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"Hail, Full of Grace": Mary, the Mother of Believers | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger | An excerpt from Mary: The Church at the Source

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"From henceforth all generations will call me blessed"–these words of the Mother of Jesus handed on for us by Luke (Lk 1:48) are at once a prophecy and a charge laid upon the Church of all times. This phrase from the Magnificat, the spirit-filled prayer of praise that Mary addresses to the living God, is thus one of the principal foundations of Christian devotion to her.

The Church invented nothing new of her own when she began to extol Mary; she did not plummet from the worship of the one God to the praise of man. The Church does what she must; she carries out the task assigned her from the beginning. At the time Luke was writing this text, the second generation of Christianity had already arrived, and the "family" of the Jews had been joined by that of the Gentiles, who had been incorporated into the Church of Jesus Christ. The expression "all generations, all families" was beginning to be filled with historical reality. The Evangelist would certainly not have transmitted Mary's prophecy if it had seemed to him an indifferent or obsolete item. He wished in his Gospel to record "with care" what "the eyewitnesses and ministers of the word" (Lk 1:2-3) had handed on from the beginning, in order to give the faith of Christianity, which was then striding onto the stage of world history, a reliable guide for its future course.

Mary's prophecy numbered among those elements he had "carefully" ascertained and considered important enough to transmit to posterity. This fact assumes that Mary's words were guaranteed by reality: the first two chapters of Luke's Gospel give evidence of a sphere of tradition in which the remembrance of Mary was cultivated and the Mother of the Lord was loved and praised. They presuppose that the still somewhat naive exclamation of the unnamed woman, "blessed is the womb that bore you" (Lk 11:27), had not entirely ceased to resound but, as Jesus was more deeply understood, had likewise attained a purer form that more adequately expressed its content. They presuppose that Elizabeth's greeting, "blessed are you among women" (Lk 1:42), which Luke characterizes as words spoken in the Holy Spirit (Lk 1:4 1), had not been a once-only episode.

The continued existence of such praise at least in one strand of early Christian tradition is the basis of Luke's infancy narrative. The recording of these words in the Gospel raises this veneration of Mary from historical fact to a commission laid upon the Church of all places and all times.

The Church neglects one of the duties enjoined upon her when she does not praise Mary. She deviates from the word of the Bible when her Marian devotion falls silent. When this happens, in fact, the Church no longer even glorifies God as she ought. For though we do know God by means of his creation–"Ever since the creation of the world [God's] invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made" (Rom 1:20)–we also know him, and know him more intimately, through the history he has shared with man. just as the history of a man's life and the relationships he has formed reveal, what kind of person he is, God shows himself in a history, in men through whom his own character can be seen.

This is so true that he can be "named" through them and identified in them: the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob. Through his relation with men, through the faces of men, God has made himself accessible and has shown his face. We cannot try to bypass these human faces in order to get to God alone, in his "pure form", as it were. This would lead us to a God of our own invention in. place of the real God; it would be an arrogant purism that regards its own ideas as more important than God's deeds. The above cited verse of the Magnificat shows us that Mary is one of the human beings who in an altogether special way belong to the name of God, so much so, in fact, that we cannot praise him rightly if we leave her out of account.

In doing so we forget something about him that must not be forgotten. What, exactly? Our first attempt at an answer could be his maternal side, which reveals itself more purely and more directly in the Son's Mother than anywhere else. But this is, of course, much too general. In order to praise Mary correctly and thus to glorify God correctly, we must listen to all that Scripture and tradition say concerning the Mother of the Lord and ponder it in our hearts. Thanks to the praise of "all generations" since the beginning, the abundant wealth of Mariology has become almost too vast to survey. In this brief meditation, I would like to help the reader reflect anew on just a few of the key words Saint Luke has placed in our hands in his inexhaustibly rich infancy narrative.

Mary, Daughter Zion–Mother of Believers

Let us begin with the angel's greeting to Mary. For Luke, this is the primordial cell of Mariology that God himself wished to present to us through his messenger, the Archangel Gabriel.

Translated literally, the greeting reads thus: "Rejoice, full of grace. The Lord is with you" (Lk 1:28). "Rejoice": At first sight, this word appears to be no more than the formulaic greeting current in the Greek-speaking world, and tradition has consistently translated it as "hail". But looked at against the background of the Old Testament, this formula of greeting takes on a more profound significance. Consider, in fact, that the same word used by Luke appears four times in the Septuagint, where in each case it is an announcement of messianic joy (Zeph 3:14; Joel 2:21; Zech 9:9; Lam 4:21).

This greeting marks the beginning of the Gospel in the strict sense; its first word is "joy", the new joy that comes from God and breaks through the world's ancient and interminable sadness. Mary is not merely greeted in some vague or indifferent way; that God greets her and, in her, greets expectant Israel and all of humanity is an invitation to rejoice from the innermost depth of our being. The reason for our sadness is the futility of our love, the overwhelming power of finitude, death, suffering, and falsehood. We are sad because we are left alone in a contradictory world where enigmatic signals of divine goodness pierce through the cracks yet are thrown in doubt by a power of darkness that is either God's responsibility or manifests his impotence.





"Rejoice"–what reason does Mary have to rejoice in such a world? The answer is: "The Lord is with you." In order to grasp the sense of this announcement, we must return once more to the Old Testament texts upon which it is based, in particular to Zephaniah. These texts invariably contain a double promise to the personification of Israel, daughter Zion: God will come to save, and he will come to dwell in her. The angel's dialogue with Mary reprises this promise and in so doing makes it concrete in two ways. What in the prophecy is said to daughter Zion is now directed to Mary: She is identified with daughter Zion, she is daughter Zion in person.

In a parallel manner, Jesus, whom Mary is permitted to bear, is identified with Yahweh, the living God. When Jesus comes, it is God himself who comes to dwell in her. He is the Savior–this is the meaning of the name Jesus, which thus becomes clear from the heart of the promise. René Laurentin has shown through painstaking textual analyses how Luke has used subtle word play to deepen the theme of God's indwelling. Even early traditions portray God as dwelling "in the womb" of Israel–in the Ark of the Covenant. This dwelling "in the womb" of Israel now becomes quite literally real in the Virgin of Nazareth. Mary herself thus becomes the true Ark of the Covenant in Israel, so that the symbol of the Ark gathers an incredibly realistic force: God in the flesh of a human being, which flesh now becomes his dwelling place in the midst of creation.

The angel's greeting–the center of Mariology not invented by the human mind–has led us to the theological foundation of this Mariology. Mary is identified with daughter Zion, with the bridal people of God. Everything said about the ecclesia in the Bible is true of her, and vice versa: the Church learns concretely what she is and is meant to be by looking at Mary. Mary is her mirror, the pure measure of her being, because Mary is wholly within the measure of Christ and of God, is through and through his habitation. And what other reason could the ecclesia have for existing than to become a dwelling for God in the world? God does not deal with abstractions. He is a person, and the Church is a person. The more that each one of us becomes a person, person in the sense of a fit habitation for God, daughter Zion, the more we become one, the more we are the Church, and the more the Church is herself.

The typological identification of Mary and Zion leads us, then, into the depths. This manner of connecting the Old and New Testaments is much more than an interesting historical construction by means of which the Evangelist links promise and fulfillment and reinterprets the Old Testament in the light of what has happened in Christ. Mary is Zion in person, which means that her life wholly embodies what is meant by "Zion". She does not construct a self-enclosed individuality whose principal concern is the originality of its own ego. She does not wish to be just this one human being who defends and protects her own ego. She does not regard life as a stock of goods of which everyone wants to get as much as possible for himself.

Her life is such that she is transparent to God, "habitable" for him. Her life is such that she is a place for God. Her life sinks her into the common measure of sacred history, so that what appears in her is, not the narrow and constricted ego of an isolated individual, but the whole, true Israel. This "typological identification" is a spiritual reality; it is life lived out of the spirit of Sacred Scripture; it is rootedness in the faith of the Fathers and at the same time expansion into the height and breadth of the coming promises. We understand why the Bible time and again compares the just man to the tree whose roots drink from the living waters of eternity and whose crown catches and synthesizes the light of heaven.

Let us return once more to the angel's greeting. Mary is called "full of grace". The Greek word for grace (charis) derives from the same root as the words joy and rejoice (chara, chairein). Thus, we see once more in a different form the same context to which we were led by our earlier comparison with the Old Testament. Joy comes from grace. One who is in the state of grace can rejoice with deep-going, constant joy. By the same token, grace is joy.

What is grace? This question thrusts itself upon our text. Our religious mentality has reified this concept much too much; it regards grace as a supernatural something we carry about in our soul. And since we perceive very little of it, or nothing at all, it has gradually become irrelevant to us, an empty word belonging to Christian jargon, which seems to have lost any relationship to the lived reality of our everyday life. In reality, grace is a relational term: it does not predicate something about an I, but something about a connection between I and Thou, between God and man. "Full of grace" could therefore also be translated as: "You are full of the Holy Spirit; your life is intimately connected with God." Peter Lombard, the author of what was the universal theological manual for approximately three centuries during the Middle Ages, propounded the thesis that grace and love are identical but that love "is the Holy Spirit".

Grace in the proper and deepest sense of the word is not some thing that comes from God; it is God himself. Redemption means that God, acting as God truly does, gives us nothing less than himself The gift of God is God–he who as the Holy Spirit is communion with us. "Full of grace" therefore means, once again, that Mary is a wholly open human being, one who has opened herself entirely, one who has placed herself in God's hands boldly, limitlessly, and without fear for her own fate. It means that she lives wholly by and in relation to God. She is a listener and a prayer, whose mind and soul are alive to the manifold ways in which the living God quietly calls to her. She is one who prays and stretches forth wholly to meet God; she is therefore a lover, who has the breadth and magnanimity of true love, but who has also its unerring powers of discernment and its readiness to suffer.

Luke has flooded this fact with the light of yet another round of motifs. In his subtle way he constructs a parallel between Abraham, the father of believers, and Mary, the mother of believers. To be in a state of grace means: to be a believer. Faith includes steadfastness, confidence, and devotion, but also obscurity. When man's relation to God, the soul's open availability for him, is characterized as "faith", this word expresses the fact that the infinite distance between Creator and creature is not blurred in the relation of the human I to the divine Thou. It means that the model of "partnership", which has become so dear to us, breaks down when it comes to God, because it cannot sufficiently express the majesty of God and the hiddenness of his working. It is precisely the man who has been opened up entirely into God who comes to accept God's otherness and the hiddenness of his will, which can pierce our will like a sword.

The parallel between Mary and Abraham begins in the joy of the promised son but continues apace until the dark hour when she must ascend Mount Moriah, that is, until the Crucifixion of Christ. Yet it does not end there; it also extends to the miracle of Isaac's rescue-the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Abraham, father of faith-this title describes the unique position of the patriarch in the piety of Israel and in the faith of the Church. But is it not wonderful that-without any revocation of the special status of Abraham–a "mother of believers" now stands at the beginning of the new people and that our faith again and again receives from her pure and high image its measure and its path?

[Excerpted from the chapter "'Hail, Full of Grace': Elements of Marian Piety According to the Bible", from Mary: The Church at the Source by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger and Hans Urs von Balthasar, pp. 61-69. Footnotes have been omitted.]



Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles:

"Conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary" | Hans Urs von Balthasar
Immaculate Mary, Matchless in Grace | John Saward
The Medieval Mary | The Introduction to Mary in the Middle Ages | by Luigi Gambero
Misgivings About Mary | Dr. James Hitchcock
Mary in Feminist Theology: Mother of God or Domesticated Goddess? | Fr. Manfred Hauke
Assumed Into Mother's Arms | Carl E. Olson
The Disciple Contemplates the Mother | Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis



Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, was for over two decades the Prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith under Pope John Paul II. He is a renowned theologian and author of numerous books. A mini-bio and full listing of his books published by Ignatius Press are available on his IgnatiusInsight.com Author Page.



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