Mary has been made more glorious in her person than in her office; her purity is a higher gift than her relationship to God. This is what is implied in Christ’s answer to the woman in the crowd who cried out, when he was preaching, “Blessed is the womb that bore thee, and the breasts which thou hast sucked.” He replied by pointing out to his disciples a higher blessedness; “Yea, rather blessed,” he said, “are they who hear the word of God and keep it…”
Protestants take these words in disparagement of our Lady’s greatness, but they really tell the other way. For consider them; he lays down a principle that it is more blessed to keep his commandments than to be his Mother, but who even of Protestants will say that she did not keep his commandments? She kept them surely, and our Lord does but say that such obedience was in a higher line of privilege than her being his Mother. She was more blessed in her detachment from creatures, in her devotion to God, in her virginal purity, in her fullness of grace, than in her maternity. This is the constant teaching of the holy Fathers: “More blessed was Mary,” says St. Augustine, “in receiving Christ’s faith, than in conceiving Christ’s flesh.” And St. Chrysostom declares that she would not have been blessed, though she had borne him in the body, had she not heard the word of God and kept it.
This of course is an impossible case; for she was made holy that she might be made his Mother, and the two blessednesses cannot be divided. She who was chosen to supply flesh and blood to the Eternal Word was first filled with grace in soul and body. Still, she had a double blessedness, of office and of qualification for it, and the latter was the greater. And it is on this account that the angel calls her blessed. “Full of grace,” he says, “blessed among women”; and St. Elizabeth also, when she cries out, “Blessed thou that has believed.” Nay, she herself bears a like testimony, when the Angel announced to her the favor which was coming on her.
Though all Jewish women in each successive age had been hoping to be mother of the Christ, so that marriage was honorable among them, celibacy a reproach, she alone had put aside the desire and the thought of so great a dignity. She alone, who was to bear the Christ, all but refused to bear him. He stooped to her, she turned from him. And why?—because she had been inspired, the first of womankind, to dedicate her virginity to God, and she did not welcome a privilege which seemed to involve a forfeiture of her vow. “How shall this be,” she asked, “seeing I am separate from man?” Nor, till the angel told her that the conception would be miraculous and from the Holy Ghost, did she put aside her “trouble” of mind, recognize him securely as God’s messenger, and bow her head in awe and thankfulness to God’s condescension.
Mary then is a specimen, and more than a specimen, in the purity of her soul and body, of what man was before his fall and what he would have been, had he risen to his full perfection. It would have been hard, it would have been a victory for the Evil One, if the whole race had passed away, without one instance occurring to show what the Creator had intended it to be in its original state. Adam, you know, was created in the image and after the likeness of God. His frail and imperfect nature, stamped with a divine seal, was supported and exalted by an indwelling of divine grace. Impetuous passion did not exist in him, except as a latent element and a possible evil; ignorance was dissipated by the clear light of the Spirit; and reason, sovereign over every motion of his soul, was simply subjected to the will of God. Nay, even his body was preserved from every wayward appetite and affection and was promised immortality instead of dissolution.
Thus he was in a supernatural state; and, had he not sinned, he would have advanced in merit and grace and in God’s favor year after year, till he passed from Paradise to heaven. But he fell; and his descendants were born in his likeness; and the world grew worse instead of better, and judgment after judgment cut off generations of sinners in vain, and improvement was hopeless, “because man was flesh,” and “the thoughts of his heart were bent upon evil at all times.”
But a remedy had been determined in heaven; a Redeemer was at hand; God was about to do a great work, and he purposed to do it suitably; “where sin abounded, grace was to abound more.” Kings of the earth, when they have sons born to them, forthwith scatter some large bounty, or raise some high memorial; they honor the day, or the place, or the heralds of the auspicious event, with some corresponding mark of favor; nor did the coming of Emmanuel innovate on the world’s established custom. It was a season of grace and prodigy, and these were to be exhibited in a special manner in the person of his Mother. The course of ages was to be reversed; the tradition of evil was to be broken; a gate of light was to be opened amid the darkness, for the coming of the Just; a Virgin conceived and bore him. It was fitting, for his honor and glory, that she who was the instrument of his bodily presence, should first be a miracle of his grace; it was fitting that she should triumph, where Eve had failed, and should “bruise the serpent’s head” by the spotlessness of her sanctity. In some respects, indeed, the curse was not reversed; Mary came into a fallen world and resigned herself to its laws. She, as also the Son she bore, was exposed to pain of soul and body. She was subjected to death, but she was not put under the power of sin.
As grace was infused into Adam from the first moment of his creation, so that he never had experience of his natural poverty till sin reduced him to it; so was grace given from the first in still ampler measure to Mary, and she never incurred, in fact, Adam’s deprivation. She began where others end, whether in knowledge or in love. She was from the first clothed in sanctity, sealed for perseverance, luminous and glorious in God’s sight, and incessantly employed in meritorious acts, which continued till her last breath. Hers was emphatically “the path of the just, which, as the shining light, goeth forward and increaseth even to the perfect day.” And sinlessness in thought, word, and deed, in small things as well as great, in venial matter as well as grievous, is surely but the natural and obvious sequel of such a beginning. If Adam might have kept himself from sin in his first state, much more shall we expect immaculate perfection in Mary.
This article was excerpted from Discourses to Mixed Congregations, pp. 350-54, as found in Mystical Rose, ed. Joseph Regina, Scepter, 1996.