As we saw in the last issue of Light and Life, the privileges granted to Our Lady do quite the opposite of what many non-Catholics may suppose. Far from detracting from the greatness of our Blessed Lord, they emphasize that greatness. Our Lady’s exaltation after death is another example of this. Her exaltation has consisted in her immediate sharing in her Son’s resurrection, by being assumed body and soul into heaven. Pope Pius XII, in his 1950 encyclical Munificessimus Deus, referred to the communication of this doctrine in the Sacred Tradition of the Church, deriving from the apostles themselves. For this reason, he established the belief in Our Lady's assumption as a dogma of faith, to which all Catholics are bound to give their assent. It is also our belief that, in addition to her assumption, Our Lord has given her the privilege of sharing in his kingly rule by making her Queen of heaven and earth. And He continues to use her in a special service of mediation between Himself and mankind, both interceding on humanity’s behalf and dispensing his graces. Thus we honor her under the special title of Mediatrix of All Graces. But all this was the culmination of a calling to share in her Divine Son’s glorification in heaven that began, as we shall explain below, with the words spoken to her by the angel Gabriel at her home in Nazareth, the day God called her to be the Mother of God.
To understand Our Lady’s exalted status in the Church, we must, in fact, look to the one to whom she gave birth. Fundamentally what is at stake is: Did God truly become incarnate? Did He fully take on a human nature through her acceptance of the Archangel Gabriel’s message? What we believe about our Blessed Lord is at the heart of Mary’s exaltation. If He did truly assume a human nature, which is of course what we believe, then the exaltation of the Virgin Mary, although beginning with her Immaculate Conception, was immeasurably increased through the incarnation. It is in the Incarnate Word that we find the source of all the divine gifts bestowed on her that far excede those given to any other creature. As St. Thomas so concisely puts it:
Her subsequent exaltation in heaven is simply a continuation of the exalted union of Mary with the fount of all grace, the Son of God clothed with a human nature. But for a clearer understanding of this topic let us turn to the scriptural account of our Blessed Lord’s incarnation.
St. Luke’s description of Our Lady’s encounter with the archangel Gabriel, when examined carefully, shows how her exaltation did not develop as a later invention of theologians. It is here clearly seen that we are being introduced to the mother of a king:
What began for Mary’s Son at the incarnation was a summons to the throne. The mission He was given by the Father put Him on that course. Though at this point there was no kingly rule of her Son, it would eventually begin after his death, resurrection, and ascension to his Father’s right hand.
Yet, there is more that can be said. An incomplete understanding of the passage would stop with Jesus’ call to the throne. For the future king has a mother, without whom He would not have begun his reign. What of her future? She too, by nature of his summons to kingship, is directed to a royal status. Their futures are linked in virtue of a relationship like no other, as Luke reveals in the verses that follow:
Here is revealed a bond between Jesus and Mary that goes far beyond that of any other believer, and it has three elements.
Because of these three aspects of Mary’s involvement with the Blessed Trinity, she will forever have a relationship with God, especially the Son of God, that far surpasses the relationship of any other believer.
At this point we are certainly not on common ground with many Protestant Christians. For them, Mary's maternal relationship with Jesus is a purely temporal arrangement. Her intimate involvement with the divine plan ends with Jesus leaving the home at Nazareth. After this, in their view, Jesus publicly distances Himself from the human relationship with his mother, and extols the more important spiritual relationship of faith. We are obviously not dealing here with a view developed from reflection on verses 34-35 above, the implications of which should lead one to a very different understanding of Blessed Mary. Those denying Our Lady's exalted status in the Kingdom of God should be encouraged to consider carefully the meaning of these verses and the exceptional relationship they reveal.
Early Christianity understood this unique relationship between Our Lady and her Son especially well, and expressed it in what became one of the first scriptural images applied to her, the “New Eve.”
The first reflections of Christian theologians on the place of Our Lady in the divine plan took, as their starting point, the image for Christ given by St. Paul in 1 Cor. 15:21-22, that of a second Adam. Justin Martyr, in his Dialogue with Typhro written around A.D. 160, expanded this image to portray Mary as the second Eve. St. Irenaeus continues the theme about forty years later, further elaborating that "as the human race fell into bondage to death by means of a virgin, so it is rescued by a virgin; virginal disobedience having been balanced in the opposite scale by virginal obedience" (Adversus Haereses, 5, 19, 1).
Both authors indicate to us how early on the roles of our Blessed Lord and his Mother were viewed as being intimately intertwined. Luke’s passage indicates why. The intertwining begins with his annunciation account. It would indeed take a number of centuries for the parallel roles of Jesus and Mary in salvation to be fully expressed. Not until the later 7th century do we find the king-queen parallel starting to develop. But when such a royal parallel eventually does emerge, it is completely consistent with parallel roles established in the Scriptures themselves and elaborated in the doctrinal reflections of early Christianity. The common misunderstanding among Protestants of Mary's role ending with the departure of Jesus from Nazareth would be very puzzling to early Christians. Such is hardly in line with the way early Christians understood her as the New Eve, a co-origin, with her Son, of a new humanity.
What is left to consider from Luke’s annunciation account is Mary’s acceptance of the Archangel’s message, certainly not extensive in words, but so world-changing in effect: "Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be done to me according to your word." This decision, utterly free and with true discernment, made it possible for the Son of God to enter this world with a human nature. Without that decision we would not have the God-man, Jesus Christ. All that we have received in the Gospels, the twelve men Jesus chose to be apostles, their deeds recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, all that was revealed in the writings of St. Paul and the rest of the New Testament, would not have existed without Mary’s consent. There is no way of speculating fully on the development of the Church, let alone the very existence of the Church, if Our Lady, unthinkable as it is to suggest, had refused God’s request. All that we can say is that Mary’s fiat, "let it be done to me," is a clear case of one human decision setting all of human history on one very specific course. That one course has resulted in the Christian faith as we know it today, the spread of Christianity throughout the world, the formation of law throughout the world based on Christian principles, and the formation of Western European culture. Thus, those who want to deny any unique role to Our Lady end up, nonsensically, having to downplay this world-altering aspect of Mary’s decision to bear the Messiah.
It is the free and knowing assent of Our Lady to God that sets the scene for the Church’s understanding of Mary as the one through whom our Blessed Lord grants his graces to the faithful. She is not the one Mediator between God and man, who is none other than Jesus Christ. But we call her the Mediatrix of all supernatural gifts to the Church. She cannot help but be. The Father "has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places" (Eph. 1:3). Once she gave her assent to the message of the angel, that very act set in motion, not only a world-changing event on the temporal level, but an outpouring of the divine presence into the world in the person of Jesus Christ. That divine outpouring has changed the way humanity will for ever abide on the even more profound level of the spirit. This led the great fifth century defender of Our Lady, Cyril of Alexandria, to proclaim, using the ancient title Theotokos, "Mother of God":
Her role of continuing to dispense divine grace to the Church is simply an extension of that one act of assent made at Nazareth. Once Mary shared, by her willing submission to the divine plan, in the outpouring of grace into the world through Jesus Christ, God has continued, and will continue, to use her as an instument of his grace for the world.
The above statement by Cyril causes in many Protestant faithful a true discomfort, which they have inherited from the reformers. In writing to a Protestant community where the title Mother of God was frequently in use, John Calvin said that:
The problem with this discomfort is that it is a return to a dangerous dissatisfaction voiced by a patriarch of Constantinople in the fifth century by the name of Nestorius. He too objected to the use of the title Mother of God, and would also have been extremely uncomfortable with the thoughts of St. Cyril given above. For Nestorius, Mary could not at all have participated directly in a supernatural outpouring in the person of Jesus Christ, because Jesus Christ was, in fact, two persons. Mary's fiat, in his eyes, did not lead to the entry of the Son of God into the world, but to a human person, the man Jesus. To this human person the Holy Spirit, in a separate act, united the person of the Eternal Son. Thus, Mary's consent initiated no descent of the Son of God into our human condition, nor resulted in an outpouring of grace. The Church of the fifth century, under the leadership of Cyril, realized there was something deeply flawed in this belief and condemned Nestorius and his followers at the council of Ephesus in 431. It was at that council that Mary was solemnly declared Theotokos, “Mother of God.” The council fathers affirmed that Jesus Christ is one divine person who has become incarnate in a human nature. When one is saying something about the human nature of Jesus, one is speaking also of the Eternal Son united to that nature. Mary can truly be said to be the one through whom salvation has entered the world, because she truly gave birth to the Son of God, the Savior of the world.
The faith is a wonderful fabric of belief. All the various elements of our faith work together to form one cohesive whole. But like a fabric, withdrawing a thread in one place, will cause disruption of the fabric elsewhere. We can see this happening with Protestant downplaying of the role of Our Lady in salvation. This says something about what one believes about her Son. The point to make is that if her assent did not give rise to all the spiritual blessings that have descended upon humanity in Jesus, then we have said something in error not only about Mary, but about Jesus as well. What lies hidden in such an assertion is that the Son of God somehow failed to enter fully into a human nature. If this had happened, then infinite spiritual blessings would have descended upon humanity at the moment of her fiat. Consequently, one ends up in a belief like that of Nestorius which in one way or another undermines the complete union of God with a human nature - a union that knows of no holding back, no failure to fully undertake our human condition.
This is precisely what we affirm and support through Our Lady’s exalted status in the divine plan. What she conceived and brought forth from her virginal womb was the Son of God in a human nature. What she held in her arms was the divine king promised to David whose reign would never end. What she became through His conception and birth was the Mother of God, and the future Queen of heaven and earth. Saying anything less about Mary is to imply something less about her Son. Through her exaltation we affirm the fullness of divinity in Jesus Christ, whose coming into the world was made possible through the consent of only one member in all his creation - the Virgin Mary.
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