Tag: catholicism

Mary, Full of Grace


At the beginning of the Annunciation St Gabriel makes two positive assertions about Our Lady-

  1. She is full of grace, and,
  2. The Lord is with her.

The questions I look at here are- Were these two divinely attested realities permanent or temporary? And if temporary for what duration were they granted?

In finding an answer we need to consider for what purpose or purposes the Almighty conferred these gifts upon Mary. Ultimately divine motivation is inscrutable to us but reason suggests that there were two primary reasons for the bestowal of these things-

  1. To prepare Our Lady for the task, unique in human history, of being the mother of the Incarnate Son of God and author of Salvation.
  2. To enable Mary to give her free consent to her role in the economy of salvation, that is, as Eve freely chose to rebel Mary must freely choose to cooperate.

Granting that these two factors were at work how long would they have to be present to the young Virgin for them to be fully effective? No doubt as Omnipotent Being God could have brought about an instantaneous transformation in Mary so that His gifts were conferred at the same moment in which Gabriel appeared to her. However, consider the magnitude of the task she faced and the significance of the consent she would have to give. If we assume that she was simply a normal, average Galilean girl at the time of the Annunciation then we run into a problem.

Effectively, under those circumstances, a total or near total transformation of her personality would be required for her to leap from being ‘just a girl’ to being the mother of God and giving her consent to her role in the economy of salvation. Alternatively she would undertake this role being profoundly ignorant of its meaning and significance. Either way the concept of free will could not meaningfully be applied to her actions. In the first instance she would, in essence, have been created as a new creature precisely and only for the purpose of consenting, so God would be using a human life as a blind tool which could not choose to disobey Him and it is wholly contrary to His nature to so act. In the second instance He would be concealing from her, through her ignorance, the things she most needed to know, which would mean her consent was not informed and so not free.

Even if we discard these considerations we should note that that Archangel also said to Mary ‘You have found favour with God.’ This clearly must apply to the time before the Annunciation. So, how could Our Lady have found enough favour with God to be chosen as the singular vessel for the Son of the Father? Because she was full of grace and the Lord was with her. That is, Gabriel did not mean ‘You have been randomly chosen by God.

How long prior to the Annunciation would Mary have possessed these gifts? A week? A month? A year? A decade? Again we need to consider the magnitude of the task facing her and therefore the importance of her freely given consent. This was to be Mary’s vocation, her life’s work. From the moment of her conception in St Anne’s womb it was God’s purpose for her that she should be the Theotokos, therefore it is entirely reasonable to suppose that from that same moment she was full of grace and accompanied by the Lord.

Once the Annunciation event was accomplished would grace and the Lord’s accompanying presence be withdrawn? Well, simply being pregnant would not exhaust Our Lady’s responsibilities as mother of the Son of God nor the need for her continued free consent to the unfolding economy of universal salvation. Nor would they be ended by His birth, nor by any one of the events of His life. We can indeed see the presence of this fullness of grace in the Blessed Virgin’s role at the Cana Wedding and the strengthening presence of the Lord upholding her through those long hours spent standing at the foot of the Cross.

Would this fullness of grace and abiding presence of the Lord be withdrawn when the earthly life of the Lord ended? Well, upon the Cross He gave His beloved disciple into the care of His Mother as her new son. Only after this had been done could the evangelist say that ‘everything had been accomplished.’ Catholics, of course, believe that by this action the Church as Church was entrusted to the maternal care of the Blessed Virgin. Protestants, equally of course, deny this. What is beyond dispute, though, for those of us who accept the Scriptures is that Our Lady was charged with a new task, whatever it might have been, by Our Lord with almost His final breath. Is it probable, then, that at this precise moment the amount of grace she possessed would be reduced and the presence of the Lord by her side be withdrawn?

Taken together all the evidence from the Gospels seem to point to the Blessed Virgin being full of grace and accompanied by the Lord from the moment of her conception through to the moment her earthly life ended. As Christians, though, we know that a life lived in God does not end at this point. Mary continues alive in God even now. The treasures of grace in her heart and her nearness to the Lord have not diminished because she is in heaven, quite the reverse, they have infinitely expanded. But she does not need these gifts now for herself, they flow from her instead like a fountain of grace poured out by her upon the Church and upon each one of us who turn to her as Mother, Guide, Teacher and Advocate. And so, I pray that Mary, Theotokos, Queen of Angels, Star of the Sea and Strength of the Weak will pour these gifts upon this blog and especially upon each person who reads it.

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The picture is a Franco-Flemish Annunciation from about 1380

Catholicism & the Feasts of Valhalla

Caravaggio emmaus

An event, action or object can be simultaneously real in itself and also symbolic of something beyond itself. While Catholics may, in principle, accept this statement they tend to become somewhat twitchy when it is applied to the Eucharist, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

This reaction is understandable, for centuries insisting on the Real Presence of Jesus, body and blood, soul and divinity, under the appearance of bread and wine in the elements of Holy Communion has been an existential matter for the Church. To talk, then, about symbolism in this context can feel to many like a betrayal of the faith.

It remains nonetheless true that that an event, action or object however sacred can be understood at multiple levels of meaning. It takes nothing away from the dogma of Transubstantiation if we also look at the other things which the drama of the liturgy reveals to us about God, about the transcendent dimension and about ourselves.

The Eucharist, then, also stands as symbolic of a shared meal. As such it is a universal sign. Sharing food, breaking bread together, is a unifying ritual (as well as a pleasant way of taking on board nourishment) recognised across the whole world and throughout the span of human history. And any one such event has multiple resonances of other similar events, sharing with family members, sharing with friends, sharing in peace and hope with strangers.

These experiences of eating, taken together, are each of them simply visible manifestations of the unseen reality of love. Love realised with family and friends, love in potential when with strangers. So, considered either as an actual meal in ‘normal’ life or as a ritual meal in the Eucharist these communions with others represent a breaking through of the invisible into the world of the visible.

At a deeper level still the Mass represent an aspect of the unification of earth with heaven, the participation of time bound flesh in the eternal sharing of the transcendent dimension which is itself a reflection of the essence of the Trinitarian God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit who exchange their Love always. This heavenly dimension is made explicit in Catholic belief in a twofold way. Firstly it is believed that whenever the Mass is worthily celebrated the visible congregation is joined by invisible hosts of angels and saints who share in the rejoicing, Secondly Our Lord Himself spoke of a heavenly banquet in which we shall all share in the Kingdom of God and the Eucharist is recognised as a forerunner of this divine meal.

Though this specific warrant from Jesus exists it cannot be said that all the aspects of this vision, a meal which stands as a sign for both love as such and the uniting of earth with heaven, is a uniquely Christian one. It can be found in other belief systems. Among the Vikings it was believed that, after death, warriors would share with the gods in the feasts of Valhalla. The Olympians dined on ambrosia and nectar, food and drink so potent that any mortal given them would themselves become one of the immortals. Which is to say there is or has been a widespread religious belief in shared meals which unite the visible with the invisible. It is, in fact, a universal archetype.

This is another thing about which Catholics get twitchy; the description of aspects of the faith as ritual reenactments of universal archetypes. Such descriptions are often a preliminary to a statement, which is really a non-sequitur, that therefore Catholic ritual is based not on truth but upon a legend devised to meet the unconscious longing for an archetype.

However, universal archetypes exist for a reason. In the spiritual life of a person they express a deep rooted desire that the separation effected by our alienation from primordial unity be healed through a reunion with the One who is both source and end for each one of us who are of the many. And this desire is certainly reflected in many of the religious myths and legends anent shared meals and heavenly banquets.

Because of the Incarnation, though, the Christian feast, the Eucharist, is more than just a legend among legends. Christ united in Himself heaven and earth, temporal flesh with eternal Spirit. The Mass is not an enactment which like a play depicts the heavenly banquet, it is the heavenly banquet in our midst. The archetype is a reflection in human minds of a divine reality which the Eucharist makes present in the world. And if we share in the meal with a full openness to the action of the Spirit it is a lifting of us as flesh and blood into the Kingdom of Heaven for a moment of time which is also a participation in eternity.

The point, then, about the Mass as both reality and symbol is that what it symbolises is a universal longing and that what it is is a fulfillment, so far as is possible in this life, of that longing.

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The painting is Supper at Emmaus by Caravaggio