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Posts Tagged ‘Virgin Mary’

I’ve been at the Youth 2000 retreat in Balham for the last three days. Each afternoon I lead an ‘open forum’ workshop where participants bring random questions about faith and Christian life. It’s not that I necessarily provide expert answers, but as a group we thrash the questions around, and if I can shed any light I try to do that.

In yesterday’s session, we went beyond the usual questions about doctrine and morality, and someone asked about the Marian title ‘Co-Redemptrix’. We had a great discussion, just thinking through what we knew about Mary’s role in salvation from the scriptures and the tradition.

I came home this afternoon and found a book by Josef Weiger called Mary, Mother of Faith (Chicago, Henry Regnery Company: 1959), which is more a meditation on the Marian scripture passages than a doctrinal exposition. He has sections on ‘Co-Redemptrix’ and ‘Universal Mediation’.

First of all, he makes it quite clear what the title Co-Redemptrix does not mean.

What it does not mean is that our salvation depends on Mary; that Jesus’ mother is the source of our sanctity; that her own personal sanctity comes from herself; that she possesses a supernatural nature independent of the grace of her divine Son. Nor does it mean that Mary stood in no need of redemption.

Our redeemer is Christ; our Mediator is Christ; he has redeemed us by his death; and all are redeemed by him; all without exception; including Jesus’ holy mother.

Having said all that, which certainly needs saying, because the title can so easily be misunderstood, Weiger goes on to reflect on what it truly means.

At the Annunciation, when the Angel Gabriel came to Mary to invite her to give her consent to God’s plans:

God bound his will to the will of one of his creatures – the choicest of them, no doubt, and the most endowed with grace; still, the will of a human being was to help decide God’s plan for salvation; in fact, God made the salvation of the world dependent upon the freely-given consent of a human heart […].

Divine Wisdom made our redemption part-dependent on the Yes or No of the Virgin. Our Redeemer had no desire to force himself on people or to assert himself by deploying rights and opportunities easily available to his almightiness. The salvation of the world was to become a reality in an act of faith, and through the faith of a virgin heart. Mary was to be a partner in our redemption. That is the meaning of her title, Co-Redemptrix. Without the Virgin’s faith, there would be no redemption by Christ. Through her faith Mary gave the Word of God a human home. Our Lord’s incarnation and the Virgin’s faith are an indivisible whole.

If we wonder what it is that distinguishes Mary’s faith from that of other saints – hers was necessary to bring about the salvation of the world in Christ; and that can be said of no other human being. Other people’s faith is necessary for their own salvation. The Virgin’s faith and her Son’s achievements are prerequisites, for without Mary’s faith and Christ’s death and glorification, it would be impossible. It is in fact on quite a different plane. Thus one person’s lack of faith cannot jeopardize the salvation of the whole world… So belief in her part in redemption implies belief in the irreplaceable and representative character of her faith […].

Mary was no mere passive instrument of the Incarnation, she took an active part in it; so much so that, lacking her faith and her faithfulness, the salvation of the world would have been jeopardized [pp. 90-100].

This all makes theological sense to me. It’s hard to deny that the Virgin Mary, in a unique manner, cooperated in the work of our redemption; that in this limited but crucial sense she was a Co-Redemptrix. The big question, which we didn’t all agree on, is whether the doctrine should be defined!

[Lots of stuff here if you want to follow up the scripture, history, theology, patristics, Magisterium, FAQs, objections, etc: http://www.fifthmariandogma.com/ ]

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How do you make sense of a radical commitment to poverty, chastity and obedience in the contemporary world? Is it possible for someone to say: “For love of Jesus Christ, and in answer to his call, I desire to give myself to him, freely and forever, and to devote my whole life to the extension of his Kingdom”?

It was good to be with Sister Cathy Mary of the Holy Spirit on Saturday, as she said these very words and made her final vows in the Congregation of the Religious of the Assumption in their beautifully restored chapel in Kensington. You can see their website here.

I’ve already posted about the renewal of religious life in this country, and one of the many encouraging signs on Saturday was the number of young religious sisters from other congregations who were there to support Sr Cathy.

Fr Matt Blake OCD gave a beautiful homily about the meaning of a lifelong commitment in religious vows. Three thoughts really struck me. First, reflecting on the journey of faith that brings someone to this point, and why the extended period of discernment and initiation is so important, he said:

It takes time for God’s deepest desire for you to become your own deepest desire for yourself.

That’s why, quite often, when we make a heartfelt prayer to God that he would reveal our true vocation, the answer doesn’t always come straight away. It’s not just that we aren’t ready to hear; sometimes we aren’t ready to want what God wants, or to want what he wants us to want.

Second, he spoke about a scene from the film Of Gods and Men, which I haven’t seen yet. One of the monks is agonising about whether he should stay in the Algerian monastery and risk giving his life as a martyr. In response his abbot says something like, ‘But you have already given your life without reservation to God in your monastic vows’. And the monk is overcome with a sense of clarity and peace about his desire to remain where he is – whatever the cost.

Fr Matt drew out from this a profound thought about the nature of commitment: that instead of acting as a restraint, which is what we often fear, it actually gives you a greater freedom. When you make an unconditional ‘yes’ (e.g., to Christ, or to a specific vocation, or to a husband or wife), it means you have already accepted all the future commitments that come along implicitly with this original commitment. Some, of course, will be difficult; some will be unexpected; some will even seem to stretch the meaning of that ‘yes’ in ways that seemed unimaginable at the beginning. But they will all be part of the same decision to give oneself completely.

This gives an enormous freedom and security. There will be incredibly difficult choices to make, but the fundamental one has already been made. And that takes away the existential anguish of constantly having to reconsider whether this purpose, this deepest commitment, is actually worthwhile or not.

The final thought was about the Gospel reading, which was the story of the Annunciation – when the Angel Gabriel comes to the Virgin Mary and announces that she will give birth to the Son of God. Fr Matt said “I’ve always thought that the most important line in the whole passage is…” – and we all started guessing whether it would be one of Gabriel’s profound words to Mary or Mary’s profound words to Gabriel. But he went on “…the most important line in the whole passage is the last one: And the angel left her.

That threw me. I must have heard this passage a hundred times, but not once have I thought about that last line. It doesn’t mean, said Fr Matt, that God ever abandons anyone, or that the gift of his Holy Spirit is ever taken away from those who are trying to be faithful to Christ in their vocation. But the glory that surrounds the event, even the clarity and inspiration that made the commitment possible – these can fade and sometimes disappear. What endures is the commitment itself. We don’t know if the Virgin Mary ever saw the angel again in her lifetime, but she treasured his memory and clung to the truth that he had revealed.

I don’t think Fr Matt was being pessimistic about Sr Cathy’s future by drawing attention to this line. He was just speaking from his experience of religious life, and in his own way he was offering encouragement: You’ve had a wonderful day professing your final vows, now you can get on with the business of living them.

PS: These thoughts came from silvana rscj in the comments:

Following on from your reflections on the angel… in PierPaolo Pasolini’s film the Gospel According to St Matthew, Mary does meet the angel again, 33 years later at the tomb of her son, now risen from the dead. There is a lovely look of recognition on her face, and, finally, understanding of everything the angel had told her all those years ago.

Maybe that’s how it will be for us too: many years and events later, we will eventually come to understand the promises God has made to us, and, like Mary, enter into a deeper, closer relationship with Jesus…

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If Mary and Joseph were turned away this evening from the local bed and breakfast, where would they end up? Quite possibly in a bus stop. This is the suggestion made by ChurchAds.Net, which wants to re-tell the nativity story in a modern, secular context. The aim of the campaign is to reach out to the 88% of adults in Britain who hardly know the Christmas story, and to remind them that ‘Christmas starts with Christ’.

I only saw the poster for the first time yesterday evening, driving through West Hampstead. Here is it (the artist is Andrew Gadd):

I like the image. It’s unsettling and thought-provoking, but it doesn’t undermine the more traditional depictions of the nativity. The tenderness of the scene remains, but the vulnerability and precariousness of their existence comes to the fore. Some people are curious; some are more interested in looking out for the bus; one person kneels in worship. The plastic carrier bag is crucial – visually, and perhaps theologically.

This is what it means for God to come amongst us, for the Word to be made flesh. He takes on the ‘condition’ as well as the ‘nature’ of humanity. He doesn’t just live (in the abstract), he actually shares our life, however dark or dangerous that life may be.

Years ago I heard of a film about the birth of Jesus set in a housing estate in New York. The Angel Gabriel coming to this American teenager. The Saviour born into the rough-edged reality of twentieth-century urban life. I was never able to track the film down. Please leave a comment if you know what it was called.

I like the sentimentality of Christmas; the nostalgia and the traditions; even the contemporary bling. But it’s good to have a few images within our culture that help us to remember that it was real; and that it is still real.

[Olivia has since sent me a link to this wonderful article (with photos) about the history of crib-making, with some recent examples of cribs that have been set in the contemporary urban landscape.]

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