This article is an excerpt from The Threefold Garland by Hans Urs von Balthasar. In looking at the Mother and in honoring her singular participation in the work of the Father, the Church finds a model for Herself and the path by which She journeys to God. –Assistant Ed.
Christian prayer can attain to God only along the path that God himself has trod; otherwise it stumbles out of the world and into the void, falling prey to the temptation of taking this void to be God or of taking God to be nothingness itself. God is not a worldly object, but neither is he a supraworldly thing to be aimed at and conquered, after making adequate technical preparations, by a kind of spiritual trip to the moon. God is infinite freedom, which opens up to us only on its own initiative. He not only addresses his Word to us, but makes it live among us. Thus, the Word that comes from God is also the Word that returns to him. The path between God and us has been trod in both directions: “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.” “I have come into the world as its Light so that no one who believes in me will remain in the darkness” (Jn 14:6; 12:46).
But how has this “Way” reached us? How has the “Light” penetrated to us? How has the “Word” lived among us? For this had to happen if we were ever to set out for God along a road practicable by men. Otherwise the Light would have only shone into the darkness and the darkness would not have grasped it. The Light would have come into its domains—for the world belongs to God—but its subjects would not have welcomed it. Someone had to receive the Word, so unconditionally that it staked out a space in a human being in order there itself to become man, as the Child of a Mother.
We ourselves are not this Mother, who opens herself up and offers herself to God without holding anything back: none of us speaks to God the unconditional Yes. This is why the perfect assent always precedes us unsurpassably. And yet, if God’s Word is really to reach us, it is indispensable that it become the Way which we humans can tread. It could not have become man in a heart only half-open to God, for the child is essentially dependent on its mother. It is nourished from her corporeal-spiritual substance; it is reared by her to genuine and fruitful humanness. The Mother’s precedence ahead of us—essential for the establishing of the road between God and us—does not imply her isolation, but rather the opening up of the possibility of us too becoming assenters, the possibility of the Word reaching us, too, and of us reaching God in the Word. “Blessed is the womb that bore You and the breasts that nursed You. Yes, truly blessed are they who hear God’s Word and keep it” (Lk 11:27f). “Whoever does the will of my heavenly Father is to me a brother, a sister and a mother” (Mk 3:35).
Mary’s abiding pre-cession is the basis of our own suc-cession. The community which binds God to man in her when he becomes a Child of man is the foundation of a community which binds us all together as children of God, a community which we call God’s Church. The mother is the enduring presupposition, the source, the full realization of the Church, to which we can belong, if we only will it, as people under way to the perfect assent that sinks deep roots into our whole existence. Thus, we the half-finished can and must say “Hail, Mary!” to her who is whole, to her who introduces us and rears us to her wholeness. But it is not by separating her from the Son that we do this; for she is but the Answer while he is the Word.
The happening that occurs between the Son and the Mother is the center of the event of salvation, which can never lose its relevance because God’s gracious self-revelation is always occurring at the present moment: the river can never become distanced from its source. If a person wants to participate in it he must plunge into this wellspring, into its inexhaustible mystery: that God’s Word has really opened itself to us, that it has really been received among us and has really dwelt among us, that it has not returned to God alone but together with us. We can see what this means from the relationship between this Child and this Mother. She totally puts herself at the Word’s disposition that it may become flesh from her—flesh from her flesh. But as this Child grows up and gives his divine flesh for the reconciliation of the world with God, as he offers it as a eucharistic nourishment to all who receive the Word in faith, he draws into his own flesh those who welcome him, first of all his Mother, archetype and source of the Church. Both of them, Christ and Mary-the-Church, are thus “one flesh,” one “body” by virtue of a reciprocal event: first, Christ is the receiver of Mary’s earthly flesh; then Mary-the-Church becomes a partaker of his heavenly flesh. Insofar as only the Mother puts her flesh at the disposal of the Word’s incarnation, she is “blessed among women”; but this is but the first movement leading to the second, whereby “blessed is the fruit of her womb, Jesus,” who has elicited his answer from the earthly flesh, the answer of Mary-the-Church, and steadily continues to elicit it in the Eucharist. And he elicits it from us, too, the members of the body, who according to the purity and fullness of our assent can also become her fruitful members, her very womb.
Thus we, too, on mandate from God, may greet Mary together with the Angel, and, with Elizabeth, continually call her blessed since “God is with her”; in this manner we will be praying our way into her answer to the divine Word, into her word of assent, which is now no longer directed at her but which, together with her, is directed at God. “Hail, Mary!” is a training and an integration into the prayer of Mary-the-Church. The official liturgical prayer of the Church, too—whether openly or hiddenly, consciously or unconsciously—is always Marian prayer. Nevertheless, here below we will never attain to Mary’s perfection; as a constitutive condition for the way which is Christ, she is not only exemplary but archetypal, and for this reason we may constantly beg for her intercession—”now and at the hour of our death,” that is, at every moment of our life, during the whole of which we remain strivers, such as have never quite attained their goal, and also at that hour when we are definitively and forcibly pushed onto our way to God, in that bitter and blessed transition when, for better or for worse, “as if through fire,” we will have to learn the perfect word of assent. It is toward this hour that we live; as believers it is for this hour that we are training; and if it was only through prayer that Mary trained to utter her own word of assent, then we are truly unable to accomplish our assent by our own power: we must remain in an attitude of grateful attention looking to her who has truly been able to assent. This is why it makes sense if, at the end of the greeting —”now and at the hour of our death, Amen”—we always begin again at once with “Hail, Mary!”
By praising Mary in this circular fashion we are doing three things: we recognize the precedence of her accomplishment; we let her show us the way of the Church’s assent to God; and, at the same time, we walk along this way, which is her way only because upon it she is treading the path of her Son. And this way itself is forever circular: “I have gone forth from the Father and have come into the world. Now I will again leave the world and return to the Father” (Jn 16:28); the Son does this only once and yet time and again, since along this circular path he takes with him Mary and the Church and ourselves. If the world had been nothing but un-Marian darkness, if he had returned to the Father without the world, then he would not have fulfilled his task. But all of this happened for the sake of man, “so that they too may be where I am and that they may see my glory, which You, just Father, have given to me” (Jn 17:24f).
This article was excerpted from The Threefold Garland, Ignatius, 1982.