Mary, Our Model for the Year of Faith

11 Dec

crowning of maryAt the conclusion of his 2011 apostolic letter Porta Fidei (“Door of Faith”), in which he called for a “Year of Faith,” Pope Benedict XVI writes: “Let us entrust this time of grace to the Mother of God, proclaimed ‘blessed because she believed’ (Lk 1:45).”

In his 1986 encyclical Redemptoris Mater (“Mother of the Redeemer”), written approximately 2,000 years after the birth of Mary, Blessed John Paul II provided us with a profound meditation on Mary in the mystery of Christ and His Church, holding her up as a model of faith for all Christians. He noted that the faithful not only venerate and invoke Mary, “but also seek in her faith support for their own” (Redemptoris Mater, no. 27).

Taking to heart these words from our last two Popes, let’s use St. Luke’s Gospel as our guide for tapping into the richness of Mary’s faith.

“Let It Be Done To Me According To Your Word” (Lk. 1:38)
Our faith must be obedient. The “obedience of faith” (Rom. 16:26) must be given to God as He reveals Himself. This involves a complete submission of one’s self to God. At the Annunciation, Mary’s fiat (“let it be done”) demonstrates her complete obedience to God and to His will for her. In fact, it was by means of her fiat, her obedient faith, that “the mystery of the Incarnation was accomplished” in accordance with God’s plan.

Incidentally, Vatican II (1962-65) highlighted the importance of Mary’s “obedient faith”:

“Rightly, therefore, the Fathers see Mary not merely as passively engaged by God, but as freely cooperating in the work of man’s salvation through faith and obedience. For, as St. Irenaeus says, she ‘being obedient, became the cause of salvation for herself and for the whole human race.’ Hence not a few of the early Fathers gladly assert with him in their preaching: ‘The knot of Eve’s disobedience was untied by Mary’s obedience: What the virgin Eve bound through her disbelief, Mary loosened by her faith’” (Lumen Gentium, no. 56).

What is the application for us? Assuredly we are called to give our lives completely to Christ in ways great and small (cf. Lk. 19:11-27; 21:1-4). We must also accept with obedient faith Christ’s teachings as preserved and proclaimed by the Church (cf. Lk. 10:16). We should pray often for an increase of faith (cf. Lk. 11:9; 17:5-6) and encourage each other to grow (cf. Lk. 22:32).

When it comes to living out our “obedient faith” in the concrete circumstances of our life, we must carefully discern the Lord’s voice and not turn back (cf. Lk. 9:62; 18:28-30). We demonstrate our obedient faith by submitting to lawful authority out of love of God (cf. Lk. 20:22-25). St. Paul even applies this principle to marriage: “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph. 5:21).

“My Soul Magnifies the Lord” (Lk. 1:46)
We must have a humble faith, which means that we recognize it as an unmerited gift from God. When Elizabeth acknowledges Mary’s unique blessedness at the Visitation, Mary immediately turns the attention away from herself so as to magnify the Lord, since “God who is mighty” has done great things for her (Lk. 1:49). This is reminiscent of St. John the Baptist, who would later say that he must decrease so that the Lord may increase (Jn. 3:30). Mary’s hymn of praise, known as the Magnificat, is a shining example of the humble one being exalted (Lk. 14:11; 18:14). Mary’s perfect humility constantly leads her to point to her divine Son.

We who have been baptized into eternal life must magnify the Lord through our very lives. Do our actions radiate the goodness of God? Do we manifest the joy of one who has received the greatest of gifts? But the idea is not simply to avoid magnifying ourselves; we must point others to the source of all goodness and mercy. Like Mary, our “humble faith” must lead us to bear witness to the great things God has done for us (cf. Lk.1:49; 8:39). Actions are necessary, but not enough. We must proclaim Christ at every opportunity, and in a way that will invite others to “come and see” (Jn. 1:39, 46).

“All Generations Will Call Me Blessed” (Lk. 1:48)
In her Magnificat, Mary prophesies that all generations will call her blessed. Just a few verses earlier, Elizabeth explains why: “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord” (Lk. 1:45). In a sense, then, Mary’s faith becomes the faith of the Church, which in turn leads the Church in all ages to proclaim her blessedness.

Pope Paul VI gave Mary the title “Mother of the Church” at Vatican II. This title is based on the fact that Mary is the Mother of Christ the head and also the Mother of the faithful, the body. All “generations” of Christians share “one body and one Spirit . . . one hope . . . one Lord, one faith, one baptism, [and] one God and Father of us all” (Eph. 4:5-6). And we also share one spiritual mother—the new Mother of all the living—and one Church.

This points to the need for an ecclesial faith, a faith in Christ that recognizes and draws upon the familial bonds that link all Christians through time and space. This family bond is called the Communion of Saints. Our “ecclesial faith” is passed on simultaneously through both the mind and the heart. This point is expressed in one of the Eucharistic Prayers for Masses of Reconciliation: “Keep us all in communion of mind and heart with n. our pope, and n., our bishop.”

Our faith, then, must foster a vital unity within our Church, both globally and at the national, diocesan, parochial, and domestic levels. In addition, in light of our common baptism, we must redouble our prayers and actions to foster the unity Christ wills for all Christians.

“And a Sword Will Pierce Through Your Own Soul” (Lk. 2:33)
These words of St. Simeon, according to Blessed John Paul II, are “like a second Annunciation to Mary, for they tell her of the actual historical situation in which the Son is to accomplish His mission, namely, in misunderstanding and sorrow” (Redemptoris Mater, no. 16). Submitting ourselves to Christ will inevitably lead to the cross (cf. Lk. 9:23). This was particularly true of Mary, whose pilgrimage of faith led her to Calvary, where she associated herself with her Son’s sacrifice.

The Christian life, then, requires a courageous faith to persevere serenely and even joyfully through our struggles. St. Alphonsus Ligouri beautifully sets forth Mary’s credentials as a model of persevering, “courageous faith”:

“She saw her Son in the crib at Bethlehem and believed that He was the Creator of the world. She saw him flee from Herod and believed that He was the King of kings. She saw Him born, yet believed Him to be eternal. She saw Him poor and in need of food, and believed that He was the Lord of the universe. She saw Him lying on straw, and believed that He was omnipotent. She observed that He did not speak, and yet believed that He was filled with infinite wisdom. She heard Him cry, and believed that He was the joy of paradise. Finally, she saw Him in death, despised and crucified, and even though faith wavered in others, she remained firm in the conviction that He was God.”

Do we, in the ordinary events of our lives, offer our trials and sufferings in union with Christ? Does our Christian commitment waver when the going gets tough? Are we generous in accepting the universal call to holiness? Do we really believe that our sufferings are sandpaper that can help us become saints? In many ways, our answer to our own “second Annunciation”—the specific cross Our Lord has asked us to carry—is more decisive than our initial decision to follow Jesus.

“His Mother Kept All There Things in Her Heart” (Lk. 2:51)
Mary is presented to us in the Gospel as a woman of prayer, a woman who pondered the mighty works of God in her heart (cf. Lk. 2:19, 51). Not surprisingly, the Church was revealed to the nations by the power of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost only after nine days of fervent prayer with Mary (cf. Acts 1:14; Catechism, no. 767).

It is hardly idle speculation to think that, even before the Annunciation, Mary pondered the Word of God, taking to heart the teaching of the Old Testament. As a result of her prayerful, recollected faith, the immaculately conceived “daughter of Sion” was able to discern God’s will at the Annunciation. In addition, her great Magnificat reflects a knowledge of Scripture that has penetrated her very being. This hymn is not the concoction of Scripture scholars, but the response of a woman who has made God’s words her words.

Mary’s “recollected faith” teaches us the importance of listening to God’s Word, pondering the truths of our faith, and praying daily to our Triune God. Only in this way can we be the “good soil” in which God’s word can bear abundant fruit (cf. Lk. 8:15). Let us then strive with Mary to nurture a recollected faith that makes God’s words our words, especially through daily meditation, docile to the promptings of the Holy Spirit.

“Blessed Rather Are Those Who Hear the Word of God and Keep It!” (Lk. 11:28)
Jesus’ response to the woman who praised His mother was not a rebuke. After all, the woman’s remark was simply the first fulfillment of the words “all generations will call me blessed” (Lk. 1:48). But His words show that Mary’s blessedness as “Mother of God” is not primarily based on her biological maternity. Rather, “she conceived [her] Son in her mind before she conceived Him in her womb—precisely in faith!” (Redemptoris Mater, no. 13). And she is the spiritual mother of all the faithful.

Even more to the point for our purpose, Mary is precisely the one who, more than anyone else, hears the Word of God and keeps it (cf. Lk. 11:28). Mary’s blessedness does not relate only to a single graced episode, but rather points to a discipleship—a motherhood—that characterized her entire life. In other words, hers was a living, active faith.

Some people talk of a “born again” experience in which they accept in faith Jesus as their personal Savior. In reality, we are “born again” through the waters of Baptism, at which time we receive the theological virtue of faith. Others speak of a conversion or “reversion” experience that leads them to (or back to) the Church.

All these ideas point to the truth that faith is a gift that is received or revived at a given moment in history. But if it were only a gift, then it would be senseless to speak of Mary as a model of faith. Who needs a model? Either you’ve got it or you don’t.

Yet, as Mary’s discipleship eloquently proclaims, faith is also a virtue. Like a muscle, it will go flabby if it’s not exercised (cf. Lk. 19:26), but it will also grow stronger if we actively strive to grow in holiness. That is why we pray the Creed or an Act of Faith—so that the Lord may increase our faith (cf. Lk. 17:5-6). We need to live the virtue of faith! Isn’t that the goal of the “Year of Faith”?

We may be familiar with passages such as “faith without works is dead” (Jas. 2:26) and “My just one lives by faith” (Heb. 10:38). This crucial idea—that faith must be lived—is echoed by the Church Fathers. One of the clearest examples is St. Augustine, who wrote, “You say, ‘I believe.’ Do what you say and then it will be faith.”

Mary is the preeminent model of a “lived faith.” She advanced in her pilgrimage of faith, from the Annunciation to Calvary and then to Pentecost, faithful every step of the way. Having been assumed into heaven, Mary is no longer on a pilgrimage herself, but continues to be Stella Maris (“the Star of the Sea”), a beacon of light for those of us still on the journey home.

We need to examine our consciences and ask whether the Lord is really the master of our life—at home, work, school, or even at church! Our faith must be real, and manifested by the way we live and the choices we make. Our Lord sums it all up:

“The good man out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil man out of his evil treasure produces evil; for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks. Why do you call me “Lord, Lord,” and not do what I tell you?” (Lk. 6:45-46).

“The Very Stones Would Cry Out” (Lk. 19:40)

Wait a minute! This isn’t a Marian verse, or is it? Jesus has just made His triumphal entrance into Jerusalem, and He is rebuking the Pharisees who wanted Jesus to keep His disciples silent, for they were rejoicing and praising God loudly (Lk. 19:37-40), in a manner reminiscent of the angels heralding the birth of Jesus (Lk. 2:13-14).

There is a beautiful Marian prayer, the Alma Redemptoris Mater (“Loving mother of the Redeemer”), which has the line: “To the wonderment of nature you bore your Creator!” In commenting on this verse in Redemptoris Mater (no. 51), Blessed John Paul II wrote:

“These words of the antiphon express that wonderment of faith which accompanies the mystery of Mary’s divine motherhood. In a sense, it does so in the heart of the whole of creation, and, directly, in the heart of the whole People of God, in the heart of the Church. How wonderfully far God has gone, the Creator and Lord of all things, in the ‘revelation of Himself’ to man! How clearly He has bridged all the spaces of that infinite ‘distance’ which separates the Creator from the creature! If in Himself He remains ineffable and unsearchable, still more ineffable and unsearchable is He in the reality of the Incarnation of the Word, who became man through the Virgin of Nazareth.”

Mary is at the “epicenter” of the Incarnation, since it was in her womb that the word was made flesh! She wondered at what Gabriel’s greeting meant (Lk. 1:29), and through her pilgrimage of faith grew in wonder and awe as she witnessed the fulfillment of the Lord’s words to her (cf. Lk. 1:45).

We are called to have a “wondering faith,” a faith that never ceases to marvel at the great things the Lord has done for us. How can we grow tepid or allow our devotion to become dull or routine? How can we fail to be amazed at the gift of the God of the universe’s becoming man, born of the Virgin Mary, so that we may partake of everlasting life? Doubtless this sense of wonder will keep us from becoming jaded or discouraged. For whatever our years, we are to experience, like innocent children (cf. Lk. 18:16), the newness and wonder of God’s personal love for us.

Let us conclude this reflection with our Holy Father’s concluding words of Blessed John Paul II’s apostolic letter in anticipation of the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000: “May the unassuming Young Woman of Nazareth, who two thousand years ago offered to the world the Incarnate Word, lead the men and women of the new millennium towards the One who is ‘true light that enlightens every man’ (Jn. 1:9).”

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