The Biblical Mariology of Pope Benedict XVI, Part II

Blessed Is She

In the first part of this article, I demonstrated how Pope Benedict XVI, erudite biblical theologian that he is, grounds his Mariology in an ardent love of Sacred Scripture. In this article, the second of the two parts, I will demonstrate three other aspects in which Benedict XVI’s Mariology is drawn from Sacred Scripture. As such, it will continue to examine the major corpus of Benedict’s Mariology in light of, firstly, Mary as Disciple par excellence, secondly, Mary as the Path to Christ, and, finally, Mary as the Spouse of virtuous Joseph.

Mary: Disciple Par Excellence

In the Gospel of Luke, Mary is given a clear position of attention from as early as the first chapter. It is crucial to note that the one Gospel writer who highlights the Annunciation event is, himself, a physician. In the Annunciation in Luke 1, Luke presents Mary in a position of absolute surrender and submissive obedience to the God who is her very life. “Mary in this passage is presented quite consciously by Luke as the model believer: ‘Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord,’ as Elizabeth had said to her (Lk 1:45).”1 Luke is also the author who makes the astute account that, at least twice in the early life of Christ, once in His infancy and the other in His boyhood, Mary treasured these experiences within her heart.

While a wealth of exegetical treasure may be drawn from these two verses, what is of noteworthiness here is the fact that Mary herself was Luke’s primary source in composing his gospel narrative. Such an intimate detail, highlighted twice within the infancy narratives, could only have been penned as heard from the lips of the one who experienced them, Mary herself.2 Mary’s memory of these events in salvation history, far from passive participation in the events, becomes an active mental penetrating of these mysteries by means of contemplation. Throughout her whole life, particularly as Mother of Christ, Mary constantly dialogued with the Holy Spirit who made her full of grace, piecing together God’s unfolding plan for salvation as it gradually revealed itself around her. This is why “Mary’s memory is first of all a retention of the events in remembrance, but it is more than that: It is an interior conversation with all that has happened. Thanks to this conversation, she penetrates into the interior dimension, she sees the events in their interconnectedness, and she learns to understand them.”3

What this illustrates is that “Mary lives her whole life in the Word of God. It is as though she were steeped in the Word. Thus, all her thoughts, her will, and her actions are imbued with and formed by the Word.”4 Never once does she err from this divine call. Never once does she falter in her fiat. Never once does she depart from the God to whom her entire life belonged. In all reality, Mary’s full assent of intellect and will was given to the God who demanded much from her. It is, therefore, not a departure from the deposit of faith for the faithful to believe that long before she conceived the Word made flesh within her womb, Mary had already conceived Him in fullness within her soul, while at the same time making this Word her own living place. Ergo, “since she herself dwells in the Word, she can also become the new “Dwelling Place” of the Word in the world.”5

On a tangential note, one sees here how Mary is a true model of discipleship. Inasmuch as the baptized are presented the onus of discipleship and bringing Christ into the world, such a movement must be preceded by a continuous assent of one’s intellect and will to Christ a la Mary’s lifelong fiat. “Mary becomes a mother through her ‘yes.’ The Church Fathers sometimes expressed this by saying that Mary conceived through her ear — that is to say: through her hearing. Through her obedience, the Word entered into her . . .”6 It is therefore clear that the Christian life calls for the faithful to continually hear the Word proclaimed and, in hearing, particularly in liturgical celebration, to provide willing submission to it. Such a feat, unfortunately, is humanly impossible. To continually give one’s life to God in total surrender is the call of the Christian life, and such a continuous assent requires divine assistance, i.e. grace. Even with all the graces necessary, God goes a step further and grants the faithful a model par excellence who functions as both forerunner and mother to us. Mary’s fiat renders her mother to both Christ and His bride to be, the Church, a gathering that she is to forever stand as prototype.

All of the mysteries that took place in and around Mary’s life hinged upon the fact that Mary sought to magnify her Lord far more than she desired magnification. Thus, when she proclaims her renowned Magnificat “my soul magnifies my Lord (Lk 1:46),” she extols the central creed of her life: humble submission before her God and King. This deep, profound docility before the divine is what crowned her with creaturely greatness as only God can endow upon His Creation. Hence, “Mary’s greatness consists in the fact that she wants to magnify God, not herself,” and this demureness before the Almighty, ever-benevolent God is what elevated her to a position of such stature in Heaven and in salvation history.7

As such, standing as a model for our own prayer and contemplation, “indeed, Mary was the first, in a way which can never be equaled, to believe and experience that Jesus, the incarnate Word, is the summit, the peak of man’s encounter with God. By fully accepting the Word, she ‘was blessedly brought to the Holy Mountain’ and lives forever with the Lord in body and soul.”8 Such is the Christian call precisely because such is the reward to be gained. All this has its grounding within the notion that Mary stands as a model of true femininity. Because “[Mary] is a model, not of masculine activity, but of feminine receptivity,” she embodies (quite literally) the feminine genius that John Paul II speaks of, a natural receptivity, an open docility to the Divine infusion of grace, that the soul and person may find elevation in the orders of grace into God’s own glory.9

Mary: The Path to Christ

Considering these, and all other aspects through which Mary participates in salvation history in a singularly unique manner, it is no wonder that Christians across the ages have found the Marian path to salvation in Christ Jesus to be one of, if not the, surest. “[St. Bernard of Clairvaux] has no doubts: ‘per Mariam ad Iesum,’ through Mary we are led to Jesus. He testifies clearly to Mary’s subordination to Jesus, in accordance with the foundation of traditional Mariology.”10 It is precisely this humble subordination of the will and intellect to the Divine Will and Intellect that Bernard exhorts the faithful to in emulation of the Blessed Virgin herself. It must be specified that Bernard’s Sermon on the Sunday in the Octave of the Assumption also “documents the [Blessed] Virgin’s privileged place in the economy of salvation, subsequent to the Mother’s most particular participation (compassio) in the sacrifice of the Son.”11

Bernard is no misinformed cretin. If anything, in his divinely inspired wisdom, Bernard states, in no uncertain terms, that Mary’s place in salvation history is sui generis, and irreplaceable. Her role is far more than happenstance, it is the product of an intricately woven story of salvation in the divinely benevolent mind of God. So intricately coalesced was she with Christ’s work that Bernard posits her participative role in Christ’s salvific work is indisputable. One sees this as early on as in her visitation to Elizabeth. In bringing herself and the unborn Christ within her womb to Elizabeth, Mary heralds the Gospel message to its earliest recipients. “Mary bears [Christ] in her womb as in a sacred tabernacle and offers him as the greatest gift to Zechariah, to Elizabeth, his wife, and also to the infant developing in her womb.”12 In this regard, not only is Mary’s model of life to be emulated, but it becomes apparent that she plays an active role in bringing the person of her Son to those whom He wishes to save.

In this light, one comes to see that an openness to the presence of Mary axiomatically ensures an openness to the person of her Son, to whom she ever points and for whom she ever lives. It is this that prompts Pope Benedict XVI to write:

“Whoever opens his heart to the Mother encounters and welcomes the Son and is pervaded by his joy. True Marian devotion never obscures and diminishes faith and love for Jesus Christ Our Savior, the one Mediator between God and mankind. On the contrary, entrustment to Our Lady is a privileged path, tested by numerous saints, for a more faithful following of the Lord, Consequently, let us entrust ourselves to her with filial abandonment!”13

This abandonment is not without its cost, for it entails a greater nature of trust than one would afford one’s own parents. Yet it is precisely this that the Church compels all the faithful to: a consecration to the embrace of the Blessed Virgin, so helpless that one is lifted by her loving arms up into the arms of the ever-faithful Savior, Christ Himself.

Despite this unique place of Mary in the redeeming economy of Christ, Mary still stands as entirely one among man. She is truly flesh of man’s flesh and bone of man’s bone. Her unique role in salvation history, instead of setting her as beyond the reach of the rest of mankind, instead, makes intimate the Divine Person of the Son. Neither is she divine nor is she an object of mere adoration and wonder so far elevated as to be appreciated from a distance. Benedict writes that “on the contrary, she becomes a consoling sign of grace, for she proclaims the God whose light shone on the ignorant shepherds and whose mercy raised up the lowly in Israel and the world.”14

This now everlasting radiance that she possesses, with which she illuminates creation with the Gospel message of her Son is, on the one hand, a singular, unrepeatable grace; yet, on the other hand, serves as a model and telos for all the faithful: a vocation that brings with it the assurance of achievability by grace. In all this, Benedict cautions the faithful that Mary herself is not the Savior. If anything, her intercessory work is only made possible by the divine, everlasting, finished, unrepeatable, all-sufficient work of her Son on the Cross. For “the salvation of the world is exclusively God’s doing and therefore occurs in the midst of human weakness and powerlessness. From the viewpoint of the Bible, the Virgin Birth is in the last analysis a sign that what occurs is a pure act of grace on God’s part.”15 Mary’s entire life, from her conception, to her conceiving of Christ, to her relentless support and participation in his entire salvific work, all were manifestations of God’s benevolent, magnanimous grace for the human race. As such, one sees that mystery of the Virgin Birth truly is “a symbol of grace, the most fully real verification of Mary’s words: ‘He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree (Luke 1:52).’”16

Mary: Spouse of Joseph

Benedict’s Biblical Mariology also treats of Mary’s role as spouse of Joseph, a role that he sees as fundamental to her person as Mother of Christ, the Savior. In fact, he writes that “Mary’s connection with Joseph is absolutely decisive for New Testament theology, because only Joseph was of the Davidic stock that bore the messianic promise, and it was the legal father who decided which lineage a child belonged to.”17 This spousal relationship with Joseph allowed for Christ’s adoptive relationship with him. This, in turn, became the branch that allowed Christ to be true stock of the tree of Jesse, from whom sprung David, for Christ was to fulfill the role of long-awaited the eternal Davidic king. This family tree to which Joseph belonged finds its lineage directly to David himself. This Davidic genealogy is acknowledged by the angel who addresses Joseph as “Joseph, son of David” (Mt. 1:20). It is clear now, as it must have been for early Christians, that Joseph’s Davidic heritage was to play a major part in the adoptive relationship he was to have with Christ. This is why “it is Joseph who gives Jesus his name: the adoption is solemnized in the bestowal of the name.”18

Looking back upon Mary during the mystery of the Incarnation, one can only imagine the silent strength with which she bore the Incarnate Son of God before her marriage to Joseph, awaiting God’s providence in seeing to the wellbeing of both her and the Christ-child. This silence must have rendered Joseph utterly bewildered and, as Scripture tells us, to a despair that spawned a desire to divorce Mary in secret, both to spare her the public shame and to save her life from public execution. Yet this is precisely what it means for God to become Incarnate. “Incarnation of God means condescension, abasement, and, because we are sinners, humiliation.”19 Right from the beginning of Mary and Joseph’s collective “yes” to the will of God are they drawn into the humiliation and condescension of the Incarnation of the Son of God. As Benedict articulates, “it must have been a sorry state of affairs if Joseph could find no better way out than to divorce his bride quietly.”20

The reason why this is so starkly true is because, strictly speaking, “Joseph was not the father of Jesus; he was only the husband of Mary. It is only through the bridge of this legal belonging, not by means of a biological link, that Jesus belongs to this genealogy and the genealogy to him.”21 Save virtue and obedience to the will of God, Joseph had no legitimate reason to be wed to Mary, having discovered her being with child before marriage. Nonetheless, the silent knight that he is, Joseph embraces his own role in the salvific work of God for all mankind. As such, his legitimate legal claim to the Davidic genealogy and, thereby, the Davidic throne, became a crucial component to Christ’s fulfilment of the Davidic Covenant promises. It could be argued that this mere adoptive relationship stood to no comparison before an actual blood relationship, yet such an argument would be poorly made. “For Israel, the legal origin, not the biological origin, was always the decisive point, the real heart of the matter. Thanks to [Mary being bride of Joseph by] this law, the Old Testament [rightfully] belongs to Jesus.”22

With this embracing of the will of God by both Mary and Joseph, the scene is set for the welcoming of the Christ-child into the world. Benedict, meditating upon the thoughts of both Mary and Joseph as they awaited the birth of their child and Messiah, observes that “[the] Gospel [of John] closes with the words: ‘We have beheld his glory . . .’ (John 1:14). These could be the words of the shepherds as they returned from the stable and sum up what they have experienced. These could be the words in which Mary and Joseph describe their memory of the night in Bethlehem.”23 Undoubtedly, this would be one of the many moments that Mary treasured within her heart, and Joseph, that valiant, virtuous man of the Covenant, stood stalwart beside her, and she, him.

This is precisely why the Gospel of Matthew highlights the Davidic Messianic prophecies, which saw fulfillment in and through Joseph’s influence. These include “the role that Joseph played: the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem (2:1-6); his journey through Egypt, where the Holy Family took refuge (2:13-15); the title, the ‘Nazarene’ (2:22-23).”24 Through all these events, Joseph and Mary mirror each other as genuine heirs to the Abrahamic Covenant, and ever-faithful children of the God of the Covenant. God, in His turn, carefully orchestrates salvation history in and through Mary’s person, and, in this particular case, her person as spouse of Joseph. “[Joseph’s] greatness, like Mary’s, stands out even more because his mission was carried out in the humility and hiddenness of the house of Nazareth.”25

Conclusion

It is evident that Pope Benedict XVI exegetes his Mariology as Holy Mother Church herself does, from the very heart of Sacred Scripture. Having explored Benedict’s treatment of Mary as Model Disciple of Christ, the Path to Christ, and the Spouse of virtuous Joseph, none can contest that a prayerful reading of Sacred Scripture will lead anyone to embrace Mary as Christ Himself did. As with Part 1, this analysis concludes by standing upon the shoulders of the holy giant of the faith himself in his loving words about the Blessed Virgin:

With her destiny, which is at one and the same time that of Virgin and of Mother, Mary continues to project a light upon that which the Creator intended for women in every age, ours included, or, better said, perhaps precisely in our time, in which — as we know — the very essence of femininity is threatened. Through her virginity and her motherhood, the mystery of woman receives a very lofty destiny from which she cannot be torn away. Mary undauntedly proclaims the Magnificat, but she is also the one who renders silence and seclusion fruitful. She is the one who does not fear to stand under the Cross, who is present at the birth of the Church. But she is also the one who, as the evangelist emphasizes more than once, ‘keeps and ponders in her heart’ that which transpires around her. As a creature of courage and of obedience she was and is still an example to which every Christian — man and woman — can and should look.26

  1. Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, Vol. 3. (New York, NY: Image, 2012), 125.
  2. Benedict, Infancy Narratives, 125.
  3. Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, Vol. 1 (New York, NY: Image, 2007), 234.
  4. Pope Benedict XVI, Spiritual Thoughts: In the First Year of His Papacy (Washington, D.C.: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2007), 117.
  5. Benedict, Spiritual Thoughts, 117.
  6.  Benedict, The Infancy Narratives, 36.
  7. Benedict, Spiritual Thoughts, 95.
  8. Pope Benedict XVI, Holiness Is Always in Season (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2011), 169.
  9. Joseph Ratzinger, “Dogma and Preaching: Applying Christian Doctrine to Daily Life” (2011), 325.
  10. Benedict, Holiness Is Always in Season, 206.
  11. Benedict, Holiness Is Always in Season, 206.
  12. Benedict, Holiness Is Always in Season, 108.
  13. Benedict, Holiness Is Always in Season, 108–109.
  14. Ratzinger, “Dogma and Preaching,” 327.
  15. Ratzinger, “Dogma and Preaching,” 327.
  16. Ratzinger, “Dogma and Preaching,” 327.
  17. Pope Benedict XVI and Hans Urs Von Balthasar, Mary: The Church at the Source (Ignatius Press, 2005).
  18. Benedict and von Balthasar, Mary: The Church at the Source.
  19. Benedict and von Balthasar, Mary: The Church at the Source.
  20. Benedict and von Balthasar, Mary: The Church at the Source.
  21. Pope Benedict XVI, The Blessing of Christmas (Ignatius Press, 2007), 47.
  22. Benedict, The Blessing of Christmas, 47.
  23. Benedict, The Blessing of Christmas, 133.
  24. Benedict, Holiness Is Always in Season, 73.
  25. Benedict, Holiness Is Always in Season, 73.
  26. Vittorio Messori, The Ratzinger Report: An Exclusive Interview on the State of the Church (Ignatius Press, 1985), 108.
Marcus Benedict Peter 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.

Comments

  1. Avatar Francis Etheredge says:

    Dear Marcus,
    The Peace of Christ.
    Thank you for your piece on Mary and, in response, I share a few thoughts, beginning with a quotation from what you have written.

    On the one hand, ‘Throughout her whole life, particularly as Mother of Christ, Mary constantly dialogued with the Holy Spirit who made her full of grace, piecing together God’s unfolding plan for salvation as it gradually revealed itself around her.’ On the other hand, this is also what the Church has been doing down the ages as she seeks to understand more and more the mystery of Mary and her significance for all of us (cf. Dei Verbum, 8).
    With respect to the latter, it is increasingly significant that the Second Vatican Council wrote the document on the Church with a Mariology that expresses the mystery of the Church in terms of the mystery of Mary and, as such, has complemented the modern tradition of pondering the mystery of Mary in the dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption.
    The marriage of Mary and Joseph is a unique event in the transition from Judaism to Christianity (see Chapter 1 of Mary and Bioethics: An Exploration), a marriage that takes place before they come together and therefore includes Christ being conceived within their marriage (although not with Joseph as the natural father), thus this marriage “originates” in a sense, the whole variety of Christian vocations. if there was no marriage then there would have been no need for Joseph to divorce Mary.
    But the last point I wish to make is the enduring significance of Mary’s “Immaculate Conception”; and, as such, it is a wonderful gift when it comes to understanding human conception (see Chapter 5 of Mary and Bioethics).
    Thus Mary’s presence in the life of the Church is, like all the works and words of God, always fruitful for the times in which we live and the unfolding of the truths of our faith which, in certain cases, aid reason in the exploration of God’s creative acts.
    God bless and thank you, Francis.

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