How Mary is the first guardian of the Faith

As we saw last month, the biblical authors and the Fathers of the Church see in Mary a figure who is a fulfillment of prophecy, just as Jesus is.

However, the way in which she fulfills prophecy is of a different character from Jesus, precisely because she is a creature and not God. All that she does, she does by grace, not by her own divine power. So, for instance, she fulfills prophecy by giving birth at Bethlehem, as the prophet Micah foretold (see Mi 5:1). But she is not the architect of the situation that places her there; God is. She cooperates with his will, and she and Joseph do the sensible things that need to be done in their situation, but the outcome is guided by God.

Mary’s status as a creature bound up with the purposes of God is unique because she is the means by which God assumes a human nature in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Through her freely given “yes,” God enters history as a human being. The flesh and blood he will bear through life and all the way to the cross, grave, resurrection, and even to the very right hand of the Father himself, is flesh and blood he gets from her. We can probably assume that Dante, in addition to speaking spiritual truth, is also stating plain physiological fact when he describes Mary as the one person in the world with the face most like Christ’s.

Setting a pattern

This mingling of the physical and the spiritual in the interwoven lives of Mary and Jesus is one of the main streams by which the Church contemplates the fact of sacramentality: the truth that God reveals himself and mediates his life to us in a human way and through human means. The life of Mary is divinely ordained to establish a pattern. Her motherhood of God Incarnate reveals something.

She is not simply a mammalian incubator unit who is necessary until Jesus can take care of himself. She is not the disposable first stage of the rocket of salvation. Her relationship with Jesus begins in grace and is divinely ordained to stand as a sort of icon for all time.

By her “yes” she becomes, in the words of St. Ambrose of Milan, a “type of the Church.” God involves her in his saving work. Therefore, her life and her fortunes are inextricably linked with those of her Son.

That pattern is the same one Saul of Tarsus discovered on the Damascus Road. When Jesus appears to him, he does not say, “Saul, Saul! Why are you persecuting my followers?” He says, “Why are you persecuting me?” Jesus makes no distinction between himself and his body, the Church.

Under attack

And, curiously, this connection is reflected even in the machinations of the enemy. The normal tendency throughout Christian history has not been to attack Jesus directly, but to do so through his Church. Times without number, the enemies of Jesus say things like: “Oh, we have the utmost respect for Jesus! It’s his followers who have utterly lost his true message. You need to listen to me so that you can understand that Jesus was really a dead rabbi with a girlfriend/Marxist/space alien/homosexual/insert latest Real Jesus here.” The point, of course, is to attack the integrity of the Gospel (and therefore to attack Jesus, who gave us the Good News). But the attack comes via his Body, the Church.

Not surprisingly then, one of the earliest avenues of attack came when the world attacked his very first disciple. So, when Jesus announces that God is his Father, his enemies make the loaded retort: “We are not illegitimate. We have one Father, God” (Jn 8:41). The suggestion is plain — and one that will be repeated through the ages: We should ignore Jesus because he is a bastard, born of a peasant woman who committed fornication with a Roman soldier. He will get slurred in subsequent anti-Christian rabbinic polemic as “Yeshu ben Pantera” (which is probably a play on parthenos, the Greek word for “virgin”). And so Mary stands at the very head of the long list of disciples of Jesus who will be used as a way into attacking Jesus.

That is no accident, for when Mary stands as a “type of the Church,” she shares inexorably in the fortunes of the Church, including the Church’s persecutions and innocent sufferings. Just as Jesus must endure it when wicked men call him a bastard, so Our Lady bears it in being called a fornicator. This is one of the reasons that Jesus, with his dying breath, gives her to the beloved disciple — that is, to you and me — with the words, “Behold your mother” (Jn 19:27). The dragon, the ancient serpent who is called the devil and Satan, is angry, not just with her, but with “the rest of her offspring, on those who keep the commandments of God and bear testimony to Jesus” (Rv 12:17). In Christ, she becomes the mother of all the baptized — and all martyrs.

Protecting the truth

What this means for us as disciples of Jesus is that Mary is uniquely able to do something for us that even Jesus, God though he is, cannot do. She can show us what a perfect disciple of Jesus looks like. As God’s greatest creation, she does through all time what she did from the moment Jesus began to take shape in her womb: guard the Word made flesh. Just as she fulfilled the mysterious prophecy of Jeremiah, who said, “For the LORD has created a new thing on the earth: a woman protects a man” (Jer 31:22, RSV), so she protects the truth about who Jesus is. She is the first to acknowledge that Jesus is “Son of the Most High” (Lk 1:32), saying, “May it be done to me according to your word” (Lk 1:38).

She guards him through his birth and his childhood. And as his first and greatest disciple, she “kept all these things in her heart” (Lk 2:51). In all this, a pattern is established that will characterize her relationship with Jesus down to the present. As Mother of God, she will guard a precious truth about who Jesus is — and therefore about who we are, since, as Pope John Paul II pointed out, Jesus does not just reveal God the Father to us; he reveals us to ourselves.

In her perpetual virginity, she will likewise guard a truth about our relationship with Christ the Bridegroom. In her Assumption, she will show forth the truth about our destiny in Jesus Christ. And in the grace given her in the Immaculate Conception, she will show us the truth about our dignity as human persons.

Over the next four months, we will explore how she does so as we continue our encounter with Mary.

This is part four in an eight-part series. The next installment will appear in the Sept. 26 issue. Mark Shea is senior content editor at CatholicExchange.com and writes the Catholic and Enjoying It! blog at markshea.blogspot.com. He writes from Washington state.

Model of virtue (sidebar)

“But while in the most Blessed Virgin the Church has already reached that perfection whereby she exists without spot or wrinkle (see Eph 5:27), the faithful still strive to conquer sin and increase in holiness. And so they turn their eyes to Mary, who shines forth to the whole community of the elect as the model of virtues. Devoutly meditating on her and contemplating her in the light of the Word made man, the Church reverently penetrates more deeply into the great mystery of the Incarnation and becomes more and more like her spouse. Having entered deeply into the history of salvation, Mary, in a way, unites in her person and re-echoes the most important doctrines of the faith: and when she is the subject of preaching and veneration she prompts the faithful to come to her Son, to his sacrifice and to the love of the Father. Seeking after the glory of Christ, the Church becomes more like her lofty type, and continually progresses in faith, hope and charity, seeking and doing the will of God in all things. The Church, therefore, in her apostolic work, too, rightly looks to her who gave birth to Christ, who was thus conceived of the Holy Spirit and born of a virgin, in order that through the Church he could be born and increase in the hearts of the faithful. In her life the Virgin has been a model of that motherly love with which all who join in the Church’s apostolic mission for the regeneration of mankind should be animated.”

Lumen Gentium, No. 65