3rd Advent sermon of Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher of the Pontifical Household.
Mary in the Mystery of Christ and of the Church
1. Mariology in Lumen gentium
The topic of this last Advent meditation is Chapter 8 of Lumen gentium called “The Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God in the Mystery of Christ and the Church.”Let us listen to what the Council says on this issue:
The predestination of the Blessed Virgin as Mother of God was associated with the incarnation of the divine word: in the designs of divine Providence she was the gracious mother of the divine Redeemer here on earth, and above all others and in a singular way the generous associate and humble handmaid of the Lord. She conceived, gave birth to, and nourished Christ, she presented Him to the Father in the temple, shared his sufferings as He died on the Cross. Thus, in a very special way she cooperated by her obedience, faith, hope, and burning charity in the work of the Savior in restoring supernatural life to souls. For this reason she is a mother to us in the order of grace.
Alongside the title of Mother of God and of believers, the other fundamental category that the Council uses to illustrate Mary’s role is that of a model or a type:
By reason of the gift and role of her divine motherhood, by which she is united with her Son, the Redeemer, and with her unique graces and functions, the Blessed Virgin is also intimately united to the church. As St. Ambrose taught, the Mother of God is a type of the church in the order of faith, charity, and perfect union with Christ.
The greatest novelty in the Council’s treatment of Mary consists, as we know, precisely in the place in which she was inserted, which was within the Constitution on the Church. In so doing the Council—not without tensions and difficulties—carried out a profound renewal of Mariology with respect to that of recent centuries. The discussion on Mary is no longer separate, as if she held an intermediary position between Christ and the Church; she is placed back into the context of the Church, as she was during the time of the Fathers. Mary is seen, as Saint Augustine said, as the most excellent member of the Church but nonetheless a member of it, not outside of it or above it:
Mary is holy, Mary is blessed, but the Church is something better than the virgin Mary. Why? Because Mary is part of the Church, a holy member, a quite exceptional member, the supremely wonderful member, but still a member of the whole body. That being so, it follows that the body is something greater than the member.
Two realities are reciprocally illumined here. If in fact the discussion on the Church sheds light on who Mary is, the discussion on Mary also sheds light on what the Church is, “the body of Christ,” and as such, it is “almost an extension of the incarnation of the Word.” John Paul II highlighted this reciprocity in his encyclical, Redemptoris Mater: “The Second Vatican Council, by presenting Mary in the mystery of Christ, also finds the path to a deeper understanding of the mystery of the Church.”
Another novelty from the Council on Mariology is its emphasis on Mary’s faith. This was also a theme that was taken up and developed more fully by John Paul II who made it the central theme of his Marian encyclical. This represents a return to the Mariology of the Fathers who emphasized the Blessed Virgin’s faith, more than her privileges, as her personal contribution to the mystery of salvation. Here too we can note the influence of Saint Augustine:
The blessed Mary herself conceived by believing the one whom she bore by believing. . . . When the angel [spoke], she was so full of faith [fide plena] that she conceived Christ in her mind before doing so in her womb, and said,Behold the maidservant of the Lord; may it happen to me according to your word [italics original].”
2. An Ecumenical Perspective on Mary as the Mother of Believers
What I would like to do is to highlight the ecumenical importance of the Council’s Mariology, that is, how it can contribute—and is already contributing—to bringing Catholics and Protestants closer together on the sensitive and controversial issue of devotion to the Blessed Virgin.
First I want to clarify the principle at the basis of the reflections that follow. If Mary is fundamentally positioned as a part of the Church, it follows that the biblical categories and affirmations from which to begin to shed light on her, then, are those relative to human beings who constitute the Church and applied to her “a fortiori,” rather than those relative to the divine Persons and applied to her “by reduction.”
For example, to understand the sensitive issue of the mediation of Mary in the work of salvation in the right way, it is more helpful to start with her mediation as a creature, or from below, as is the case with the mediation of Abraham, the apostles, and the sacraments of the Church itself, rather than from the divine-human mediation of Christ. The greatest gap, in fact, is not that which exists between Mary and the rest of the Church, but that which exists between Mary and the Church on one side, and Christ and the Trinity on the other side, that is, between the creatures and the Creator.
Let us now draw the conclusion from this. If Abraham, because of what he had done, merited in the Bible the name of “father of us all” (Rom 4:16; see Lk 16:24), which means the father of all believers, we can better understand why the Church does not hesitate to call Mary “the mother of us all,” the mother of all believers.
In this comparison between Abraham and Mary we can gain an even better insight concerning not only that simple title but also its content and significance. Is “mother of all believers” a simple title of honor, or is it something more? Here we can glimpse the possibility of an ecumenical discussion on Mary. John Calvin interprets the text in which God said to Abraham, “By you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves” (Gen 12:3) to mean that “Abram would be [not only] an example but a cause of blessing [italics original].” A well-known modern Protestant exegete similarly writes,
The question has been raised [about Gen 12:3: “by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves”] whether the meaning is only that Abraham is to become a formula for blessing, that his blessing is to become far and wide proverbial. . . . The accepted interpretation must therefore remain. It is like a “command [by God] to history” [see B. Jacob]. Abraham is assigned the role of a mediator of blessing in God’s saving plan, for “all the families of the earth.”
This helps us understand what tradition, beginning with Saint Irenaeus, says about Mary: she is not only anexample of blessing but also a cause of salvation—although in a manner that depends uniquely on grace and on God’s will. Eve “having become disobedient, was made the cause of death, both to herself and the entire human race, so also did Mary, . . . by yielding obedience, become the cause of salvation, both to herself and for the whole human race [italics added].” Mary’s words that “all generations will call me blessed” (Lk 1:48) are also to be considered “a command by God to history.”
It is an encouraging fact to discover that the very initiators of the Reform recognized the title and the prerogative of “Mother” for Mary in the sense of being our mother and the mother of salvation. In a sermon for Christmas Mass, Martin Luther said, “This is the comfort and exceeding goodness of God that [for every person] . . . Mary is his rightful mother, Christ his brother, and God his father. . . . This will be the case if you believe, then you will repose in the lap of the virgin Mary and be her dear child.” Ulrich Zwingli, in a sermon in 1524, calls Mary “the ever Virgin Mary, Mother of our salvation” and says that in regard to her he “never thought, still less taught, or declared publicly, anything . . . which could be considered dishonorable, impious, unworthy, or evil.”
How then did we ever get to the current situation of so much uneasiness by Protestant brothers and sisters about Mary, to the point that in some circles it is almost a duty to belittle Mary, to attack Catholics continuously on this point, and in every instance to skip over everything that Scripture itself says about her?
This is not the place to do a historical review. I merely want to point out what seems to me the path that leads away from this unfortunate situation about Mary. That path includes an honest recognition of the fact that often, especially in the recent centuries, we Catholics have contributed to making Mary unacceptable to Protestants by honoring her in ways that are often exaggerated and ill-advised and above all by not keeping devotion to her clearly within a biblical framework that demonstrates her subordinate role with respect to the Word of God, the Holy Spirit, and Jesus himself. Mariology in recent centuries has become a non-stop factory of new titles, new devotions, often in polemic against Protestants, sometimes using Mary—our common Mother!—as a weapon against them.
The Second Vatican Council reacted to this tendency appropriately by recommending that the faithful “carefully refrain from whatever might by word or deed lead the separated sisters and brothers or any others whatsoever into error about the true doctrine of the church” and by reminding the faithful that “true devotion consists neither in sterile or transitory feeling, nor in an empty credulity.”
On the Protestants’ side, there is, I believe, room to acknowledge the negative influence that not only anti-Catholic polemic but also rationalism has had in their attitude toward Mary. Mary is not an idea but a concrete person, a woman, and as such she does not easily lend herself to be theorized about or reduced to an abstract principle. She is the very icon of God’s simplicity. For this reason, in an atmosphere dominated by extreme rationalism, she had to be eliminated from the theological scene.
A Lutheran woman who died a few years ago, Mother Basilea Schlink, founded a community of sisters in the Lutheran Church called the “Sisters of Mary,” which has now spread to various countries throughout the world. After recalling different texts by Luther on the Blessed Mother, she wrote in one of her short books (whose Italian translation I edited),
Reading these words of Martin Luther, who revered the mother Mary to the end of his life, observed the festivals of the Virgin Mary, and daily sang the Magnificat, we can sense how far the majority of us have drifted away from the proper attitude towards her. . . . Because rationalism accepted only that which could be explained rationally, church festivals in honor of Mary and everything else reminiscent of her were done away with in the Protestant Church. All biblical relationship to the mother Mary was lost, and we are still suffering from this heritage. When Martin Luther bids us to praise the mother Mary, declaring that she can never be praised enough as the noblest lady and, after Christ, the fairest gem in Christendom, I must confess that for many years I was one of those who had not done so, although Scripture says that henceforth all generations would call Mary blessed (Luke 1:48). I had not taken my place among these generations.
All these premises allow us to develop a heartfelt hope that one day in the not too distant future, Catholics and Protestants might no longer be divided but united about Mary in a shared veneration, perhaps differing in its forms but agreeing in recognizing her as the Mother of God and the Mother of believers. I have had the joy of personally observing some signs of this shift going on. On more than one occasion, I have been able to speak about Mary to a Protestant audience, noting not only acceptance among those present but also, at least in one case, the deep emotion that occurs in the rediscovery of something precious and in a healing of memories.
3. Mary, Mother and Daughter of God’s Mercy
Let us leave aside the ecumenical discussion, and let us try to see if the Year of Mercy helps us discover something new about the Mother of God. Mary is invoked in the ancient prayer Salve Regina as “Mater misericordiae,” the Mother of mercy. In that same prayer, this invocation is addressed to her: “illos tuos misericordes oculos ad nos converte”: “Turn . . . thine eyes of mercy toward us.” At the opening Mass for the Jubilee Year in St. Peter’s Square on December 8, an ancient icon of the Mother of God was displayed at the side of the altar. This icon, which is venerated by Ukrainian Greek Catholics in a church in Jaroslaw, Poland, is known as the “Doors of Mercy.”
Mary is the mother and door of mercy in two senses. She was the door through which the mercy of God, in Jesus, entered into the world, and she is now the door through which we enter into the mercy of God and present ourselves to the “throne of mercy,” which is the Trinity. This is all very true, but it is only one aspect of the relationship between Mary and the mercy of God. She is in fact not only a channel and a mediator of God’s mercy but also its object and its first recipient. She is not only the one who obtains mercy for us but also the one who first obtained mercy and more so than anyone else.
Mercy is synonymous with grace. Only in the Trinity do we find love that is nature and not grace; it is love but not mercy. The Father loving the Son is not a grace or a concession; it is in a certain sense a necessity. The Father needs to love in order to exist as Father. The Son loving the Father is not a concession or a grace; it is an intrinsic necessity even if it occurs with the utmost freedom. The Son needs to be loved and to love in order to be the Son. It is when God creates the world and free creatures in it that his love becomes a free and unmerited gift, that is, grace and mercy. This is the case even before sin entered. Sin only made God’s mercy, which was a gift, become forgiveness.
The qualification “full of grace” is thus synonymous with “full of mercy.” Mary herself, moreover, proclaims this in the Magnificat: “he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden”; “He has helped . . . in remembrance of his mercy”; “his mercy is . . . from generation to generation” (Lk 1:48, 54, 50). Mary knows that she is a beneficiary of mercy, a specially favored witness of it. In her case, the mercy of God did not bring about forgiveness for sin but preservation from sin.
St. Thérèse of the Infant Jesus said that what God did with Mary is what a good doctor would do during an epidemic. He goes from house to house curing those who have contracted the disease. But if there is someone who is especially close to his heart, like his wife or his mother, he will try, if he can, to prevent them from even catching the infection. This is precisely what God has done in preserving Mary from original sin through the merits of his Son’s passion.
St. Augustine, speaking of Jesus’ humanity, says, “By what preceding merits . . . has this man merited to be . . . assumed by the Word co-eternal with the Father into the unity of one person? What good of his, of any kind whatever, preceded this union? What did he do beforehand, what did he believe, what did he ask, in order to arrive at this ineffable excellence?” Augustine adds elsewhere, “Ask yourself whether this involved any merit, any motivation, any right on your part; and see whether you find anything but grace.”
These words shed a unique light on Mary as well. All the more so should we ask, what did Mary do to deserve the privilege of giving the Word his humanity? What had she believed, asked for, hoped, or endured to come into the world holy and immaculate? Look here as well for any merit, for any fairness, look for anything you want and see if, from the outset, you find anything but grace, that is, mercy!
Saint Paul as well will not cease throughout his life to consider himself the fruit of and a trophy of God’s mercy. He describes himself as “one who has received mercy from the Lord” (see 1 Cor 7:25). He did not confine himself to formulating the doctrine of mercy but became himself a living witness to it: “I formerly blasphemed and persecuted and insulted him; but I received mercy” (1 Tim 1:13).
Mary and the apostle teach us that the best way to preach mercy is to give testimony to the mercy God has had on us. They teach us to consider ourselves also as the fruit of God’s mercy in Christ Jesus and alive only because of it. One day Jesus healed an unfortunate person possessed by an unclean spirit. He wanted to follow Jesus and join his group of disciples. Jesus did not allow him to and told him, “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you” (Mk 5:19).
Mary, who glorified and thanked God in the Magnificat for his mercy toward her, invites us to do the same in the Year of Mercy. She invites us to make her canticle resound in the Church every day like a chorus that repeats a song after the soloist. Therefore, let me invite you to stand and to proclaim together, in place of the final Marian antiphon, the canticle of God’s mercy, which is the Magnificat: “My soul magnifies the Lord. . . .”
Holy Father, Venerable Fathers, brothers and sisters, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year of Mercy!
Translated from Italian by Marsha Daigle Williamson