Mary openly shows her freedom and lucidity in her answer to the angel, asking for an explanation about the conditions of the motherhood proposed to her: “How can that be, since I have no knowledge of man?” (Luke 1:34). A number of annotators have described these words as a lack of faith. Sometimes these words have been translated as: “How can this be possible?” But the precise text reads: “How will this be?” Mary had no doubt that this would happen, she also asked “How?” There was no lack of faith, but the simple wish to understand how an obvious problem would be overcome.
Mary herself explained this problem in saying: “since I have no knowledge of man.” In this manner she stated that she lived as a virgin. She did not add that she wished to preserve her virginity, but allowed this to be understood, acknowledging that this virginal condition was an obstacle to motherhood. According to the divine plan Mary was not against motherhood. The Angel revealed God’s superior solution for this problem: “The Holy Spirit will come upon thee, and the power of the Most High will overshadow thee.” So Mary was asked for virginal cooperation with the Holy Spirit. Hence it became even clearer that the Holy Spirit had guided Mary on the path of Virginity, a path almost unheard of in the Jewish religion and that would not find a favorable environment.
A particular spiritual force was necessary to direct Mary toward this ideal of life. The Spirit lit this desire in the soul of the virgin of Nazareth and allowed this desire to persevere along this path without revealing the final objective of this inspiration. Mary’s strong personality is seen in this stating of her virginal life. Only a strong personality could serenely face an environment that considered women’s role in society as one simply linked to marriage and to the development of feminine qualities within the framework of motherhood. Mary discovered a different ideal, that of virginity, bringing her closer to the mystery of God as the Bridegroom of his people.
A Commitment to the Redeeming Work
When the Council emphasized the need for Mary’s consent to the Incarnation as women’s contribution to the creation of life, it intentionally extended the value of this consent to the entire redeeming work: “Thus Mary, a daughter of Adam, consenting to the divine Word, became the mother of Jesus, the one and only Mediator. Embracing God’s salvific will with a full heart and impeded by no sin, she devoted herself totally as a handmaid of the Lord to the person and work of her Son, under Him and with Him, by the grace of almighty God, serving the mystery of redemption” (Lumen Gentium 56).
The first consequence of Mary’s consent was her motherhood: she became the mother of Jesus, and more precisely, according to the invocation inaugurated in the third century, mother of God, mother of a Son who was God. But with this motherhood she dedicated herself not only to Jesus Himself but also to His work; she committed herself to the service of salvation submitted to and cooperating with Him. Without using the word “Co-salvation,” the Council expressed the real meaning of her work, placing the accent both on subordination to and real cooperation with Christ. Hence the Council accepted the fruits of a long tradition that had meditated in regard to Mary’s presence in the work of salvation.
“Rightly therefore the holy Fathers see her as used by God not merely in a passive way, but as freely cooperating in the work of human salvation through faith and obedience. For, as St. Irenaeus says, she “being obedient, became the cause of salvation for herself and for the whole human race.” (LG 56).
Cooperation Within Sacrifice
Mary’s cooperation in the work of salvation was already apparent in her consent to the Incarnation, but would only achieve its fullness when the doctrine of the redeeming sacrifice was clarified. For a long time Mary’s actual intervention in this sacrifice was not taken into consideration: Mary could be called Redeemer, in the sense that as the mother of the Redeemer she had given the world a Savior.
During the middle Ages a doctrinal mediation concerning the sacrifice and meaning of Mary’s participation in the Calvary drama also developed. So as to explain this participation that emphasized the suffering experienced by a mother in unity with the Son, Mary was no longer described as a Redeemer, but as the Co-Redemptrix [original Italian, Corredentrice], because in suffering with the Savior she had become associated with His redeeming work. Co-redemption means cooperating in redemption. It does not represent a likeness between Mary and Christ, because Christ is not the co-Savior but the one and only Savior. Mary is not the Redeemer but a Co-redemptrix [Corredentrice], because she joined Christ in the offering of His Passion. In this manner the principle of the uniqueness of the Mediator is safeguarded: “There is only one mediator between God and men, Jesus Christ, who is a man like them, and gave Himself as a ransom for them all”(1 Tim 2:5).
The Council denies that this uniqueness is endangered by Mary’s mediating presence. Attributing to the Blessed Virgin the titles of Protectress, Helper, Rescuer, Mediatress, affirms that “the unique mediation of the Redeemer does not exclude but rather gives rise to a manifold cooperation which is but a sharing in this one source” (LG 62). The title of Co-redemptrix [Corredentrice] cannot therefore appear as a threat to Christ’s sovereign power, because it is from this power that it emanates and finds its energy.