From the Bishops Mary’s faith helps us to see the faith to which we are called

During the Advent‐Christmas Season the Church recognizes the unique role of Mary in salvation history. She is the first to receive God’s ultimate plan for salvation in the Annunciation. The angel tells Mary,“…you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; and of his kingdom there will be no end…. 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 called holy, the Son of God” (Lk 1:31‐35). Though not fully understanding how this revelation is possible, Mary trusts in the words of the angel and makes a positive response of faith to the angel. Mary becomes the first disciple of Jesus and the Mother of God.

The reflections in this column on the faith of Mary have been nourished by Pope John Paul II’s 1987 encyclical Redemptoris Mater and the reflections of then Cardinal Ratzinger and the theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar. The faith of Mary helps us to see the faith to which we are called as disciples of Jesus Christ.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us “…faith is to submit freely to the word that has been heard, because its truth is guaranteed by God, who is truth itself. Abraham is the model of such obedience…Mary is its most perfect embodiment” (144).

Mary, like us, was a finite human being, who was granted the special grace of the Immaculate Conception which is celebrated on December 8 each year. She experienced the redemption of Christ from the first moment of her conception. She was a faithful Jewish woman who knew her faith. She was betrothed to Joseph before the Annunciation. When one looks at the dialogue between Mary and the angel Gabriel, one can see how her heart opens to the truth of what is revealed to her. Her heart is docile. Though she does not fully understand how all this can be possible, she is receptive to the promise given and she fully trusts in the angel’s word to her, “for God nothing is impossible” (Lk 1:37).

Mary surrenders herself totally to God. She makes a total self gift, and she offers her virginity to God. In her humility, recognizing her “lowliness”, she becomes the servant of the Lord and the Mother of God. It is truly a moment of wonder! She is the first to receive the news that God will fulfill his promises with the Word made flesh. She is called “blessed” by Elizabeth for her faith. "…Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord” (Lk 1:45). After these words of Elizabeth to Mary, Mary breaks into her glorious song of faith and gratitude, the Magnificat.

We know that Mary’s faith was challenged throughout her life with Jesus, for he would suffer out of love for mankind, and so she would suffer with him. At the time of the Presentation, she is told “a sword will pierce through your own soul” (Lk 2:35). One can only imagine what went through her heart as she heard those words.

When Jesus was “lost” in the temple, one can sense the distress in the hearts of Mary and Joseph as they searched for him for three days. One too can taste the desperation and sadness in Mary’s question, “Son, why have you treated us so? Behold your father and I have been looking for you anxiously”(Lk 2:48b). When Jesus responds, “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house” (Lk 2:49), Luke tells us that Mary and Joseph “did not understand the saying which he spoke to them” and “his mother kept all these things in her heart” (Lk 2:50‐51). Mary surrenders herself to Jesus’ words and ponders in radical, silent obedience the meaning of these words. Her faith sought understanding through prayer.

The place where Mary’s faith is most challenged is during the passion and at the foot of the Cross. Mary received the promise from God that her Son would be “called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Lk1:32‐33). In the movie The Passion of the Christ, one could see the agony in Mary’s heart as she watched the journey of Calvary and stood at the foot of the Cross. One can only imagine the challenge of faith she experienced in her motherly heart. Who can forget her gaze as she held her dead Son in her arms?

John Paul II states, “…standing at the foot of the Cross, Mary is witness, humanly speaking, of the complete negation of the words…”given to her by the angel (RM n. 18 p. 78). She experiences the faith of Abraham who, in the words of St. Paul, “in hope believed against hope” (Romans 4:18) (RM n. 14 p 69‐70). John Paul II declares, “Through this faith Mary is perfectly united with Christ in his self‐emptying …This is perhaps the deepest ‘kenosis of faith’ in human history” (RM 18 p. 78‐79). Kenosis, the complete emptying out, of all of Mary’s expectations of the glory and acceptance of her son, is most fulfilled at the Cross, and in her night of faith we hear the words of Elizabeth “…Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord” (Lk1:45). Mary learned that fulfillment of God’s plan was not without great cost.

John Paul II would observe, in reference to Mary’s faith, that “…even his Mother, to whom had been revealed most completely the mystery of his divine sonship, lived in intimacy with this mystery only through faith! Living side by side with her Son and under the same roof, and faithfully persevering ‘in her union with her Son,’ she ‘advanced in her pilgrimage of faith,” (RM 17).

Hans Urs von Balthasar describes Mary’s faith: “Faith as lived by Mary is total, trusting self surrender of mind and body to God; it is absence of understanding; it is uncalculating obedience; it is self‐effacing, living humility; but it is also acceptance of responsibility to do God’s bidding” (Mary: God’s Yes to Man John Paul’s Encyclical Redemptoris Mater, Ignatius Press, 1988, p. 168).

Mary’s faith is not simply an intellectual exercise, but also a personal surrender of the heart and will to God’s Word. With docility Mary ponders in faith and seeks understanding of the words given to her. In faith, receptive to the Word, she surrenders her plans and participates in God’s universal plan for the salvation of humanity. She receives her vocation from God, accepting it, without fully knowing all that it would hold. While her heart sings in joy in her song of faith, she does not know the suffering she will endure for her faithfulness, yet she continues to trust in the promises given to her. She does this by standing at the foot of the Cross and holding her dead Son in her arms. One can only imagine the depth of her joy when her risen Son appeared to her. Her faith and her obedience were truly fulfilled in the realization that sin and death had been conquered.

The qualities we see in Mary’s faith are docility, receptivity, trust, humility and obedience. Our faith is to have the same standards. During this Advent and Christmas season, I encourage you to ask Jesus in prayer to show you the degree of your personal docility, receptivity, trust, humility and obedience to the Word of God. Turn to Mary in prayer and ask her to teach you these qualities and to help you to learn from her. May the Holy Spirit overshadow your hearts each day so that God’s Word may be made flesh in them!

Bishop Aquila's column originally appeared the New Earth of the Catholic Diocese of Fargo.

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