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Mary Co-redemptrix in the Light of Patristics

My intent here is to offer a few thoughts, in the light of the Fathers, concerning the unique and privileged association of the Virgin Mary with the redemptive work of her Son, and to show how the Fathers, although living long ago, and without the contemporary adjustments of a theology that has become more technical, have prepared the way for today’s doctrine of the Catholic Church such as it has emerged during Vatican Council II.

I have already presented, in various articles (1) and books, (2) the theme of Mary’s cooperation in the mystery of Redemption by a slightly different approach—that of spiritual motherhood—but identical in substance. I will use here, but in a more synthetical way, these previous works, while at the same time attempting to illuminate them in other ways, old as well as new. Except for some occasional passing references to Mary’s role in the distribution of the Redeemer’s gifts, I will concentrate mostly on the privileged participation of the new Eve in the sacrifice of the Redeemer, the new Adam.

Here is the itinerary I plan to follow:

– I will evoke, in the first place, witnesses close to the Apostolic Tradition, for whom Mary, redeemed, saves us as she saves herself in order to help us become a Church increasingly more coredemptive.

– Secondly, I will evoke the more remote witnesses, post-Nicaean, to this same mystery, especially in the liturgical prayer of the various Churches within the Church, without failing to mention some medieval or modern references.

– Finally I will examine the relations between these recent and older testimonies on the one hand, and the Apostolic Tradition on the other.

It will thus be shown that the very ancient, yet always new and current doctrine of the Church on the Virgin, the pre-eminent associate of the Redeemer, could contribute, by means of new homogeneous clarifications, to a renewal of the whole Church and each of its members at the service of its fundamental vocation: the coredemptive activity in view of the increasingly greater triumph of the unique Redemptive act of Christ, until his return. The star of Mary coredemptrix will shine all the more so she will be better seen, from her very first appearance, in dependence upon the unique Redeemer, constantly urging all the other coredeemers in their dependence upon Him: Virgo corredemptrix corredemptorum omnium ad majorem gloriam unici Redemptoris.The Fathers will help us react against a disastrous isolation of the Virgin within the economy of Salvation.

For the Fathers, if the Virgin is Coredemptrix in a unique and powerful manner because she alone is the Mother of God, Mary is not the only, but the first coredemptrix, so that all may be faithful to a similar vocation, though inferior in dignity, as coredeemers.

This coredemptive vocation, however, transcends, in the supernatural order, the vocation of the human person in the natural order and highlights the sublime dignity of the ecclesiastical and supernatural destiny of all human persons.

A. Witnesses Near to the Apostolic Tradition

The Fathers of the second century speak inseparably of the Incarnation and of the Passion of the Son of God. For them to evoke the former is to include the latter also. Important consequences result from this view in order to understand correctly, without diminution or curtailment, their presentation of the mystery of Mary and her cooperation in our salvation.

Thus the affirmation of Ignatius of Antioch to the Ephesians (XIX, 1) is indeed heavy with meaning: “The prince of this world ignored the virginity of Mary, her childbirth, and the death of the Lord, three resounding mysteries that were accomplished in the silence of God.”

As Father Camelot says so well: the devil “could not have ignored the facts of the life of Jesus,” but their soteriological meaning “remained hidden to him.” (3) This meaning Ignatius holds from Saint Paul. (4) Our text constitutes not only “the first testimony of Christian faith to the virginal motherhood of Mary,” (5) after Saint Luke, but also a clear insinuation of the link between this virginity and the Cross of Jesus. Virginity, the birth and death of our Lord are presented as three mysteries interlinked, three mysteries which, in a sense, are but one. The link seems to be, not only that of the orientation of the Incarnation of the Son of God towards His death on the Cross for our salvation, but also that of a privileged participation to this salvific death on the part of His Virgin Mother, Mary, by her virginity itself. The dying Lord, acting in the silence of the Father, is the Son who caused the virginity of Mary. The resounding mystery, “proclaimed everywhere,” (6) of the virginal motherhood of Mary, seems to be not only a condition willed by the Father and the Son, of the saving death of the Lord on the Cross, but also a free cooperation with it, and even a privileged and unique cooperation in His redeeming death.

This interpretation of the quoted passage is all the more convincing as it immediately followed this other affirmation (XVIII, 2): “Jesus Christ, carried in Mary’s womb, is born…. to purify the water by his passion”: in other words, is born to die in view of our baptism, in view of constituting his Church as sacrament of salvation. We are here quite close to the Pauline text which undoubtedly Ignatius is thinking about: Jesus is born of a woman to enable us to be adopted as sons (Gal 4,4). Hence for the bishop of Antioch everything indicates that the virginal motherhood with regards to the crucified Lord was equivalent to a very intimate and unique cooperation in His salvific action. Unique, since the human existence of the Lord, implied by his death, was itself conditioned by the free virginal motherhood of Mary. In bearing Jesus Christ in her womb, Mary already bore, in some way, his passion and death in her heart.

One of the beautiful texts of Saint Melito of Sardis leads us to a similar understanding: “He is the voiceless lamb himself, the lamb who was slain, born of Mary the kind ewe lamb,….he rose from the dead and raised man from the depth of the grave” (On Easter, 71, 11.513-520).

As O. Perler notes, “The metaphor of the lamb implies the twofold idea of sacrifice and virginal purity.” (7) Let us develop the quote more precisely: by renouncing the licit practice of sexuality, virginity itself implies sacrifice. Here, the parallel between Mary and Jesus, the Lamb, is obvious. Just as was the case with Ignatius of Antioch, Melito’s thought seems to be: the kind and (good) ewe lamb gave birth to the Lamb so that He might raise us up spiritually by rising bodily from the grave. In order to be able to give birth to the Lamb, Mary chose to conserve her virginity. She is the ewe lamb precisely because she wants to be virginal in order to give birth to the Lamb, himself virginal, in favor of humanity. In Melito’s wonderful poem, Mary alone is called the ewe lamb, and for a good reason: she, alone, brought forth the unique Lamb of God. Here again is the explicit text: “He is the slain Lamb, born of Mary, the kind ewe lamb.” He alone “raised up man from the depth of the grave.”

We can thus see that in these few words Melito of Sardis gathered a very rich doctrine that involves Mary’s unique and privileged cooperation in the economy of salvation.

Following Ignatius of Antioch and Melito of Sardis comes the testimony of a bishop, a contemporary more or less of the latter: St. Irenaeus of Lyons. We will now examine his thoughts at length. If we understand to what extent, with him, the mystery of the Cross is already included in that of the Incarnation—as we will soon show—we will discern, more accurately than many authors do, the coredemptive dimension of his Marian affirmations.

For Irenaeus, the Incarnation without the Passion would not have saved humanity. He is quite explicit in this: “Abraham was a prophet. He saw by the Spirit the day of the coming of the Lord and the economy of his Passion by means of which he himself and all those who, like him, believed in God would be saved” (AH IV, 5, 5). Irenaeus expresses himself even more clearly elsewhere in his writings: “By his passion, the Lord destroyed death, dispelled error, annihilated corruption, dissipated ignorance” (II, 20, 3). “The mighty Word and true man,” this Son “redeemed us by his own blood” (V.1.1).

With these statements as background, we can better understand the relation between Jesus Christ and his Mother that the Bishop of Lyons is presenting to us (in III, 22. and V.19, 1 and 2).

For Irenaeus, Mary is in no way excluded from those who believe in the Word Incarnate, are redeemed by His Blood, saved by Him. He says clearly that Mary, no less than Abraham, is a prophetess (AH III, 10, 2), and what he says about Abraham illuminates what he writes about Mary in the same work:

We who have faith in Abraham, take up our cross, just as Isaac took up the wood, and follow the Word. For in Abraham man had learned beforehand and had become accustomed to follow the Word of God: Abraham, in fact, followed by faith the commandment of the Word of God, relinquishing earnestly his only and beloved son in sacrifice to God, so that God also accepted, on behalf of all his posterity, to give up his beloved and only Son in sacrifice for our Redemption (AH IV, 5, 4).

Among those who “learnt beforehand, in Abraham, to follow the Word of God,” we must obviously consider, in the first place, the Virgin Mary. Much more than Abraham, whose son Isaac did not ultimately die, Mary has “relinquished earnestly her only beloved Son in sacrifice to God…for our Redemption.” If, in the eyes of Irenaeus, “Abraham was a prophet and saw by the Spirit the economy of the Passion of the Lord” (AH IV, 5, 5), it is permitted to infer that he attributed the same anticipated vision—in faith—to the Virgin Mary, prophetess also in his eyes.

It would be proper, therefore, not to disregard the thought of Irenaeus on Abraham when interpreting the famous passages on the recapitulation of Eve by Mary: AH III, 22, 4 and V, 19, 1 and 2. What is expressed about the virginal birth of the New Adam and the obedience of Mary should not be cut off from the constant thought of Irenaeus on the sacrifice of Jesus for the redemption of the world. The innumerable quotations from St. John’s Gospel (including Ch. XIX) in the writings of Irenaeus affirm that the Bishop of Lyons, when referring to the scene of the Annunciation, could neither ignore nor forget the presence of Mary at the foot of the Cross. It is, precisely, what he tells us about Abraham and Isaac that allows us to catch a glimpse of his thoughts on the link between the Virgin of Sorrows, her crucified Son, and the merciful Father.

For Irenaeus, the new Eve is the “human creature of the Word” (AH III, 19, 3); the one who became the “cause of salvation for herself and for the whole human race” is inseparably the one who was saved by Christ and more precisely by his Passion, like Abraham (AH IV, 5,4-5). Since “the One who would save existed then”—before and for all eternity—”what was to be saved” (Mary included) “had to come to existence as well, so that the Savior would not be without a reason for being” (AH III, 22, 3): it is even proper to say that, considering the role that Irenaeus assigns to Mary and to her obedience in the effective realization of the salvation of the human race (AH III, 22, 4), the salvation of Mary constituted, in his eyes, the main reason for the coming of the Savior. Saved by her Son and because of Him, Mary was able, by her obedience, to cooperate in her own salvation and that of the whole human race: “Virgo obaudiens et sibi et universo generi humano causa facta est salutis” (AH III, 22, 4).

We must underline, here, the importance of the passage Irenaeus is alluding to in the Letter to the Hebrews (5, 9), a passage that has been universally acknowledged. For Irenaeus it signifies that Mary participates in the salvific obedience of Christ on the cross and has participated in it ever since the Annunciation, receiving from her Son the grace of obedience—obedience to Him—in view of the salvation of the human race. Let us recall the text: “He learnt to obey through suffering,… He became for all who obey Him the source of eternal salvation.” The quote of Irenaeus, already mentioned in III, 22, 4, links, therefore, the salvation of the human race not only to the obedience of Christ on the cross but also to that of Mary to Christ her Savior.

Redeemed by Christ, she received from Him the power to contribute, in a unique way—by consenting to become His mother—to the salvation of the whole human race.

For the object of the salvific obedience of Mary—and we must insist on this—was the (virginal) acceptance of Divine Motherhood. Even though this expression does not appear explicitly in the writings of Irenaeus, the elements that compose it can be established: Mary is certainly for him the Mother of Him whose divinity he attests to (8) and she alone is that mother; she is, therefore, in a unique way, the cause of the salvation of the whole human race, since her own salvation, no less unique, results precisely from her consent to be the Mother of Christ. Let us notice, by the way, how Irenaeus has very probably received from Paul, “The woman who was led astray and fell into sin…she will be saved by childbearing” (I Tim 2: 14-15), the origin of the contrast between Eve and Mary, as the idea of affirming that Mary was saved by accepting a Maternity, not totally human, but theandric.

This decisive contribution of the Virgin to the salvation of the whole human race is presented by Irenaeus not—as a large number of modern theologians might be inclined to express—as a simple consent, but rather as an act of virginal obedience, parallel to the act of obedience of Christ on the cross (AH V, 19, 1); in this paragraph alon