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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
"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.
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 ZionMother 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 Saviorthis 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 Israelin 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 greetingthe center of Mariology not invented by the human
mindhas 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 Godhe
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 Abrahama "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:
by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary" | Hans Urs von Balthasar
Mary, Matchless in Grace | John Saward
Mary | The Introduction to Mary in the Middle Ages | by Luigi Gambero
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
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
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