Mary, the Mass, & the Mysteries of March



The mysteries of March meet in Mary, the Virgin Mother of God. At the Annunciation she says Yes to the Incarnation of God the Son in her womb. On Calvary she consents to the Sacrifice he offers for the sins of the world. When he rises in glory from the tomb, her fiat flows into a jubilation beyond words. Mary gives her undivided assent to the whole mission of Jesus, from Lady Day to Easter Day and to the ages of ages.


At the beginning, at the very heart of the Incarnation event, stands Mary, the perfect Virgin, who “let it be done unto her,” who was prepared to enter into a physical and spiritual motherly relationship with the person and also the whole work of her Son. (1)


For Balthasar, there can be no Christology without Trinitarian doctrine, but there can likewise be no Christology without Mariology, neither Incarnation nor Cross without the Virgin who said Yes. Adrienne von Speyr said to Balthasar a year or two after her conversion, “if (Mary) is taken away, all you are left with is an abstract Redeemer.” (2) She knew from her own experience that the “Christ alone” (solus Christus) principle of Protestantism threatened to dehumanize Christ. There are no solitary stars in the human galaxy; every man “belongs to a constellation with his fellow men” (einer mitmenschlichen Konstellation). (3) If it is “not good for a man to be alone” (cf. Gen. 2:18), it is not good for the God-Man to be alone. (4) The divine person of the Son is a “subsistent relation”: being Son is “being towards the Father.” Now when he becomes man, he enters the world of human relationships, sanctifying them, raising them, through his relational Trinitarian personality, to a dignity beyond compare. Jesus’ relations with other human beings can never be routine, merely neutral or casual, least of all his relation with Mary, his Mother and Handmaid. As the history of the Reformed denominations proves, to sever the Son from the Mother in whose flesh and by whose faith he became man produces a Christology of unsustainable abstraction.


And that is not all: a Maryless doctrine of Christ inevitably means a coldly impersonal or masculine picture of the Church. Catholics and Eastern Orthodox have always seen the Church personified in Mary, the Ever-Virgin Theotokos; the Church is “she,” a person, a woman, Christ’s Bride and our Mother. But, for Protestantism, the Church tends to be an “it” or a “he,” not a surrounding maternal presence but an oppressive institution or a gang of interfering clergymen. In a collection of essays published nearly twenty years ago, commenting on Karl Barth’s “jovially malicious” remark that he had never heard a Roman Catholic sermon on Mary on Swiss radio, Balthasar warned his fellow Catholics of the calamitous effects of their losing “the Marian principle.”


Without Mariology Christianity threatens imperceptibly to become inhuman. The Church becomes functionalistic, soulless, a hectic enterprise without any point of rest, estranged from its true nature by the planners. And because, in this manly-masculine world, all that we have is one ideology replacing another, everything becomes polemical, critical, bitter, humorless, and ultimately boring, and people in their masses run away from such a Church. (5)


Mary’s Yes at the Annunciation


The bond between Jesus and his Mother is spiritual as well as bodily. The idea that it could be merely biological is humanly as well as theologically unthinkable. (6) Mary “devotes herself totally as Handmaid of the Lord to the person and work of her Son,” (7) in soul as well as body, and throughout the whole of her life. St. Augustine, followed by St. Leo, expresses the totality of this mothering by the adage that the Virgin conceived Jesus in her mind by faith before she conceived him in her womb. (8) Everything about Mary is Catholic, “according to the whole.” Her consent to the Incarnation is wholehearted and whole-personed, without reservation and engaging every fiber of her being.


The full consent of the Mother was already required at the time of the Incarnation of the Son… this Yes of Mary had to be a consent of total faith, without limit, without any restriction. For at least three reasons: first, because God, in becoming incarnate in the Virgin, does not violate his creature; secondly, because this Mother had to be capable of introducing her Son into the plenitude of Israel’s religion, into perfect Abrahamic faith; thirdly, because the Incarnation of the Word requires precisely a flesh which itself welcomes him perfectly; in other words, because the faith of this Mother had to encompass her whole person, body and soul, it had to be an incarnate faith. (9)


In the Mariological section of the Theodramatik, Balthasar states as a principle: God “could not use force on his free creation.” (10) The Father does not inflict salvation, does not impose the Savior-Son. He turns to Mary, appeals to her will, waits for her reply. Our God, as Julian of Norwich liked to say, is a courteous Lord. (11) So Mary is not “passively used by God but helps in free faith and obedience, to effect the salvation of men.” (12) She cooperates, in a humble, hand-maidenly way, with the saving work of the Trinity.


For Hans Urs von Balthasar and Adrienne von Speyr, Marian consent is the “fundamental attitude” of all Christian faith and love, of contemplative prayer and active service, “the original vow, out of which arises every form of definitive Christian commitment to God and in God.” (13) If we want to know what it means to know and love and follow Jesus in the Church, then we must turn in loving devotion to Mary, his Mother and ours. By contrast with all the aggressively masculine, Promethean pictures of what it is to be a Christian, Hans Urs and Adrienne refer us to the heart of the matter, to the immaculate heart of the Mother. There, for example, is to be found the secret of prayer. (14) Praising God in the Magnificat, contemplating Jesus in her heart, prayerfully awaiting the Spirit with the apostles, Mary is the supreme model in prayer as she is in everything else that is Christian. To be Mary is to be prayer. (15)

Mary’s Yes is virginal, the assent of a woman who looks to God’s omnipotence alone for new life and fruitfulness. The virginity of her body is the exact sacrament of her poverty of spirit, her unresisting readiness to receive what God gives her.


Mary’s life must be regarded as the prototype of what the Ars Dei can fashion from a human material which puts up no resistance to him. It is a feminine life which, in any case more than masculine life, awaits being shaped by the man, the Bridegroom, Christ, and God. It is a virginal life which desires no other formative principle but God and the fruit which God gives it to bear, to give birth to, to nourish and to rear. It is at the same time a maternal and a bridal life whose power of surrender reaches from the physical to the highest spiritual level. In all this it is simply a life that lets God dispose of it as he will. (16)


Mary’s virginal Yes is representative. She gives her consent to the Incarnation on behalf of all Israel. She sums up and fulfils but then surpasses all the faith and obedience of her people since Abraham. Israel’s faith was constantly failing, regularly flawed by hesitation, doubt, even flagrant infidelity. Here at last, by the grace of the Immaculate Conception, is the all-pure Daughter of Zion, unreservedly ready to give herself to God.


God looked on “his servant in her lowliness” and did in her the “great things” he promised to “Abraham and his seed,” as Mary herself says in her hymn to grace. But this means that her Yes to the angel summed up and surpassed all the faith and all the obedience of the Old Testament from Abraham onwards. It means, too, that it integrated the Old Covenant with the New, Judaism with the Church.(17)


Mary is Israel in person, Israel at its most perfect and beautiful, the Old Testament fulfilled in the New.


It is not only Israel that Mary represents by her Yes. At the Annunciation she gives her assent on behalf of all mankind, indeed of all creation. To see how this is so, we must follow Balthasar in regarding revelation as a nuptial mystery. Many of the Church Fathers speak of the hypostatic union as a marriage (connubium) of the divine and human natures. In the earliest expressions of this, Mary’s womb is seen as the “bridal chamber” in which the Son of God espouses human nature. Eventually, however, the tradition begins to see that she is more than the venue of the nuptials.


Mary cannot be the impersonal “place” where the marriage bond of the two natures is tied. God does not do violence to his creature, especially not to the woman who represents his covenant. He treats her with respect as a person, as embodying that human nature which his Word and Son will assume and, in that sense, as endowed with a coresponsibility. (18)


Since the Incarnation is not an invasion but a wedding, God wants mankind gladly to say “I will,” to give him its nature freely by a responsive and spousal love. Mary fulfils that role for us all at the Annunciation. Balthasar cherishes St Thomas’ way of saying it:


In order to show that there is a certain spiritual wedlock (matrimonium) between the Son of God and human nature, in the Annunciation the Virgin’s consent was besought in lieu of that of the entire human nature. (19)


In other words, the marriage of divinity and humanity in the one person of Christ does not derive its matrimonial character exclusively from the side of the Bridegroom-Son. No, says Balthasar, it is “a real two-sided mystery of love through the bridal consent of Mary acting for all the rest of created flesh.” (20)


It is precisely as a woman, because she is a woman, that Mary can represent all humanity at the Incarnation. Woman by nature is receptive, responsive, reflective: the womb that receives the seed of man, the answer to his word, the face that shines back its love to him. (21) Now Balthasar argues that, in Old and New Testaments, the relation between God and his creatures is presented in the light of this nuptial mystery. God in his transcendence, as the primary actor and initiator, is analogically male with regard to the creature; the creature in its dependence on God is open and receptive, capax Dei, and therefore, in a certain sense, feminine. (22) It is true, says Balthasar, that modern physiology has demonstrated that, in the act of generation, the female contribution is as active as the male.


It is nonetheless undeniable that the woman is the one who receives and that it is the man who gives. Conclusion: receiving, consenting, accepting, letting happen can be an attitude no less active and creative than that of giving, fashioning, imposing. And if in the Incarnation the part of man is taken by God, who is essentially the Giver, indeed the Imposer, the part of woman, who as a creature accepts the divine gift, is far from being passive. Let us say rather that this assent is the highest and most fruitful of human activities—in Pauline terms, faith is required more fundamentally than works. (23)


Woman is the classic creature. It is supremely fitting, therefore, that a woman on her own, a virgin in fact, should have represented creation in consenting to the Incarnation. For the Yes asked of her is ein geschehenlassendes Ja, a fiat, a letting-it-be-done-in-her according to God’s will. Men are men, but at that great moment Man was a woman. (24)


Incarnation, Cross, and Immaculate Conception


On the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception the Church reads the Annunciation gospel. The collect of the day explains why: by preserving the Blessed Virgin from all stain of original sin, God the Father is preparing a “worthy dwelling-place” for his Son. Through the grace that fills her from the first moment of her existence, Our Lady is enabled, at the Annunciation, to welcome God’s Son into her womb with a faith that is boundless and uncalculating, “infinitely at the disposal of the Infinite.” (25)


Someone affected by original sin “could not realize such an ingenuous openness.” (26) So, through what Catholic theology calls the “pre-redemption” of his Mother, God the Son has “so arranged it that her assent should be immaculate, unweakened in childlike trust.” (27)


Mary Immaculate personifies the Catholic “both/and,” according to which God and his creatures, in dependence on God, cooperate in nature and grace. Her fiat is God’s achievement in her, the flowering of the grace which has filled her soul from her conception, but it is also truly hers—fully hers because firstly his.


Coming from God, this Yes is the highest grace; but coming from man, it is also the highest achievement made possible by grace: unconditional, definitive self-surrender.(28)


Grace makes possible self-surrender, and engraced self-surrender makes possible cooperation. Through pre-redemptive grace, Mary’s assent is “disencumbered from the beginning… so that the earthly finite… offers no obstacle to the indwelling of God.” (29) No sinful self obtrudes. By grace she is transparent to grace, and so, as Hopkins puts it, lets “all God’s glory through.” (30)


In assenting, she renounces herself, makes herself nothing, in order to let God alone become active in her. She makes all the potentialities which constitute her nature accessible to his action, without her being able or wishing to overlook anything. She resolves to let God alone work; and yet, precisely by virtue of this resolution, she becomes cooperative… In renouncing all her potentialities, she obtains their fulfillment beyond all expectation: cooperative in body, she becomes the Mother of the Lord; cooperative in spirit, she becomes his Handmaid and his Bride. (31)


A wonderful circle of grace joins the Immaculate Conception of the Mother with the Incarnation and Cross of the Son. In time, the Immaculate Conception comes first, but it is made possible by the great events to which it is the prelude. Its final cause is Mary’s divine motherhood (she is immaculately conceived in order to prepare her to be Mother of God), and its meritorious cause is the Sacrifice on Calvary (it is by the power of Christ’s redeeming death that Mary is preserved from all stain of original sin). This suggests a further bond between the obedience of Mary and the obedience of Jesus. The Yes of Mary makes possible the Yes of Jesus (for without her he would not have a human nature and thus a human will with which to obey the Father), but it is also true that the Yes of Jesus makes possible the Yes of Mary (for it is by the grace of his Cross that Mary’s faith is immaculate and unbounded). The Mother’s obedience is an anticipated participation in the obedience of the Son. (32) Her freely given assent to the Incarnation is prepared for in advance by the “retroactive” application of the merits of Christ. Through the work of the Holy Spirit, Mary’s Yes is “enclosed in the Son’s Yes to the Father and His sending into the world.” (33)


Mary’s Yes to the Disconcerting Ministry of her Son


It is essential to this infinite flexibility of Marian consent that time and again it is led over and beyond its own understanding and has to assent to things which generally seem not to lie within the limits of the humanly possible, conceivable, tolerable, suitable… More and more is demanded of Mary’s understanding, and in this her readiness is extended to be more and more limitless and unresisting. This shows Mary absolutely to be the believer whom the Lord counts blessed (cf. Luke 1:45; 11:28; John 20:29). (34)


Mary’s “infinite flexibility” shows itself in her courageous readiness to go into the unknown, giving herself up more and more to what she does not fully understand. Here she is truly the model for our faith: not fully comprehending, yet believing and saying Yes.


Mary is infinitely at the disposal of the Infinite. She is absolutely ready for everything, for a great deal more, therefore, than she can know, imagine or begin to suspect. (35)


For example, St. Luke tells us that when Our Lady and St. Joseph find the boy Jesus in the Temple, they do not understand his words about having to be in the Father’s house (cf. 2:50). And yet the very next verse says that “his Mother kept all these things in her heart” (v.51). She treasures by the prayer of faith what she cannot exhaustively understand. She knows that her Son, in his origin and his destiny, is unique, but she does not try to resolve the enigma of his life. Her pondering is contemplation not calculation. She looks with eyes of love on her mysterious Son, but she does not insist on knowing everything in advance. And in this way she conforms herself to him.


Jesus does not anticipate in his mind the destiny that is come; he just lets himself be guided, day by day, by the Father. His Mother likewise does not anticipate anything of what is to come. One of the features of her faith (which is the fulfillment of Abraham’s) is constantly to accept only what God decrees. (36)


Mary is called to follow Jesus into the dark: “the night of the senses and of the spirit, faith reduced to utter nakedness.” Balthasar here is close in spirit to the tender yet down-to-earth Mariology of St. Therese, who, in the very last poem she wrote (Why I love you, O Mary), shows Our Lady living out her immaculate all-holiness, not in luminous raptures, but in the dark and humble way of faith. Pope John Paul, too, in Redemptoris Mater, has spoken of Mary’s faith, for the love of Jesus, entering the night. (37)


In the gospels, after Bethlehem, whenever the Son meets his Mother, he appears to distance himself from her: at the age of twelve, he leaves her, without explanation, to spend three days in his Father’s house (Lk. 2:41-51); at Cana, he says, “O woman, what have you to do with me?” (Jn. 2:4); on one occasion, in the middle of his public ministry, she is left standing at the door and hears him asking: “Who is my mother, and who are my brethren?… Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother, and sister, and mother” (Matt. 12:46-50); when a woman acclaims the womb that bore him, Jesus immediately replies: “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it” (Lk. 11:27-28); finally, at the Cross, he gives her a new son, a disciple in place of the Master, a mere man in place of true God (cf. Jn. 19:26).


Balthasar describes these episodes as “turnings away” (Zurückweisungen) of the Mother by the Son. (38) Far from placing any kind of question mark by the Church’s devotion to the Mother of God, they furnish it with a most powerful support. Take, for example, the two occasions where the Lord appears to be pointing beyond the merely physical fact of motherhood: “Whoever does the will of my Father… is my Mother”; “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it.” Here Jesus opens up to us the immaculate heart of Mary. He shows us that motherhood is not just biological: Mary is his Mother in the whole of her person, in soul as well as body, by her faith as well as in her flesh. Then again, if Jesus removes himself from her, it is not out of cruelty. On the contrary, he is inviting her to join him, even more closely, in his mission of love. He is abandoning her as he will be abandoned by the Father on the Cross. And in both cases, the abandonment, paradoxically, reveals the perfect loving union of Abandoner and Abandoned. (39)


This form of union was necessary so that Mary—who henceforth will form the center of the Church—may know by experience the mystery of Redemption and can transmit it to her new children. Specifically Christian humility cannot be learnt except by formal and repeated humiliations. Just as Christ humbled himself as far as the Cross so he could exercise the mission of the Father, so he humbles his Mother and confers her ecclesial mission by a final humiliation. (40)


By these mysterious distancings, Jesus transforms his Mother’s Yes from being the perfect faith of Israel to being the crucified faith of the Church, a faith which does more than “hope against hope,” as Abraham did, but collaborates with the Redeemer by going into dark Godforsakenness with him. Just as Mary once initiated the child Jesus into the tradition of his people, so now he teaches her the demands of his mission and of his Church’s share in it.


The “Yes” of the Handmaid remains the interior form of all the events that follow, however unexpected or shocking. This imperturbable Yes, which she gives through all the nights and incomprehensions, is the basis of what can be called collaboration, Marian and ecclesial coredemption. (41)