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4th Sunday Advent (B), 20.12.20: the Christ Constellation (3) – Our Lady

Continuing with our look at the significant human relationships of Jesus, I wanted to reserve the slot nearest Christmas for his Blessed Mother, Mary, the Virgin of Nazareth. In that constellation of stars gathered around Christ, the brightest is unquestionably she.


She is the brightest, of course, by the very gift of Christ. She herself sings in her Magnificat that God is her Saviour. She was saved from sin, whilst we are saved out of sin. But saved she was, and her praise of God’s mercy from age to age shows that she knew it. After the Angel had greeted her so solemnly with the overwhelming name, “full of grace”, she pondered it in her heart and came to realise that she had been kept free, by divine grace and in divine grace, from the sin of Eve.


I have little doubt that Mary’s new understanding of herself from that moment made her look back over her life and helped her to understand the signs of her immaculate conception in her childhood and adolescence. They would be signs perceived in prayer, in how she lived, in her family home with SS. Joachim and Anne. It is not fanciful either to think that she sensed the presence and gentle power of the Lord in many different ways as she grew and matured.


In all this, God himself was preparing Mary for the saving mission she would have at the side of her Son. St. Paul tells us that we are each a work of art made by the hand of God. Mary would thus be, I think, the “chef d’oeuvre”, the veritable masterpiece of his handiwork, a splendid royal palace to house the King of the universe made man.


Mary attracted God to the earth. She became his pied a terre. Her sinlessness beckoned the sinlessness of God. Although fully human she possessed this divine trait of freedom from iniquity. In this sense she was akin to Christ before she became his kith and kin. He was Lord of her soul by grace before he became fruit of her womb by grace. Their intimacy of spirit in the Holy Spirit as Creator and creature preceded and made possible, made feasible, made desirable the chaste intimacy of their flesh as mother and child. The utter integrity of her immaculate heart drew to itself the humblest and gentlest of immaculate Hearts.


These truths mean that the Father’s choice of Mary as Mother of his Son was not to use her, as if she were some mere instrument. In some senses, the fullness of grace he had given her and the fullness of freedom with which she cooperated with that grace made it almost inevitable, you might say, that God’s plan to confer divine dignity on mankind, by himself becoming man, would happen through her. Her fiat was prepared by God’s grace, but realised in her very own personal freedom. It is the same with all human obedience to God. Grace prepares it, but freedom makes it happen. Mary’s fiat in Nazareth anticipates Christ’s own fiat in Gethsemane, and yet it was the grace which flowed from Christ’s fiat which made Mary’s fiat possible. With the exception of Christ himself, Mary’s fiat is the model and exemplar of every human yes to God. Her fiat is the proof that the human person can say yes to God and that divine grace makes that yes possible.


Fiat not only defines a moment in Mary’s life, vocation and mission. It defines the whole of them. It’s no coincidence that, in the moment Mary gives her fiat, she premises it by saying, “I am the slave of the Lord.” We, of course, reject the slavery of any person by another human being. But we can’t explain away Mary’s use of the term slavery by saying that it contradicts human freedom. The opposite is the case. Slavery to God is what liberates human freedom from the narrow confines inside which we ourselves restrict our freedom. Freedom was never given to us to do as we please, but only to do as pleases God, to do the truth of God. Freedom grows or shrinks depending on the object we choose. If the object chosen is a falsehood, a vanity, a lie, then we render our freedom false, vain and lying. We may illude ourselves that we are free, but the choice of what is unworthy of God renders us slaves to the evil we choose. As is so often the case in matters of faith, what looks like freedom is slavery and what looks like slavery is freedom. For if I choose the will of God, the truth of God, my freedom will take on the features of God. The choice of what is true and genuine render my freedom itself true and genuine.


And so Mary’s choice of the word, “slave of the Lord” actually means, “free in the Lord.” Her obedience to the word of God spoken by the Angel gives her the freedom that comes from that word. As Jesus would later say, “If you remain in my word, you will truly become my disciples. You will learn the truth, and the truth will set you free.” Mary’s obedience, therefore, makes her the proto-disciple, learner of the truth and liver of freedom. Her fiat is not just something she said, but who she became. As God had given her the fullness of grace, the response of her freedom is her fiat, an ongoing, permanent attitude of heart and mind expressed in every action that she would take from that point on. Her fiat was like her seal on the fullness of grace. The fullness of grace was the engine and substance of her fiat.


Mary’s fiat to God’s word about the Son who was to be born of her, and about the Spirit who was to cover her with his shadow, is who she was and how she was. Hence Jesus as child, boy, adolescent and young man will have absorbed from his Mother this amazing union she had with the Father and it will have supported him in his own fiat to fulfil the Father’s will. Joseph, too, in another way will have added the beauty and power of his own fiat to God in taking responsibility for Mother and Son. The atmosphere in the home of Nazareth must have been one of singular oneness of heart and mind and of conscious preparation of the Son for the fulfilment of his mission. As they watched him mature, Mary and Joseph will have sensed, you could say, how the fiat of Jesus emerged more and more to the fore. They will have grasped how their own fiats were really off-shoots of his, yet treasured and loved by him with immense tenderness and gratitude.


At the point of his departure from Nazareth to begin his public ministry, Mary would be under no illusion as to where her fiat of some thirty years earlier would lead her. She will have pondered in her immaculate heart the Scriptures about the Messiah, about his sufferings and rejection and about the mysterious prophecies of his glorification. Can we doubt that the Holy Family as a praying and worshipping unity will have discussed in some way these very things? Both Mary and Joseph will have remembered the words which the baby Jesus will not have understood about the sword piercing his Mother’s heart, about the child being destined for the fall and rising of many, about his being destined to be rejected. Joseph in particular will have remembered the sudden departure for Egypt that he had to organise because of the threat to the child’s life. He and Mary must have wondered on their migrant journey south why anyone would want to harm this child. They will have told these things to Jesus, who will have taken them and pondered them in his own Sacred Heart, gradually realising as he did so that his mission would culminate in suffering, death and resurrection.


We hear very little about Mary during the years of Christ’s public life. Her fiat will have required of her then the patient endurance of waiting, the ongoing mission of praying and, no doubt, the task of preparing herself for the final destiny of her Son. She appears at Cana in Galilee, basically to commend to the first apostles that they also adopt her fiat: “do whatever he tells you.” On another occasion, she appears along with relatives of Jesus. The impression you get is that the relatives wanted to take Jesus in hand because word had it that he was mad. Mary probably knew that he was nothing of the sort, but would be brought along by the relatives to give support to their well-meaning if misplaced initiative. Mary herself would have been the first to rejoice at Jesus’ response to them: “who are my mother and brothers? The one who does the will of my Father.” She would have recognised herself in his words and rejoiced that He referred to her in such glowing terms.


In his teaching, Jesus makes several references to mothers and motherhood, but each time he ends by insisting that family loyalties must yield to loyalty to himself or that doing God’s will comes before ties of blood. I often wonder if Jesus is recalling incidents at home from his early life when he speaks of the woman who works the yeast into the dough, or sweeps the house till she finds the missing talent. I am also sure that he was well aware that none of the people he met in his ministry, or the friends, male or female, with which he surrounded himself could compare in any degree to the woman who was his Mother. In faith, in obedience, in discipleship, in compassion, in love and in understanding, no-one would or could ever equal Mary of Nazareth.


The full import and cost of Mary’s fiat, and the full manifestation of her fullness of grace, was to be seen in her companionship of Jesus on the Way of the Cross. Simeon’s prophecy of the sword piercing her soul was the most emblematic sign of her com-passion, but I think it fair to say that every step of the Way, every blow to her Son’s body, every insult hurled at Him, Mary would have lived and suffered as if they were her own. It would be wrong, though, to stop at the physical sufferings and verbal slights. The deep communion between the new Adam and the new Eve, begun spiritually at Mary’s conception and sealed in the flesh at Jesus’ conception, had to mean that she also lived from the inside his agonizing battle of wills in Gethsemane and the darkest moment of all, which was Christ’s experience of rejection by the Father. Those words of Psalm 21 which Jesus cried out on the Cross, “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?” will have resonated in her heart as if they were applicable even to herself. For if the Father abandons the Son, has he not abandoned the Mother? Yes, we know that both Jesus and Mary trusted and believed in the Father beyond that terrible experience, but that trust did not diminish the pain of the experience: if anything, it made it all the more difficult to endure.


But Mary had something else to endure. As if it were not bad enough that the Father forsook the Son, the Son himself would appear to forsake the Mother with his words, “Woman, this is your son!” as he referred to John. Mary experienced more than any human person all the tragedy, all the violence even, of the separation which the cruelty of death inflicts on those who love. She is torn apart with grief as well as being torn away from Jesus. As he breathes his last, she who gave him to breathe his first, is herself left breathless. Mary felt the full and real impact of the consequences of Eve’s sin, for Mary’s fullness of grace and her steadfast fiat made her all the more sensitive to the painful absurdity of death. And it is represented visibly to our eyes in the “Pieta”, in the scene which is the opposite and contradiction of the stable in Bethlehem. Not the new-born, but the newly-dead Son; not covered in her blood, but in his own; not asleep with the peace of love, but asleep in the apathy of death; not adored by shepherds and kings, but reviled by priests and soldiers; not with a bright star lighting the night, but with darkness at the height of day; not to be laid in a manger, but in a cold stone tomb. All you who pass this way, look and see: is there anyone who has suffering like mine? No, Blessed Mother, no human person has ever had pain like thine.


That fiat of Mary endures the silence of Holy Saturday. It mitigates slightly the rawness of the suffering of Good Friday, and – we can perhaps imagine – silently begins to stir the hope of the farmer who expects the wheat-grain that has died to rise in a new harvest. I have always thought that on Easter morning, Mary will have had a flash back to the night on which Gabriel visited her. I imagine Gabriel approached her in a bright but soft light. I think, too, that the Risen Jesus probably came to her before sunrise in a similar light to make known to her that his promise to rise had now been fulfilled, that the full prophecy of Gabriel had now been fulfilled. There is no account in the Gospel of an apparition of the Risen Jesus to his Mother but, as St. Ignatius of Loyola says in his spiritual exercises, are we so without perception that we would fail to grasp that she would have been the first to be consoled by her divine and darling Son?


And just as Mary gave her fiat to God first through Gabriel, so now she sees it flourish in the presence of that Son promised to her, emerging not now from her womb but from his tomb. And if her response to the conception of Jesus was to sing the Magnificat, how her heart must now have resounded with it once again. Fiat at his conception. Fiat at his departure for the public life. Fiat at the foot of his Cross. Fiat before his glorious Risen Body. How her soul must have glorified the Lord!


But the fiat does not end there! She had accepted John as her son and in him all those who would believe in Jesus. She knows, therefore, that she must mother the apostles and the apostolic Church. On the verge of Pentecost, she teaches them what her fiat meant, recounting to them very probably the story of her calling and mission. She is there when the Spirit is poured on them so that they would go forth and live out their fiat to Christ by doing whatever he told them to do, in preaching the Gospel to the ends of the earth. Their discipleship was strong with her discipleship, their mission with hers, their suffering and martyrdom with hers.


The final stage of Mary’s fiat would not be lived out on this earth. Her mission as Mother would be lived out for all humanity through the Church from her place at her Son’s side in the Kingdom of Heaven. Now her fiat takes on its fullest dimensions. Countless are the souls of whatever condition in life who have had recourse to the Woman of the Fiat! Numberless are the mercies and favours obtained by the saintliest and most desperate of people! Unimaginable are the initiatives and interventions she will have undertaken for so many without them even knowing it!


Her fiat will have yet another glorious manifestation when Christ returns in glory, for the Apocalypse attributes to her the role of being a sign in the heavens at the end of time. We cannot know what that will be, what it will mean, what it will entail, but we do know that it will be the crowning finale of the fiat she gave once so humbly to God in a town called Nazareth. We know that it will be only for the glory of her Son and the salvation of those he entrusted to her as Mother. We know that it will usher in the eternal Kingdom of the Alpha and the Omega.


I am sorry to have to end speaking about the one known to us as Mary of Nazareth, but known to God as “the full of grace.” But I pray to her, our great and glorious Mother, for the grace for us all to take as our programme of life, and as the meaning of our life, her fiat. For it is the little and ingenious word which signals the reversal of original sin and the dawn of the Kingdom of heaven. It is the programme of all true disciples of Jesus Christ. It is the code word which opens the heart of the Father and the gates of heaven. It sums up the life of Mary, the life of Christ and the life of the Church. Let it then be done to us according to the Word of God so that the fullness of grace will be ours. As we approach the hour of our death, may we hear Mary’s voice speak her fiat to her Lord as she asks Him to admit us to the glory of his Face.