We know, my brethren, that in the natural world nothing is superfluous, nothing incomplete, nothing independent; but part answers to part, and all details combine to form one mighty whole. Order and harmony are among the first perfections which we discern in this visible creation; and the more we examine into it, the more widely and minutely they are found to belong to it. “All things are double,” says the Wise Man, “one against another; and He hath made nothing defective.” It is the very character and definition of “the heavens and the earth,” as contrasted with the void or chaos which preceded them, that everything is now subjected to fixed laws; and every motion, and influence, and effect can be accounted for, and, were our knowledge sufficient, could be anticipated. Moreover, it is plain, on the other hand, that it is only in proportion to our observation and our research that this truth becomes apparent; for though a number of things even at first sight are seen to proceed according to an established and beautiful order, yet in other instances the law to which they are conformed is with difficulty discovered; and the words “chance,” and “hazard,” and “fortune,” have come into use as expressions of our ignorance. Accordingly, you may fancy rash and irreligious minds who are engaged day after day in the business of the world, suddenly looking out into the heavens or upon the earth, and criticising the great Architect, arguing that there are creatures in existence which are rude or defective in their constitution, and asking questions which would but evidence their want of scientific education.
The case is the same as regards the supernatural world. The great truths of Revelation are all connected together and form a whole. Every one can see this in a measure even at a glance, but to understand the full consistency and harmony of Catholic teaching requires study and meditation. Hence, as philosophers of this world bury themselves in museums and laboratories, descend into mines, or wander among woods or on the seashore, so the inquirer into heavenly truths dwells in the cell and the oratory, pouring forth his heart in prayer, collecting his thoughts in meditation, dwelling on the idea of Jesus, or of Mary, or of grace, or of eternity, and pondering the words of holy men who have gone before him, till before his mental sight arises the hidden wisdom of the perfect, “which God predestined before the world unto our glory,” and which He “reveals unto them by His Spirit”. And, as ignorant men may dispute the beauty and harmony of the visible creation, so men, who for six days in the week are absorbed in worldly toil, who live for wealth, or name, or self-indulgence, or profane knowledge, and do but give their leisure moments to the thought of religion, never raising their souls to God, never asking for His enlightening grace, never chastening their hearts and bodies, never steadily contemplating the objects of faith, but judging hastily and peremptorily according to their private views or the humour of the hour; such men, I say, in like manner, may easily, or will for certain, be surprised and shocked at portions of revealed truth, as if strange, or harsh, or extreme, or inconsistent, and will in whole or in part reject it.
I am going to apply this remark to the subject of the prerogatives with which the Church invests the Blessed Mother of God. They are startling and difficult to those whose imagination is not accustomed to them, and whose reason has not reflected on them; but the more carefully and religiously they are dwelt on, the more, I am sure, will they be found essential to the Catholic faith, and integral to the worship of Christ. This simply is the point which I shall insist on-disputable indeed by aliens from the Church, but most clear to her children-that the glories of Mary are for the sake of Jesus; and that we praise and bless her as the first of creatures, that we may confess Him as our sole Creator.
When the Eternal Word decreed to come on earth, He did not purpose, He did not work, by halves; but He came to be a man like any of us, to take a human soul and body, and to make them His own. He did not come in a mere apparent or accidental form, as Angels appear to men; nor did He merely over-shadow an existing man, as He overshadows His saints, and call Him by the name of God; but He “was made flesh”. He attached to Himself a manhood, and became as really and truly man as He was God, so that henceforth He was both God and man, or, in other words, He was One Person in two natures, divine and human. This is a mystery so marvellous, so difficult, that faith alone firmly receives it; the natural man may receive it for a while, may think he receives it, but never really receives it; begins, as soon as he has professed it, secretly to rebel against it, evades it, or revolts from it. This he has done from the first; even in the lifetime of the beloved disciple men arose who said that our Lord had no body at all, or a body framed in the heavens, or that He did not suffer, but another suffered in His stead, or that He was but for a time possessed of the human form which was born and which suffered, coming into it at its baptism, and leaving it before its crucifixion, or, again, that He was a mere man. That “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God, and the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us,” was too hard a thing for the unregenerate reason.
The case is the same at this day; mere Protestants have seldom any real perception of the doctrine of God and man in one Person. They speak in a dreamy, shadowy way of Christ’s divinity; but, when their meaning is sifted, you will find them very slow to commit themselves to any statement sufficient to express the Catholic dogma. They will tell you at once, that the subject is not to be inquired into, for that it is impossible to inquire into it at all without being technical and subtile. Then, when they comment on the Gospels, they will speak of Christ, not simply and consistently as God, but as a being made up of God and man, partly one and partly the other, or between both, or as a man inhabited by a special Divine presence. Sometimes they even go on to deny that He was in heaven the Son of God, saying that He became the Son when He was conceived of the Holy Ghost; and they are shocked, and think it a mark both of reverence and good sense to be shocked, when they hear the Man spoken of simply and plainly as God. They cannot bear to have it said, except as a figure or mode of speaking, that God had a human body, or that God suffered; they think that the “Atonement,” and “Sanctification through the Spirit,” as they speak, is the sum and substance of the Gospel, and they are shy of any dogmatic expression which goes beyond them. Such, I believe, is the ordinary character of the Protestant notions among us as to the divinity of Christ, whether among members of the Anglican communion, or dissenters from it, excepting a small remnant of them.
Now, if you would witness against these unchristian opinions, if you would bring out distinctly and beyond mistake and evasion, the simple idea of the Catholic Church that God is man, could you do it better than by laying down in St. John’s words that “God became man”? and again could you express this more emphatically and unequivocally than by declaring that He was born a man, or that He had a Mother? The world allows that God is man; the admission costs it little, for God is everywhere, and (as it may say) is everything; but it shrinks from confessing that God is the Son of Mary. It shrinks, for it is at once confronted with a severe fact, which violates and shatters its own unbelieving view of things; the revealed doctrine forthwith takes its true shape, and receives an historical reality; and the Almighty is introduced into His own world at a certain time and in a definite way. Dreams are broken and shadows depart; the Divine truth is no longer a poetical expression, or a devotional exaggeration, or a mystical economy, or a mythical representation. “Sacrifice and offering,” the shadows of the Law, “Thou wouldest not, but a body hast Thou fitted to me.” “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have diligently looked upon, and our hands have handled,” “That which we have seen and have heard, declare we unto you”;-such is the record of the Apostle, in opposition to those “spirits” which denied that “Jesus Christ had appeared in the flesh,” and which “dissolved” Him by denying either His human nature or His divine. And the confession that Mary is Deipara, or the Mother of God, is that safeguard wherewith we seal up and secure the doctrine of the Apostle from all evasion, and that test whereby we detect all the pretences of those bad spirits of “Antichrist which have gone out into the world”. It declares that He is God; it implies that He is man; it suggests to us that He is God still, though He has become man, and that He is true man though He is God. By witnessing to the process of the union, it secures the reality of the two subjects of the union, of the divinity and of the manhood. If Mary is the Mother of God, Christ must be literally Emmanuel, God with us. And hence it was, that, when time went on, and the bad spirits and false prophets grew stronger and bolder, and found a way into the Catholic body itself, then the Church, guided by God, could find no more effectual and sure way of expelling them than that of using this word Deipara against them; and, on the other hand, when they came up again from the realms of darkness, and plotted the utter overthrow of Christian faith in the sixteenth century, then they could find no more certain expedient for their hateful purpose than that of reviling and blaspheming the prerogatives of Mary, for they knew full well that, if they could once get the world to dishonour the Mother, the dishonour of the Son would follow close. The Church and Satan agreed together in this, that Son and Mother went together; and the experience of three centuries has confirmed their testimony, for Catholics who have honoured the Mother, still worship the Son, while Protestants, who now have ceased to confess the Son, began then by scoffing at the Mother.
You see, then, my brethren, in this particular, the harmonious consistency of the revealed system, and the bearing of one doctrine upon another; Mary is exalted for the sake of Jesus. It was fitting that she, as being a creature, though the first of creatures, should have an office of ministration. She, as others, came into the world to do a work, she had a mission to fulfil; her grace and her glory are not for her own sake, but for her Maker’s; and to her is committed the custody of the Incarnation; this is her appointed office,-“A Virgin shall conceive, and bear a Son, and they shall call His Name Emmanuel”. As she was once on earth, and was personally the guardian of her Divine Child, as she carried Him in her womb, folded Him in her embrace, and suckled Him at her breast, so now, and to the latest hour of the Church, do her glories and the devotion paid her proclaim and define the right faith concerning Him as God and man. Every church which is dedicated to her, every altar which is raised under her invocation, every image which represents her, every litany in her praise, every Hail Mary for her continual memory, does but remind us that there was One who, though He was all-blessed from all eternity, yet for the sake of sinners, “did not shrink from the Virgin’s womb”. Thus she is the Turris Davidica, as the Church calls her, “the Tower of David”; the high and strong defence of the King of the true Israel; and hence the Church also addresses her in the Antiphon, as having “alone destroyed all heresies in the whole world”.
And here, my brethren, a fresh thought opens upon us, which is naturally implied in what has been said. If the Deipara is to witness of Emmanuel, she must be necessarily more than the Deipara. For consider; a defence must be strong in order to be a defence; a tower must be, like that Tower of David, “built with bulwarks”; “a thousand bucklers hang upon it, all the armour of valiant men”. It would not have sufficed, in order to bring out and impress on us the idea that God is man, had His Mother been an ordinary person. A mother without a home in the Church, without dignity, without gifts, would have been, as far as the defence of the Incarnation goes, no mother at all. She would not have remained in the memory, or the imagination of men. If she is to witness and remind the world that God became man, she must be on a high and eminent station for the purpose. She must be made to fill the mind, in order to suggest the lesson. When she once attracts our attention, then, and not till then, she begins to preach Jesus. “Why should she have such prerogatives,” we ask, “unless He be God? and what must He be by nature, when she is so high by grace?” This is why she has other prerogatives besides, namely, the gifts of personal purity and intercessory power, distinct from her maternity; she is personally endowed that she may perform her office well; she is exalted in herself that she may minister to Christ.
For this reason, she has been made more glorious in her person than in her office; her purity is a higher gift than her relationship to God. This is what is implied in Christ’s answer to the woman in the crowd, who cried out, when He was preaching, “Blessed is the womb that bare Thee, and the breasts which Thou hast sucked”. He replied by pointing out to His disciples a higher blessedness; “Yea, rather, blessed,” He said, “are they who hear the word of God and keep it”. You know, my brethren, that Protestants take these words in disparagement of our Lady’s greatness, but they really tell the other way. For consider them; He lays down a principle, that it is more blessed to keep His commandments than to be His Mother; but who, even of Protestants, will say that she did not keep His commandments? She kept them surely, and our Lord does but say that such obedience was in a higher line of privilege than her being His Mother; she was more blessed in her detachment from creatures, in her devotion to God, in her virginal purity, in her fulness of grace, than in her maternity. This is the constant teaching of the Holy Fathers: “More blessed was Mary,” says St. Augustine, “in receiving Christ’s faith, than in conceiving Christ’s flesh;” and St. Chrysostom declares, that she would not have been blessed, though she had borne Him in the body, had she not heard the word of God and kept it. This, of course, is an impossible case; for she was made holy, that she might be made His Mother, and the two blessednesses cannot be divided. She who was chosen to supply flesh and blood to the Eternal Word, was first filled with grace in soul and body; still, she had a double blessedness, of office and of qualification for it, and the latter was the greater. And it is on this account that the Angel calls her blessed; “Full of grace,” he says, “Blessed among women”; and St. Elizabeth also, when she cries out, “Blessed thou that hast believed“. Nay, she herself bears a like testimony, when the Angel announced to her the high favour which was coming on her. Though all Jewish women in each successive age had been hoping to be Mother of the Christ, so that marriage was honourable among them, childlessness a reproach, she alone had put aside the desire and the thought of so great a dignity. She, who was to bear the Christ, gave no welcome to the great announcement that she was to bear Him; and why did she thus act towards it? because she had been inspired, the first of woman-kind, to dedicate her virginity to God, and she did not welcome a privilege which seemed to involve a forfeiture of her vow. How shall this be, she asked, seeing I am to live separate from man? Nor, till the Angel told her that the conception would be miraculous and from the Holy Ghost, did she put aside her “trouble” of mind, recognise him securely as God’s messenger, and bow her head in awe and thankfulness to God’s condescension.
Mary then is a specimen, and more than a specimen, in the purity of her soul and body, of what man was before his fall, and what he would have been, had he risen to his full perfection. It had been hard, it had been a victory for the Evil One, had the whole race passed away, nor any one instance in it occurred to show what the Creator had intended it to be in its original state. Adam, you know, was created in the image and after the likeness of God; his frail and imperfect nature, stamped with a Divine seal, was supported and exalted by an indwelling of Divine grace. Impetuous passion did not exist in him, except as a latent element and a possible evil; ignorance was dissipated by the clear light of the Spirit; and reason, sovereign over every motion of his soul, was simply subjected to the will of God. Nay, even his body was preserved from every wayward appetite and affection, and was promised immortality instead of dissolution. Thus he was in a supernatural state; and, had he not sinned, year after year would he have advanced in merit and grace, and in God’s favour, till he passed from paradise to heaven. But he fell; and his descendants were born in his likeness; and the world grew worse instead of better, and judgment after judgment cut off generations of sinners in vain, and improvement was hopeless; “because man was flesh,” and, “the thoughts of his heart were bent upon evil at all times.”
However, a remedy had been determined in heaven; a Redeemer was at hand; God was about to do a great work, and He purposed to do it suitably; “where sin abounded, grace was to abound more”. Kings of the earth, when they have sons born to them, forthwith scatter some large bounty, or raise some high memorial; they honour the day, or the place, or the heralds of the auspicious event, with some corresponding mark of favour; nor did the coming of Emmanuel innovate on the world’s established custom. It was a season of grace and prodigy, and these were to be exhibited in a special manner in the person of His Mother. The course of ages was to be reversed; the tradition of evil was to be broken; a gate of light was to be opened amid the darkness, for the coming of the Just;-a Virgin conceived and bore Him. It was fitting, for His honour and glory, that she, who was the instrument of His bodily presence, should first be a miracle of His grace; it was fitting that she should triumph, where Eve had failed, and should “bruise the serpent’s head” by the spotlessness of her sanctity. In some respects, indeed, the curse was not reversed; Mary came into a fallen world, and resigned herself to its laws; she, as also the Son she bore, was exposed to pain of soul and body, she was subjected to death; but she was not put under the power of sin. As grace was infused into Adam from the first moment of his creation, so that he never had experience of his natural poverty, till sin reduced him to it; so was grace given from the first in still ampler measure to Mary, and she never incurred, in fact, Adam’s deprivation. She began where others end, whether in knowledge or in love. She was from the first clothed in sanctity, destined for perseverance, luminous and glorious in God’s sight, and incessantly employed in meritorious acts, which continued till her last breath. Hers was emphatically “the path of the just, which, as the shining light, goeth forward and increaseth even to the perfect day”; and sinlessness in thought, word, and deed, in small things as well as great, in venial matters as well as grievous, is surely but the natural and obvious sequel of such a beginning. If Adam might have kept himself from sin in his first state, much more shall we expect immaculate perfection in Mary.
Such is her prerogative of sinless perfection, and it is, as her maternity, for the sake of Emmanuel; hence she answered the Angel’s salutation, Gratia plena, with the humble acknowledgment, Ecce ancilla Domini; “Behold the handmaid of the Lord”. And like to this is her third prerogative, which follows both from her maternity and from her purity, and which I will mention as completing the enumeration of her glories. I mean her intercessory power. For, if “God heareth not sinners, but if a man be a worshipper of Him, and do His will, him He heareth”; if “the continual prayer of a just man availeth much”; if faithful Abraham was required to pray for Abimelech, “for he was a prophet”; if patient Job was to “pray for his friends,” for he had “spoken right things before God”; if meek Moses, by lifting up his hands, turned the battle in favour of Israel against Amalec; why should we wonder at hearing that Mary, the only spotless child of Adam’s seed, has a transcendent influence with the God of grace? And if the Gentiles at Jerusalem sought Philip, because he was an Apostle, when they desired access to Jesus, and Philip spoke to Andrew, as still more closely in our Lord’s confidence, and then both came to Him, is it strange that the Mother should have power with the Son, distinct in kind from that of the purest angel and the most triumphant saint? If we have faith to admit the Incarnation itself, we must admit it in its fulness; why then should we start at the gracious appointments which arise out of it, or are necessary to it, or are included in it? If the Creator comes on earth in the form of a servant and a creature, why may not His Mother, on the other hand, rise to be the Queen of heaven, and be clothed with the sun, and have the moon under her feet?
I am not proving these doctrines to you, my brethren; the evidence of them lies in the declaration of the Church. The Church is the oracle of religious truth, and dispenses what the apostles committed to her in every time and place. We must take her word, then, without proof, because she is sent to us from God to teach us how to please Him; and that we do so is the test whether we be really Catholics or no. I am not proving then what you already receive, but I am showing you the beauty and the harmony, in one out of many instances, of the Church’s teaching; which are so well adapted, as they are divinely intended, to recommend that teaching to the inquirer and to endear it to her children. One word more, and I have done; I have shown you how full of meaning are the truths themselves which the Church teaches concerning the Most Blessed Virgin, and now consider how full of meaning also has been the Church’s dispensation of them.
You will find, that, in this respect, as in Mary’s prerogatives themselves, there is the same careful reference to the glory of Him who gave them to her. You know, when first He went out to preach, she kept apart from Him; she interfered not with His work; and, even when He was gone up on high, yet she, a woman, went not out to preach or teach, she seated not herself in the Apostolic chair, she took no part in the priest’s office; she did but humbly seek her Son in the daily Mass of those, who, though her ministers in heaven, were her superiors in the Church on earth. Nor, when she and they had left this lower scene, and she was a Queen upon her Son’s right hand, not even then did she ask of Him to publish her name to the ends of the world, or to hold her up to the world’s gaze, but she remained waiting for the time, when her own glory should be necessary for His. He indeed had been from the very first proclaimed by Holy Church, and enthroned in His temple, for He was God; ill had it beseemed the living Oracle of Truth to have withholden from the faithful the very object of their adoration; but it was otherwise with Mary. It became her, as a creature, a mother, and a woman, to stand aside and make way for the Creator, to minister to her Son, and to win her way into the world’s homage by sweet and gracious persuasion. So when His name was dishonoured, then it was that she did Him service; when Emmanuel was denied, then the Mother of God (as it were) came forward; when heretics said that God was not incarnate, then was the time for her own honours. And then, when as much as this had been accomplished, she had done with strife; she fought not for herself. No fierce controversy, no persecuted confessors, no heresiarch, no anathema, were necessary for her gradual manifestation; as she had increased day by day in grace and merit at Nazareth, while the world knew not of her, so has she raised herself aloft silently, and has grown into her place in the Church by a tranquil influence and a natural process. She was as some fair tree, stretching forth her fruitful branches and her fragrant leaves, and overshadowing the territory of the saints. And thus the Antiphon speaks of her: “Let thy dwelling be in Jacob, and thine inheritance in Israel, and strike thy roots in My elect”. Again, “And so in Sion was I established, and in the holy city I likewise rested, and in Jerusalem was my power. And I took root in an honourable people, and in the glorious company of the saints was I detained. I was exalted like a cedar in Lebanus, and as a cypress in Mount Sion; I have stretched out my branches as the terebinth, and my branches are of honour and grace.” Thus was she reared without hands, and gained a modest victory, and exerts a gentle sway, which she has not claimed. When dispute arose about her among her children, she hushed it; when objections were urged against her, she waived her claims and waited; till now, in this very day, should God so will, she will win at length her most radiant crown, and, without opposing voice, and amid the jubilation of the whole Church, she will be hailed as immaculate in her conception.
Such art thou, Holy Mother, in the creed and in the worship of the Church, the defence of many truths, the grace and smiling light of every devotion. In thee, O Mary, is fulfilled, as we can bear it, an original purpose of the Most High. He once had meant to come on earth in heavenly glory, but we sinned; and then He could not safely visit us, except with a shrouded radiance and a bedimmed Majesty, for He was God. So He came Himself in weakness, not in power; and He sent thee, a creature, in His stead, with a creature’s comeliness and lustre suited to our state. And now thy very face and form, dear Mother, speak to us of the Eternal; not like earthly beauty, dangerous to look upon, but like the morning star, which is thy emblem, bright and musical, breathing purity, telling of heaven, and infusing peace. O harbinger of day! O hope of the pilgrim! lead us still as thou hast led; in the dark night, across the bleak wilderness, guide us on to our Lord Jesus, guide us home.
Maria, mater gratiæ,
Dulcis parens clementiæ,
Tu nos ab hoste protege
Et mortis horâ suscipe.
(Discourses to Mixed Congregations: Discourse 17. Blessed John Henry Newman)