disappear in him. For Mary said it first to make the Incarnation possible for the first time, and for us, members of the Church, her "yes" remains the central and completely worthy response to the demands of the Lord. Christ's "yes" and Mary's "yes" are interconnected, but it is still true that Mary expresses her believing willingness by virtue of a grace that is ultimately Christological, while the Son, for his part, never denies what he owes his mother. An alternative that would make us choose between Christ and Mary is as impossible and meaningless as an alternative that would make us choose between Christ the Head and the Church his Body. When Christ is artificially detached from his mother or his Church, Christian piety can no longer understand him and Christ can become something abstract, a being who falls from heaven like a meteorite, and then returns to heaven, without becoming firmly rooted in human life and tradition.

Since Mary's "yes" is sinless and perfect, the veneration and imitation of Mary do not form a separate spirituality either. The opposite must be said: no spirituality approved in the Church can want to find God leaving aside the model of Christian perfection we find in Mary. The reason is that in the entire life of the Church, the response of faith expected by the Church has rung out in no one in purer tones and been lived more logically than in Mary. Nor is there any path of Christian perfection which would not consist in the act of being available without reserve. The Fathers of the Church called it the "absence of passion" (apatheia), in Medieval times spiritual writers called it "abandonment" (that is, not becoming attached to worldly things so one could be attached to God's will), Ignatius of Loyola called it "indifference" (that is, being satisfied in advance with all that God decides for us). These are variations of what has already been achieved in Mary's "yes" for all Christians, and for all men and women. Of course in Christians this "yes", this abandonment, this indifference, are no more than the act of living faith that loves and hopes whose foundation stone was laid by Abraham's readiness to obey. The unique, fundamental act can be emphasized in many ways and so makes room for a wealth of different spiritualities, but they all stem from the same centre and must return to it: to the one "yes" of Christ, of Mary and of the members of the Church, a "yes" that makes the Father's saving decision for each and every one possible; but it is the Holy Spirit who creates the unity between the Father's decision and the "yes" of the faithful.  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
30 May 2001, page 12

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