It is possible for us to make the distinction between Our Lady's personal sanctity And Our Lady's Divine Motherhood. Her Immaculate Conception, her absolute sinlessness, her immense charity, may be considered as her personal sanctity. She was already endowed with this personal sanctity when the Archangel Gabriel approached her with his message of infinite import: "Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women." Great as was Mary's sanctity at that moment, the moment that preceded her divine motherhood, there is nothing that could compel us to say that such sanctity could not be granted by God to a human being quite irrespective of the mystery of the divine motherhood. God could grant the privilege of Immaculate Conception and the privilege of absolute sinlessness in soul and body to anyone born from Adam.
The words of the heavenly spirit are the picture of Mary's soul such as it was before the mystery of the Incarnation lifted that soul to an entirely new plane of sanctity and perfection. The Angel's words have reference to Mary's actual state, the spotless angel meets the spotless woman.
In a memorable passage of the Gospels we find this distinction between Mary's divine motherhood and her personal sanctity made use of by Christ Himself in order to enhance the importance of personal sanctity. "And it came to pass, as He spoke these things, a certain woman from the crowd, lifting up her voice, said to Him: ‘Blessed is the womb that bore Thee, and the paps that gave Thee suck’. But He said: ‘Yea rather, blessed are they Who hear the word of God, and keep it’" (Luke 11: 27-28).
This contrasting between the Divine Motherhood and personal sanctity by the Son of God Himself is, no doubt, one of the most telling things in the sacred Gospels. The circumstance that we owe this passage to St. Luke is not without its value; St. Luke is the Evangelist of the Divine Motherhood above the other Evangelists, and we have here the last of the three blessings on Mary's head enumerated by him, the first being found in Gabriel's salutation, and the second in the greeting with which Elizabeth met her cousin. Nothing in the world could give us a more exalted view of the value and nature of personal sanctity than the rejoinder of Our Lord to the woman's encomium on the Divine Motherhood. We were in need of this great lesson as nothing is more difficult to man than a practical love and appreciation of the things that constitute personal sanctity. The most exalted spiritual marvel is, by the very laws of the divine life, intimately connected with personal sanctity.
But nothing, on the other hand, would be less justifiable than to read into Our Lord's words the least depreciation of the worth of the Divine Motherhood, as such. He emphasizes the value of personal sanctity by means of the highest created form of comparison, the Divine Motherhood. It would be quite futile to ask ourselves the question whether Divine Motherhood could be separated in practice from personal sanctity ; in other words, whether it is on the whole possible for a creature to be the Mother of God, and yet to be deprived of personal sanctity. No doubt, such a thing implies a contradiction. Certainly Our Lord's words by no means suggest that in His mind He made such a supposition. He admits fully the praise bestowed on the divine motherhood, but He completes the encomium by extending it to personal sanctity.
The distinction we make between our Lady's personal sanctity and her Divine Motherhood is justified on the ground that it would be possible, speaking theoretically, for a human being to have as much grace as Mary had independently of the Divine Motherhood. But the matter may be put in another form, and we may ask ourselves whether Divine Motherhood is at all possible without personal sanctity, and personal sanctity of a very high degree. We feel, of course, instinctively, that the Mother of God ought to be a very holy being; but to what extent personal sanctity and Divine Maternity are inseparable, it is not so easy for us to decide. From the sacred Gospels and from Catholic theology we learn a vast amount as to the nature and the extent of the Divine Motherhood.
We know a good deal, too, from faith and tradition, concerning Our Lady's personal sanctity; we know her to have been conceived immaculate, to have been absolutely sinless, to have been confirmed in grace. But to what extent these personal privileges were postulated by the divine motherhood we cannot say so readily. There is, however, one spiritual fact of absolute certainty: the Divine Motherhood is the primary, the central fact in Mary's election and predestination on the part of God. She is not a saint to whom Divine Motherhood was bestowed as an extra grace; she is the divine Mother to whom sanctity has been granted as a necessary spiritual complement.
Divine Motherhood is a grace, or rather, a spiritual marvel so prodigious, so unique in its nature, that it must be considered as the all overpowering spiritual factor in the person who receives it. All other endowments of soul and body in that ever-blessed person could not be anything except a preparation for, and a sequel to, that great mystery of divine life. So though we fail to see whether sanctity of the highest degree is united with Divine Motherhood through a necessary law of life, one thing we cannot fail to see is this priority of the Divine Motherhood in Mary's election; she is simply the Mother of God; such is the definition of Mary.
Now if this little book is to have achieved anything, the reader ought not to lay it aside, after perusing it, without having gained such a view of the excellency of the Divine Motherhood as to have made it a necessity for his mind to admit that Mary's personal sanctity was intrinsically connected with her maternity through a law of supernatural life which God Himself could not have suspended.
CHAPTER 2 : THE MOTHERHOOD OF ELIZABETH
Just as the person of the Son of God has its human and finite counterpart in the person of John the Baptist, the Precursor, so the Divine Motherhood of Mary stands in the Gospel of St. Luke intimately associated with another motherhood, that of Elizabeth.
Elizabeth's motherhood played a wonderful role in the mystery of the Incarnation; it was to Mary the one external proof of the possibility of a Divine and Virginal Motherhood, and Mary's mind had the human satisfaction of possessing a visible evidence in favor of an incomprehensible spiritual fact. Elizabeth's motherhood was the Angel's argument to establish the veracity of his incredible message. He used no other, but used it with irresistible efficacy: "And behold thy cousin Elizabeth, she also hath conceived a son in her old age; and this is the sixth month with her that is called barren, because no word shall be impossible with God" (Luke 1:36-37).
The act of faith by which Mary assented to the Angel's message was the greatest act of faith the supernatural world has ever produced; yet in this act of faith, as in every other act of faith, there was the working of the human mind, there was the motivum credibilitatis, the motive for believing, the rational ground for assent. Elizabeth's motherhood, so unexpected, so entirely above human laws, was to Mary's sublime faith in that circumstance the motive for believing. Mary's mind worked intensely; the motherhood that was promised her was apparently impossible on account both of her virginity and the nature of the Child to be born.
The Archangel, most privileged of all beings, entered into the workings of that mind and followed them step by step; for it was his office not only to deliver the message but also to make it appear credible, to obtain the intellectual acceptance of it by Mary. Elizabeth's motherhood thus carefully narrated and put before Mary's mind turned the scales, and her mental acceptance of the mystery was complete and unreserved. That Mary's act of faith at that moment was an effort of heroic perfection we can conclude from the words of praise which the Holy Ghost put on the lips of Elizabeth when Mary came to visit her: "And blessed art thou that halt believed, because those things shall be accomplished that were spoken to thee by the Lord" (Luke 1:45).
The motherhood of Elizabeth is obviously the greatest and noblest instance of a purely human motherhood: "Amen I say to you, there bath not risen among them that are born of women a greater than John the Baptist" (Matthew 11:11). This testimony of the Son of God as to John's greatness would suffice to give to Elizabeth a unique place of honor among all the women who have the dignity of motherhood. But there is, besides the greatness of the son born to Elizabeth, the wonderful circumstance of that maternity. It is as supernatural, as much above the laws of human fertility, as it possibly could be.
The priest Zacharias, Elizabeth's husband, never doubted the presence of the Angel that appeared to him, standing on the right side of the altar of incense; he knew that he was conversing with the Angel of the Lord. Yet the promise of a son seemed a thing so incredible that by a strange contradiction he actually doubted the possibility of such an occurrence. "And Zacharias said to the Angel: ‘Whereby shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in the years’" (Luke 1:18).
The doubts of the old man were of such a character as to deserve the severe rebuke of the Angel, and the punishment of temporary dumbness: "because thou hast not believed my words, which shall be fulfilled in their time" (Luke 1:20). The doubt of Zacharias is, like the doubt of St. Thomas the Apostle, an indirect testimony: it brings out a supernatural fact. In this case the supernatural fact is the miraculous character of John's birth. With Elizabeth we are not, of course, in presence of a miraculous phenomenon of transcending glory as in the case of Mary's motherhood; Zacharias is truly the father of John the Baptist. Yet it was at the same time so evident a sign of God's favor to Elizabeth that Mary no longer hesitated in her mind as to the possibility of her own motherhood, the moment she heard the news from the Angel that Elizabeth was with child.
Elizabeth's motherhood may be considered as a term of comparison, to enable us the better to understand and measure the excellence of Mary's motherhood. The Gospel of St. Luke opens with a detailed description of the holiest and purest human motherhood that could possibly be imagined. The Evangelist takes pleasure in giving us a full description of the glories of that venerable mother. The arrangement is most perfect, even from the artistic point of view; it is a glorious crescendo, this intertwining of the two motherhoods, that of Elizabeth and that of Mary. When we have read all about Elizabeth's motherhood as described by the pen of St. Luke, we ask ourselves whether it is possible for a woman to have God nearer to her in the joys of maternity, than it is conveyed by that wonderful proximity of heaven in the origin of John's life. But a greater thing is still to come, a thing that will make a most dramatic appeal to the strongest faith. With Elizabeth's motherhood God's action and grace surround, as with an odor of heavenly life, the laws of created life. With Mary it will be all heavenly life. God's action is not merely the companion of created causality; it is supreme, exclusive, absolutely unconditioned by the created law of life.
On the other hand, this artistic intertwining of the two maternities on the part of the Evangelist is a guarantee to us that both maternities were maternities in the full sense of the word. There will always be the danger for our mind to place Mary's divine role in a totally unearthly sphere of things, to think of her motherhood as of something belonging to quite another world. The sublimity of it detracts from its created reality in some careless minds. With Mary's motherhood closely related to Elizabeth's motherhood, we ought to see at once that Mary is truly a mother in the ordinary human, real, created mode of maternity. When Elizabeth and Mary met for the first time after the Angel's message we have two mothers meeting, one as truly and as really a mother as the other: "And whence is this to me, that the Mother of my Lord should come to me?" (Luke 1:43.)
Elizabeth's exclamation of joy is also a proclamation of the reality of Mary's Motherhood; her own offspring, still hidden in her womb, had leaped for joy at the presence of Him Who could not be there then in person if Mary's womb were not truly a mother's womb. "Blessed is the Fruit of thy womb" we have to read in conjunction with that other sentence "The infant in my womb leaped for joy." Elizabeth, in her tender love for her cousin, keeps the great mystery for us human beings, prevents it from receding into a realm that is no longer man's realm. Mary's maternity is truly a divine maternity. But it has also the joys and the essential characteristics of a human maternity. It was the mission of the Archangel Gabriel to reveal the secrets of the divine maternity; it was Elizabeth's mission to assure us that Mary is as truly a human mother as she is herself.
CHAPTER 3 : THE MEASURE OF THE DIVINE MOTHERHOOD
The message of the Archangel Gabriel to Zacharias, the husband of Elizabeth, contains a full description of the character and career of the child that would be born of her: "For he shall be great before the Lord, and shall drink no wine nor strong drink; and he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother's womb. And he shall convert many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. And he shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elias: that he may turn the hearts of the fathers unto the children, and the incredulous to the wisdom of the just, to prepare unto the Lord a perfect people" (Luke 1:15-19).
The measure of the praise bestowed on the child to be born is also the measure of Elizabeth's motherhood: she is to be truly the mother of one so great that his greatness surpasses all that has gone before in the spiritual history of Israel; Elizabeth is the mother of the Precursor, and her maternity stretches as far as the career of the Precursor. The parents of John shall have joy and gladness in the greatness of their son: for this is a universal law of human parenthood that the career of any man, however great, is a true glory for the father and mother of that man; human parenthood embraces the whole mortal career of the offspring.
The heavenly messenger entrusted by God with the task of announcing the glories of the two maternities, that of Elizabeth and that of Mary, keeps the same order on both occasions: he begins with the praise of the promised offspring, in order to show to what an extent the parents, privileged by God, are honored; he gives the measure of both motherhoods by describing the careers of the sons. So we have the wonderful message to Mary, the parallel of that other message delivered to John's parent: "Fear not, Mary, for thou hast found grace with God. Behold thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and shalt bring forth a son, and thou shalt call His name Jesus. He shall be great and shall be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God shall give unto Him the throne of David his father, and He shall reign in the house of Jacob forever. And of His kingdom there shall be no end” (Luke 1:30-33).
Elizabeth's motherhood, already so important to our true understanding of the reality of the Incarnation, through its intimate association with Mary's motherhood, does Christian theology a most valuable service by giving it, by way of a comparison, the measure of Mary's motherhood. Mary is Mother to the extent of the description of her Son's career given by Gabriel, just as Elizabeth's motherhood embraces the life of the Precursor. John's career, vast and exalted as it is, is of a definite character; Elizabeth is welcome to all its glories. The career of Jesus stretches beyond all bounds; it embraces eternity: "And of his kingdom there shall be no end." Mary's motherhood stretches as far, is co-extensive with it. She is truly the Mother of One Whose kingdom has no termination.
In virtue of that sweet parallelism between Mary's motherhood and Elizabeth's motherhood which God's wisdom has inserted into the very origin of Christianity, we take Gabriel's description of Christ's character and mission for a measure whereby to estimate the extent of Mary's maternity : Mary is from the very beginning the Mother of One Whose kingdom is eternal. So the divine motherhood of Mary is eternal, not temporal, in character. Gabriel's description of the Child to be born of Mary contains, as in an angelic summary, the whole greatness of Jesus: He is the Son of God; He is heir to all the promises of Israel; He is immortal. To all that immensity of glory and greatness Mary is welcome, as the true Mother; she may rejoice in it all, she may take pride in it all, it is all part of her motherhood. She is to be the Mother of One Who is great: "He shall be great", as Elizabeth was to be the mother of a great one. Both mothers have that privilege. But when the Angel proceeds to develop the respective greatness of John and Jesus, from the sphere of finite things in the case of John he soars to the infinite in the case of Jesus, and Mary's motherhood soars up with Him.
Elizabeth's motherhood does not go beyond John's mortal career. The pure spirit of John, after the great prophet's martyrdom at the hands of Herod, is not the son of Elizabeth. But the risen Christ is the Son of Mary, and the resurrection of Christ is part of Mary's motherhood, part of all that was promised her when she was promised a Son Whose kingdom shall never have an end.
Mary's Divine Motherhood then differs from all other motherhoods; that of Elizabeth not excepted, in this important characteristic that her maternity bears relation to One Who is eternal through the very principles of life that have their beginning in Mary's womb. As Jesus could never be made to see corruption, "for neither was he left in hell, neither did his flesh see corruption" (Acts 11:32) and this through the very laws of His divine being, Mary is Mother to Him uninterruptedly, as long as there is identity and continuance of the body which He took from her. His death, in virtue of the divine being that was in Him, never meant the least interruption of His personal existence, never meant the least breaking up of the elements of that bodily organism that had first been framed in Mary's womb. No other mother can claim such continuance of the life she first gave and fostered. The death of Jesus on the Cross could be no interruption of that relationship of nature which existed between Mary and her divine Son, from the hour of His conception by her. The resurrection, in Our Lord's case, is something more than the coming back to life of a dead man; it meant for Him this other marvel, that His personal existence had never been suspended, in virtue of the Hypostatic Union; soul and body, though separated through death, were united in the one divine Person of the Word.
So it would not be enough for us to say that the resurrection gave back to Mary her Son; we ought to say that even in death Jesus was truly Mary's Son, for since He was also the Son of the Most High, His Sonship, both with regard to His heavenly Father and His earthly Mother, could suffer no eclipse. The measure therefore of the divine motherhood is infinitude and eternity. Gabriel on the part of God promised Mary a Son of infinite excellence, Who would be called the Son of the Most High, and Who would have eternal duration of life; her motherhood then necessarily has all these characteristics.