Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Apologetics of Mary’s Mediation: Getting in the Way or Getting the Job Done

An article written in 2006 by Joe Tremblay


It has been my observation that Mary’s role in our salvation is not only a point of contention with Protestant Christians, but it is a paradox that many Catholics have to resolve in their relationship with Christ. It is quite common that in the course of our spiritual growth that we find a kind of tension between wanting to give all to Christ and yet maintaining a devotion to Our Lady. A kind of false duality arises in the mind between Christ and Mary. It is this “either-or” approach that predicates much of Protestant theology: It’s God or the Saints, faith or works, the Church or Scripture, spirit or matter. From the beginning, a balance has been maintained in Catholic theology by using a “both-and” principle. That is, God communicates His saving grace through matter and through human beings. As St. John Damascene said, God, the Creator of matter, became man through matter so He could communicate his salvation through matter. Just as God used matter to reveal spiritual truths, He used Mary to reveal Christ to the world.

From the Gospels we read that Mary plays a key role in giving Jesus to the world, making Him better known, and mediating His grace. This occurs at four critical points in Christ’s life: 1. The Incarnation. 2. The sanctification of Elizabeth and John the Baptist. 3. The commencement of Christ’s public ministry. 4. The Presentation and the Crucifixion. Far from being in the way of the work of salvation, I propose that Mary was the main channel through which Christ got his job done.

Mary and the Incarnation

The Incarnation: In the first joyful mystery we find Gabriel proposing the unthinkable to Mary: that she would conceive a Son by the power of the Holy Spirit. With a deep abiding faith in God, Mary said “yes.” But by saying “yes” to Gabriel she, at the same time, said yes for all of us- yes to our salvation. As St. Bernard said to her, the world is waiting for your answer O Mary. As a woman endowed with free will, she could have declined the offer. Many of us take this suspenseful moment for granted. Perhaps in the back of our minds we concede that Mary had no other choice but to yes. Keep in mind that Eve was created in the state of perfection; as such, she did not have any predispositions to evil as we do. Nonetheless, Eve chose to comply with the serpent’s request. Through her, death entered the world. But, thankfully, Mary didn’t say no to the archangel. For this reason we can apply these words of the book of Wisdom to her: Yes, blessed is she who, childless and undefiled, knew not transgression of the marriage bed; she shall bear fruit at the visitation of souls. (3:13) In the first mystery, Mary bore fruit for mankind by saying “yes” to an unprecedented request.

The teaching that Mary had a central role in our redemption goes back to the Fathers of the Church in the first centuries of Christianity. In the second century, St. Irenaeus, who was both a Father of the Church and a bishop of Lyon, went so far as to say that Mary was the “cause” of our salvation just as Eve was the cause of our death. What he meant was that she was a secondary cause- a subordinate cause to Christ’s sole mediation – but a real cause nonetheless. Mary as a cause of our salvation was confirmed by another second century Father of the Church, St. Justin Martyr. He wrote: "The knot of Eve's disobedience was loosened by Mary's obedience. The bonds fastened by the virgin Eve through disbelief were untied by the virgin Mary through faith." (Dialogue with Trypho) Implied here is the supposition that Mary played a principal and indispensable role in our salvation. Since the early years of Christianity, the Father’s of the Church understood this and developed it to mean that Christ not only came to us through His Mother, but that we go to Christ through her. In a word, it works both ways.

The First Graces of the New Covenant

The Sanctification of Elizabeth and John the Baptist: When we read the Gospel of Luke, we find the author comparing two people: Zachariah and Mary. Reading it, an Old Testament Jew or Scribe would have thought that Zachariah- a man of status -would have been the one who “carried the day.” As a priest of the temple, Zachariah was supposed to offer incense inside the sanctuary and then exit the temple to bless the people outside. However, as we read Luke, he was punished by the Angel Gabriel for his unbelief that God would give his barren wife a child. The punishment was severe for a priest. He was muted! Keep in mind that a priest without a voice is a priest without a job. Therefore, being mute, he could not give the priestly blessing to the people. Rather, Luke has the blessing coming from an usual source: a young teenage Jewish girl; a Jewish girl supposedly not even from the tribe of Levi- the tribe where priests come from.

Being with Child, Mary hastened to Zachariah’s house to help Elizabeth, her cousin. Through her greeting- that is, through her words -both Elizabeth and baby John were sanctified and filled with the Holy Spirit. It may be interpreted that Jesus could hardly wait to bestow the blessings of His Incarnation. Therefore, He inspired Mary to visit Elizabeth and John so that He- through the words of Mary –could bless His relatives. Indeed, the Catholic Church teaches that St. John the Baptist has the singular privilege of being the only mortal man born without sin. Hence, whereas the first mystery of the Annunciation Mary wins for the world God’s grace in general, in the second mystery of the visitation, Christ applies that grace to two individuals- but only through Mary. With a filial pride for our Heavenly Mother, then, Catholics can say that it was through Mary that the first Christians were sanctified.

Mary Hastens the “Hour”

The Commencement of Christ’s Public Ministry: The Incarnation and the Visitation are not the only mysteries or Scriptural passages that speak to Mary’s initiative and mediation; she was also responsible for inaugurating Jesus’ public ministry by interceding on the behalf of a married couple. It appears that before the wedding of Cana that Jesus and His Mother had a mutual understanding about the “hour” in which he would suffer. I’m sure that the myrrh given to the Holy Family at the Epiphany by the Magi and Simeon’s prophecy in the temple certainly made an impression on Mary. In all probability that generated a few table discussions. In any event, when it came time for wedding at Cana, it appears that Mary precipitated her Son’s public mission thus bringing him all the more closer to the day of his death. Mary simply says, “They have no wine.” Jesus’ response almost seems to assume that the Mary’s redemptive obligation had not yet arrived, for the “hour” of his suffering was not at hand. This might explain why he says, “Woman, how does your concern affect me? My hour has not yet come?” In other words, your intervention here on this occasion will inaugurate my mission, for it will be the beginning of my signs which will reveal my glory. (cf. John 2:11) From Our Lord’s response, it almost appears as if Mary’s “next move” was supposed to be on Good Friday. But just as Mary said yes to His Incarnation, and just as she had been preordained to accompany our Lord to his death, she also was there to initiate His public ministry.

A Pierced Heart and Christ Crucified

The Presentation and the Crucifixion: It is an irony that the presentation of Jesus in the temple as an infant is a joyful mystery on one hand, and yet on the other, it is one of the seven dolors of Mary. Seeing Jesus for the first time was a cause of great joy for Simeon; for he had been promised by God that he would see the Messiah before his death. For Mary, however, this visit to the temple was different. Through Simeon, God had told Mary that her Son would be a Sign of Contradiction and that He would be the cause for the rise and fall of many in Israel. As His mother, she would be contradicted too. A sword would pierce her heart (or soul). This prophecy didn’t just refer to a natural maternal suffering of a mother who was grieving over her Son. No. This maternal suffering would help bring about the judgment of nations. Simeon told Mary that her heart would be pierced so that the hearts of many would be revealed.

Now, if we read in I Corinthians 4:5, it is clear that the unveiling of hearts is an act of God reserved for judgment day. It reads: "Therefore, do not make any judgment before the appointed time, until the Lord comes, for he will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will manifest the motives of our hearts, and then everyone will receive praise from God." However, according to Luke 2, Simeon points to Mary’s participation in this manifestation of hearts. This manifestation of hearts is another way of saying “Judgment Day.” Mary, therefore, will help bring about eternal life for the righteous and eternal death for the wicked.

From a certain vantage point, one can interpret the presentation of Jesus as Mary’s formal offering of her Son to the Father. What Abraham could not do for the good of mankind in offering his son Isaac, Mary could do in offering hers. Notice Simeon’s prophecy was directed to Mary and not Joseph. Just as the Incarnation of the Second Person of the Holy Trinity required Mary’s own flesh and blood, similarly, the ultimate price of dying on the cross by Jesus of Nazareth would exact her soul. Assisting her Son at the foot of the cross in the fifth sorrowful mystery is the fulfillment of what was prophesied in the fourth joyful mystery. By so doing, Mary would merited, by virtue of joining her sufferings to her Crucified Son, universal motherhood.

“When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple there whom he loved, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, behold, your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Behold, your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his home.” (Jn. 19:26-27) This disciple is none other than John of Zebedee; not John of Mary and Joseph. Mary is declared “mother” not because of her blood relations to John, but by the divine grace she just merited by offering her Son to the Father. Just as Abraham became father of the Hebrews through his willingness to offer his son Isaac on Mt. Moriah, Mary became mother of all Christians by actually offering her son on the same hill. Therefore, Mary not only mediated God into His earthly existence- she not only mediated the first graces of the New Covenant for Elizabeth and John -but through her pierced heart, she became mother of John and all of mankind.

The four episodes of the Gospel illustrate not only what Mary meant for mankind at large, but what she meant for specific individuals who were awaiting the graces and the promise of their salvation. In these instances, her maternal solicitude did not divert divine grace or detract from the intimacy Christ wanted to establish in the soul of the believer. If anything, Mary hastened the action of grace and brought it to fruition. Being a most worthy Mother, she does the same for us by binding our hearts with Christ. As St. Louis de Monfort said:

If then we are establishing sound devotion to Our Blessed Lady, it is only in order to establish devotion to our Lord more perfectly, by providing a smooth but certain way of reaching Jesus Christ. If devotion to our Lady distracted us from our Lord, we would have to reject it as the illusion of the devil.

-St. Louis de Monfort, True Devotion. Monfort Publications, page 28.