Sad and rejoiced she’s seen at once, and seen
At almost fifty and at scarce fifteen;
At once a Son is promised her, and gone;
Gabriel gives Christ to her, He her to John…
∼ John Donne, Upon The Annunciation and Passion Falling Upon One Day
(March 25, 1608)
There is a charming and instructive tradition in the Church—perhaps of apocryphal origin, I do not know—whose pedigree can be traced as far back as Tertullian, that fiery North African Father of the third century, according to which Christ came into the world on the same day he left it. In other words, he was fated to die upon the Cross exactly thirty-three years to the day following his conception by the Holy Spirit in the womb of his Virgin Mother Mary. It all happened of course on March 25, the Solemnity of the Lord’s Annunciation, one of two feasts on which we are enjoined to genuflect when reciting the Creed. The other is the Lord’s Nativity, the great feast of Christmas, which falls nine months to the day later.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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But it failed to happen this year, notwithstanding the fact that the two events—Conception and Cross—fell on the very same day, a most rare co-incidence of calendar dates not scheduled to repeat itself until the year 2157. And why is that? Because in her inscrutable wisdom, Old Mother Church, who now and again truly does surpass all understanding, saw fit to suppress the feast, transferring it to the first Monday in April, which is today.
However, there is a larger point to be made here, which is more than a mere conceit of the calendar. Indeed, it is a matter of immense, far-reaching importance. Not to mention consolation to those to whom it has been given. And that is the fact that on this very day—“this doubtful day,” the poet Donne reminds us, “of feast or fast, Christ came and went away”—Mary was fully present. She was, in other words, entirely engaged in the two most pivotal events on which the world’s salvation depends. Both at the beginning, when the Word took on human flesh, and at the very end when that same flesh—blood, marrow, and bone—were nailed to the Cross, his spirit meanwhile descending into the silence and the horror of Hell: She was there. And why does it matter? What exactly is the point?
Well, there are two points that need to be made, both bearing upon the Mystery in which our lives are set. The first is the fact that all salvation turns on Mary, because it comes through Mary. If the success of her Son’s saving mission requires the prior consent of the mother, then it follows that her co-operation is crucial to the plan of God. Perhaps that is why the single most important four-letter word in the language is fiat, even if it isn’t an English word. May all this, says Mary in reply to the astonishing invitation issued by the angel, “be done unto me according to thy (meaning God’s) word.” She does not withhold the freedom of her will, but rather surrenders it perfectly to God. And, second, whatever correlative understanding we come to concerning Christ, and the redemption wrought by his bloody sacrifice, it must likewise derive from her, from she who became, in the happy phrase coined by the poet Wordsworth, “our tainted nature’s solitary boast.”
What an amazing conjunction this is! That both the Word whose sudden and unforeseen eruption into our world, and the matchless wisdom to understand its meaning, entirely derive from the woman whose whole life is rooted in the reality of God. It was from God, after all, who in a most daring condescension from on high, enabled her to became the human mother of his divine Son. She who is “younger than sin,” to recall a lovely line from George Bernanos, became the vessel—the sacred viaduct stretched between earth and sky—across which God himself poured out the undivided substance of his eternal and triune life into the life of man. Indeed, the very one who, in St. Augustine’s inspired image, “gave milk to our bread.” Could there exist among mere mortals a destiny higher than this?
If God chooses to break himself to become our bread, then we surely need to know something of the woman whose recipe made possible the production no less of the loaf. Of course, putting it in that culinary way, one needs to be perfectly precise: the recipe belongs to God. But to whom did he entrust the work that needed to be done in the kitchen? That’s the question. And the point is, it all flows through her. Certainly the event of the Incarnate God impinges entirely upon her willingness to become the human source of the divine river, the human origin of the gift that is nothing less than God himself. At the same time, our very understanding, the extent to which we succeed in unlocking the Mystery, that too derives entirely from her, from the very one who became the living memory of all that God entrusted to our race.
The late Hans Urs von Balthasar, who proved a most learned and loyal mentor to both Joseph Ratzinger and the future pope and saint, John Paul II, surely had the sense of it when, in writing about faith, he reminds us that it involves the surrender of the entire person to God. And that there is no other human whose surrender of self could possibly exceed hers. “Because Mary from the start surrendered everything her memory was the unsullied tabled on which the Father, through the Spirit, could write his entire Word.” That is simply an astonishing assertion. That it is precisely her memory we need to consult in order to learn anything of relevance about Christ. And how wonderfully available to us it now is, thanks to the profundity of her prior surrender to God. Giving herself totally over to him, God thus empowers her in a gesture of kenosis greater than any in the universe (save only the example of her Son), to pour herself out upon the Church. Here one thinks of a superb and telling sentence from Gertrude von le Fort, expressing a spirituality not much in fashion these days but always necessary: “Surrender to God is the only absolute that the creature possesses.”
Or put it this way, which is how Dante presents the business when, in the final canto of the Paradiso, he ascribes a lovely prayer to St. Bernard, to whom he has recourse in obtaining the great object of his desire, namely to see the face of God. And, by the way, for all that it is humanly impossible to look on the face of God and live, the need to do so—that is, to gaze upon the transfigured face of Christ, on whom shines the glory, the Kabod of God—remains the deepest driving desire we possess. Indeed, it possesses us, evincing a persistence greater even than the need for sex or food or shelter or power or prestige. Here, then, is the prayer placed on the lips of Dante by which his entreaty may be answered: “Lady, thou art so great and so powerful that those who desire grace yet will not turn to thee, shall have their desires fly without wings.” And thus his petition is duly given wings so as to reach, through her, the abode of the Blessed Trinity.
Mary is the supreme advocate because the Maker of the universe chose her to participate in his own corporeal creation. Like an elevator—or, better yet, a rocket ship—she is the perfect intermediary for all our needs. Her mediation is especially helpful in rendering our access more easily to God because without Mary we would not have the incarnation at all. She is, in a word, indispensable. The very one, says Augustine, “whom the heavens cannot contain, the womb of one woman bore.”
Go figure as they say. And while you’re at it, muse on that strange and wondrous convergence of calendar dates, which only God would seem clever enough to contrive, when the same Christ is first conceived and later crucified. Giving thanks to Mother Mary, who, humanly speaking, make it all possible.
Editor’s note: The image above of the Annunciation was painted by Robert Campin in 1422 and is known as the “Merode Altarpiece.”