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This is the second of four reflections that ponder
the connection between four phrases of the Hail Mary and the Advent season.
Permission to publish these reflections has been
graciously granted by Our Sunday Visitor newspaper (200 Noll Plaza;
Huntington, IN 46750; 1-800-348-2440, x 2; www.osv.com).
The Perfect Faith of the Blessed Virgin
by Carl E. Olson
The Second Sunday of Advent, December 5, 2004
"Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee!" Uttered by the
heavenly messenger, Gabriel, to a Jewish maiden (Lk 1:28), these words, of
course, make up the first phrase of the Hail Mary. The second phrase of that
great prayer come from an earthly creature, Elizabeth, the cousin of Mary, who
exclaims: "Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy
womb" (Lk 1:42). St. Bede remarks that this is fitting since the two remarks
show that Mary "should be honored by angels and by men and why she should
indeed be revered above all other women."
The reverence paid to Mary by Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox is bothersome
to some Protestants (and even some Catholics!), who see in it undue attention
given to a mere human. It is attention, they say, fitting to God alone. This is
an unfortunate misunderstanding, and one that is sometimes made worse by the
inability of Catholics to explain the place and meaning of Mary in Catholic
doctrine and devotion. Advent provides an opportunity to more deeply contemplate
Marys life she emerges so prominently on the stage of salvation history
during this season of preparation and anticipation.
Monsignor Ronald Knox once observed that Advent and Christmas mark "a
return to our origins." Having been given the incredible news by the angel,
Mary makes a return of sorts to her own origins, travelling to visit her beloved
cousinlikely the closest living relative she had. She journeyed three or
four days to the "hill country, to a city of Judah" (Lk 1:39), filled
with the joy of news that was undoubtedly still overwhelming and mysterious. Luke
shows that those who are filled with the Holy Spirit are anxious to tell others
about Christ. And in his description of Mary greeting Elizabeth, he makes a
similar point: those filled with the Holy Spirit recognize their Savioreven
when they cannot see him. "And it came about that when Elizabeth heard
Marys greeting," the Evangelist writes, "the baby leaped in her
womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit." It is then that the
older woman exclaims in wonder at the blessed state of her young cousin.
How blessed was Mary? It might seem a frivolous question considering that she
carried the Incarnate Son in her womb. But in order to appreciate the reverence
due to Mary, it should be noted that the phrase "blessed art thou among
women" is the Jewish way of saying: "You are the most blessed of
woman!" And why has Mary been chosen by the Most High to be the mother of
the Redeemer? Because of Gods grace and her faithful response to it, a fact
that Elizabeth, herself a woman of great faith, recognized: "And blessed is
she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from
the Lord" (Lk 1:45).
Reflecting on Marys faith, the Catechism of the Catholic Church
compares Mary to Abraham, who, "because of his faith, became a blessing for
all the nations of the earth. Mary, because of her
faith, became the mother of believers, through whom all nations of the earth
receive him who is God's own blessing: Jesus, the fruit of thy
womb." (CCC 2676). This promise of salvation is also found in
todays reading from Psalm 72: "May his name be blessed forever; as
long as the sun his name shall remain. In him shall all the tribes of the earth
be blessed; all the nations shall proclaim his happiness."
In the original covenant made with Abraham in Genesis 12, the nomadic
patriarch is told by God that he will be made a "great nation," that
his name will be made great, and he "shall be a blessing" to all the
families of the earth. So what does it mean exactly to be blessed? The very first
use of the word "bless" in Scripture is found in the creation account
of the opening chapter of Genesis, which describes God looking upon the creatures
of earth, blessing them, and declaring: "Be fruitful and multiply" (Gen
1:22). Then, after creating man, he blessed Adam and Eve and said, "Be
fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it" (Gen 1:28).
Blessing, then, is intimately connected to the gift of life. In the Old
Testament blessings were connected with prosperity, progeny, and promise.
Blessings and curses were central to the great covenants made with Abraham,
Moses, and David. With Mary, the blessing also involves prosperity, progeny, and
promisebut uniquely so, for her Son encompasses all of those things and
makes them available to all people for the remainder of time. "For I say
that Christ became a minister of the circumcised to show God's
truthfulness," St. Paul writes in todays epistle reading, "to
confirm the promises to the patriarchs, but so that the Gentiles might glorify
God for his mercy" (Rom 15:8-9). The promises made to Abraham are fulfilled
in Mary; the Advent of the Old Testament finds completion in the Son of the
daughter of Sion.
The Second Vatican Council, in its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church,
declared that "this union of the Mother with the Son in the work of
salvation is made manifest from the time of Christ's virginal conception up to
His death it is shown first of all when Mary, arising in haste to go to visit
Elizabeth, is greeted by her as blessed because of her belief in the promise of
salvation and the precursor leaped with joy in the womb of his mother"
(Lumen Gentium, 57). Because of her perfect faith and cooperation with
Gods grace, Mary is Mother of God and "mother of men, particularly of
the faithful" (LG, 54). Mary is revered because she faithfully said
"Yes!" to God and gave birth to the God-man. She is loved because she
is our mother and the first disciple of her Son, our Savior.
During Advent all Catholics can emulate the example of Elizabeth, the cousin
of Mary. Filled with the Holy Spirit, she anticipates her Savior before ever
seeing him. She worships her Lord, even when he is hidden in the womb. She
reveres and embraces Mary, who brings salvation to her and to the entire world.
She hears the Magnificat and rejoices as Mary sings, "For behold,
from this time on all generations will count me blessed" (Lk 1:48).
John the Baptist prepares the way for Christ
The Old Testament and Gospel readings today mention two realities that might
not appear, at first glance, to have a direct connection to the Christmas story:
repentance and judgment.
The prophet Isaiah, in foreseeing the coming of a new and powerful "root
of Jesse," writes that this perfect king "shall strike the ruthless
with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked." Likewise, John
the Baptist, the cousin of the Christ, promises fire and destruction for those
who do not repent and acknowledge that Jesus is the Messiah, crying out: "He
will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in his hand.
He will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into his barn, but the
chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."
The Jesuit Scripture scholar Jean Daniélou, in The Advent of
Salvation, writes, "Since the coming of Christ goes on foreverHe
is always He who is to come in the world and in the Churchthere is always
an Advent going on, and this Advent is filled by John the Baptist. . . . He it is
who hastens the coming of Christ by sending out his resounding call to
repentance, to conversion; and the power of his call makes men ready for Christ
to come to them."
These readings from Isaiah and Matthews Gospel are striking reminders of
the need to be prepared to meet Christ at Christmas. Advent is an ideal time for
Confession, a season for conversion and renewal of mind, and a time to prepare
the way for the Lord in our hearts as Christmas approaches. By dying to
ourselves, we open the way for the birth of the Savior. In the word of the
Catechism: "By celebrating [John the Baptists] birth and
martyrdom , the Church unites herself to his desire: He must increase, but
I must decrease" (CCC 524).
The reflection for the first week of Advent can be read
Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com. He is the co-author of The
Da Vinci Hoax: Exposing the Errors in The Da Vinci Code and author
Catholics Be "Left Behind"? He resides with his family in a top secret location in the Northwest somewhere between Portland,
Oregon and Sacramento, California.
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