“Blessed is She Who Believed”—The Mother of God as a Model of Faith

“By faith, Mary accepted the Angel’s word and believed the message that she was to become the Mother of God in the obedience of her devotion…”—Porta Fidei, §13

“Annunciation”-by Leonardo DaVinci

In promulgating Porta Fidei in the Year of Faith, Pope Benedict has given a model for imitation in Mary, to whom he has entrusted the year.  The Year of Faith began on October 11, 2012, and continues until November 24, 2013. So, there is some time to reflect upon the example Our Lady gives through Sacred Scripture.  This brief article examines a few of the Marian Scriptures—the Annunciation, the Visitation, her intercession at the wedding in Cana, and her standing at the foot of the Cross—to attempt to arrive at the heart of Marian faith.

The Angelic Greeting Sets Mary Apart
Scripture introduces this woman to believers through an encounter with the Archangel Gabriel (Lk. 1:26-38).  This is no ordinary greeting.  Some regrettable translations render the angelic salutation: “Greetings, O favored one!” 1  But such renderings do not do justice to the original Greek, nor do they explain Our Lady’s troubled reaction in the following verse.

The first word spoken to Mary in the Scriptural narrative is chaire (χαῖρε).  Hardly a “hello,” this calls to mind the prophecy in Zechariah of the coming of the King and Savior (Zec 9:9).  It reads: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!” (LXX: Χαῖρε σφόδρα θύγατερ Σιὼν).  Mary is the new Daughter Zion to receive the meek and just king.

The archangel continues, calling Mary “full of grace.”  Well, one may object, St. Stephen, too, was “full of grace.”  But there is an essential difference in the Greek used by Luke in his Gospel referring to Mary, and the Greek used by Luke, in Acts referring to Stephen.  The angel calls Mary kecharitōmenē (κεχαριτωμένη) and Stephen plērēs charitos (πλήρης χάριτος).   Plērēs charitos literally does mean “full of grace,” “full” being an adjective that modifies the noun “grace.”  But kecharitōmenē expresses something different; it does not translate nicely into “full of grace” because it is not a noun, rather a perfect passive participle.  Participles bear the qualities of verbs, but can also function as adjectives or adverbs.  Here, the participle describes Mary.  Since it is perfect, that means the action is complete; thus, it began at some point in the past with continued relevance to the present moment.  Since it is passive, it means that the action was performed upon Mary.  Reflecting upon this, Pope Benedict stated: “this is Mary’s most beautiful name. … she has always been, and will always be, the beloved, the elect, the one chosen to welcome the most precious gift, Jesus.” 2

So, Our Lady’s profound holiness strikes the reader in two simple Greek words supplied by an archangel delivering the most important message in the history of the world, and this is all before the conception of Jesus in her womb.  No wonder Our Lady was “greatly troubled” at this salutation.

The Response of Faith—“Let it Be Done to Me”
At this juncture, before moving forward, it would be beneficial to look back.  The Annunciation scene, with Gabriel and Mary in Nazareth (Lk 1:26-38), has an antithetical parallel in the scene with Gabriel and Zachariah in the Temple (Lk 1:5-25).  The similarities stand out:  the appearance of the Archangel Gabriel, the prophecy of the arrival of a heralded child, and the dialogue between the messenger and recipient.  But these similarities serve to highlight the essential dissimilarity between the two scenes—doubt and faith.

Interestingly, Zachariah and Mary both ask similar questions.  Zachariah: “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years” (v. 18).  Mary:  “How shall this be, since I have no husband (lit.: I do not know man)?” (v. 34).  Zachariah must remain silent until John the Baptist is born because of his unbelief.  Mary, on the other hand, receives the child into her womb, and is later praised for her faith.  Why is this?  The primary reason is that the angel perceives that the disposition of Zachariah is one of doubt; yet, in the mystery of Mary’s response, there is faith seeking understanding.  Furthermore, in the first encounter, Zachariah is the subordinate party; in the second, the archangel is the subordinate party.  Gabriel is delivering a message to his superior, his queen, the pinnacle of all of God’s creation.

Feminist Biblical scholarship has often pointed to the Annunciation scene as the archetype of the patriarchal God, imposing his subjugating will upon woman, and so Mary is seen not as the “handmaid of the Lord,” but more as slave to the whims of a despot.  But, such a hermeneutic of suspicion subjugates and betrays the original language of Scripture in order to retroject a certain modern worldview into the ancient text.  Rather than Mary’s “yes” being a passive acceptance of the divine plan, Mary is quite glad and quite active in receiving this news.

Having sought out the meaning of the angelic words, Mary responds with faith, with her fiat.  To fully grasp what this means, one must look at the Greek, which uses a grammatical mood lacking in Latin and English: the optative, (a verb expressing a wish or desire).  Ignace de la Potterie writes:

We know about the fiat of the Annunciation, but there is also the fiat voluntas tua (“thy will be done”) of the Our Father (Mt 6:10) and that of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane (Mt 26:42), with its verb in the passive imperative {genēthētō} γενηθήτω (“let there be”). For the fiat of Mary at the Annunciation, Luke employs the optative {genoito} γένοιτό (“may it be done”) without a subject which is used positively only in this unique place in the New Testament. In Greek the optative expresses “a joyous desire to,” never a resignation or a constraining submission before something burdensome and painful. The resonance of Mary’s fiat at the moment of the Annunciation is not that of the fiat voluntas tua of Jesus in Gethsemane, nor that of a formula corresponding to the Our Father.  Here, there is a remarkable detail, which has only been noticed in recent years, and which even today is frequently lost from sight.  The fiat of Mary is not just a simple acceptance and even less, a resignation. It is rather a joyous desire to collaborate with what God foresees for her. It is the joy of total abandonment to the good will of God. Thus the joy of this ending responds to the invitation of the joy at the beginning. 3

Thus, she serves as a model to all believers of how to accept the divine will—with joyful trust and desire of its fruition.  One thinks of the eagerness of the lover to embrace the desires of the beloved, even if those desires involve pain and sacrifice.

“Blessed is She Who Believed”
Pope Benedict has often emphasized St. Elizabeth’s words, which connect the blessedness of Our Lady to her faith.  In the Visitation scene, Elizabeth praises Our Lady, saying, “blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord” (Lk  1:45).  It is noteworthy that Elizabeth uses a different word here for blessedness than in verse 42.  She uses makaria (μακαρία) (“blessed” or “happy”), the same word that Jesus uses in the beatitudes.  Makaria is more closely connected with happiness than eulogēmenē (εὐλογημένη), which has to do with God’s gift of his blessings. 4  Eulogēmenē (“blessed are you”)  is significant in itself, in that it, too, is a perfect passive participle, implying the action of God upon Mary because of her faith (“blessed are you among women…”).

Makaria is used as a predicate adjective to describe “she who believed,” and this is Elizabeth’s experience in the silence of her home shared with the one who “did not believe” the words of the same angel (cf. Lk 1:20). Mary is happy because of the blessings received through faith, while Zachariah waits for his son in silence, the fruit of his doubt.

But much later, during the Lord’s public ministry, does the Gospel of Luke turn in a different direction, with Christ seeming to deny the unique blessedness of his Mother?  Jesus seems to diminish Mary, or at least raise the status of other believers to an equal plane with his Mother.  But interpreting the verse in the context of the passage demonstrates clearly that, in no way here, is Jesus undermining the physical maternity of Mary; rather, he is correcting a misunderstanding concerning Mary’s blessedness.

In Luke 11, a woman moved by Jesus’ teaching cries out from the crowd, “Blessed (makaria) is the womb that bore you, and the breasts that you sucked!”  To this, Jesus responds: “Blessed (makarioi) rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” (vv. 27-28)  This would seem to undercut the blessedness of the ever-Virgin had she not also fulfilled the true criteria for blessedness.  Rather, Jesus redirects the point of emphasis concerning the blessedness of his Mother—she hears the word of God and keeps it (cf. also Lk. 2:19, 51). 5  In other words, Elizabeth is correct in her understanding of the blessedness of the Mother of the Messiah: “blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord” (Lk. 1:45).  The Greek text in this verse identifies Mary as hē pisteusasa (ἡ πιστεύσσασα). In this case, the participle is aorist active, indicating an activity that now describes Mary.  She is the faithful woman.

Daring to Ask:  “They Have No Wine”
Concluding this brief glimpse at Mary’s faith as shown by Scripture, we look to the Johannine image of Our Lady—one of a woman who dares to ask.  At a wedding in Cana, when the wine fails, Our Lady says simply to the Lord: “They have no wine” (Jn. 2:3).  Women often have a very artful way of asking for things without employing a question mark.  The men who love them know when a request is implicit.  For example, when my wife says to me: “The smoke detector is starting to chirp,” I know that she really means: “Would you mind climbing on a chair to change the battery?”  A fortiori, Our Lord understands the heart of his mother here, and says: “O woman, what have you to do with me?” (v. 4)—or more literally: “What is this to me and to you, woman?” (ti emoi kai soi, gunai? τί ἐμοὶ καὶ σοί, γύναι); This is a Hebraism that is not necessarily hostile.) 6  If Our Lady were merely stating the obvious, Jesus’ response would be disproportionate.

But Jesus continues to unpack the multivalent nature of Our Lady’s request, saying: “My hour has not yet come” (v. 4).  In the Gospel of John, the hour of Jesus refers to his passion, 7 and so the Lord understands “they have no wine” in the sense of his own sacrificial offering.  It is amazing what the perfect woman can suggest in so few words with the perfect man interpreting them.  She then says confidently to the servants: “Do whatever he tells you” (v. 5).  In saying this, it is clear that she interprets his words, not as a rebuke, but as a “yes” to her request.  Faith.  The mystical exchange here between Jesus and his Mother highlights the intimate unspoken communion of these two beloveds, and it is no small matter that this occurs at a wedding. 8  The story of Cana is not so much about the bridegroom and the bride as it is about Jesus and Mary.

Furthermore, the “hour” of the Lord anticipates the “hour” of Mary, for his passion is her passion, his hour, her hour (cf. Jn 19:27).  At the foot of the Cross on Calvary, the mater dolorosa stands in support.  Her standing (stasis) is an anticipation of his resurrection (anastasis).  She continues to be praised in the Eastern rites in the Akathist Hymn—a hymn to the one who is “not seated.”  While she stood, she silently proclaimed the same fiat given to the archangel in Nazareth, and echoed to the Lord at Cana.

Mary is such a sublime model of faith not only because she dares to ask in trust, but also because the Lord answers her mightily.  The Cana event hearkens to a verse in the Gospel of Matthew—“Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you” (7:7).  Jesus answers Our Lady’s request at Cana not only with the immediate “sign” of the water turned into wine, but with the total outpouring of his blood on the Cross for sinners who “have no wine.”

Thus, Mary’s perfect faith looks toward the resurrection.  She, though pierced by sorrow, was unscandalized by the scandal of the Cross—her faith was unshaken because she had known from the beginning what had to come to pass.  In his encyclical on hope, Pope Benedict wrote: “Could it have ended before it began? No, at the foot of the Cross, on the strength of Jesus’ own word, you became the mother of believers. In this faith, which even in the darkness of Holy Saturday bore the certitude of hope, you made your way towards Easter morning.” 9  He continues this theme in Porta Fidei:  “By faith, Mary tasted the fruits of Jesus’ resurrection, and treasuring every memory in her heart (cf. Lk 2:19, 51), she passed them on to the Twelve assembled with her in the Upper Room to receive the Holy Spirit (cf. Acts 1:14; 2:1-4)” (PF, 13).  In sum, Mary’s faith is a tangible reality in Scripture from Annunciation to Pentecost.  She is the blessed one who believed.

Interestingly, so many Marian scriptures can be read in a way that minimizes Mary’s import in the economy of salvation.  One could think that Mary was arbitrarily chosen in Nazareth, or that she had no say in the matter, or that her maternity is of little consequence compared with those who hear the word of God and keep it, or that Christ is rebuking his mother at Cana, and so on.  The “woman” who is the model of faith, and to whom the “Year of Faith” has been entrusted, challenges believers to greater faith, and, in doing so, instructs us how to interpret Scripture with a correct hermeneutic.  Not only that, she teaches believers of every generation to ask great things of the Lord, and to do “whatever” he says with absolute trust in him whose word is “trustworthy and true,” who himself “makes all things new” (cf. Rev. 21:5).

  1. Cf. New Living Translation and the English Standard Version.
  2. Angelus Message, Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, Dec. 8, 2006.
  3. Ignace de la Potterie, SJ, Mary in the Mystery of the Covenant, Alba House, 1992, pp. 34-35.
  4. M. Zerwick, S.J., and M. Grosvenor, A Grammatical Analysis of the Greek New Testament, Gregorian and Biblical Press, Rome, pp. 172-173.
  5. The same reasoning interpretation applies to Luke 8:19-21, in which Christ says, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.”
  6. Zerwick and Grosvenor, p. 289.
  7. Cf. Jn. 7:30, 8:20, 12:23 ff., 13:1, 17:1.  For more on this, cf. Ignace de la Potterie, The Hour of Jesus: The Passion and the Resurrection of Jesus According to John, Alba House, 1990.
  8. Cf. M.J. Scheeben, Mariology, Vol. 1, B. Herder Book Co., London, 1946, pp. 154 ff.
  9. Encyclical Spe Salvi, Nov. 30, 2007, n. 50.
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avatar About Kevin M. Clarke

Kevin M. Clarke is an adjunct professor at John Paul the Great Catholic University in San Diego, California. He writes regularly for Zenit, and is the author of a chapter on Benedict XVI's Mariology in De Maria Numquam Satis: The Significance of the Catholic Doctrines on the Blessed Virgin Mary for All People (University Press of America, 2009).

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  2. [...] “Blessed is She Who Believed”—The Mother of God as a Model of Faith “By faith, Mary accepted the Angel’s word and believed the message that she was to become the Mother of God in the obedience of her devotion…”—Porta Fidei, §13In promulgating Porta Fidei in the Year of Faith, Pope Benedict has given a model for imitation in Mary, to whom he has entrusted the year. The Year of Faith began on October 11, 2012, and continues until November 24, 2013. So, there is some time to reflect upon the example Our Lady gives through Sacred Scripture. This brief article examines a few of the Marian Scriptures—the Annunciation, the Visitation, her intercession at the wedding in Cana, and her standing at the foot of the Cross—to attempt to arrive at the heart of Marian faith.…more [...]

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