Mary the Perfected Witness

Achieving Our Saintly Destiny in a World of Choices

On December 21, Pope Francis spoke about Our Lady and Saint Joseph in the Nativity scene being full of holiness and joy. He continued: “And you will tell me: of course! They are Our Lady and Saint Joseph! Yes, but let us not think it was easy for them: saints are not born, they become thus, and this is true for them too.” (Emphasis added.)

The Pope’s unintended conflation of words or concepts takes place in his use of the word “saint” which means “holy.” So it’s easy to conclude that the Pope thinks that Mary’s ultimate holiness or saintliness was not present from the very beginning. In fact, following the reporting of the Pope’s statement, many blogs and social media postings began criticizing Pope Francis, saying that his statement was a contradiction to the dogma of the Immaculate Conception which proclaims Mary’s holiness from the point of conception.

By his controversial statement, I really do not think Pope Francis was trying to disassemble a deep Marian dogma by implication or intention. Looking at the entirety of Francis’s homily for that day, I concluded that what the Holy Father is trying to say is that Mary faced many and grave challenges to her holiness throughout her life, from the time she was a child through her encounter with the archangel Gabriel, her pregnancy and early relationship with St. Joseph, and throughout the rest of her life, inclusive of the Passion and death of her son.

What is not as clear in the Pope’s comments are the solid truths that her life experience in the world was somehow mysteriously guarded by God’s special favor to her, allowing her to overcome those challenges. While we may not be born “full of grace,” as in Mary’s case, I do believe that we indeed are born “innocent,” albeit with our inheritance of “Original Sin,” or our tendencies to concupiscence. After all, don’t we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Innocents — the children slaughtered by King Herod to prevent the entrée of the newly born King of the Jews that we read about in the Gospel of Matthew? Although born innocent (free of intentional sin), nevertheless, Mary was different than us in the sense that we have not been granted the special favor she was graced with. This is the mystery of the meaning of chaire kekaritomine, that special address of the angel given directly to Mary at the annunciation of the conception of Jesus, the anointed one (Lk 1:28).

I won’t explicate this deep theological mystery here, but suffice it to say it is important to try to understand the following thoughts relative to specific aspects of the archangel Gabriel’s greeting, and which the English translations do not reveal. Firstly, the meaning of the Greek, in consideration of the implications of the dual meaning of the greeting chaire can be used as “hail,” a simple salutation. The English “hail” does not reveal the subtleties of the high status of the person being greeted, as the Greek and Latin does. Chaire was translated into Latin by St. Jerome as the higher form of the more vernacular word ave, instead of salve. Ave was the form always reserved for greeting royalty or persons of high stature. But chaire’s other meaning is deeper, and not really translated fully to the Latin or other subsequent languages. That is, it means rejoice, which is also an imperative verb. According to the Greek biblical codices, Luke followed the salutation with the verb kekaritomine (κεχαριτωμένη – kecharitōménē), which is comprised of the Greek verb charitoo, meaning “to put a person or thing into (the very state indicated by the noun root, which is) charis — grace or high favor.” This form is then compounded with the prefix ke, rendering it ke-aritomine, which is a Greek perfect-tense prefix indicating a perfected or completed present state as a result of a past action (Fr. John Echert, EWTN.com). I labor you through this brief explanation because the words of the English translation, “full of grace,” or “highly favored one,” do not properly express the depth of the Gospel writer’s testimony.

All of this is advanced in order that we understand that there is no challenge by Pope Francis or anyone else to the dogmatic formulations over centuries that eventuated in the proclamation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception in 1854.

But to Pope Francis’s main point, undoubtedly Mary faced obstacles in her life. In the human sense, she had to mature. Indeed there were even challenges to her holiness. Nevertheless, her holiness was not to be overcome because she was “full of grace,” in the fullest sense of the concept. Albeit that Mary was not born an adult, and had to develop into a “mature” person in the human sense (i.e., learn to speak, learn to eat, learn manners, learn to read, learn to cook, learn to organize, learn to pray), when presented with her life choices, she had a kind of prescience incorporated within her conscience that allowed her to see clearly the consequences of certain options. I would even argue that Mary had a prophetic gift of vision beyond that of all the Old Testament prophets combined. In that sense, Mary was the Zion of the Old Testament psalms as well as the virgin in Isaiah’s pronouncement. Even so, among her own gifts was an ability to receive her own prescience and visions which she pondered and considered as she matured.

The theological question is: “Could Mary have lost her grace in confronting her challenges while maturing?” The answer is “no,” because the peculiar approach God used in granting her salvation was a “once saved, always saved” unique set of circumstances meant for her alone. After all, she was not only to bear the anointed one; she was to “take up her own cross” and follow him as the first disciple (Mt 16:24).

This is a grand mystery with an answer beyond our human understanding. If God favored Mary so much (“highly favored one”), could Mary have been prevented from losing her grace or favor during her lifetime? Is this supernatural gift an insurmountable block on or in ultimate contradiction to Mary’s free will? The answer to the first question is “yes” because, as the angel told Mary, “with God all things are possible” (Lk 1:37; 18:24–43). The answer to the second question is: “No!” Mary, was given the blessing of freedom in the same way that all creatures of God are given that blessing, in the context of their make and kind. Mary dealt with challenges to her grace, but was not restricted in the way she dealt with those challenges except that a truly sinful choice (while being in the spectrum of all her free options) would be a choice that would have been so clearly wrong that her grace-filled conscience would have pronounced to her the long-term consequences, including a diminished relationship with God, which would have horrified her.

Mary did in life what Eve did not do. Part of Mary’s “grace filled-ness” included a silent “prescience” fueled by her espousal to the Holy Spirit who manifested Himself like the Shekinah (Hebrew שכן‬ – God’s manifested glory); this was the “glory” cloud described in the Book of Exodus that was present over the Ark of the Covenant in the Temple indicating the presence of God in time and space (Ps 132). God’s very presence within the soul of Mary gave her “prescience” as well as prophetic wisdom.

These were the moments in Mary’s life when “human prescience” and “God’s presence” became one. This phenomena is demonstrated by the many instances in her life in which she freely decided to choose to trust God. Mary always trusted God in spite of the cacophony of circumstances that urged her to deny the very grace within her being. These were the moments in which she, like all human beings, are tempted to meander the dark places when an inner unseen light is begging us to trust that there is light at the end of the tunnel. These are the moments when our wills are overwhelmed by the surrounding feelings of fear, anger, and resentment, and death and darkness override the reality of the unseen destiny of resurrection, renewal, and light. An unthinkable denial of the charitoo that was present in her soul at her conception would have resulted in a self-negation, a kind of self-annihilation, which would not have been possible given the reality of the words of the proto-evangelion (Gen 3:15). Thus, the great conundrum: The challenges to Mary’s holiness were not effective nor was her freedom of will denied. At stake in her decision-making was her relationship with God. That was the non-negotiable for Mary albeit that, in theory, she could have made decisions that would have diminished that relationship with God. Unlike us, Mary could see consequences clearly.

Here are some decisions within circumstances that challenged her holiness and in which that holiness prevailed:

  • Mary challenged to accept the proposal from God (Lk 1:26–38).
  • Mary faced with divorce or, worse, faced with single motherhood and rejection by her community (Mt 1:19).
  • Mary faced with the birth of her son in a cave (Lk 2:12).
  • Mary faced with the prophecy of Simeon (Lk 2:34).
  • Mary faced with threats to the life of her son and family and escape to Egypt (Mt 2:13–23).
  • Mary faced with the crisis of a lost son and his response to her and Joseph in the Temple (Lk 2:41).
  • Mary faced with intercession at Cana (Jn 2:1–12).
  • Mary faced with a perceived denial of her mother by her son (Mt 12:46–50).
  • Mary faced with her son’s rejection in Nazareth and violence against him (Lk 4:16–30).
  • Mary faced with her son’s developing reputation of cavorting with sinners (Lk 7:36–50).
  • Mary faced with her son’s arrest, trial, scourging, condemnation, the denials by Judas and Peter, and the cowardice of the other apostles except John (Jn 18; Lk 22:47—23; Mt 26:14–16; Mk 15).
  • Mary faced with her son’s Crucifixion, death, and burial (Mt 27:32–56; Mk 15:21–41; Lk 23:26–49; Jn 19:17–42).

In view of these vivid examples from Scripture, there must have been many more instances like these challenges to holiness which Mary “pondered and held close to her heart” (Lk 2:19, 51). So Mary matured and developed as does all of humanity. What makes her different is the prescient grace and a steadfast conscience in tune with the will and presence of God that the rest of us do not have so solidly. We must imitate that aspect of Mary until we get it right so that we can have a vision of ourselves in tune with God’s vision of his desired destiny for us. I think this is what Pope Francis was attempting to elucidate.

Contemplating Mary’s enigmatic example, she grew from an intrinsic “fullness” to an extrinsic “fuller-ness”; Mary was focused upon her growth and maturity from God’s perspective, and not on the restrictive limitations of human vision. Mary was focused on growing from the human limitations of destination to the freedom of God-desired destiny.

It is in light of those considerations it is fair to address free will or “freedom to choose” within the context of today’s societal realities. The “devil’s advance” of a straw “choice,” that we be tempted to be like gods, has raised its ugly head (Gen 3:5). His advance is the basis of all challenges to our sacred destiny of holiness. It remains the same as we live in a world where we face challenges that confront our attempts to achieve holiness. There is no starker example of this “choice” conundrum as occurs with respect to the issue of abortion and its proffered opposite, “choice.”

The recent example comes to mind of a mother in Great Britain who was counseled by her doctor to abort one of her three triplets. She was shocked by the doctor’s advice. The doctor advised that all of her unborn triplets would be at risk unless one or two of them were aborted. A twelve-week ultrasound scan revealed that the triplets were not sharing the placenta equally and that one baby was getting less sustenance than the others. In the end, the family and mother refused to consider aborting any of their unborn babies. All three were born healthy and continue to thrive. It was the mother’s decision of a lifetime — a decision of four lifetimes.

The choices given her were stark. But in a mother’s mind must come the point in which she must ask: “Is this really my choice to make?” She was advised without any moral predisposition on the doctor’s part. At some point thousands of women believe that, for a full spectrum of reasons ranging from health to life planning, they have the freedom to terminate one or more of the children. Nevertheless, this particular woman’s reference point was something deeper than her personal convenience, or the challenges to motherhood such as the possibility of difficulties in raising children with disabilities. Her reference point was deeper than even the specter of the possibility that there might be harm done to one of the children by not terminating the other children in the womb.

In such a real example is the secret of understanding “choice.” We indeed have free will, which was given to us, or rather entrusted to us. The word “entrust” places a whole new dimension upon the object of a gift. God entrusts to us His own sacred trust which is ancient and unchanging. In an entrustment, God is a stakeholder in a mother’s decision because He is the very cause of a conception, as we are the means of conception. So why would we sully that sacred trust by going in our own direction — thereby undoing the God-hoped-for outcome entrusted to his creation? If choice is understood in the context of an entrustment of God’s will (i.e., His choice as manifest in conception), then our choice to rebel against our very cause, or our cooperation with our very cause, presents surprising clarity. The devil’s selfish advance obfuscates that clarity with intrusion, illusion, and, finally, delusion. The devil’s selfish advance tries to keep us from sensing the clarity of consequence and blurs our conscience with a narcissistic reflection of our own convenience and personal welfare. This advance works upon our emotions that pull us away from the intellect wherein our will resides.

The outcomes of the ensuing decision can be either cataclysmic or epiphanic. When abortion takes place, it is a spit in God’s face. It is a cataclysm. We put ourselves at war with God. We declare war on God. Why would that seem to anyone’s advantage? A mother who chooses to cooperate with God regardless of her circumstances imitates Mary. The life that is protected and fostered is one small aspect of the “life of God Himself” that surrounds His own image and likeness in the child (ikonosma – εικόνισμα) which precedes the birth, and succeeds the birth, becoming an epiphany of the child and the God of whom the child represents the image and likeness.

Then we must include the life of the whole world, the “ecosystem” surrounding the actions of protecting and fostering for this and every child icon of God. The life of the child must also be considered within the context of the surrounding life of the family and community. Even in those difficult cases when no family or community safety-net are present, the child icon contains the seed of a divine “hope” that the child experience in the future his or her destiny. This is a hoped-for destiny in the face of every and all challenges to God’s hoped-for destiny for the child. In effect, the Holy Family experienced such starkly cold surroundings and environment of oppression that they faced the challenge of developing and maturing in this context. In the end, Mary becomes the clearest, purely human North Star, or reference point, for these circumstances. The devil’s great advance that we move in a direction toward a false destiny attempts to obscure any and all reference points of clarity in our decision-making. The devil always moves in the grays, and the subtleties of our consciousness and subconsciousness gently pushing us toward the broad and gently sloping plains of disappointment, hopelessness, confusion, and despair. The serpent’s advance moves us to the false conclusion that death is the final victor and that we were random and had no purpose to our existence, and man’s failure to keep God as his reference point are the causes for despair and movement away from our sacred destiny. All of this is contrasted with the presence of God in Mary, her prescience regardless of her predicament, and her constant movement always toward the God she loved as she loved her own child.

As in the cases where Mary faced decision-making challenges, we have to ask: Do our decisions advance our saintly, God-intended destiny? Or do our choices sully our chances for achieving God’s hoped-for outcome if even at the moment before death? Mary remains the strongest witness to the fact that “with God all things are possible.” I believe this is ultimately what Pope Francis was trying to say: Face challenges always with the constant reference point of holiness, and that can more easily be done by looking at the example of those holy ones who succeeded. Mary is the clearest of these.

Deacon Thomas Baca About Deacon Thomas Baca

Thomas Baca is a Permanent Deacon in the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, currently assigned to St. Therese of the Infant Jesus Shrine in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Deacon Baca maintains a blog at: www.tentofthelord.blogspot.com . He has degrees in Journalism and Mass Communication, Philosophy, and Public Administration. He has served in several parishes in both the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, and the Diocese of Las Cruces where he served as Executive Director of Catholic Charities and where he also served Bishop Oscar Cantu as an advisor for Campaign for Human Development. He was ordained in the Archdiocese of Santa Fe in 2007.

Comments

  1. Avatar Jonathan Fleischmann says:

    Excellent!!! Thank you!

  2. Avatar Bernadette Fakoory says:

    You know , we are told in the Gospel that Jesus grew in wisdom and stature and learned how to discern good from evil. Here it is Jesus Christ is the Messiah, the anointed One, the savior of the world. That does not mean Jesus was lacking in wisdom and Goodness but was the embodiment of both in essence.

    The same it is with Mary and Joseph who were Holy persons but still had their challenges in fulfillng their God given tasks and at the same time being sustained in holiness, the gift of God’s grace.

    For all of us disciples of Jesus Christ it is all about taking up the challenge of bearing our crosses daily rising above the challenges that threathen to deny us the merits of sanctifying Grace and eternal life Christ wrought for us all on the Cross. The objective is for us to remain faithful to our task to avoid sin and seek righteousness.

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