The Perfect Faith of the Blessed Virgin

"The Blessed Mother and Advent", Part 2 of 4
By Carl E. Olson

Ignatius Insight

"Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee!" Uttered by the heavenly messenger, Gabriel, to a Jewish maiden (Lk 1:28), these words, of course, make up the first phrase of the Hail Mary. The second phrase of that great prayer come from an earthly creature, Elizabeth, the cousin of Mary, who exclaims: "Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb" (Lk 1:42). St. Bede remarks that this is fitting since the two remarks show that Mary "should be honored by angels and by men and why she should indeed be revered above all other women."

The reverence paid to Mary by Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox is bothersome to some Protestants (and even some Catholics!), who see in it undue attention given to a mere human. It is attention, they say, fitting to God alone. This is an unfortunate misunderstanding, and one that is sometimes made worse by the inability of Catholics to explain the place and meaning of Mary in Catholic doctrine and devotion. Advent provides an opportunity to more deeply contemplate Mary’s life she emerges so prominently on the stage of salvation history during this season of preparation and anticipation.

Monsignor Ronald Knox once observed that Advent and Christmas mark "a return to our origins." Having been given the incredible news by the angel, Mary makes a return of sorts to her own origins, travelling to visit her beloved cousin–likely the closest living relative she had. She journeyed three or four days to the "hill country, to a city of Judah" (Lk 1:39), filled with the joy of news that was undoubtedly still overwhelming and mysterious. Luke shows that those who are filled with the Holy Spirit are anxious to tell others about Christ. And in his description of Mary greeting Elizabeth, he makes a similar point: those filled with the Holy Spirit recognize their Savior–even when they cannot see him. "And it came about that when Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting," the Evangelist writes, "the baby leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit." It is then that the older woman exclaims in wonder at the blessed state of her young cousin.

How blessed was Mary? It might seem a frivolous question considering that she carried the Incarnate Son in her womb. But in order to appreciate the reverence due to Mary, it should be noted that the phrase "blessed art thou among women" is the Jewish way of saying: "You are the most blessed of woman!" And why has Mary been chosen by the Most High to be the mother of the Redeemer? Because of God’s grace and her faithful response to it, a fact that Elizabeth, herself a woman of great faith, recognized: "And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord" (Lk 1:45).

Reflecting on Mary’s faith, the Catechism of the Catholic Church compares Mary to Abraham, who, "because of his faith, became a blessing for all the nations of the earth. Mary, because of her faith, became the mother of believers, through whom all nations of the earth receive him who is God's own blessing: Jesus, the ‘fruit of thy womb.’" (CCC 2676). This promise of salvation is also found in today’s reading from Psalm 72: "May his name be blessed forever; as long as the sun his name shall remain. In him shall all the tribes of the earth be blessed; all the nations shall proclaim his happiness."

In the original covenant made with Abraham in Genesis 12, the nomadic patriarch is told by God that he will be made a "great nation," that his name will be made great, and he "shall be a blessing" to all the families of the earth. So what does it mean exactly to be blessed? The very first use of the word "bless" in Scripture is found in the creation account of the opening chapter of Genesis, which describes God looking upon the creatures of earth, blessing them, and declaring: "Be fruitful and multiply" (Gen 1:22). Then, after creating man, he blessed Adam and Eve and said, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it" (Gen 1:28).

Blessing, then, is intimately connected to the gift of life. In the Old Testament blessings were connected with prosperity, progeny, and promise. Blessings and curses were central to the great covenants made with Abraham, Moses, and David. With Mary, the blessing also involves prosperity, progeny, and promise–but uniquely so, for her Son encompasses all of those things and makes them available to all people for the remainder of time. "For I say that Christ became a minister of the circumcised to show God's truthfulness," St. Paul writes in today’s epistle reading, "to confirm the promises to the patriarchs, but so that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy" (Rom 15:8-9). The promises made to Abraham are fulfilled in Mary; the Advent of the Old Testament finds completion in the Son of the daughter of Sion.

The Second Vatican Council, in its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, declared that "this union of the Mother with the Son in the work of salvation is made manifest from the time of Christ's virginal conception up to His death it is shown first of all when Mary, arising in haste to go to visit Elizabeth, is greeted by her as blessed because of her belief in the promise of salvation and the precursor leaped with joy in the womb of his mother" (Lumen Gentium, 57). Because of her perfect faith and cooperation with God’s grace, Mary is Mother of God and "mother of men, particularly of the faithful" (LG, 54). Mary is revered because she faithfully said "Yes!" to God and gave birth to the God-man. She is loved because she is our mother and the first disciple of her Son, our Savior.

During Advent all Catholics can emulate the example of Elizabeth, the cousin of Mary. Filled with the Holy Spirit, she anticipates her Savior before ever seeing him. She worships her Lord, even when he is hidden in the womb. She reveres and embraces Mary, who brings salvation to her and to the entire world. She hears the Magnificat and rejoices as Mary sings, "For behold, from this time on all generations will count me blessed" (Lk 1:48).