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Blessed Virgin Mary: Unique Cooperator in the Redemption

Updated: May 29, 2020

1. Introduction

God’s redemptive love of self-gift in Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit and humanity’s response to this unconditional love is the core of salvation history. In this redemptive schema, human persons at different historical stages have responded either creatively by their life and mission or destructively by their selfishness and pride. Jesus Christ, being the God-Man, is the perfect response to God’s love-gift. Blessed Mary, being the Mother of God and Mother of humanity has, of course, played a unique role in salvation history. That is why Karl Rahner rightly stated:

“Christianity is the only religion that needs a Mother.” To highlight her unique cooperation in redemptive history, the title “Mary as Coredemptrix” has been used in Christian theology for many years. The title as such is highly controversial, yet Mary’s unique place in salvation history is central to any understanding of the role of humanity, and in particular that of the Church, especially that of the Syro-Malabar Church. Such understanding would help us to continue Christ’s redemptive act in today’s world of suffering and exploitation. Our focus therefore is to further explore this mystery of Mary’s cooperation in the Redemption, explaining its meaning and modality with a special reference to the life and mission of the Syro-Malabar Church.

2. Jesus in Salvation History

In an abundance of love, the Triune God created the human person in His image and likeness to share His love with him/her, and through him/her to translate it to others including the cosmos. S/he, misusing the God-given gift of freedom, rejected this unconditional love offered to him/her. God decided to be incarnated in Jesus Christ to redeem the whole humanity from sin and to restore the relationship between God and humanity. Jesus Christ, by his unique act of sacrifice on the Cross, fulfilled in the resurrection, has become the unique redeemer of the world, and thus the unique mediator between God and humanity. St. Paul thus tells us, “there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all” (1 Tim 2:5-6).

3. Humanity in Salvation History

Redemption brought about by Christ has yet to become a reality in each individual member of the human race. Jesus Christ objectively accomplished our Redemption but our salvation is not effective in each human person until the grace of Redemption has been experienced. It means that the individual or subjective Redemption, as the sovereign gift of Triune God, has to be received by human persons. Schillebeeckx states that the state of “being redeemed” always consists of human co-operation. Each human person, with regard to his own Redemption, may be called a kind of “co-redeemer.” The individual shares in the Redemption according to the extent of his free consent to the objective gift of redeeming grace. In this sense, he is a “co-operator” with Christ in the act of Redemption (1). St. Thomas thus says: Qui creavit te sine te, which St. Augustine reaffirmed saying: non redemit te sine te: “Created without our intervention, we cannot be personally redeemed without our cooperation.” Thus each human person is personally invited to respond to this call of salvation for the realization of God’s Kingdom here on earth.

4. Mary in Salvation History

As seen already, each Christian has been redeemed but s/he has yet to appropriate to herself/himself her/his personal Redemption by responding to God’s saving grace. As a member of human race, Mary also had to attain her personal Redemption by cooperating with the redeeming grace of Christ (2). Apart from her personal Redemption, it is believed that Mary freely and actively cooperated with Jesus as a historical person, in his historical mission, which started from the incarnation to the glorification.

In Sacred Scripture there are no passages that directly speak of Mary’s cooperation in Redemption. But there are three texts associated with her cooperation in the historical mission of Jesus’ Redemption: The Annunciation scene in Luke 1:26-38, Simeon’s prophecy in Luke 2:34-35, and the “Woman” at the foot of the Cross in John 19:25-27. These passages reveal that Mary was uniquely prepared and called by God to be the Mother of God and of Humanity by her faith, obedience and suffering.

Much theological reflection on the unique participation of Mary in Redemption came only later. In the context of the Eve-Mary parallelism, the Fathers of the Church indirectly attributed to Mary a positive role in Christ’s saving action just as Eve had a negative role in regard to the first Adam (3). St. Ephrem compares Eve and Mary to the world’s two eyes. The left eye, Eve, darkened the world, but the right eye allowed humanity to see the way to God. He states: “The world, you see, has two eyes fixed in it: Eve was its left eye, blind, while the right eye, bright, is Mary…. Through the eye that was darkened the whole world was darkened…. But when it was illumined by the other eye, and the heavenly Light that resided in its midst, humanity became reconciled once again…” (4) For Irenaeus, Mary’s role is not limited to her biological motherhood. Her cooperation is also moral and spiritual (5). However, only from the ninth century was there a gradual growth of understanding of the soteriological character of Mary’s association with the Savior of humankind.

During the Middle Ages, Arnold of Chartres (1160) clearly speaks of her cooperation in Redemption: “(Christ and Mary) together accomplished the task of man’s Redemption…. both offered up one and the same sacrifice to God: she in the blood of her heart…. He in the blood of the flesh…. so that together with Christ, she obtains the common effect of the salvation of the world” (6). Ambrose Catarino (1553) strongly stated that our blessed Lord and his Mother take on themselves the sins of the world, having merited our Redemption through their joint suffering (7). It was in the seventeenth century, a golden age for Marian theology, that Mary’s direct cooperation in the Redemption first came to be clearly articulated.

In the course of such theological reflection, the title “Coredemptrix” (8) has often been used to indicate Mary’s role in association with her son Jesus Christ in his redemptive work. The title may well suggest that she is a redeemer coequal with Christ (9). Today, such a notion is theologically unacceptable, as it would detract from the unique and sufficient role of Christ the Redeemer and the role of the Holy Spirit (10). The title may indicate her role of cooperating in, of participating in, the unique redemptive saving work of Christ. However, it is to be clearly understood that she is a “coredemptrix” with Christ and never the equal of the Redeemer. Though the work of Redemption is entirely that of Christ and of the Holy Spirit, his Mother, as human being has “a secondary and instrumental task actively contributing to the fulfillment of the principal task” (11). In the Liturgical Oration of the Eastern Church, Mary is thus called “The Second Heaven” (12).

4.1. Mary: Unique Cooperator in Redemption

The Gospels very well tell us that more than any other human being, Mary by her life and mission played a unique and important role in the act of Redemption. In the Liturgical oration of the Eastern Church, Mary’s unique role, though secondary, is evident: “(We praise…) you… who are born from the Father eternally, and in time from the Second Heaven, the Ever Virgin, treasure of Grace, deposit of heavenly riches, fount of heavenly sanctity, mansion of the Holy Spirit” (13). In soteriological reflection, it is said that Christ’s salvific work consists of two operations: objective and subjective Redemption. The actual objective Redemption is through his self-gift by the power of the Holy Spirit, culminating on the Cross and Resurrection; and subjective Redemption is the experience of this redemptive love by individuals. As cooperator in the historical Redemptive mission of Jesus, Mary perfectly cooperated in the act of Redemption both objectively and subjectively. St. Ephrem, using the symbol of the sun for Jesus and the eye for Mary clearly expresses this unique cooperation. It is “through her it (sun) has illumined the whole world, with its inhabitants, which had grown dark through Eve, the source of all evils” (14). Vatican II states that Mary’s “cooperation” which is “unique and utterly singular” (15) has two facets: it is maternal and salvific. It extends to all the disciples of Christ and all people (16). This exceptional and extraordinary cooperation entitled her as the “Unique Cooperator in Redemption.”

4.1.1. Objective Cooperation

God alone can raise a creature to the supernatural order, through a participation in the divine nature. Through a specific intervention of Triune God, Mary was immaculately conceived through “maternal charism” and was chosen to be the Mother of God in view of realizing God’s unique plan of salvation in history (17). God wanted the specific cooperation of a human being for this mission, which was exclusively realized through the life and mission of Mary (18).

God’s specific preparation for Mary to be the Mother of God, even from the moment of conception, indicates that she was objectively destined to participate in the historical act of Redemption. She thus was “favored” by God, attaining “fullness of grace” (cf. Lk.1:28). St. Ephrem thus beautifully states: “Blessed is she, in whose heart and mind You are: she is the royal palace—because of You, O Royal Son, she is the sanctuary for You, the High Priest” (19). Mary’s cooperation possesses a specifically maternal character, which distinguishes it from the cooperation of other creatures who in various and always subordinate ways share in the Redemption of Christ. The Oriental Church in the Night Office for the Feast of Christmas prays: “Blessed be the One who is born twice: eternally and in the human manner: eternally before the worlds, and today (Christmas day) in time”(20). Her role is at the same time special and extraordinary and it flows from her divine motherhood. She is his generous companion in the historical work of Redemption (21). Mary’s cooperation thus shares, in its subordinate character, in the universality of the mediation of the redeemer, the one mediator (22).

4.1.2. Subjective Cooperation

Overshadowed by the “power of the Most High,” Mary also subjectively cooperated with God in the historical act of redemption, which began by her unique response to the angel’s message: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Lk 1:38). When Mary gave her assent at the Annunciation she became the handmaid and associate of the Redeemer (23). St. Ephrem poetically speaks of her maternal cooperation: “In her virginity, Eve put on leaves of shame, but your mother has put on, in her virginity, a robe of glory that encompasses all men, while to Him who covers all she gives a body as a tiny garment” (24). Mary then extended this subjective and personal cooperation in the act of Redemption by giving us the Redeemer, by accompanying him through the whole of his life, which was itself salvific, and by remaining faithful to the end, sharing in his Passion. The consent Mary gave to the angel at the Annunciation is consummated at the foot of the Cross (25).

Pope Pius XI, the first pope to use the title “Coredemptrix,” explicitly states: “We invoke her under the title of Coredemptrix. She gave us the Savior, she accompanied Him in the work of Redemption as far as the Cross itself, sharing with Him the sorrows of the agony and of the death in which Jesus consummated the Redemption of mankind” (26). Pope Leo XIII writes: “When Mary offered herself completely to God together with her son in the temple, she was already sharing with Him the painful atonement on behalf of the human race… at the foot of the Cross, she willingly offered Him up to the divine justice, dying with Him in her heart, pierced by the sword of sorrow” (27). Pope Benedict XV further explicates Mary’s co-operation in the Redemption: “To such extent did Mary suffer and almost die with her suffering and dying son; to such extent did she surrender her maternal rights over her Son for man’s salvation, and immolated Him—insofar as she could—in order to appease the justice of God, that we may rightly say she redeemed the human race together with Christ” (28). Mary directly participated in the Passion, offering her son as a sacrifice, “insofar as she could” for the sins of the world. This offering is to be understood as a surrender of her maternal rights. Pope Pius XII, avoiding the use of the title “Coredemptrix,” stated that Mary is “inexorably united with her Son.” Mary, who was the physical mother of our Head, became the spiritual mother of His members also through a new title of suffering and glory (29).

Vatican Council II affirmed Mary’s cooperation in the Redemption while avoiding the use of the title “Coredemptrix” (30). Mary’s collaboration, as a handmaid of the Lord, is a total commitment to the Lord in His historical work of Redemption. This collaboration was the fruit of God’s grace by which she freely and actively cooperated in the work of the salvation of humanity through faith and obedience (31). Pope John Paul II also clearly speaks of Mary’s participation in the act of Redemption as “intimately linked with her motherhood” (RM 38). He states that accepting and assisting at the sacrifice of her Son, Mary is the dawn of Redemption. Crucified spiritually with her crucified Son (cf. Gal 2:20) she contemplated with heroic love the death of her God. In fact, at Calvary she united herself with the sacrifice of her Son that led to the foundation of the Church (32).

4.2. Problematic of Mary’s Unique Cooperation

There is however a serious problem with regard to Mary’s unique cooperation in Christ’s Redemption: how to understand her unique cooperation in the context of Christ’s unique act of Redemption. The cause of merit cannot be the result of merit. Let us explain it further. In order to cooperate in the Redemption, Mary must first be redeemed which will render her cooperation acceptable to God. Now that Redemption of Mary is of course, the effect of Christ’s redemptive work. Therefore, the latter must have been already completed before Mary received its effect. If so, how could she aid Christ in producing something, which was already produced (33)?

An explanation to this apparent contradiction is that the Redemption as applied to Mary was complete as regards herself but as yet unaccomplished as regards humanity in general. There is only one Redemption but two modes of operation taking place at one and the same time. Christ redeems his mother with a preservative Redemption: Mary was eternally preserved from the stains of original sin. And then together with her, Christ redeems humankind with a liberative Redemption: liberation of humankind from its sins. There was a twofold intention on the part of the Redeemer. The first intention of Christ in his saving action was the Redemption of his mother. The merit