The Biblical Mariology of Pope Benedict XVI, Part 1

Hail, Full of Grace

“The unique and unrepeatable position that Mary occupies in the Community of Believers . . . stems from her fundamental vocation to being Mother of the Redeemer. Precisely as such, Mary is also Mother of the Mystical Body of Christ, which is the Church.” ~ Pope Benedict XVI1

It is no wonder that Pope Benedict XVI, brilliant biblical theologian that he is, grounds his Mariology in a deep love of biblical texts. In this article, the first of a two-part analysis, I will demonstrate that Benedict XVI’s theology of Mary is drawn principally from his ardent meditation on the texts of Sacred Scripture. To evince this, it will examine the major corpus of Benedict’s Mariological work, exploring firstly, Old Testament Marian typology, secondly, exposition on the Lukan text “Hail, Full of Grace,” thirdly, Mary as Immaculate Creature of God, and fourthly, Mary as Suffering Mother with her Son.

Old Testament Typology

Beginning with the Old Testament, Benedict exegetes the typological reality that Mary is found woven into the every inch of the Old Covenants. This is because “if one begins by reading backwards or, more precisely, from the end to the beginning, it becomes obvious that the image of Mary in the New Testament is woven entirely of Old Testament threads.”2 This is accurate on two levels, as Benedict posits. Reading from Genesis onwards, with the tradition of the deposit of faith in mind, one sees that, as early as Genesis 2, one sees the foreshadowings of Mary in the person of Eve. Few verses, however, give as clear an indicator of the coming of Mary as the protoevangelium. In Genesis 3:15, God, in cursing the serpent, says of the future, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel.”

Benedict proceeds, from there, to elucidate how Mary’s tapestry is woven gradually by every great maternal figure in the Old Testament. “The portrait of Mary includes the likeness of the great mothers of the Old Testament: Sarah and especially Hannah, the mother of Samuel.3 Nonetheless, Benedict goes on to say that while these noteworthy women in each of their own rights stand as types of Mary, it is also, in the theology of daughter Zion that Sacred Scripture portrays the Blessed Virgin as the coming perfection of Israel and, as the case would have it, the Church. It is in the theology of daughter Zion that the prophets of the Old Testament “announced the mystery of election and covenant, the mystery of God’s love for Israel.”

What Benedict seeks to prove here is that these mysteries of the faith, of election, of covenant, of divine adoption, would only see material fulfilment in the person of Christ as born of Mary. From this, Benedict derives a third Old Testament Marian gem: that Mary is the perfect woman, the New and perfect Eve. This is found in the Gospel of John, where “the figure of Eve, the ‘woman’ par excellence, is borrowed to interpret Mary.”4

Moving forward from there, Benedict looks into a prophecy from the minor prophet, Zephaniah. The particular text examined is Zephaniah 3:15, 17:

The Lord has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies. The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more . . . The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you[d] in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.

Benedict sees, here, a correlation between Gabriel’s greeting to Mary in Luke 1, to the daughter of Zion called to rejoice. “There is no need . . . to enter into a detailed textual comparison between the angel’s greeting to Mary and Zephaniah’s prophecy. The essential reason for the daughter of Zion to rejoice is stated in the text itself: ‘the Lord is in your midst (Zeph 3:15,17).”5 Of key interest is the call to rejoice as “the Lord is in your midst.” Linguistically, this is a play on how Israel “bears” the Lord God to the world. Benedict continues that, “literally it says: ‘he is in your womb.’ Here Zephaniah is alluding to a passage in the Book of Exodus, which speaks of God dwelling in the ark of the Covenant as dwelling ‘in Israel’s womb.’”6

Hence when these very same words appear in the greeting of Gabriel to Mary, it becomes clear that the Old Testament type is now to take a very personal antitypical reality: the virgin is to literally bear God in her womb. As such, it is clear that Sacred Scripture paints Mary as “Daughter Zion” in the flesh. All Zionic prophecies come to a head and see a fulfillment in her in a preeminent and, admittedly, almost unexpected way. Where the Temple of Zion once stood, housing the presence of the Lord on earth, now stands a young virgin. “Mary becomes the Ark of the Covenant, the place where the Lord truly dwells.”7

Hail, Full of Grace

This brings Benedict to examine the Annunciation narrative in the Gospel of Luke. He is quick to pick up that the event, while on the one hand being a definitive moment in the entirety of salvation and human history, is, on the other hand, orchestrated to be as insignificant as possible to the erudite. “The annunciation to Mary happens to a woman, in an insignificant town in half-pagan Galilee, known neither to Josephus nor the Talmud. The entire scene was ‘unusual for Jewish sensibilities.”8

And unusual it truly was. There nothing royal, aggrandized or even seemly about the event, the town or the virgin. Yet here lies the hand of God working mightily, ever choosing the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; and choosing the weak things of the world to shame the strong (cf. 1 Cor 1:27). The God of all creation, the one who is supreme over all that is, condescends Himself. He reveals Himself, as ever, in accordance with His benevolent plan yet bafflingly inscrutable to the wisest of the world.

Thus, Benedict rightly comments, “begins a new way, at whose center stands no longer the temple, but the simplicity of Jesus Christ. He is now the true temple, the tent of meeting.”9 And at the center of this event lies a humble ark, the one who would serve as vessel and mother to the Divine Son of the Living God. At the center of this inconspicuous yet earth-shattering event stood humble Mary.

The words of Gabriel, “Hail, Full of Grace” (Luke 1:28) have been both carefully and callously studied by scholars for generations. The words by themselves, if understood carefully, are a proclamation of Mary’s creaturely immaculate nature as well as the mission she was created to embrace. “Full of grace — gratia plena,’ which in the original Greek is kecharitomene, ‘beloved’ of God (cf. Lk1:28) is a title expressed in passive form.”10 The form of this title, to Benedict, is a deeper indicator of Mary’s character as a person in relationship with her God. “The ‘passivity’ of Mary, who has always been and is forever ‘loved’ by the Lord, implies her free consent, her personal and original response: in being loved, in receiving the gift of God, Mary is fully active, because she accepts with personal generosity the wave of God’s love poured out upon her.”

The greeting and the title that Gabriel announces to Mary speak of the very depth of her love for her Lord. She is that perfect receptacle of the Love of God that receives without hesitation and in full consent the fullness of the outpouring of His grace. It is precisely because of this consummate submission to the will of God that she manifests true human gift of self. “In this too, she is the perfect disciple of her Son, who realizes the fullness of his freedom and and thus exercises the freedom through obedience to the Father.”11

Benedict then draws us to the Old Testament minor prophet Zephaniah, once again. “The salutation to Mary (Lk 1:28-32) is modeled closely on Zephaniah 3:14-17: Mary is the daughter Zion addressed there, summoned to ‘rejoice’, informed that the Lord is coming to her. Her fear is removed, since the Lord is in her midst to save her.”12 This is why Mary’s fiat is that great. This is why hers was an act that transformed the entire course of human and salvation history. Mary is fearless in the face of her God. Mary is unconditionally without trepidation in embracing his will. He is HER God. She knows Him and loves Him, trusting Him unreservedly. She knows that He has poured Himself out to save her, and she responds by pouring her very self out for Him.

In the address of the angel, the underlying motif in the Lucan portrait of Mary surfaces: she is in person the true Zion, toward whom hopes have yearned throughout all the devastations of history. She is the true Israel in whom Old and New Covenant, Israel and Church, are indivisibly one. She is the “people of God” bearing fruit through God’s gracious power.13

Another aspect to be commented on with the greeting is that Chaire may be translated as the English “rejoice.” Ergo, “Rejoice, full of grace!” In this, Benedict draws the natural correlation between joy and grace. “In Greek, the two works joy and grace (chara and charis) are derived from the same root. Joy and grace belong together.”14 The tapestry of Sacred Scripture demonstrates the elation of the soul at the heeding of the beck and call of its Lord. In Mary, one sees the literal fruition of such a joy. “Rejoice, full of grace,” for when the Lord God pours his favor into the soul, it cannot help but rejoice. The cause of this rejoicing is then made tangible, truly made flesh, for then Gabriel proclaims 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” (Luke 1:35). At that moment, Mary was called upon to rejoice for herself, having been chosen to be the spotless Mother of God. Yet, as Mother-to-be of all mankind and of the Church, Mary’s moment of rejoicing sees her bearing all humanity in her heart. Mary rejoices that the Lord has visited His people. Salvation is finally sure. And she would be His conduit to bear Him to the world.

Any student of Sacred Scripture needs but take a step back here to realize that this language of the Holy Spirit coming down is not, strictly speaking, unheard of in the inspired text. In fact, “in terms of the language used, it belongs to the theology of the Temple and of God’s presence in the Sanctuary.”15 What is referred to by the angel here, which Mary knew full well, was that the Holy Spirit would descend upon her the same way the sacred shekinah cloud of God’s glory descended upon the Tabernacle and the Temple in the Old Testament (Exodus 40:34; 1 Kings 8:10).

“The sacred cloud — the shekinah — is the visible sign of God’s presence. It conceals the fact that God is dwelling in his house, yet at the same time points to it. The cloud that casts its shadow over men comes back later in the account of the Lord’s transfiguration (cf. Lk 9:34; Mk 9:7). Again it is a sign of God’s presence, og God’s self-revelation in hiddenness. So the reference to the overshadowing by the Holy Spirit brings us back to the Zion theology of the salutation. Once again Mary appears as God’s living tent, in which he chooses to dwell among men in a new way.”16

Mary: Immaculate Creature of God

It is from this that Benedict develops his Biblical understanding of the Immaculateness of Mary. He begins this by examining the evaluation of nature and grace. “We could therefore describe original sin as a statement about God’s evaluation of man; evaluation not as something external, but as a revealing of the very depths of his interior being.”17 The fallen character of human nature is not something that is entirely unknown to God. Because God knows man better than He knows himself, and He is more present to him than his inmost being, it is clear that when God “evaluates” man, it is an accurate measure of the value of all that man is. God reveals to man the interior depths of his very being to himself. It is here that the man becomes aware of “the collapse of what man is, both in his origin from God and in himself, the contradiction between the will of the Creator and man’s empirical being.”18

It is here that man becomes startlingly aware of the vast distance between himself and God. God’s fullness shines as a brilliant light illuminating the depths of the darkness of sin and death that had tainted mankind. Yet, “this contradiction between God’s ‘is’ and man’s ‘is not’ is lacking in the case of Mary, and consequently God’s judgment about her is pure ‘Yes,’ just as she herself stands before him as a pure ‘Yes.’”19 Mary alone, created in pristineness from the moment of her conception becomes the first instance of the “bridging,” as it were, of this gap between God and creature. In the person of Mary, God’s “is” meets man’s “should be.” Yet, even this immaculateness is a gift of pure grace from the creator to whom her very life is dedicated. Aware of the depth of this truth, Mary’s fiat stands as a deeper affirmation. She effectively tells her Lord, “all that is good within me is of You. Do with me as You will. I have been, I am, and I always will be entirely Yours.”

As such, there exists a natural correspondence between Mary’s “Yes” to God, and God’s own “Yes” to Mary. At the heart of this correspondence is the abject and absolute absence of sin, that the creature may know, love and serve her Creator even as she herself is known, loved and served by her Creator. To culminate this reflection, Benedict writes:

Preservation from original sin, therefore, signifies no exceptional proficiency, no exceptional achievement; on the contrary, it signifies that Mary reserves no area of being, life, and will for herself as a private possession: instead, precisely in the total dispossession of self, in giving herself to God, she comes to the true possession of self. Grace as dispossession becomes response as appropriation. Thus, from another viewpoint the mystery of barren fruitfulness, the paradox of the barren mother, the mystery of virginity, becomes intelligible once more: dispossession as belonging, as the locus of new life.20

It is to this dispossession of self that Mary challenges us, her children. Not by word, but by the very person that she is. In Mary, the Christian sees clearly that all barrenness, all emptiness, all longing within the human heart is only satisfied in complete gift of self to the Creator who in divine benevolence awaits to pour out His very self into his children. This is why, when Mary exclaims, “My soul magnifies the Lord” (Lk 1:46), she does not mince words. In that hymn of praise is the very blueprint of her existence. God is the very locus of all that she is and all that she will ever desire to be. In the Magnificat, Mary “expresses her whole program of life: not setting herself at the center, but leaving space for God, who is encountered both in prayer and service of neighbor — only then does goodness enter the world.”21 This is the true testimony of her creaturely immaculateness: God as source and summit of her entire being.

Mary: the Mother who Suffers with her Son

Mary’s role in salvation history was not to cease at the birth of Christ. It would be of the greatest folly of Scriptural exegesis to conclude that Mary was a mere incubator for Christ, if one might pardon the crude analogy. Nay, “in the drama of salvation it is not the case that Mary had a part to play before exiting the stage like an actor who has said his lines and departs. The Incarnation from the woman is not a role that is completed after a short time; rather it is the abiding being of God with the earth, with men, with us who are earth.”22

Mary, from the moment of the Incarnation onward, stands as a living testament to the God who shrouded Himself within the womb of humanity, who nursed Himself upon the breasts of humanity, and who continues to forever reside within the heart of all humanity. The birth of Christ did not put an end to the union between the creature and her Creator. Instead, it greatly accentuated it, lending to it a new dimension and decisive direction. Humanity now could encounter God as Savior in person and be in true interpersonal relationship with Him. This magnificent interpersonal encounter between creature and Creator began with Mary herself. “That is the reason why Christmas is at the same time both a feast of Mary and a feast of Christ, and for this reason a proper Nativity church must be a Marian church.”23

This is why Benedict examines the Christmas event in Sacred Scripture within a Mariological framework, connecting them with the finding of the Christ child in the Temple later in the narrative. “St. Luke describes the reaction of Mary and Joseph to Jesus’s words with two statements: ‘They did not understand the saying which he spoke to them,’ and ‘his mother kept all these things in her heart’ (2:50, 51).”24 At the moment of their being uttered to Mary and Joseph, the words pertaining to Jesus’s person and mission were, even then, slightly beyond their understanding. It is to this end that Mary treasures them in her heart. She ponders upon them as a devout disciple would the words of her master. “Jesus’s saying is [at that moment] on too lofty a plane for this moment in time.”25

That Christ, her Son, must be about the business of His Heavenly Father should have come as no surprise to her. Yet there is great sorrow in the heart of a mother for the temporary loss of her Son. Truly, “even Mary’s faith is a ‘journeying’ faith, a faith that is repeatedly shrouded in darkness and has to mature by persevering through the darkness. Mary does not understand Jesus’s saying, but she keeps it in her heart and allows it gradually to come to maturity there.”26 And until it reaches that spiritual maturity that found its exaltation with her at the foot of His Cross, she continually suffered. It is right to say that while the lance pierced the heart of the crucified Son, it was the heart of His mother that broke and bled.

To this end, “tradition has yielded another image of mourning that brings salvation: Mary standing under the Cross with her sister, the wife of Clopas, with Mary Magdalene, and with John (Jn 19:25ff).”27 Mary is the glorious Mother of Christ the Son, but only because she was first the Mother of all Sorrow, her submissive, passive, receptive obedience to the will of the God she loved so dearly was exemplified in its greatest form when she stood distraught on the hill of Calvary at the foot of the Cross. “Mary was standing by the Cross (cf. Jn 19:25-27). Her sorrow is united with that of her Son. It is a sorrow full of faith and love. The Virgin on Calvary participates in the saving power of the suffering of Christ, joining her ‘fiat,’ her ‘yes,’ to that of her Son.28

This is a wake-up call to fallen human nature. Submissive surrender is juxtaposed to the very selfishness within our nature that precipitated the fall. “Because man constantly strives for emancipation from God’s will in order to follow himself alone, faith will always appear as a contradiction to the ‘world’ — to the ruling powers at any given time.”29 To be a son of God and Mary is to stand not only against the powers of the ages, it is to lay down one’s own pride and autonomy for the sake of loving obedience to the Father whose will is truly what is best for us. Unfortunately, the lure to self-will is an issue that far transcends the individual. It is a problem that permeates the unregulated society, the hedonistic community and the unruly government. “For this reason, there will be persecution for the sake of righteousness in every period of history. [Our Lord’s] word of comfort is addressed to [Mary, and thereby,] the persecuted Church of all times. In her powerlessness and in her sufferings, she knows that she stands in the place where God’s Kingdom is coming.”30

Herein lies the warrior-like courage of Mary, the suffering Mother of God. Her role did not cease in the earliest annals of Christ’s birth. In fact, “Mary . . . shows [that] her role in the history of salvation did not end in the mystery of the Incarnation but was completed in loving and sorrowful participation in the death and Resurrection of her Son.”31 Those who stand lovingly faithful beside her at the foot of the Cross are those who partake alongside her in glorious Heavenly bliss.

Conclusion

Benedict XVI is, among many other accomplishments, an incomparable Biblical theologian. The subsequent grounding of his Mariology in a deep love of biblical texts is not surprising. Having a Mariology so firmly drawn from Scriptural meditation ex corde ecclesiae illustrates his undying commitment to traditional unity in all his theological work. Two lessons may be gleaned from this reality: Firstly, there is no true study of Sacred Scripture to be done if one doesn’t begin to see the Blessed Virgin intricately woven into its fabric from the beginning. Secondly, to be Christian is to be within the embrace of Mary, the Mother of God. As such, it seems only fitting to end in the Marian exhortation of the saintly giant:

. . . we are invited to consider attentively the importance of Mary’s presence in the life of the Church and in our own lives. Let us entrust ourselves to her so that she may guide our steps in this new period of time which the Lord gives us to live, and help us to be authentic friends of his Son and thus also courageous builders of his Kingdom in the world, a Kingdom of light and truth . . . May [each] new year, which [begins] under the sign of the Virgin Mary, bring us a deeper awareness of her motherly presence so that, sustained and comforted by the Virgin’s protection, we may contemplate the Face of her Son Jesus with new eyes and walk more quickly on the paths of good.32

  1. Pope Benedict XVI, “Mary, Mother of God,” General Audience of 2 January 2008: Mary, Mother of God | BENEDICT XVI. Accessed May 13, 2019. http://w2.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/audiences/2008/documents/hf_ben-xvi_aud_20080102.html.
  2. Pope Benedict XVI, Daughter Zion: Meditations on the Church’s Marian Belief (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1983), 12.
  3. Benedict, Daughter Zion.
  4. Benedict, Daughter Zion.
  5. Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, Vol. 3 (New York, NY: Image, 2012), 28.
  6. cf. Laurentin, Structure et Theologie, pp. 70f., with reference to Ex 33:3 and 34:9.
  7. Benedict, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, 28.
  8. Benedict, Daughter Zion, 42.
  9. Benedict, Daughter Zion, 42.
  10. Pope Benedict XVI, Spiritual Thoughts: In the First Year of His Papacy (Washington, D.C.: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2007), 121.
  11. Benedict, Spiritual Thoughts, 121.
  12. Benedict, Daughter Zion, 42.
  13. Pope Benedict XVI, Daughter Zion, 43.
  14.  Benedict, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, 28.
  15. Benedict, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, 29.
  16. Benedict, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, 29.
  17. Benedict, Daughter Zion, 70.
  18. Benedict, Daughter Zion, 70.
  19.  Benedict, Daughter Zion, 70.
  20. Benedict, Daughter Zion, 70.
  21. Benedict, Spiritual Thoughts, 95.
  22. Pope Benedict XVI, Images of Hope: Meditations on Major Feasts (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2006), 21.
  23. Benedict, Images of Hope.
  24. Benedict, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, 125.
  25. Benedict, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, 125.
  26. Benedict, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, 125.
  27. Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, Vol. 1 (New York, NY: Image, 2007), 87.
  28. Pope Benedict XVI, Holiness Is Always in Season (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2011), 235–236.
  29. Benedict, Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, 89.
  30. Benedict, Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, 89.
  31. Benedict, Spiritual Thoughts, 96.
  32. Pope Benedict XVI. “Mary, Mother of God.” General Audience of 2 January 2008. Accessed May 13, 2019.
About Marcus Benedict Peter

Marcus Benedict Peter hails from Malaysia and has been involved in teaching, faith formation, missionary work, and evangelization of the Faith since 2008. He has ministered and spoken in Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, India, and the United States. In 2018, he received his MA in Theology at Ave Maria University, Florida. Marcus regularly writes and creates content for his website, www.marcusbpeter.com, where he does work on Catholic biblical theology, apologetics, and evangelization. At present, Marcus and his bride, Stephanie Mae Peter, live in South Lyon, MI. Marcus teaches Theology at Father Gabriel Richard High School in Ann Arbor, MI.

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