“So that she might conceive and give birth to the Holy of Holies she was made holy in her body by the gift of virginity. And to become holy in spirit too she accepted the gift of humility. This queenly maiden – adorned with the jewels of these virtues, radiant with this perfect beauty of spirit and body, renowned in the assembly of the Most High for her loveliness and her beauty – so ravished the eyes of all the heavenly citizens that the heart of the King himself desired her beauty and sent down from on high a heavenly messenger to her.
“And this is what the Evangelist is telling us here when he states that an angel was sent from God to a virgin. He says from God to a virgin – from the highest to the humble, from the Master to the handmaiden, from the Creator to the creature. How kind God is! How matchless is the Virgin!”St Bernard of Clairvaux
St Bernard of Clairvaux singing the praises of the Mother of God and inviting us to do the same! For the early Cistercians, meditation on the person, name, vocation and example of Mary occupied a central place in their developing spirituality and theology, and it can be rightly said that they were the first to consider the Mother of God in herself rather than as a vehicle for further development of Christology and ecclesiology, theological reflection about Christ and theological reflection about the Church. Certainly, neither of these are forgotten in Cistercian writing – Mary is always one who leads us to greater intimacy with her Son, and she shows us the perfection of discipleship in the Church’s life by so abundantly and selflessly bringing forth the Word of God for the salvation of humankind. But the Cistercians have the courage to meet Mary, as it were, face to face, and sing her praises.
In these few articles for the month of May we would like to invite you to consider God’s extraordinary gift to us in Mary and think again on the place which she rightly occupies for us in our faith, prayer and practice. She offers us much by her example, and teaches us still from the Church’s rich reflection on her vocation.
Mary has always been esteemed in the Church’s liturgy, the formal prayer and worship of the People of God come together as the Body of Christ to offer fitting service and a sacrifice of praise to the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit. This the Church does as a communion of all the living with those who have completed this earthly pilgrimage of faith and are caught up in the heavenly liturgy. The formal prayer of the Church offers us a rich tapestry of texts and prayers with which to meditate on Mary’s cooperation with God’s salvific plan for the world.
The first preface given for Masses celebrated in honour of the Blessed Virgin sums up the central mystery of the Incarnation from which our redemption flows. It recalls that moment when Mary is overshadowed by the Holy Spirit and she conceives the Word within her. This moment when the Word becomes flesh in the womb of the Virgin stands as the pivotal moment of Mary’s cooperation with the Father’s will. Mary remains a creature before her Creator, made in his image and likeness, free to choose in that moment. St Bernard in his homilies in praise of the Blessed Virgin invites us to be part of a vast audience stretching across time and place which waits for Mary’s answer to the Father’s invitation. All history and the renewal of all creation waits on her ‘Yes’, and it is given in her ‘Let it be done to me’. The Church has never taken for granted nor glossed over this moment – Mary brings all of her freedom to bear in this giving of consent, and it is a ‘Yes’ which springs from that freedom, a gift from God in his creation and ours, and from her being ‘full of grace’.
There is nothing merely poetic about the overshadowing which takes place here – all the divine self-revelations, the theophanies, of the Old Testament are summed up and remembered. The Tent of Meeting which accompanied the Israelites through the desert from Egypt to the Promised Land is here (Exodus 32:7-11); the holy mountain whereon Moses stepped into God’s presence is here (Exodus 24:12-18); and above all, the moment when Solomon the King consecrates the Temple and the glory of the Lord – the Shekinah – descended into that place and the cloud which indicated God’s presence among his people filled the courts so that the priests could not perform their duties (2 Chronicles 5:11 – 6:2). All of these are present, and remembered, made complete and surpassed. Here is the Holy Spirit of God, overshadowing the Virgin – the same Spirit who hovered over the waters before creation, and with the ever-present creative Word saw creation begin. Here is the new dawn, in the womb of the Virgin, of the new creation, in the work of the Word who is the only Begotten of the Father, not made but rather consubstantial with the Father. Here is the new day, the Lord’s day, taking flesh in the Virgin, taking flesh from the Virgin, as she and the Holy Spirit cooperate. The same Spirit will be breathed forth by the Word on the cross as he places himself in the Father’s hands, defeating death by dying. And the same Spirit will accomplish the birth of the Church, the Body of Christ, with Mary present again.
The mystery of Mary’s motherhood is not forgotten in this preface but offered to us again for our reflection – the Holy Spirit’s work in her is specifically so that the Incarnation takes place within time and according to human order and yet transcends it by preserving Mary’s virginity. She is Mother and Virgin – Virgin with purity kept always intact, and Mother in her wonderful fruitfulness giving birth to God’s Son and her son. This is emphasised again – her son is named as Jesus Christ our Lord, and so his humanity and divinity are witnessed and his Lordship over all creation, which will be acknowledged by all creatures in heaven and on earth and under the earth (to use St Paul’s phrase in the Letter to the Philippians) is professed.
We can consider for a moment how the Church distills into a few lines her understanding of Mary’s vocation and response. That she has been prepared for this great privilege before time began is inherently included in these truths of faith. While we do not participate in the same way in the Incarnation, still God’s will for us existed in that before-time moment with him. Along with Mary we are caught up in the fabric of God’s plan for all his creation, and have our own vocation to live out in it. We too, like Mary, have the Word planted within us; the Spirit given to us; the invitation to be part of God’s salvific action by our saying yes to him. In all of that – in vocation and response – Mary shows us a way.
The second preface for Masses offered in honour of the Blessed Virgin takes us deep into the word of Sacred Scripture. In Luke’s Gospel, the Evangelist gives us three exquisite hymns – sometimes called canticles – which form part of the infancy narrative. We use all three in the Divine Office, at Lauds, Vespers and Compline. That one which Mary sings we know as the Magnificat – Mary’s soul magnifies the Lord! (see Luke 1:46-55) Mary with it reflects on the salvific interventions which God has made throughout history and how with each the power of his arm has been directed to the raising up of the poor and lowly. And it is this God who has looked on her, lowly servant that she is. In her Magnificat Mary reflects on all of salvation history and asks us to do likewise – we are, after all, part of this! The preface leads us to the point that, through Mary, God has acted in a way that he never chose to do before. In Mary he accomplishes something unheard of, unseen, but definitive – “you gave us through her the author of our salvation, your Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord”
This apex of God’s work is achieved in and through Mary, and reflected in this hymn. In her humility she reverses the decision taken by Eve, and helps to untie the knot of sin which our first mother had made for humanity. The Fathers of the Church were fond of playing on the words of the Annunciation to demonstrate this, since in Latin Gabriel’s greeting to Mary – “Ave!” (“Hail!”) – was the reverse, if you like, of “Eva” (“Eve”). So, in this moment we start again, or rather, grace starts us again in the one who is full of grace: humility facing down pride, weakness facing down strength, mercy facing down sadness.
If you wish to read more about the Church’s celebration of Mary in feasts and liturgy take time to look at Pope Saint Paul VI’s exhortation Marialis Cultus, on the development of the devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary by clicking HERE.
-Part of our ‘Mary Most Holy’ series-