On the Mother of God and Grace
Talk for the pilgrimage to Our Lady of Stone by Fr Benedict Jonak o.p.
We say this prayer many times every day. In fact, for many of us who say the Rosary regularly, it is the prayer that we say most often: ‘Hail Mary full of grace, the Lord is with thee Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mather of God, pray for us sinners now and in the hour of our death. Amen.Why do we have such a great devotion to the Mother of God? Is it simply a matter of a well established Catholic sentiment?
I'd like to explore with you today what it means for us to say that 'Mary is full of grace'.Let us do it by considering the life of the Mother of God in its three crucial stages:
The first stage is from her Immaculate Conception in the womb of St Anne to the moment of Annunciation: when Christ, the Word of God, the Son of God, begins His Incarnate life in the womb of His mother.
Second, from the moment of Christ's incarnation to His Ascension to the right hand of the Father. And third stage of Mary's life: from Christ's Ascension until now.
Let us begin then.
Hail Mary, full of grace.
What is grace? How do we understand it? I suppose we would have no difficulties naming instances of grace in our lives, but can we come up with something which explains all of them, with something that brings all of them together?
We can certainly attempt to do so. For example, we could say that grace is a kind of favour. It is given to us gratuitously. It is not something we earn or merit. It is a free gift, freely given by God.
Grace is not magic compelling us to do things. Grace is not like a mold or a shell that forms us into something we would rather not be. Grace does not forcefully change you or me. Rather it waters us from within, it enables us to grow so that we can achieve our innermost desires, those desires which point towards the purpose of our human life.
That purpose is the same for all of us: we are made to love God, to know him, to live with Him in this life and the next. Grace, then, is able to shape us into such individuals as are capable of living out our purpose. It is like spine without which we would not be able to move and flourish and continue towards our goals. Grace transforms us from within and makes us beautiful as it brings us closer to God.
The greatest grace, then, that we may hope for, is to see God face to face in the flesh. It is the grace to live close to God, in union with him.
With this in mind we can see how Mary is full of grace even from the first moments of her life in her mother’s womb. Like all men Mary shares from the moment of her conception that purpose to live with God and live towards God. And even as an embryo God gave her that singular grace to cling to Him with all her being. What Christ possessed by nature, being truly divine, Mary was given by grace. We may call it Christ’s first gift to His mother.
As St John says: John 1:14-16 ‘the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father. ... And from His fullness have we all received, grace upon grace.’
Hall Mary – full of grace, grace to cling to God with all your being. That grace was given to you by the Word of God, from His fullness, even before His own Incarnation. This truly is a gift of love.
We can say that even before Christ’s conception Mary already lived a life centred on God. And so when the angel of the Lord came to her, saying: Hail, full of grace, you will become the mother of God’s Son, the Saviour of the world, Mary was prepared for it.
Sometimes scenes of the Annunciations in art show Mary holding the book of Scriptures, meditating, expecting the answer from the angel who brought the message to her. She is asking him: ‘Hold on. But how can this be?’
Christ’s incarnation did not find Mary unthinking or unprepared. She is in fact waiting for Him, on behalf of all the faithful of Israel, she is well acquainted with the scriptures. Her response ‘hold on, wait’ is there because she is trying to understand better the implications of the angel’s message.
God is truth. We are created by Him in order that we might get closer to that truth, that we might understand that truth that is revealed to us in words, signs and through God’s own Word, His Son.
‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among us full of grace and truth’. And at the Annunciation Mary is given a chance to ponder on that intimate truth, that she will become the Mother of God. Mary is full of grace, because she is meditating and pondering on the truth of God’s revelation, both in Scriptures and in the Son of God, Who is about to become her own Son.
We may look at this in yet another way: when we speak truth from the heart we reveal something about ourselves, something that we treasure within ourselves.
Hail Mary, full of grace, you will become the Mother of God’s only begotten Son. The angel reveals that kind of intimate truth to Mary: She is full of grace because God has chosen to reveal Himself to her, to entrust Himself to her in that uniquely intimate way all mothers share with their babies.
The question how intimate our relationship with God can be is very important to us. How far God can get involved in our lives? I got this anecdote from another brother: an elderly couple who were preparing young couples for marriage were asked about intimacy. And the husband said that whatever is true about himself he wants to entrust to the person he loves: to his wife.
And this is a perfect commentary on that intimate scene that we witness in the angel's message to Mary: Hail Mary, full of grace, you will become the Mother of God’s only begotten Son. Mary is faced with a revelation of God’s love and truth, and she accepts it as a gift, as grace. God Who is not bound by time graced her with His love already at the beginning of her life, from the moment of her own conception. Then as she was growing up He kept her close through the holy covenant of the Old Law and the truth revealed in the Jewish scriptures. Now she is filled with grace in yet another way: the Truth himself is living in her and is being nourished by her.
There is a message I found browsing through the archived issues of The Times, as one does in ones spare time, and it is a message from Lord Kitchener, statesman and soldier during the Great War.
The message is dated 19th August 1914 and reads as follows: To the soldiers of the British Expeditionary Force:
"You are ordered abroad as a soldier of the King to help our French comrades ... In this new experience you may find temptations both in wine and women.
You must entirely resist both temptations, and, while treating all women with perfect courtesy, you should avoid intimacy. Do your duty bravely. Fear God. Honour the King."
Too often perhaps, we think of what happens to Mary in a similar way: God has chosen Mary to fulfil a particular and very important task in His plan of Salvation and she fulfilled the mission.
It is true of course, but, this kind of looking at what is happening here makes it look as if this was done through a military chain of command. God orders the angel to go to Mary, and the angel communicates the message which is then accepted in obedience. Isn’t she just such a good soldier? It sounds very impersonal, cold and not at all loving. Can we really speak of gifts here, can we speak of grace, or, indeed, of intimacy?
Yes, we can if we see Mary as a believing woman who has lived a God-centred life.
She knew the Scriptures and the prophecies. And she sees in the message of the angel a confession of intimacy and an invitation to intimacy. It is because of her love that she is able to accept this intimate gift from God, which is God himself, the Word of the Father, soon to become flesh.
If we look at Mary in this way - then we do not wonder why the Tradition of the Church has it that she never had any children after Christ was born. The intimacy that God offered her and Joseph, which they accepted, is the key to understanding that. Whatever is true about Himself, God entrusted to Mary and Joseph in the person of Christ. She is truly full of grace.
But the fact that she is full of grace does not mean that her life on earth while she accompanies her Son is going to be an easy life, and a life without suffering. She is given yet another grace which is to be Christ’s first disciple and the only one who was always faithful and believing. And she is eager to share her belief in her Son with others. Consider what happens at Cana:
John 2:3-5 When the wine failed, the mother of Jesus said to Him, "They have no wine." And Jesus said to her, "O woman, what have you to do with me? My hour has not yet come." His mother said to the servants, "Do whatever He tells you."
Mary is not just saying this because the situation demands it: she is actively supporting Christ’s mission. We know that she was faithful to that mission even until the moment of Christ’s death.
When we experience suffering, we are often overwhelmed by it. It is powerful. Itis powerful and it is dangerous. It may sometimes bring us closer to God but it also may make us question His love. Why me, Lord. Whether it’s illness, hunger, loneliness, betrayal, or bereavement, the question is always the same: ----- why me, Lord?
Hail Mary, full of the grace of faithfulness even when faced with suffering. At the foot of the cross we see the Mother of God standing in silence, looking at her Son who is dying. She is looking at Him.
The prophecy of Simeon is being fulfilled. A sword pierces through her soul. The teaching of Jesus is fulfilled: no disciple is above his master. Mary is sharing in the Passion of her Son: yet another grace.
She had a choice which we also have: whether to sulk and to contemplate our own misery, or to look at Christ on the Cross, because Christ bears the sufferings of all humanity in His body.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes beautifully about it in a letter from prison, not too long before he was executed for opposing Hitler.
He says that:
"It is infinitely easier to suffer in obedience to human authority then in the freedom of one’s responsibility.
It is infinitely easier to suffer with others than to suffer alone.
It is infinitely easier to suffer publicly and honourably than apart and in disgrace.
It is infinitely easier to suffer bodily than to suffer spiritually.
Christ suffered as a free man alone, apart and in disgrace, in body and in spirit; and since then many Christians have suffered with him."
The Mother of Christ was the first of them. She suffered and yet preserved the faith intact.
When we suffer, we might question God’s love for us and His grace.
We need to remember well the sufferings of the sorrowful Mother and what St Paul writes about grace:
2 Corinthians 12:7-10 To keep me from being too elated by the abundance of revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, [...] to harass me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I besought the Lord about this, that it should leave me; but He said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong.”
And Colossians 1:24-26: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of His body, that is, the church, of which I became a minister according to the divine office which was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now made manifest to His saints.”
The grace given to Mary while she followed Christ until His Ascension is that of faithfulness in her discipleship. She kept the faith intact for us even on Holy Saturday when all other disciples doubted and went into hiding. And this is why she is given to us as Mother at the foot of the cross: she is the Mother of the Church, because she has believed in her Son until the end. She is our Mother now to help us in our mission now that we also have been given the Spirit of Christ.
However, it is really after the Lord’s Ascension and her own Assumption that the extent to which Mary was given grace is clearly shown to us: namely that she supports us with her prayers.
On the human level: the bond that exists between mother and Son, Mary and Christ, is not destroyed by Christ's Death, Resurrection and Ascension nor by Mary’s Assumption. In our case too, whatever is truly beautiful about ourselves, such as our relationships with the people that we love, all these will be preserved in us when we rise from the dead. This leads to the grounds of the Catholic doctrine of the communion of all believers. The Mother of Christ has a prominent place in that communion. At the wedding at Cana, even though Christ’s hour has not yet come, He grants His mother her wish and helps the newly-weds. Now too, for the sake of His Mother, Christ grants our prayers. This is not because He is unwilling to help otherwise but to show what we are also called to be for each other in the world: we, like Mary, are also called to help each other, to intercede for each other. We are also given the grace the gift, to bring Christ to others. We, like she who is full of grace, are also given the grace to co-operate with the Saviour of the World in His work.
How do we do it? By being truthful and treasuring truth in our lives, which also means means treasuring the truth about the purpose of our life. Do we tell our children what is the goal of our life? Why did God create us? Are we being faithful in our relationships? Do we pray for others, those close to us as well as those all over the world? Do we joyfully bring our witness to Christ into other people's lives? These are just some examples of what it means to work with God.
What God does by nature we, like Mary, do by grace. From His fullness we have all received grace after grace, if we believe in Him.
(John 14:12-14) "Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I go to the Father. Whatever you ask in my name, I will do it, that the Father may be glorified in the Son; if you ask anything in my name, I will do it.
Hail Mary, full of grace, you cling to God from the earliest moments of your life.
Hail Mary, full of grace, who knew the truth of His revelation in the scriptures and in your Son Who is Himself Truth.
Hail Mary, full of the grace of perfect discipleship, the grace of believing in God.
It is because of that that you do great works. Continue to pray for us sinners now and in the hour of our death. Amen.
Once again, then:
What is it to be full of grace?
The fullness of grace is to share God’s own life and to share in His mission. Mary is full of grace because she responded to that invitation from the earliest moments of her life.
And even now she prays for us that we too may respond: that we too may cling to God with all we have, believing in His Son and His promises and sharing in His mission.
We too are invited to become full of grace.