The Threefold Maternity of Mary

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Our Lady of the Cenacle, pray for us. Photo by Lawrence Lew O.P. (Source)

God seems very fond of doing things in a Trinitarian way. Everywhere we look, in nature, in our lives, in the life of the Church, it seems that we constantly come upon things that speak of threeness-in-oneness. So it is with God’s finest creation, Our Lady. Or rather, with her maternity. She has but one singular motherhood – her highest title, Theotokos, means “Mother of God.” Nothing can surpass this supreme gift. Nothing greater can be said of the Lord’s chosen. Nothing can reveal more about Our Lady’s life and mission. Yet we detect a certain triune quality to this one eminent dignity. We can speak of the threefold maternity of Mary.

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Our Lady of the Annunciation (Source)

First, we encounter Mary’s basic, physical motherhood of Jesus at the Annunciation. In welcoming the will of God into her life, she becomes the mother of the Most High, God Incarnate in Jesus Christ. The Holy Ghost, her divine spouse, conceives the Son in her womb. Her mystical partner and guardian in this parentage is St. Joseph. And in the joy of that maternity, we see Mary and Joseph as two models of chastity. Everything in those joyful mysteries becomes a parable of purity. The sanctity of the Holy Family consists in no small part in the innocence that pervades the hearts of each member. For that innocence is an opening to charity.

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Our Lady of Sorrows (Source)

Then, after the three and thirty years, Mary stands mournful beneath the cross. It was there that she became Mother of the Eucharistic Christ. For, offering up the sorrow of her own Immaculate Heart in union with her son’s High Priestly sacrifice, she bound herself to all the altars of the world as first adorer and co-redemptrix. Gone is St. Joseph; in his stead we find St. John, the figure of all priests under Christ. He would share the Eucharistic life with Mary forever after, entrusted with her care. Here, the great virtue uniting both of the hearts below the Cross is obedience. Our Lady obeys the paramount Providence of God in consenting to the sacrifice of her son, and St. John obeys the words of Our Lord in taking responsibility for the Sorrowful Mother.

But it is today’s feast of Our Lady of the Cenacle that points to the full and final extension of these two prior forms of motherhood. It falls on a most interesting point in the calendar, Saturday in the Octave of the Ascension. It is as if we are standing in the middle of a bridge between two shining cities, and can hear the mingled music of both. This liminal quality is important. For the feast we celebrate today has a double meaning. Two feasts of different but equal importance and dignity seem to unite in this celebration.

We have just left Christ in his Ascension. The Ascension is a memorial of Christ’s High Priesthood. It is like the prayers at the foot of the altar in the Cosmic Liturgy. Pentecost is a glorious theophany, the arrival of the Holy Ghost. We are thus mid-way between a mystery of veiling, and mystery of unveiling. And who do we turn to, but Mary, she who both hid and manifested God in her person?

When we celebrate Our Lady of the Cenacle, we commemorate her vigil of silent prayer with the Apostles in the upper room in those intense days following Our Lord’s Ascension. But we also remember the descent of the Holy Ghost into her own Immaculate Heart and into those of her companions. At the deepest level of reality, these constitute a single event in the History of Salvation. And they give us a sense of Mary’s deepening, widening maternity.

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Our Lady of the Cenacle (Source)

Wherever Mary communes with her divine spouse, the Holy Ghost, there is conceived the Body of Christ. First, that meant the physically Incarnate Word. Then it was the Eucharist extended throughout all time. And finally, as a consequence of these two forms of motherhood, we come to Mary’s maternity of the Church. This maternity is the crown of the other two, for it has never ended. The Holy Spirit came to that silver throne, the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and has never left. In all the rest of Mary’s earthly life and eternal existence in beatitude, she has never been deprived of that intimate union begun in Pentecost. And so the Church remains. Mary’s union with the Holy Ghost is at the very heart of the Church’s being. That union brought forth Christ once. It brings forth the Eucharist at every Mass. And now, at Pentecost, it brings forth the Eucharistic community, Christ in His members.

Yet in what does this exalted maternity consist? Prayer, offered perfectly in the Immaculate Heart united to the Holy Ghost. Contemplation, adoration, reparation, intercession – in all its forms, prayer rises from Mary’s heart like huge storms of incense blowing across a desert plain, raining down graces to make it fertile. Yet one form of prayer does not. Mary cannot be contrite. She has never sinned. But we turn to her mystic partner in this maternity, and find a pillar of penance. Who else shares in the life of the Spirit in such a fiery way, but St. John the Baptist? Such is the heavenly reality expressed by the Deisis icon. It shows the Blessed Virgin Mary, paragon of prayer, and St. John the Baptist, archetype of penance, adoring Christ the Lord. Both Our Lady and St. John represent the twin realities of the Ecclesial life – prayer and penance – ordered to Christ – the Sacraments. We might thus speak of Mary’s motherhood of the Church as her Sophianic Maternity, for it is entirely drawn from and oriented to the Divine Wisdom.

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A typical deisis. (Source)

The feast of Our Lady of the Cenacle is thus a profoundly maternal day in the Church’s liturgy. Let us join her in prayer. Perhaps we shall taste something of that everlasting life granted to her in the Cenacle.

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Monstra Te Esse Matrem (Source)

St. Alphonsus on Christ’s Suffering

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May St. Alphonsus pray for us always. (Source)

This Wednesday’s spiritual teacher is St. Alphonsus Liguori, Doctor of the Church and founder of the Redemptorists. He was known for his moral theology as well as his Mariological and devotional writings. Here is something Lenten by St. Alphonsus drawn, paradoxically, from The Incarnation, Birth, and Infancy of Jesus Christ (trans. 1927). The bibliographic information can be found on the page from which I took this text. 

The Desire that Jesus Had to Suffer for Us

Baptismo habeo baptizari; et quomodo coarctor, usquedum perficiatur?
“I have a baptism wherewith I am to be baptized; and how am I straitened until it be accomplished?”
—Luke, xii. 50.

I.
Jesus could have saved us without suffering; but He chose rather to embrace a life of sorrow and contempt, deprived of every earthly consolation, and a death of bitterness and desolation, only to make us understand the love which He bore us, and the desire which He had that we should love Him. He passed His whole life in sighing for the hour of His death, which He desired to offer to God, to obtain for us eternal salvation. And it was this desire which made Him exclaim: I have a baptism wherewith I am to be baptized; and how am I straitened until it be accomplished? He desired to be baptized in His Own Blood, to wash out, not, indeed, His Own, but our sins. O infinite Love, how miserable is he who does not know Thee, and does not love Thee!

II.
This same desire caused Him to say, on the night before His death, With desire I have desired to eat this pasch with you. By which words He shows that His only desire during His whole life had been to see the time arrive for His Passion and death, in order to prove to man the immense love which He bore him. So much, therefore, O my Jesus, didst Thou desire our love, that to obtain it Thou didst not refuse to die. How could I, then, deny anything to a God Who, for love of me, has given His Blood and His life?

III.
St. Bonaventure says that it is a wonder to see a God suffering for the love of men; but that it is a still greater wonder that men should behold a God suffering so much for them, shivering with cold as an infant in a manger, living as a poor boy in a shop, dying as a criminal on a Cross, and yet not burn with love to this most loving God; but even go so far as to despise this love, for the sake of the miserable pleasures of this earth. But how is it possible that God should be so enamoured with men, and that men, who are so grateful to one another, should be so ungrateful to God?

Alas! my Jesus, I find myself also among the number of these ungrateful ones. Tell me, how couldst Thou suffer so much for me, knowing the injuries that I should commit against Thee? But since Thou hast borne with me, and even desirest my salvation, give me, I pray Thee, a great sorrow for my sins, a sorrow equal to my ingratitude. I hate and detest, above all things, my Lord, the displeasure which I have caused Thee. If, during my past life, I have despised Thy grace, now I value it above all the kingdoms of the earth. I love Thee with my whole soul, O God, worthy of infinite love, and I desire only to live in order to love Thee. Increase the flames of Thy love, and give me more and more love. Keep alive in my remembrance the love that Thou hast borne me, so that my heart may always burn with love for Thee, as Thy heart burns with love for me. O burning heart of Mary, inflame my poor heart with holy love.

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Detail of Christ Carrying the Cross, El Greco, 1580. (Source)

Newman on the Sorrowful Mother

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Our Lady of Sorrows, Pray for Us. (Source)

Continuing my Lenten series of Wednesday spiritual masters, here are two meditations from Newman on Our Lady’s dolours. They are taken from his Meditations and Devotions. We should never forget the terrible suffering of Our Lady at the foot of the cross. Her unique woes rendered her the Co-Redemptrix of Mankind.

Mary is the “Regina Martyrum,” the Queen of Martyrs

Why is she so called?—she who never had any blow, or wound, or other injury to her consecrated person. How can she be exalted over those whose bodies suffered the most ruthless violences and the keenest torments for our Lord’s sake? She is, indeed, Queen of all Saints, of those who “walk with Christ in white, for they are worthy;” but how of those “who were slain for the Word of God, and for the testimony which they held?”

To answer this question, it must be recollected that the pains of the soul may be as fierce as those of the body. Bad men who are now in hell, and the elect of God who are in purgatory, are suffering only in their souls, for their bodies are still in the dust; yet how severe is that suffering! And perhaps most people who have lived long can bear witness in their own persons to a sharpness of distress which was like a sword cutting them, to a weight and force of sorrow which seemed to throw them down, though bodily pain there was none.

What an overwhelming horror it must have been for the Blessed Mary to witness the Passion and the Crucifixion of her Son! Her anguish was, as Holy Simeon had announced to her, at the time of that Son’s Presentation in the Temple, a sword piercing her soul. If our Lord Himself could not bear the prospect of what was before Him, and was covered in the thought of it with a bloody sweat, His soul thus acting upon His body, does not this show how great mental pain can be? and would it have been wonderful though Mary’s head and heart had given way as she stood under His Cross?

Thus is she most truly the Queen of Martyrs.

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Virgen de los Dolores, Private Collection, Puebla, Mexico. (Source)

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Mary is the “Vas Honorabile,” the Vessel of Honor

St. Paul calls elect souls vessels of honour: of honour, because they are elect or chosen; and vessels, because, through the love of God, they are filled with God’s heavenly and holy grace. How much more then is Mary a vessel of honour by reason of her having within her, not only the grace of God, but the very Son of God, formed as regards His flesh and blood out of her!

But this title “honorabile,” as applied to Mary, admits of a further and special meaning. She was a martyr without the rude dishonour which accompanied the sufferings of martyrs. The martyrs were seized, haled about, thrust into prison with the vilest criminals, and assailed with the most blasphemous words and foulest speeches which Satan could inspire. Nay, such was the unutterable trial also of the holy women, young ladies, the spouses of Christ, whom the heathen seized, tortured, and put to death. Above all, our Lord Himself, whose sanctity was greater than any created excellence or vessel of grace—even He, as we know well, was buffeted, stripped, scourged, mocked, dragged about, and then stretched, nailed, lifted up on a high cross, to the gaze of a brutal multitude.

But He, who bore the sinner’s shame for sinners, spared His Mother, who was sinless, this supreme indignity. Not in the body, but in the soul, she suffered. True, in His Agony she was agonised; in His Passion she suffered a fellow-passion; she was crucified with Him; the spear that pierced His breast pierced through her spirit. Yet there were no visible signs of this intimate martyrdom; she stood up, still, collected, motionless, solitary, under the Cross of her Son, surrounded by Angels, and shrouded in her virginal sanctity from the notice of all who were taking part in His Crucifixion.

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Mater Dolorosa, Klauber. (Source)

A Poem for Ascension Day

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A stained glass window depicting the Ascension of the Lord. (Source).

Salute the last, and everlasting day,

Joy at the uprising of this Sun, and Son,

Ye whose true tears, or tribulation

Have purely wash’d, or burnt your drossy clay.

Behold, the Highest, parting hence away,

Lightens the dark clouds, which He treads upon;

Nor doth he by ascending show alone,

But first He, and He first enters the way.

O strong Ram, which hast batter’d heaven for me!

Mild lamb, which with Thy Blood hast mark’d the path!

Bright Torch, which shinest, that I the way may see!

O, with Thy own Blood quench Thy own just wrath;

And if Thy Holy Spirit my Muse did raise,

Deign at my hands this crown of prayer and praise.

(John Donne)