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Mary: A Woman of the Word

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Happy Memorial of Our Lady of the Rosary!

“Do whatever he tells you” (John 2:5). With this short statement, Mary gives us the Christian program for life, a regiment which she had followed very closely, not only after giving birth to the Son of God, but well before. The program can be stated very succinctly by saying that Mary is a woman of the Word. I mean this in a twofold, interrelated sense. Examining the two ways Mary can be described as a woman of the Word will bring us to a deeper appreciation both of the role she plays in our lives and of the great devotion dedicated to her and which is the title under which we celebrate her today, the Rosary.

The latter point is especially pertinent, as often (aside from misconstruing the relationship between Catholics and Mary as one of worship), the charge is leveled against the Rosary that as a rote form of prayer, it falls prey to hazard which Our Lord Himself warned us of: “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words” (Matt. 6:7). Is this a danger when it comes to the Rosary? Sure, but no more or no less than praying anything in a repetitive manner would be, say the Lord’s Prayer or even the Psalms. Thus, no less than when saying the Lord ’s Prayer or praying the Psalms in the Liturgy of the Hours, it is important that we engage in this beautiful prayer intentionally and with great attention. Exploring Mary’s life as a woman of the Word will enable us to learn how to avoid the hazard of saying words for the sake of saying them, as though something might be accomplished by mindlessly repeating them. The Rosary is not an incantation, it is a personal encounter with Mary, whose school we enter so as “to contemplate the beauty on the face of Christ and to experience the depths of his love” alongside her (St. John Paul II, Rosarium Virginis Mariae, 1; cf. 40).

First, Mary is a woman of the Word because she gave birth to the Word, the Son of God, who through her and by her became incarnate in the World (John 1:1). Though reverenced as such for many years, the idea that Mary could appropriately be called the Mother of God came under dispute in the fifth century with some, such as Nestorius, contending that Mary had only given birth to Christ’s human nature not his divine and was thus most appropriately called Christotokos (“the Christ bearer” or “mother of Christ”). In contrast, St. Cyril of Alexandria argued that because Christ’s human nature was inseparable from His divine nature and person, Mary was appropriately called Theotokos (“the God bearer” or “Mother of God”). In 431, the Council of Ephesus under the leadership of Cyril officially made the doctrine of the Theotokos the first and oldest Marian Doctrine of the Church. Anything that is said about Mary must always take note of this, the Church’s foundational Marian doctrine.

Only from here does it make sense to refer to Mary as the Mother of the Church or Mother of Christians. When we think of these latter Marian titles the scene at the foot of the Cross where Jesus entrusts Mary to the beloved disciple who thereupon takes her into his home immediately comes to mind (John 19:26-27). Much could be said about this scene in particular in relation to Mary as the Mother of the Church as the imagery is so rich, but this would take us far afield and it is thus best left for another occasion. For today, we might more quickly get to the understanding that Mary is the Mother of the Church and of Christians if we call St. Paul’s ecclesiology to mind. In his Letter to the Ephesians, Paul describes the Church as the body of Christ (Eph. 22-23), and in his Letter to the Colossians Paul describes Christ as the head of His Body, the Church (Col. 1:18). In his First Letter to the Corinthians he spells this out more completely: “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we are all baptized into one Body…Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it” (1 Cor 12:12-13 & 27). Thus, if Mary is the Head of the Body, it follows that she is likewise the Mother of the Body, the Church, and therefore all the individual members of it. Again, much more can and should be said about this, but suffice it for now to say that to describe Mary as a woman of the Word is to speak first of her as Mother, of the Son of God and, simultaneously, of His Body, the Church.

The second meaning implied by describing Mary as a woman of the Word says something about her relationship to Scripture. Mary is not only a woman of the Word Incarnate; she is a woman of the Word made present to us in Scripture, in human language. “Do whatever he tells you” (Jn. 2:5). In issuing this imperative, Mary is imploring us to do what she knows from her own personal experience will bring Life in the fullest sense. Here we see very clearly how these two senses of referring to Mary as a woman of the Word are inextricably bound up in one another. How, after all, did Mary conceive the Son of God within her? By responding to the Word of God spoken to her by the angel, Gabriel. When encountered by Gabriel, Mary sets the stage with the all-important how question: “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” (Lk. 1:34). And Gabriel says: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God” (Lk. 1:35). Now, fully informed, Mary, as the Fathers of the Church say, conceives through the ear (see e.g., St. Augustine of Hippo, Sermon 196.1), accepting the Word spoken to her by the angel and in response utters her fiat: “Let it be done unto me according to your word” because I am the servant of the Lord (Lk. 1:38). Astonishing! What faith, what trust! Where did Mary get such faith?

Yes, we might appeal to her Immaculate Conception, she was able to trust because she was not tainted with original or, subsequently, personal sin, and, as one who was “full of grace” as the angel had addressed her (Lk. 1:28), this fullness of grace had also supplied the faith she now fully enacts. But on a very human and practical level, Mary’s response tells us where she had received this faith. Mary says, fiat, let it be done. Mary knew these words were the appropriate response because what was to take place within her was the dawn of a new creation, and thus in perfect harmony with her Heavenly Father, Mary echoes the very first words spoken by God at creation: fiat lux, let there be light (Genesis 1:3) and in doing so, conceive the Light of the world within her (Jn. 1:4 & 8:12).

In time, this Light would burst forth from Mary, shining on the people who dwell in darkness (Mt. 4:6, Lk. 1:79, Is. 9:2 & Mal. 4:2), but before then, it glowed as unmistakably within her as a woman nine months pregnant. For, in the very next episode, we once again see a woman fully animated by the Word. What would we do if we were told we were to be the parents of God? Likely announce it to the world, or at the very least those closest to us, then, sit back, relax, and expect everyone we know to wait on us hand and foot. After all, are we not from that very moment until the birth the most important people on the face of the planet? But what does Mary do? The exact same thing her Son had done. She empties herself completely of this prerogative, acting not as the Mother of God, the Queen of the Universe, but as the servant of all, and runs to the aid of her pregnant cousin, Elizabeth (Lk. 1:39-40). Clearly, Mary had already put on the mind of Christ without ever having heard a word from His own physical mouth (see Phil. 2:5-11). And when Elizabeth asks, “And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?” (Lk. 1:43). Rays of Light issue from Mary’s mouth as she sings the words of Scripture in her Magnificat: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant…” (Lk 1:46-55).

These were words of Scripture far before Mary uttered them. You see, Mary knew them deeply in her heart, she carried them and held them within her (cf. Lk. 2:19) because she had heard them before, likely many times in her youth. These are the words spoken by Hannah, the mother of the prophet Samuel, after giving birth to her son. “Hannah prayed and said, ‘My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God. My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in my victory” (1 Samuel 2:1). Some, realizing this may say, “Well, that just means Mary never actually said these words, Luke was just making the connection after the fact.” However, we must instead see that Mary absolutely said these words and we should expect nothing less, because, as Joseph Ratzinger puts so splendidly:

She lived so deeply immersed in the word of the Old Covenant that it quite spontaneously became her own. She had lived and prayed through the Bible so deeply, she had ‘kept it together’ in her heart to such a degree, that she saw in its word her life and the life of the world; it was so much her own that she found in it the strength to respond to her hour. God’s word had become her own word, and she had surrendered her own word entirely into his: the frontiers were abolished, because her existence, as a lived penetration into the Word, was an existence in the realm of the Holy Spirit” (Mary: The Church at the Source, 74-75).

Thus we see clearly that Mary is a woman of the Word in the deepest sense; a woman of the Word Incarnate and the Word of Scripture. So thoroughly had Mary imbibed the springs of Scripture that she became totally animated by them to the point that she spoke them effortlessly and naturally and, moreover, that in the fullness of time she gave birth to the very same Word, now incarnate within her.

Applying this twofold understanding of Mary as a woman of the Word enables us to enter more deeply into the devotion dedicated to her which we celebrate today under her patronage, the Rosary. As those who are familiar with this beautiful devotion know, one cannot pray the Rosary without calling Scripture to mind because the mysteries of the Rosary are taken from Scripture itself. The deeply Scriptural nature of the Rosary is so intense that Pope Pius XII and St. Pope Paul VI referred to it as “the compendium of the entire Gospel” (Marialis Cultus, 42). Now, we can memorize the mysteries of the Rosary and feel as though we had learned something of Scripture in doing so, and we would be right, to a certain degree. But if we hide behind the Rosary as though it were a replacement for Scripture not only would we be kidding ourselves but we would be dishonoring the Woman whom we intend to honor with this devotion, this Woman of the Word. If we wish to engage deeply in the prayer of the Rosary we must, as Mary, drink deeply from the wellsprings of Scripture. And, the more deeply we imbibe those waters, the more immersed in the life of Christ we will become through praying the Rosary. For, not only will we know the episodes recounted by the mysteries, but we will know how they are situated within the life of Christ, what is their context and scriptural referents, and their locus on the trajectory leading up to the climax of the Son of God’s life, the Cross. Then, as we meditatively move from bead to bead with our fingers, our hearts make that very same ascent and thereby enter into the Eucharistic offering that characterizes the whole of the life of Christ, in imitation both of Him and of Mary, the Eucharistic woman who magnifies God with the whole of her life (see St. John Paul II, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, 58).

Yet we must not stop here. For Mary, as we have said, is not simply a Woman of the Word in the sense of Scripture, she is a Woman of the Word in the sense that she literally gives birth to the Word of God, making Him present in the world. We must do the same. Of course, we will never give physical birth to the Son of God, this was the honor of only one among the human family, Mary. But we absolutely can give birth to the Son of God in a spiritual sense so that we might, with St. Paul say: “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:19b-20a). How do we do this? By living the Life of Virtue in a two-step cycle. It was the same St. Paul who in his First Letter to the Corinthians refers to Christ as Dei virtutem et Dei sapientiam, as the virtue (often translated simply as “power”) and the wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:24). As Woman of the Word, Mary so fully participated in the life of Christ that, St. Thomas Aquinas writes:

She exercised the works of all the virtues, whereas the saints are conspicuous for the exercise of certain special virtues. Thus, one excelled in humility, another in chastity, another in mercy, to the extent that they are the special exemplars of these virtues…But the blessed Virgin is the exemplar of all the virtues (Collations On the Hail Mary).

Accordingly, Mary conceives the Word within her, and then allows Him to live fully through her with the whole of her life. We imitate this by first receiving Christ in the Eucharist. In this reception, St. Augustine writes, so profound is the encounter, that “It is, if I may say so, by spiritually embracing Him that the intellectual soul is filled and impregnated with true virtues (si dici potest, amplexu veris impletur fecundaturque virtutibus)” (City of God, 10.3). Secondly, like Mary, it is not enough simply to conceive Christ in the soul, we must give birth to Him. We do this by living out the life of Virtue by exercising the individual virtues including those of justice, temperance, fortitude and prudence. By living according to these virtues and cultivating them within our souls we allow Christ to live in us and make Him present to the world in a way analogous to Mary.

The life of virtue is not for the faint of heart. And here it is appropriate to recall the historical background of today’s feast. The feast of Our Lady of the Rosary in the past was known as the memorial of Our Lady of Victory, so called because under Mary’s protection and through the praying of the Rosary, the fleet of the Holy League was led to victory over the Ottoman navy at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. Analogously, when we engage in cultivating the virtues within us we too engage in battle, a spiritual battle, in an attempt to overcome the vice and sin that remains present in our lives and in the lives of those around us. This is precisely how the Fathers of the Church described the life of virtue (see, e.g., Tertullian, De spectaculis, 29; St. Athanasius, The Life of Antony, 1; and St. Augustine, Sermon 276.1-2). Indispensible in this fight are two swords, “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God (Eph. 6:17), and the sword of the Rosary, which is so described because “shortly after the rosary was given to the world, the Dominicans and members of other mendicant religious orders began to wear the rosary on the left side of their habit in imitation of knights,” who wore “their sword on their left side for easy access when drawing the sword out of its sheath” (Fr. Donald H. Calloway, MIC, 10 Wonders of the Rosary, 27). We have already seen how these two swords mutually sharpen one another.

By praying the Rosary we are already engaging in the fight for virtue by putting one central virtue into practice, the virtue of religion, which Aquinas explains is the virtue which enables us to give due honor to God (ST II-II, q. 81.2). Yet, we know that we can only cry out to God by the power of the Holy Spirit within us (Gal. 4:6 & Rom. 8:15) who teaches us how to pray as we ought (Rom. 8:26). Said differently, we can only put this virtue and any of the other virtues into practice by the power of the Holy Spirit living within us. We have already seen this in the life of Mary. She conceived and gave birth to the Son of God by the power of the Holy Spirit (Lk. 1:35). Put simply, Christ only becomes present to us through the Holy Spirit, whether in the Eucharistic epiclesis, or in our Eucharistic lives of virtue.

I would suggest that we can both acknowledge this reality and pray for its coming to fruition by allowing it to influence the manner in which we pray the Rosary. In his Apostolic Letter, Rosarium Virginis Mariae, St. John Paul II had recommended to us that “the contemplation of the mysteries could better express their full spiritual fruitfulness if an effort were made to conclude each mystery with a prayer for the fruits specific to that particular mystery” precisely so that we might come more fully to imitate the characteristic we witness in these mysteries (35). Consequently, in my own praying of the Rosary over the last couple of years I have gone to beginning each mystery by praying for a specific virtue and a specific gift of the Holy Spirit. This forces one to meditate on each mystery more deeply, to attend to the virtues being exemplified by those present in each scene, most especially Jesus and His Mother and ours, Mary. So, for example, in meditating upon the first Joyful Mystery, The Annunciation, I pray for the virtue of prudence and the gift of counsel using the following formula: “I pray this mystery through the intercession of the Blessed Mother and the power of the Holy Spirit for an increase in the virtue of prudence and the gift of counsel.” This can be done with all of the mysteries, drawing from an endless array of combinations, and it is a practice I have found very fruitful in my own life.    

Whether or not we choose such a method to pray the Rosary, we ought to attend closely to what these mysteries depict so that we might “imitate what they contain and obtain what they promise”; that is, imitate the virtues of Christ so as to obtain an ever greater share in His life. By doing so, once again, like Mary, we truly become the light of the world as Our Savior called us to be (Mt. 5:14), and little by little transform our dark and broken world by making the Light that is Christ present to it to an ever greater extent.

Your servant in Christ,

Tony

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