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Mary, Mediatrix: Exemplar for the Contemporary World

We hold this marian symposium in Fatima, a sacred place where shepherd children communed with the Mother of God, and where the sun careened in the sky, confounding human certainties about what is possible and controllable. St. Augustine reminded us that all creation bears vestiges of the Trinity. Through human history, however, certain persons, places, and events, inexplicably chosen by divine intent, have occasioned deeper understanding of the mysteries of faith. Christ chose simple material things like bread, salt, and breakfast on a Galilean lakeshore to mark the giving of Revelation. In this sacramental place called Fatima, the Mother of God brought together ordinary shepherd tasks and a plummeting sun. In every era of history, there are concrete signs and events that open significant questions and evoke deeper understanding of the Faith.

I would like to begin with an analogy from our time that seems particularly apt for reflecting on Mary, Mediatrix, as exemplar for the contemporary world. It involves the launching of a military space vehicle, as told in simple layman’s terms by the technician who worked on it. A few years ago, he had particular responsibility for deploying this military craft, worth billions of dollars. The vehicle was designed to be empowered with energy from the sun through what is known as triangulation. Triangulation means that the craft would be held in its orbit in relation to three entities: in this instance, two stars and the center of the earth. When it reached a designated altitude, the vehicle was designed to deploy panels sensitive to the sun, and obtain energy for its operation. On the day that the craft was launched, the panels opened as they were designed to do-but they immediately closed in again. From earth, there began a series of attempts to maintain the panels in an open position. There was only an eight-hour window of opportunity to accomplish this. After that, if the panels kept retracting, the mission would be lost, and the vehicle, a multi-billion dollar project, would simply be “space-junk.” Six hours passed without success. It became clear, however, that the problem came from inside the vehicle itself. Something within it had a stronger attraction for the panels than one of the stars in the triangulation pattern. With only two hours remaining, the launchers re-constituted the triangulation pattern. An alternate star was selected that would have a stronger attraction for the craft than whatever small item inside it kept drawing the panels to itself. Before the eight hours elapsed, a new pattern was established, the panels remained open, and the mission could go forward.

This true account, the “stuff ” of our age, offers a helpful analogy for naming major qualities of mediation, and the manner in which they are lived with such perfection in Mary, Mother of God. In this symposium, where we are always reflecting in the context of faith, any analogy from the realm of space technology will be partial-never adequate to the mystery in a quid pro quo manner.

Consider, however, four basic aspects of mediation to which the analogy points:

1) In triangulation, the possibility of genuine, effective mediation is triadic. Like all that is true (even a technical apparatus), it has its basis in the Mystery of Trinitarian Life.

2) Mediation involves being centered-a “being in the middle”-that provides an interface for communication, for exchange, for bringing others into union.

3) In creation, this requires matter-material bodies.

4) Since mediation conveys what is intended to be for the good of others, it must be authentic, respecting the truths of being.

It is through these four aspects that I would like to reflect today on Our Lady as Mediatrix, and to affirm how she is exemplar for contemporary cultures which so often lack these traits.

Even the military space vehicle, a non-human speck in the cosmos, was based on a trinitarian principle. So long as it opened itself to the triangulation pattern of two stars and the center of the earth, the sun could empower it. If relation to even one of these was severed-if something within proved more attractive, the craft was useless. Once closed in on itself, it could not receive the gift of the sun and be empowered to receive and communicate that for which it was made. It had been fashioned to receive and transmit (what the makers at least considered) to be for the good of others.

Before suggesting how these four aspects are helpful in understanding marian mediation, it is essential to state briefly how Our Lady’s mediation is always understood in relation to her Son, The Mediator. Quoting Lumen Gentium, the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, the Catechism of the Catholic Church [from here forward = CCC] speaks of Mary as the “Church’s model of faith and charity,” its ” ‘exemplary realization’ (typus).”{footnote}Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. (Libreria Vaticana, 1997), #967.{/footnote} Further, through her “wholly singular way” of cooperating in “the Savior’s work of restoring supernatural life to souls … she is a mother to us in the order of grace” (#968). In calling Mary Mediatrix, the Church celebrates and affirms that as sinless Mother of the Son of God, “her manifold intercession continues to bring us the gifts of eternal salvation” (#969).

Lumen Gentium says:

In the words of the apostle there is but one mediator: ‘for there is but one God and one mediator of God and men, the man Jesus Christ, who gave himself as a redemption for all’ (I Tim 2:5-6). But Mary’s function as mother of men in no way obscures or diminishes this unique mediation of Christ, but rather shows its power …

It flows forth from the superabundance of the merits of Christ, rests on his mediation, depends entirely upon it and draws all its power from it … No creature could ever be counted along with the Incarnate Word and Redeemer; but just as the priesthood of Christ is shared in various ways both by his ministers and the faithful, and as the one goodness of God is radiated in different ways among his creatures, so also 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. {footnote}Lumen Gentium, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, in Austin Flannery, gen. Ed. Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents, New Revised Edition (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1992), Art. 60, 62, pp.418-419.{/footnote}

Mary intercedes for us. In the Rosary, the prayer which Our Lady of Fatima specified as a way of seeking and receiving the gifts of conversion and unity, we ask her intercession again and again: “Pray for us, now and at the hour of our death.” There is the (perhaps apocryphal) story that the question was posed to an assembly of bishops: “Why do we pray to Mary?” After extensive, wonderful explanations, the questioner suggested that “Basically, we pray to her ‘that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.’ ” How often those familiar words are addressed to her! They are an all-inclusive prayer, asking Our Lady’s intercession for worthiness to receive Christ’s promises. In the Litany of the Blessed Mother, we ask under one title after another “pray for us.” Why do we seek HER intercession?

Mary’s Person as Mediatrix

First, in and through Jesus Christ, Mary’s mediation is rooted in the Trinity. As Lumen Gentium states: “[T]he Blessed Virgin’s salutary influence on men originates not in any inner necessity but in the disposition of God. It flows forth from the superabundance of the merits of Christ, rests on His mediation, depends entirely on it and draws all its power from it” (#60). In speaking of the Blessed Virgin in the plan of salvation, Lumen Gentium states that: “The Father of mercies willed that the Incarnation should be preceded by assent on the part of the predestined mother …” (#56). Further, “…it was customary for the Fathers to refer to the Mother of God as all holy and free from every stain of sin, as though fashioned by the Holy Spirit and formed as a new creature” (#56). With the Second Vatican Council, there was a great re-emphasis on the mystery of the Blessed Trinity, a plumbing anew of the perichoretic mystery that is inner trinitarian life, and its centrality in Christian faith.

What a gift-that Lumen Gentium incorporates Mary within the exposition of the Church which “in Christ, is in the nature of sacrament-a sign and instrument-that is, of communion with God and of unity among all men” (#1).

Many of us have been to the Holy Land in recent years and have had the privilege of visiting the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth. The left wall of the basilica’s upper church opens to several lower levels, where remnants of earlier churches over the holy site have been excavated and preserved. In looking down from the upper nave, the eye is led across and down several levels to earthen stairs and a small room with an altar. Beneath that altar is a circular stone marker inscribed with the words “Verbum caro factum est.” In complement, behind the main altar of the upper church, is an immense mosaic which artistically interprets Lumen Gentium. How fitting that, in Nazareth, the sacred place of the Annunciation and the Incarnation, contemporary art interprets Lumen Gentium. The basilica at Nazareth celebrates the coinherence of the mysteries of faith and it marks the place where Our Lady became the living interface between divine and human life.

Our Lady’s first unique privilege, her preservation from original sin from the first moment of her Conception, was gift from the Trinity, preparing her to receive in her body-person the Eternal Son of the Father, through the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit. Nothing separated her from trinitarian choice, self-gift, and presence. The Gospels first tell of Mary as a young woman of Nazareth, already betrothed and promised in marriage to Joseph … and then the Angel Gabriel came. She was already “full of grace,” a creature, yet mediatrix, through whom a Divine Person would enter into enfleshed, saving communion with humanity in need of redemption. As Pope Benedict XVI so recently reaffirmed: God is Love.

The Catechism says lyrically that “God has revealed his innermost secret: God himself is an eternal exchange of love- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit-and he has destined us to share in that exchange” (#221). This inner life of the Trinity is described by the term Perichoresis. It is, Boff wrote, the “interpenetration of one Person by the others … Its first meaning is that of being contained in another, dwelling in, being in another … Its second meaning is active and signifies the interpenetration or interweaving of one Person with the others and in the others.” {footnote}Leonardo Boff , Trinity and Society (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1988), pp. 135-136.{/footnote}

Perhaps no one has theologized more profoundly and simply concerning inner trinitarian life than the twelfth century theologian Richard of St. Victor. In Chapter Three of his De Trinitate, he shows why the one God could not be a monad, or a dyad-why there must be Three Persons in God. It is a matter of perfect love. Perfect love cannot be turned in on itself. Neither can there be perfect love between two: sooner or later such love turns in on itself. Supreme, divine, mutual love will extend beyond, says Richard, to a “Third” who is mutually divine and equal:

Certainly in mutual and very fervent love nothing is rarer or more magnificent than to wish that another be loved equally by the one whom you love supremely, and by whom you are supremely loved … Therefore it is necessary that each of those loved supremely and loving supremely should search with equal desire for someone who would be mutually loved and with equal concord willingly possess him. Thus you see how the perfection of charity requires a Trinity of persons, without which it is wholly unable to subsist in the integrity of its fullness. {footnote}Rich ard of St. Victor, “Book Three of the Trinity,” in Richard of St. Victor, trans. And introd. Grover A. Zinn, Classics of Western Spirituality series (Toronto: Paulist Press, 1979), pp. 384-385.{/footnote}

In response to this trinitarian love, Mary gave her Fiat. With her words “Be it done to me according to your word,” the moment of Incarnation, Mary truly became the center of the universe, THE MEDIA, the embodied receiver of the personified message of salvation. The spare words and actions attributed to her in the Gospels attest to her receptivity to the divine communion of persons. Her whole being was opened to receive the Son of the Father through the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit. She became, uniquely, the personal interface between the Trinity and humanity. Our Lady’s embodied presence was a crossing that marked the center of the universe: the place in the material cosmos personally encountered by the One who leapt down from the Father. As the antiphon for first vespers on the Feast of Mary, Mother of God has it: “O marvelous exchange! Man’s creator has become man, born of a virgin. We have been made sharers in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.” Mary became the centering body, the interface, the Mediatrix, where the transcendent God became one with the creaturely human, without confusion or separation. It is the marian privilege of being virgin before, during, and after the conception and birth of Christ that assured the identity of Jesus Christ. Her mediation, then, was both invited by the Trinity and lived as a radical centering point of creation. Her being was the encounter point.

There is no abstraction here. A third aspect of marian mediation: it is embodied. In carrying the Child in her womb, in the visitation to Elizabeth, on journey to give birth in Bethlehem, Mary bore in her body the central mystery of reality. Her vocation as Mediatrix did not relieve her of the demanding but utterly ordinary tasks of daily life. Although sinless, she (as Christ did) knew exhaustion and pain. Simeon foretold the young mother that a sword of sorrow would pierce her soul. No exalted throne for her in Nazareth, but the stuff of life-in-thebody in a Galilean village.

In Redemptoris Mater, Pope John Paul II says that Mary “is present in Cana of Galilee as the Mother of Jesus, and in a significant way she contributes to that ‘beginning of the signs’ which reveal the messianic power of her Son.” Her motherhood, said John Paul, was in the dimension of the Kingdom of God, “in the salvific radius of God’s Fatherhood.” Considered in the magnitude of cosmic events, the specifics of the miracle at Cana were small, a response to an immediate need. Through them, however, Mary impelled Christ into his messianic mission. Pope John Paul II wrote:

Thus there is a mediation: Mary places herself between her Son and mankind in the reality of their wants, needs and sufferings. She puts herself ‘in the middle,’ that is to say she acts as a mediatrix not as an outsider but in her position as mother. She knows that as such she can point out to her Son the needs of mankind, and in fact, she ‘has the right’ to do so. Her mediation is thus in the nature of intercession. Mary ‘intercedes’ for mankind. {footnote}Pope John Paul II, Mother of the Redeemer, Encyclical Letter (Boston: Daughters of St. Paul, 1987), Article #21, p. 31.{/footnote}

Mary did not receive Gabriel’s message or carry Christ in her womb in the manner of a channel, basically untouched by what flowed through her. Rather, her entire body-person was forever involved. With her Fiat, she gave flesh of her flesh, consecrated her whole being so that humanity might receive, meet, and know the Word made flesh for our salvation. As a human person, she was free. She could have drawn in, closed herself to the message and mission. But hers was not a pro forma response, a “yes” to something pre-determined, that would simply pass through her, use her as a mere instrument. She questioned, understood enough, and said “Be it done to me.” In receiving and responding to a personal encounter beyond her own powers, she became the medium, in whom and through whom, the personal Word of salvation came for the benefit of all.

The culmination of Our Lady’s dogmatically-defined privileges is her Assumption, body and soul, into heaven. This is of particular importance regarding her body-person as Mediatrix. She is the only creature who was defined as having already been received into heaven as total body-person. She personally exemplifies the preciousness of body-of matter and its capacity for glorification. Even now, she mediates that mystery concretely but transcendentally in eternal life. Matter is already glorified in a creature, Mary, Mother of God.

A fourth aspect of mediation, considered within the context of faith is this: what is conveyed is for the common good and, as such, must be truthful. Mediation is an interface for communion of persons and the conveying of truth. It is not a gift for the personal aggrandizement of the one who mediates. The Visitation mystery emphasizes this in a particular way.

Adrienne von Speyr, in her book, Handmaid of the Lord, reflects on the Visitation mystery that followed so closely upon the Incarnation:

Through the encounter with the angel who addressed her as ‘full of grace,’ Mary has become the mediatrix of grace. Wherever she goes with her Child, the grace of the Child flows out through her into the world. The Child in her womb gives her the grace to awaken the mission of John by way of his mother. In few events does it become so impressively evident that grace always overflows and never stops at the person. It goes from Jesus to Mary, from Mary to Elizabeth and from Elizabeth to John, there to be thoroughly poured out, and finally, thus increased, to return to the divine Source to which John points. It is obedience that first shows Mary how she is to administer the grace she has received, by virtue of obedience she retains nothing for herself, so that the grace of the Son has lost nothing of its power and urgency when it has passed through her hands. Therefore Elizabeth is also sure that she has received divine grace, and for that reason she can also be sure that she in turn, selfless and obedient, passes it on to her son. {footnote}Adrienne von Speyr, Handmaid of the Lord (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1985), pp. 45f.{/footnote}

Lumen Gentium designates Mary as “Advocate, Helper, Benefactress, and Mediatrix” (#62). Note how the titles coinhere in one another. As Mediatrix, she “comes between” in order to unite, or to further deeper union. At Cana, Our Lady is helper and advocate for the couple that “have no wine” for their wedding guests. Much more, she is “in medias res” in order to impel her Son into his public mission. She is benefactress who, through the simple needs of a village wedding, mediates what is for the good of all. It is a moment of truth, transcending this and every wedding. The Mediatrix at Cana mediates her Son into his redemptive journey: the Bridegroom who will make ordinary wine the means of Transubstantiation and Eucharistic self-gift. To participate in, and mediate one truth, puts one in touch with all truth. As the poet Sister Maura Eichner asks in a similar context: “If you were God, would you have thought of that?”

Mediation in the Contemporary World

Why suggest that Mary as Mediatrix is exemplar for the contemporary world? The fourfold qualities of integral mediation in Mary’s person highlight also the challenges which contemporary life and culture present when mediation is understood as 1) trinitarian; 2) centered (in order to provide an interface for communication and union); 3) requiring matter and embodiment; and 4) conveying what is for the good of others, authentically, truthfully.

The revealed truth of inner trinitarian life remains a stumbling block for many today-or even seems irrelevant. The Old Testament testifies how difficult it was for people to receive the truth of One God in a culture that clung to multiple deities. The New Testament, especially the Johannine and Pauline Letters and The Acts of the Apostles, manifests how challenging it was to bring the truths of Christian Revelation to those ensnared in Gnostic pleromas with their demi-gods and aeons. Recently, not only outside, but within the Church, there has been misunderstanding of, and resistance to the document Dominus Jesus. Since the archeological discovery of Gnostic Gospels at Nag Hammadi in the last century, a Gnostic revival of sorts has flourished, as evidenced in the New Age Movement, and a widespread fascination with works such as The Da Vinci Code.

In revealing the inner life of the Trinity, Jesus said “Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words I say to you I do not speak as from myself; it is the Father, living in me, who is doing this work” (Jn. 14:10). “But when the Spirit of truth comes, he will lead you to the complete truth, since he will not be speaking as from himself but will say only what he has learned … Everything the Father has is mine; that is why I said: All he tells you will be taken from what is mine” (Jn. 16: 13, 15). In light of Jesus’ revelation, the Church expresses the identity of each Divine Person in terms of relation. Recently, Pope Benedict XVI in his encyclical Deus Caritas Est eloquently dwelt on the truth that God is Love. The Trinity is Perfect Love. The more perfect love is, the more that love will be expressed in self-gift, deference, reverence for the other. To say that marian mediation is trinitarian in its source means that Mary exemplifies, in a creaturely manner, the qualities of such divine love.

Contemporary cultures, especially among Western nations, increasingly place high value on choices that counter authentic communion of persons. Radical independence is prized and many avoid making permanent commitments or choose legal forms of union with protective clauses. One thinks, for example, of the legal partnership created in France at the turn of the millennium: the so-called PACS (Pacte civil de solidarite), an acronym designating a legal agreement that falls short of marriage while specifying some benefits and responsibilities for each of the partners. One couple, in their late twenties, who entered this civil union, said that although they had lived together for eight years, they did not feel ready for marriage. The New York Times reported that “both are children of divorce and they think marriage is a burdensome institution, weighed down with religious connotations, likely to end badly and at enormous expense.” {footnote}Suzanne Daley, “French Couples Take Plunge that Falls Short of Marriage,” in The New York Times International (Tuesday, April 18, 2000), pp. A1 and 4.{/footnote} Another couple who entered the agreement in 1999 said that they would never marry, even if they could, because “It is such a heavy thing, marriage.”

In bypassing the trinitarian aspects of permanent relationship and total self-gift, many in Western cultures are reinterpreting relationship and marriage-eviscerating their meaning while retaining the terminology–such as “marriage,” “family,” and “parent.” Reinterpretation is then followed by attempts to legalize such arrangements. When forms of union no longer bear a recognizable trinitarian image, they cannot mediate what has never truly been received or given. They “float in the space” of subjective interpretation, and can change according to personal choice and the exigencies of the moment.

A second aspect of genuine mediation is centering through which one’s entire body-person becomes a midpoint for communicatio