DEFENDING THE PRIVILEGES OF OUR LADY
Part III of III: The Exaltation of the Mother of God
by Father Paul K. Raftery, O.P.
As we saw in Part II,
the privileges granted to Our Lady
do quite the opposite of what many non-Catholics may suppose. Far from detracting
from the greatness of our Blessed Lord,
they emphasize that greatness.
Our Ladys exaltation
after death is another example of this. Her exaltation has consisted in her immediate sharing in her
Sons resurrection, by being assumed body and soul into heaven. Pope Pius XII, in his
1950 Apostolic Constitution
referred to the communication of this doctrine
in the Sacred Tradition of the Church,
deriving from the apostles themselves.
For this reason, he established the belief in Our Lady's assumption as a dogma of faith, to which all Catholics
are bound to give their assent. It is also our belief that, in addition to her assumption, Our Lord has given her the privilege of sharing
in His kingly rule by
making her Queen of heaven and earth. And He continues to use her in a special service of
mediation between Himself and mankind,
both interceding on humanity's behalf
and dispensing His graces. Thus we
honor her under the special title
of Mediatrix of All Graces.
But all this was the culmination of a calling to share in her
Divine Sons glorification in
heaven that began, as we shall explain
below, with the words spoken to her by the angel Gabriel at her
home in Nazareth, the day God
called her to
be the Mother of God.
Christ, The Fount of All Grace
To understand Our Lady's exalted
status in the Church, we must, in
fact, look to the One to
gave birth. Fundamentally what is at stake is: Did God
truly become incarnate? Did He fully take on a human
nature through her
acceptance of the Archangel
Gabriel's message? What we believe about our Blessed Lord is at the heart
of Mary's exaltation.
If He did truly assume a human nature, which is of course what we believe,
then the exaltation of the Virgin Mary, although beginning with her Immaculate
Conception, was immeasurably increased through the Incarnation.
It is in the Incarnate Word that we find the
source of all the divine gifts bestowed on her that far excede those
given to any other creature. As Saint Thomas so concisely puts it:
Christ is the fount of grace . . . through the instrument of His
humanity. For this reason the Gospel of John 1:17 says that grace and truth came
through Jesus Christ. But the Virgin Mary was the nearest to Christ in His humanity
for He received a human nature through her. And so she ought to have received from Christ
a fullness of grace beyond any other (III, 27, 5; my translation).
Her subsequent exaltation
in heaven is simply a continuation of the exalted
union of Mary
with the Fount of all
Grace, the Son of God
clothed with a human nature.
But for a clearer understanding of this topic let us turn to the scriptural
account of our Blessed Lords Incarnation.
Saint Luke's Account of the Annunciation
Saint Luke's description of Our Lady's
encounter with the archangel Gabriel, when
examined carefully, shows how her exaltation
did not develop as a later invention of theologians. It is here clearly
seen that we are being introduced to the mother of
And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a Son. . . .
He will be great, and will be called Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give Him
the throne of His father David, and He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of
His kingdom there will be no end (Luke 1:31-33).
What began for Marys Son
at the Incarnation was a summons to the throne.
The mission He was given by the Father put Him
on that course. Though at this point there was no kingly rule of
it would eventually begin after His death, resurrection,
and ascension to His Fathers right hand.
Yet, there is more that can be said. An incomplete understanding of the passage would
stop with Jesus' call to the throne.
For the future king has
a mother, without whom
He would not have begun His reign. What of her
future? She too, by nature of His summons to kingship, is directed to a royal
status. Their futures are linked in virtue of a relationship like no
other, as Luke reveals in the verses that follow:
And Mary said to the angel, How can this be, since I have
no husband? And the angel said to her, The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and
the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the Child to be born will be
called holy, the Son of God (1:34-35).
Here is revealed a bond between Jesus
and Mary that goes far beyond that of any
other believer, and it has three elements.
mentioned later in Luke by Elizabeth, it is founded at
its deepest level on Mary's complete trust
in God: "Blessed
is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the
Lord" (Luke 1:45). This trust later reached culmination
when Mary, surrendering herself completely to the divine
will, placed herself at the
scene of crucifixion and witnessed
cooperation with the Holy Spirit that made her forever the one
in whom He conceived the Eternal Word. This inspired authors, beginning in
the fourth century, to speak of her as the Spouse of
contribution of a human nature
to the Son of God which, due to His resurrection, will be His
forever. Thus for all eternity she will be His mother,
a truly exalted distinction no other heavenly
creature can claim.
Because of these three aspects of
Mary's involvement with the Blessed Trinity, she
will forever have a relationship with God,
especially the Son of God, that far
surpasses the relationship of any other believer.
At this point we are certainly not on common ground with many Protestant
Christians. For them, Mary's maternal relationship
with Jesus is a purely temporal
arrangement. Her intimate involvement with
the divine plan ends with Jesus leaving the home at Nazareth.
After this, in their view, Jesus
publicly distances Himself from the human
relationship with His mother,
and extols the more important spiritual
relationship of faith. We are obviously not dealing here with a
view developed from reflection on verses 34-35
above, the implications of which should lead one to a very different understanding of Blessed Mary. Those denying Our
Lady's exalted status in the Kingdom of
God should be encouraged to consider carefully the meaning of these verses
and the exceptional relationship they reveal.
Early Christianity understood this unique relationship between Our Lady and her
Son especially well, and expressed it in
what became one of the first scriptural images
applied to her, the New Eve.
New Adam - New Eve
The first reflections of
Christian theologians on the place of Our Lady in the divine
plan took, as their starting
point, the image for Christ
given by Saint Paul in
1Corinthians 15:21-22, that of a second Adam.
Justin Martyr, in his Dialogue
with Typhro written around A.D. 160,
expanded this image to portray Mary as the second Eve. Saint Irenaeus continues the
theme about forty years later, further
elaborating that "as the human race fell into bondage to
death by means of a virgin, so it is rescued by a virgin; virginal disobedience having
been balanced in the opposite scale by virginal obedience" (Adversus
Haereses, 5, 19, 1).
Both authors indicate to us how early on the roles of our Blessed
Lord and His Mother were viewed as being intimately
intertwined. Luke's passage indicates why. The intertwining begins with his
annunciation account. It would indeed take a
number of centuries for the parallel roles
of Jesus and Mary
in salvation to be fully expressed. Not
until the later 7th century do we find the king-queen parallel starting
to develop. But when such a royal parallel eventually does emerge, it is completely
consistent with parallel roles established in the Scriptures themselves
and elaborated in the doctrinal reflections of
early Christianity. The common misunderstanding among Protestants
of Mary's role ending with the departure of Jesus from Nazareth would be very
puzzling to early Christians. Such is hardly in line with the way early
Christians understood her as the New Eve, a co-origin,
with her Son, of a new
"Let It Be Done to Me"
The Annunciation - by Pedro Berruguete, from the
Monastery of Miraflores, Burgos . . . .
In this depiction of the Annunciation, the Angel Gabriel announces the Will of God
to Mary, whose purity is symbolized by the white lilies, and whose prior knowledge
of the Messiah is symbolized by the Holy Book at the right containing the words of
the inspired writers of Genesis and Isaiah, of which she had intimate prior knowledge.
The Holy Spirit is depicted above Gabriel, awaiting Mary's 'fiat'.
What is left to consider from Luke's annunciation
account is Mary's acceptance of
the Archangel's message, certainly not
extensive in words, but so world-changing in effect: "Behold,
I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be done to me according to your word."
This decision, utterly free and with true
discernment, made it possible for the Son of
God to enter this world with a human nature.
Without that decision we would not have the God-man,
Jesus Christ. All that we have received in
the Gospels, the twelve men
Jesus chose to be apostles,
their deeds recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, all that was
revealed in the writings of Saint Paul and the rest of the New
Testament, would not have existed
without Mary's consent
(fiat). There is no way of
speculating fully on the development of the Church,
let alone the very existence of the Church,
if Our Lady, unthinkable as it is to
suggest, had refused God's request. All that we can say is that Mary's fiat, "let it be done to me," is a clear case of one
human decision setting all of human history on one very specific course. That one course
has resulted in the Christian faith as we
know it today, the spread of Christianity
throughout the world, the formation of law throughout the world based on Christian principles, and the formation of Western
European culture. Thus, those who want to deny any unique role to Our Lady end up, nonsensically, having to downplay
this world-altering aspect of Mary's
decision to bear the Messiah.
It is the free and knowing assent of Our Lady
to God that sets
the scene for the Church's understanding of Mary as the one
through whom our Blessed Lord grants His graces to the faithful. She is
not the one Mediator between God
and man, Who is none other than Jesus
Christ. But we call her the Mediatrix of all supernatural gifts to
the Church. She
cannot help but be. The Father "has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the
heavenly places" (Ephesians 1:3). Once she gave her assent
to the message of the angel, that very act
set in motion, not only a world-changing event on the temporal level, but
an outpouring of the divine
presence into the world in the person of
Jesus Christ. That divine outpouring
has changed the way humanity will for ever abide on the even more profound level of the spirit. This led the great fifth
century defender of Our Lady,
Cyril of Alexandria, to proclaim, using the ancient title Theotokos, "Mother
I salute you, O Mary, Theotokos: [through you] the Conqueror of
death and Destroyer of hell has come forth. . . . He has come, the Maker of the first
creation, and He has repaired the first mans falsehood. . . . Through you the beauty
of the Resurrection flowered, and its brilliance shone out. . . . Through you every
faithful soul achieves salvation (L. Gambero, Mary and the Fathers of
the Church, 244-45).
Her role of continuing
to dispense divine grace
to the Church is
simply an extension of that one act of assent made at Nazareth.
Once Mary shared, by her
willing submission to the divine plan, in the outpouring of
grace into the world through Jesus Christ, God
has continued, and will continue, to use her
as an instument of His grace for the world.
Council of Ephesus
The above statement by Cyril causes in many Protestant faithful a true
discomfort, which they have inherited from the reformers. In writing to a Protestant
community where the title Mother of God
was frequently in use, John Calvin said that:
I find it wrong to have this title ordinarily attributed in
sermons about the Virgin, and for my own part I would not think that such language was
good or proper or convenient. . . . To speak of the Mother of God instead of the Virgin
Mary can only serve to harden the ignorant in their superstition (T.
OMeara, Mary in Protestant and Catholic Theology, 129).
The problem with this discomfort is that it is a return to a dangerous
dissatisfaction voiced by a patriarch of Constantinople
in the fifth century by the name of Nestorius. He
too objected to the use of the title Mother
of God, and would also have been extremely uncomfortable with the
thoughts of Saint Cyril given above. For Nestorius,
Mary could not at all have participated
directly in a supernatural outpouring
in the person of Jesus Christ,
because Jesus Christ was, in fact, two
persons. Mary's fiat, in his
eyes, did not lead to the entry of the Son of God
into the world, but to a human person, the man Jesus. To this human
person the Holy Spirit, in a
separate act, united the person
of the Eternal Son. Thus, Mary's
consent initiated no descent of the
Son of God into our human condition, nor resulted in an outpouring
of grace. The Church of the fifth
century, under the leadership of Cyril, realized there
was something deeply flawed in this belief
and condemned Nestorius and his followers at the Council of
Ephesus in 431. It was at that council
that Mary was solemnly declared Theotokos, Mother
of God. The council fathers affirmed
that Jesus Christ is
one divine person Who has become incarnate in a human
nature. When one is saying something about the human
nature of Jesus,
one is speaking also of the Eternal Son united
to that nature. Mary can truly be said to be the one through whom salvation
has entered the world, because she truly gave birth to the Son
of God, the Savior of
Jesus Christ - One Divine Person with two natures:
one human, the other divine
Fabric of Faith
The faith is a wonderful fabric of
belief. All the various elements of our faith
work together to form one cohesive whole. But
like a fabric, withdrawing a thread in one place, will cause disruption of the fabric
elsewhere. We can see this happening with Protestant downplaying of the role of Our Lady in salvation.
This says something about what one believes about her
Son. The point to make is that if
did not give rise to all the spiritual
blessings that have descended upon humanity
in Jesus, then we have said
something in error not only about Mary, but about Jesus
as well. What lies hidden in such an assertion is that the Son
of God somehow failed to enter fully
into a human nature. If this had
happened, then infinite spiritual blessings would have descended upon humanity at the moment of her
fiat. Consequently, one ends up in a belief like
that of Nestorius which in one way or
another undermines the complete union of God
with a human nature - a union that knows of
no holding back, no failure to fully undertake our human
This is precisely what we affirm and support through Our
Lady's exalted status in the divine plan. What she
conceived and brought forth from her virginal womb was
the Son of God in a human nature. What she
held in her arms
was the divine king promised to David
Whose reign would never end. What she became through His
conception and birth was the Mother of God,
and the future Queen of heaven and earth.
Saying anything less about Mary is to imply
something less about her Son. Through her
exaltation we affirm the fullness of
divinity in Jesus Christ, Whose
coming into the world was made possible through the consent
of only one member in all His creation - the Virgin