• Mi 5:1-4a
• Ps 80:2-3, 15-16, 18-19
• Heb 10:5-10
• Lk 1:39-45
St. Augustine, in his treatise, “On Holy Virginity,” made this profound, even startling, statement: “Thus also her nearness as a Mother would have been of no profit to Mary, had she not borne Christ in her heart after a more blessed manner than in her flesh.”
In that single line, the great Doctor anticipated the objections voiced by many Protestants while also explaining the honor and love shown by Catholics (and Eastern Orthodox) for the Theotokos, the Mother of God. I heard and repeated, while growing up in a Protestant home of Fundamentalist persuasion, many of those objections: “Mary was just an ordinary woman,” “Mary was not sinless,” and, of course, “Catholics worship Mary!” People would sometimes go to extremes to avoid any appearance of praise for Mary. A close relative once told me that Mary had merely been a “biological vessel” for the baby Jesus!
Two things changed my mind: reading actual Catholic teaching about Mary and re-reading Scripture. The first came from a sense of fairness toward what I didn’t know; the second came from a growing (and hardly characteristic) humility about what I thought I knew. Sure, I had read the opening chapters of the Gospel of Luke many times. But I must have read it dozens of times before I began to slowly comprehend the astonishment of the Annunciation, the wonder of Elizabeth’s ecstatic greeting, the magnitude of the Magnificat.
Today’s Gospel reading follows the Annunciation and immediately precedes the Canticle of Mary. The young Mary, told by Gabriel that she had found favor with God and would bear a son, eventually sets out to see Elizabeth, also pregnant with a son. Having already been confirmed by a heavenly messenger of God, Mary was then confirmed by her own flesh and blood in words heard and repeated by countless faithful through the centuries: “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”
To be blessed is to have found favor with God, to be filled with the grace—the supernatural life—of God. It is to possess the kingdom by belonging to the King (cf. Matt 5:3, 10). As mother of the King of kings, Mary bore the kingdom within her. As mother of the Messiah, she is also the mother of the Church. Pope John Paul II, in Redemptoris Mater (1987), wrote that “in her new motherhood in the Spirit, Mary embraces each and every one in the Church, and embraces each and every one through the Church” (par. 47).
Mary and Elizabeth, bearing their sons—one a prophet, the other the Son of God—prefigure the Church that would later be born from the side of the crucified Lord and made manifest on Pentecost (see CCC 766, 1076). Blessed by the Father, impregnated by the power of the Holy Spirit, and filled with the Son, the Virgin brings joy and gladness into the dark, silent womb of man’s deepest longing.
Like St. Augustine, John Paul II provided a profound reflection on the belief and faith of Mary. In the expression “Blessed are you who believed,” he wrote, “we can therefore rightly find a kind of ‘key’ which unlocks for us the innermost reality of Mary, whom the angel hailed as ‘full of grace.’ If as ‘full of grace’ she has been eternally present in the mystery of Christ, through faith she became a sharer in that mystery in every extension of her earthly journey” (par. 19). The miracle of Mary’s pregnancy and Virgin birth go hand in hand with the mystery of faith.
At Christmas we celebrate the birth of the Christ child while recognizing that Christ always remains in the heart of Mary. Having given birth to the Savior at one particular moment in time, Mary has continued to give the Savior to the world ever since. It is her one desire, her unending gift of joy and life to each of us. “And how does this happen to me,” we ask ourselves, “that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”
(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in the December 20, 2009, edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)