When thinking about the Blessed Virgin Mary, there are numerous perspectives or shafts of light that give access to some portion of her mystery. For like her Son, she too is a mystery of faith, since we do not fully or directly understand her plentitude of being or grace. Quite often many of these perspectives become conflated or collapsed into a kind of circular reasoning, that is, in asserting one attribute of Mary, another is assured, and that in turn is used to shed its light on the previous attribute.
For example, calling Mary the spouse of the Holy Spirit leads one to say she is full of grace because He is grace. Then calling her the Immaculata means she is sinless because she is full of grace of the Holy Spirit. And the overlapping circles continue, making it difficult for the preacher or the listener to focus more specifically on each treasure or gift that belongs to Mary.
My perspective in this essay is to show the unity of her privileges and prerogatives, thereby giving a better idea of who she is, while not claiming to understand her completely by the light of theological reasoning.
Looking at Mary’s Essence
From the point of view of Mary’s essence, we have to assert that she was created without original sin, a kind of pre-redemption, to use the language of Blessed Duns Scotus. Because of what was to come from her future Son on the cross, she was preserved from inheriting the sin of Adam. This means that she is exceedingly open or disposed to receive a fullness of sanctifying grace beyond our imagining, which by her conscious human acts could grow ever more deeply.
The two distinct but related gifts, the Immaculate Conception and the fullness of grace, while really distinct from one another, came simultaneously. These gifts (and her assumed body and soul into heaven) did not depend upon her free will or consent as such. Nevertheless, these gifts would have wonderful consequences for her and for ourselves as well. No one has ever put it any better than St. Thomas Aquinas concerning her fullness or plenitude of grace when he wrote in his commentary on the “Hail Mary”:
Grace overflowed into her body. The Blessed Virgin was full of grace as regards the overflow of grace from her soul into her flesh, or body. For while it is a great thing in the saints to be endowed with grace so that their souls are holy, the soul of the Blessed Virgin was so full of grace that it overflowed into her flesh, fitting it for the conception of God’s Son. Thus Hugh of St. Victor says, “the Holy Spirit had so kindled in her heart the fire of divine love that it worked wonders in her flesh, yea, even so that she gave birth to God made man.” And St. Luke says, “For the Holy One that shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God” (Lk 1:35).
So full of grace was the Blessed Virgin, that it overflows onto all mankind. It is indeed, a great thing that any one saint has so much grace that it is conducive to the salvation of many; but it is most wondrous to have so much grace as to suffice for the salvation of all mankind. Thus it is in Christ and in the blessed Virgin. So in very danger you can find a refuge in this same glorious Virgin: “A thousand bucklers” (i.e., protections from peril) “hang therefrom” (Can. 4:4; RSV = Song of Sol. 4.4). Likewise, you may obtain her assistance in every virtuous deed; “In me is all hope of life and virtue.”
She is therefore, full of grace, surpassing the angels in that plenitude. For this reason she is rightly called Mary, which signifies that in herself she is enlightened (“The Lord will fill thy soul with brightness” Is 58:11) and that she enlightens others throughout the world. Thus she is compared to the sun and the moon.
The preacher must never forget that Mary was not a marionette of God, lacking free will, being pushed by the Holy Spirit to do the will of the Father. She is not a zombie who lives without feeling or reason. Nor must one think of Mary as someone who is so divine that she is no longer our sister nor possesses a human nature like ours. She is unlike ourselves supernaturally in terms of degrees of grace, and she also possessed a freedom for virtue beyond our ability to understand it by reason of her immaculate conception.
From the point of view of her human acts, Mary, immaculately-conceived-and-full-of-grace when engaging in her ordinary house cleaning, would merit for her and others more than a martyr’s death because of the intensity of her divine charity, and the infused theological virtues of faith, hope, and the infused moral virtues, and the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, all of which are given her with the fullness of grace.
All of this occurred even before the Annunciation and her consent to be the mother of God because there was no limit to her grace except two: her death or assumption when she would no longer be able to grow in grace, and for that proportion or limitation (or as St. Paul says, “a measure”) that God himself placed within her grace. However, theologians could say of Mary’s grace that it was a measure almost unlimited.
The Purpose of the Gifts
The question arises: why was she granted such exceptional gifts or privileges? Because she was to become the mother of God on earth, it was most fitting that she reflect something of His infinite glory and holiness. It was the Word who assumed the human nature of Christ. He is heaven itself.
Also, she would be prepared to be the truly holiest wife ever known and, even more, she would be someone involved in the salvation of the whole world. Sanctifying grace is given primarily, but not exclusively, for an individual’s personal relationship with God but also for the sake of others’ eternal welfare.
Teleology of Her Virginity
According to St. Ambrose and St. Augustine, Mary was also inspired to remain a virgin by personal vow, a traditional non-defined doctrine continuing down through the ages to the teaching of John Paul II. It is, however, a defined dogma going back to the Council of Nicea and embodied in its creed, a symbol of faith, that Mary was a virgin before, during and after the birth of Christ.
Being a married woman and a virgin, Mary transcends all states of life. Being a virgin means that the Triune God is the greatest focus of her love, fulfilling the great commandment to love God with her whole heart, mind and soul. Yet, this does not mean she would have no human or personal loves with her relatives and above all her husband and the child Jesus. Thus being also a married woman means she gives her virginal love to husband and child, friends and relatives, a love filled with godliness, affection and eminent beneficence.
Mary’s Consent to be the Mother of God
When Mary was asked to be the Mother of God, her free consent was necessary to take up this unique vocation and task. Moreover, she needed a very deep grace of faith to believe a new faith content. It was never before revealed that a virgin would conceive the divine Word in a human nature exclusively by the Holy Spirit using a woman’s genetic makeup alone.
While not the greatest gift for sanctification as is the fullness of grace, being the mother of God is Mary’s greatest dignity. She is the closest reality to the divine since she has rights over God himself on earth and has special relationships with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit, never before or since experienced by any saint. As St. Thomas Aquinas put it:
Christ’s humanity, from being united with God, heaven, from being the enjoyment of God, and the blessed Virgin, from being the mother of God, have a certain infinite dignity deriving from the infinite good, which is God; in this respect there can be nothing better, just as there can be nothing better than God.
This dignity is quasi-divine because it touches something above nature, that is, the very special relationships to each person of the Trinity. Dignities, however, do not of themselves merit grace for self or others, nor do they achieve heaven. For simply possessing the dignity of being a pope, bishop or priest in no way means automatic salvation. Nevertheless, Mary’s motherhood-to-be was the reason so many graces and privileges were given to her.
Mary’s Motherhood to Us
Mary’s consent to the request of the Angel in the name of God also enabled her to become the mother of us all, as St. Thomas simply explains it: “. . .the Virgin’s consent, then, which was petitioned during the course of the annunciation stood for the consent of all men.”
Why? The Redeemer who was to live in her womb and be nourished at her breasts, was also joined to the whole world by the Incarnation of the Word becoming flesh. As Thomas also says, the Incarnation “brings out a kind of spiritual marriage taking place between the son of God and human nature.” Consequently, this means she becomes a “new Eve,” “Mother of Divine Grace,” “Mother of us all,” bringing abundantly divine life from her Son into the world to overcome sin and death brought by the old Eve.
We do not know what the consequences would have been if Mary had rejected this vocation; any suggestion would be unfounded speculation. We know only that in accepting this call from God, Mary consented in the name of all humanity to bring the redeemer and His salvation to the fallen world.
In that sense, her choice to allow God to do His work in her began her motherhood not only of Christ Jesus in the flesh, but also of His mystical body. Her motherhood to us was consummated or finalized, in a very real sense, at the foot of the cross when she was told that John was her son. From this, the Fathers, especially Ambrose and Augustine, have seen John as representing the fulfillment of the human race to Mary’s maternal character.
Mary’s Place: A Necessity?
Since God chose Mary to be the mother of God on earth, it is reasonable to assert that she was necessary for the hypostatic order and belonged to that order of things, a phrase developed by many theologians. The phrase “hypostatic order” is used to designate the plan of God for assuming human nature in the person of the Word.
Since Joseph did not generate the Christ child, yet was necessary for the hypostatic union’s existence in a Jewish culture, and given that God wanted the Christ child to live in a human family, Joseph too was necessary for the hypostatic order, to exist but only extrinsically not intrinsically as was Mary.
Mary the Associate of Her Son
From Mary’s motherhood of her Son and of His mystical body, there flows her capacity to become His associate in the work of our salvation and to implement her motherhood of the Church when He began His public ministry. The mother helped form the Church then (and now, as we shall see), while the associate aided and abetted her Son in bringing about graces for the Church that would last until the end of the world.
While it could be said, that association and motherhood are both present from the Annunciation, Mary seems, more exactly to be the associate of her son at the wedding feast of Cana, with her motherhood alone beginning at the consent to the Annunciation. Of course, these two ideas are joined in reality, but conceptually they are truly different, not mere synonyms.
Mary Most Holy
Mary is also the perfect disciple of her Son. Since she will remain constantly sinless by obedience to the Father’s will, never complaining or grumbling about the sword in her heart, the theologian can also assert, therefore, that she is a perfect disciple of her Son, the revealer of a new life and the cause of the new creation, something greater than creating substances out of nothing because substantially above created being as such, a shared life of the Trinity.
Since she was sinless, this means that each day she loved God perfectly or to the full extent of her powers, naturally and supernaturally. Whereas, at the end of the day, we sinners can always claim that we could have done more since we sin daily.
Unlike ourselves, Mary remains for her entire lifetime impeccable. That sword which pierced her heart from time to time during Christ’s public ministry will become the occasion of her increasing in grace and becoming someone who also will be involved in our redemption from sin, demon and death. Her faith and love will not waver in the midst of a sea of suffering, again unlike ourselves.
In What Sense Is She Coredemptrix?
Throughout Mary’s life until the passion and death of her Son, she merited for herself and others. But when the suffering of the passion and death of her Son took place, she too offered this sacrifice for the whole world by enduring vicariously in her mind and heart what Jesus did in His body and soul. What He did as a redeemer in justice to the Father in saving the world objectively, Mary offered as well for the whole world, and it was accepted by God out of friendship, fittingness or equity.
From this perspective, theologians derive the title which explains her work: coredemptrix of the world, which is a further aspect of her being an associate of her Son in our redemption. The “co” in the word “coredemption” means “with,” not “equal,” to her Son in this work of redemption. Perhaps one should also add that she was “under” her Son as well because His suffering-love merited that she received the immaculate conception and fullness of grace in the first place, and a share in redeeming us. Her fullness of grace on the increase sustained her throughout her whole life.
Do We Need a Go-between with Her Son?
Since Mary’s part in the sacrifice of her Son was accepted by God for the sake of the world’s salvation, she also became a mediatrix of the graces because she secondarily earned them for us; however, Christ primarily and superabundantly won them for us and for her, while inviting her to share in this work of redemption.
Therefore, all the graces of salvation stemming from her Son, which come to us through the sacraments, prayer and human acts inspired by divine love, in some way come to us through her. So, it also follows that if we wish to live a deep spiritual life of love with her Son, the love of Mary becomes vital and essential in appropriating what they won for us, He primarily and superabundantly, she secondarily and in abundance.
Since He chose and involved her in bringing salvation to and in redeeming the whole world until the end of time, she would be given a participatory right to pour out those graces to others, while on earth for the early Church and now in heaven.
Mary’s Death and Assumption
Because Mary gave Jesus a home in her womb, and gave birth to Him, it was only fitting that she would be assumed body and soul into heaven at the end of her sojourn here on earth. This is her great reward, which prefigures both individuals and the Church in the final glory of the beatific vision. But, did she die before being assumed?
The majority authors of the tradition teach that she died without becoming corrupt to imitate what happened to her Son, but not in the same manner because she was not killed. Even the encyclical letter, Ad Caeli Reginam, of Pius XII, which contains the definition, assumes throughout the document that she died.
Moreover, as theologians of this perspective will teach, the gift of the immaculate conception did not include what was called in the theological tradition the preternatural gift of freedom from suffering or death, otherwise, her Son would not have suffered and died.
Mary as Queen of Heaven and Earth
However, even if Mary did not die (a teaching of a minority in the tradition) but was immediately brought to heaven by the power of her Son as God, once there, she was established as queen of heaven and earth because she is so full of grace, and was coredemptrix, and now a secondary and participated universal mediatrix of all graces. Being queen means she has some kind of mysterious jurisdiction in heaven and earth in giving graces to the people of God as an advocate, an aspect of her queenship.
Her prayers of intercession to her Son for us are like commands since she is His mother, a characteristic that is never abolished. She becomes in heaven a perfect intercessor for the Church on earth. She was also brought above the choirs of angels because her charity was higher and deeper than all the billions of them put together.
Was Mary Granted All the Charisms?
Technically, charisms are given primarily for the salvation of others and secondarily for the person receiving the charism. It would seem that Mary could potentially be given all of them, but being on a higher supernatural level, it was not necessary for her mission on earth that she possess any of the higher ones such as reading hearts, or performing miracles, save for the ordinary ones necessary for her state of life. In a real sense she was above them all.
What brought her into heaven as queen of heaven and earth was her continuous cooperation with the providence of God. The reason why she was given such great intimacy with God from her very origins was her motherhood-to-be, namely, the mother of God. These two realities, her queenship and her motherhood together help us realize why she is the highest honor of our race, as the responsorial hymn for the eucharistic liturgy proclaims for one of the Masses of the Blessed Virgin Mary on Saturdays. She remains a plenitude of mystery and is also called a type or icon of the Church herself.
FATHER COLE, O.P., is Professor of Moral and Spiritual Theology, Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C.