The final chapter of Lumen Gentium,1 the Vatican II dogmatic constitution on the Church, is dedicated in its entirety to Jesus’ mum, Mary, and to her role not only in the Church but in the whole of Jesus’ mission and the salvation he brought for all.2
The starting point here is a strong emphasis on Mary’s intimate union both with the Trinity and with humanity:
“The Virgin Mary, who at the message of the angel received the Word of God in her heart and in her body and gave Life to the world, is acknowledged and honored as being truly the Mother of God and Mother of the Redeemer. Redeemed by reason of the merits of her Son and united to Him by a close and indissoluble tie, she is […] the Mother of the Son of God, by which account she is also the beloved daughter of the Father and the temple of the Holy Spirit. [… S]he far surpasses all creatures, both in heaven and on earth. At the same time, however, because she belongs to the offspring of Adam she is one with all those who are to be saved.”Mary’s unique position in creation is next traced back to the Tanakh, where she fulfills the “promise of victory over the serpent which was given to our first parents after their fall into sin (cf. Genesis 3:15),” and is foretold as the “Virgin who shall conceive and bear a son, whose name will be called Emmanuel” (cf. Isaiah 7:14), where “Emmanuel” (עִמָּנוּאֵל) in Hebrew means “God is with us.” As such “[s]he stands out among the poor and humble of the Lord, who confidently hope for and receive salvation from Him.”
While Mary’s “unique holiness” is underlined repeatedly, so is her free assent to the will of God:
“Adorned from the first instant of her conception with the radiance of an entirely unique holiness, the Virgin of Nazareth is greeted, on God’s command, by an angel messenger as “full of grace”, (cf. Luke 1:28) and to the heavenly messenger she replies: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it done unto me according to thy word”.(287) Thus Mary, a daughter of Adam, consenting to the divine Word, became the mother of Jesus.”Here Mary was “used by God not merely in a passive way, but as freely cooperating in the work of human salvation through faith and obedience,” which - in St. Irenaeus’ words – made her “the cause of salvation for herself and for the whole human race. […] The knot of Eve’s disobedience was untied by Mary’s obedience; what the virgin Eve bound through her unbelief, the Virgin Mary loosened by her faith.”(St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, III, 22, 4).
From His conception to His ascension to Heaven, Mary closely follows and supports Jesus, including her prompting Jesus’ first miracle at the wedding feast of Cana (cf. John 2:1-11) and her faith being tested at the foot of the cross, “grieving exceedingly with her only begotten Son, uniting herself with a maternal heart with His sacrifice.” Already at that moment, Mary took on a new role, when “she was given by […] Jesus dying on the cross as a mother to His disciple” John and thereby to the whole Church:
“She conceived, brought forth and nourished Christ. She presented Him to the Father in the temple, and was united with Him by compassion as He died on the Cross. In this singular way she cooperated by her obedience, faith, hope and burning charity in the work of the Saviour in giving back supernatural life to souls. Wherefore she is our mother in the order of grace.”She is a key presence at Pentecost too, when “by her prayers [she] implor[es] the gift of the Spirit, who had already overshadowed her in the Annunciation." And at the end of her earthly life she is “taken up body and soul into heavenly glory, and exalted by the Lord as Queen of the universe.”
Mary is therefore the model Christian and an example to follow both individually and together as Church:
“And so they turn their eyes to Mary who shines forth to the whole community […] as the model of virtues. [… M]editating on her and contemplating her in the light of the Word made man, the Church […] enters more intimately into the great mystery of the Incarnation and becomes more and more like her Spouse. For Mary, who […] unites in herself and re-echoes the greatest teachings of the faith […], calls the faithful to her Son and His sacrifice and to the love of the Father.”This leads to emphasizing an important aspect of how Mary is seen by the Catholic Church:
“The maternal duty of Mary toward men in no wise obscures or diminishes [the] unique mediation of Christ […] For all the salvific influence of the Blessed Virgin on men originates, not from some inner necessity, but from the divine pleasure. It flows forth from the superabundance of the merits of Christ, rests on His mediation, depends entirely on it and draws all its power from it. In no way does it impede, but rather does it foster the immediate union of the faithful with Christ. [… T]he unique mediation of the Redeemer does not exclude but rather gives rise to a manifold cooperation which is but a sharing in this one source.”In other words, being a Christian is about having a personal, immediate, direct relationship with Jesus and Mary helps it rather than being an intermediary, which is also true of the saints. Another point worth noticing in the above is how Mary’s role is presented as “divine pleasure” - it is not like she had to be given a role, like her role was a necessity, but that she has a role because it pleased God to invest her with it. Much like all of creation, which was not necessary either, Mary’s elevation in the history of salvation is a gratuitous, loving act of God too.
Finally, Lumen Gentium is also clear about how superficiality and credulity are to be avoided and how the focus needs to be on a simple love for and imitation of Mary:
“Let the faithful remember moreover that true devotion consists neither in sterile or transitory affection, nor in a certain vain credulity, but proceeds from true faith, by which we are led to know the excellence of the Mother of God, and we are moved to a filial love toward our mother and to the imitation of her virtues.”As you can see from my blog posts on Lumen Gentium, I have found it to be a source of great encouragement and joy. Encouragement, because the treasures of Christianity are presented with clarity, born on wings both of faith and reason, and joy, because throughout this great presentation of who the Church is, the focus has been on the person of Jesus and on our mission to bring his love to all in freedom.3
1 For posts on previous chapters, see here.
2 If you are not a Catholic - welcome! :) To get more out of what follows, you might want to take a look at a caveat I wrote for the first of my Vatican-II-themed posts here.
3 Given how long it has taken me to make my way through Dei Verbum, Lumen Gentium and Sacrosanctum Concilium (three of the four dogmatic constitutions of Vatican II), I have to revise my plan to read all of the Council’s documents during this Year of Faith. Instead, but still with plenty of challenge, I’ll try to just cover the fourth of the Council’s constitutions - Gaudium et Spes - next.