Mary as the First Believer: Reflection on the Visitation of Mary

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Readings for May 31, 2014: Feast of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary

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The Beatitudes rank high on the list of all-time favorite Bible passages.  But what is “beatitude,” anyway?   In the bible, a “blessed” person is someone who has received gifts of the greatest value, gifts that lead to true fulfillment and lasting happiness.

If I were to ask you to name the first beatitude, you’d probably say “blessed be the poor in Spirit.”  According to St. Matthew’s gospel you’d be right, but not according to Luke.  At the very beginning of his gospel, Luke reveals that the very first beatitude is uttered by a woman filled with the Spirit, speaking of another woman overshadowed by the Spirit.  Elizabeth says, “Blessed is she who has believed.” (Luke 1: 45).

Is Marian devotion important in Christian life?  This has been a bone of contention between Catholics and Protestants for nearly 500 years.

Let’s look at the evidence in just the first chapter of Luke.  First, the Angel Gabriel honors her with the greeting “Hail, full of grace” (Luke 1:29).  Then Elizabeth prophesies “blessed are you among women.”  Next the prophet John leaps for joy in his mother’s womb at the sound of Mary’s voice.  Then, in her response to Elizabeth, Mary prophesies “all generations will call me blessed” (Luke 1:48).

But it is Elizabeth’s final words to Mary that provide the key to understanding why Mary is to be honored, namely, her faith.

One of the battle-cries of the Protestant Reformation was “Faith Alone!”  One key conviction that united the many disparate strands of the Reformation was that it is impossible to earn God’s favor by our good works . . . that we rather we receive his love as a pure gift, a grace, through faith.

Now consider Mary.  Did she crisscross the Mediterranean planting Churches like Paul?  Did she give eloquent sermons like Stephen (Acts 7)?  Did she govern the Church like Peter?  No.  Her claim to fame is that she simply said yes to God.  She believed He could do as he said and would do as He said.

But true faith is not just intellectual conviction that God exists or that He can do thus and such.  Faith involves entrusting oneself, abandoning oneself to God, willing to submit to his will.  That’s why Paul talks about “the obedience of faith” (Romans 16:26).  Mary surrendered her plan for her life, and yielded to God’s plan.  And she did this not once, but again and again, even when he left her behind to begin his public ministry.  And when that ministry led to the horror of Calvary, Mary’s faith stood its ground at the foot of the cross.

So Catholics honor Mary for being the perfect example of the greatest Protestant virtue.  Ironic isn’t it?  And the deepest meaning of that disputed doctrine, the Immaculate Conception, is that it was the grace of God working mysteriously from the moment of her conception that made possible Mary’s exemplary life of faith.  Even her faith is a gift of His grace.  It’s all grace, according to Catholic doctrine.

Mary, of course, knew this.  That’s why she responded to Elizabeth’s praise with the humble, exuberant prayer known as the Magnificat: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”  She is like the crystal-clear pool that reflects the sun’s rays back to the heavens.  So no one needs to fear that honor given her will detract from the majesty of her divine Son.  She deflects all the praise given her right back to God, the source of her greatness.

So the answer is that Marian devotion is necessary in Christian life.  But what is true devotion to Mary according to the fathers of the Second Vatican Council?  Not sentimental piety or gullible preoccupation with every rumored apparition, but rather, imitation of her virtues, particularly her faith (Lumen Gentium 67).

Copyright 2014 Marcellino D’Ambrosio, Ph.D.

Tintoretto [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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About Author

Marcellino D'Ambrosio earned his Ph.D. in theology from the Catholic University of America under the guidance the renowned Jesuit theologian, Avery Cardinal Dulles. His series on the Early Church Fathers is broadcast weekly on the Eternal Word Television Network. His book The Guide to the Passion, on Mel Gibson's film, hit #6 on the New York Times best-sellers list with over a million copies sold. Dr. D'Ambrosio is a world renowned commentator on Catholic issues appearing on Fox News “Geraldo Rivera At Large” and the O'Reilly Factor to discuss the legacy of John Paul II. After nine years at Loyola College and the University of Dallas, Dr. D'Ambrosio left academia to direct www.CrossroadsInitiative.com, one of the world's leading Catholic websites, and to oversee Wellness Business Ventures, a company promoting physical, mental, and financial freedom. He, his wife Susan, and their five children reside near Dallas, TX.

2 Comments

  1. I find it helpful to contemplate the mystery of the Incarnation in conjunction with Mary as Theotokos/God-bearer. We contemplate the relationship of humanity and divinity as it is revealed to us in Christ. But sometimes that can become a very “in the head” or “in the heart” sort of reflection.
    When I consider Mary’s participation in Salvation History, I also experience a life mystery (since I am male and will never carry a child in my womb). But I also am connected very deeply to the very human experience of having been born, having a relationship with my Mother and with other mothers, having a wife with whom we labored to start and have our family.
    For me, this very concrete (i.e. Incarnational) Christian Anthropology makes very real the sacramentality of the Catholic church. This is even more so when one considers that Mary’s Magnificat is an echo of Hannah’s prayer of praise from Hebrew Scripture. Mary’s “full of grace” is the “At Last” of the Word made flesh about the God who has always been fully and really present to humanity, but now in the “fullness of time” pitched his tent amongst us.

  2. Beautiful reflection and some new fuel for the fire of my love for Mary when my Pentecostal husband will again ask me why? Mary and the Communion of Saints is his biggest stumbling block.

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