Mary as Co-Redemptrix
Somehow, it ever persistently springs to life. Lately, I have been receiving e-mail (again!) promoting the dogmatic definition of Mary as Co-redemptrix among other titles. While I really love and venerate her as the Mother of my Lord and my own very mother, I do not think she herself will like the title, and here are some things I wrote in the past that try to answer why:
Letter to Mary's Army for Peace (23 September 2004)
(Mary's Army for Peace is a Yahoo Group I created in May 2004, as a venue for prayer and reflection. It continues to be very active at present, and is a forum where people exchange prayer requests, inspirational prayers they composed and so much more.)
Dear Mary's Army:
First of all, I would like to apologize for not having been very active in our yahoogroups since I had to focus more on my studies recently.
Yet I feel the urgency to write you since the idea of Mary as co-redemptrix has become a considerable issue, almost a theological debate in our times. And I feel that as members of Mary's Army, we should be at least informed about the issue. The Church has been quite silent on the matter and has made no official pronouncement. Some sides continue to push the idea, others downright reject it and still others do not know where to side. This position is only my assessment and it is up for you to study, pray and ponder over it.
Seeing Mary as co-redemptrix poses some serious theological conflicts. The greatest of which is that, it makes Jesus co-redeemer and the act of redemption not the exclusive act of God. While it feels good to think that Redemption actually happened as a co-operation between Jesus the God-Man and Mary the Woman or "Pure Human," it becomes quite problematic on second thought. Why? Because how can a human person have the power to redeem us from our sins? Priests for example, how can they forgive, not even redeem, sins? Solely and exclusively by the power and authority of Jesus, not by their own power or authority. Because Creation, Redemption, Sanctification are acts of God, initiatives of God and God alone. Only the fullness of Being can share to the void to let it be. Only the Creator can restore Creation. Only the perfection of Holiness can sanctify. While for God's work to be efficacious in our lives there is a necessity for a response, it is only because God respects our freedom. And the only response is for us to say yes to God, to allow God to work through us and in us. And this is precisely what Mary did. She did not say, Fiat, let us do it. Rather she said, Fiat, let it be done to me according to your Word. Everything was God working in Mary. Everything is grace, all is gift!
Mary indeed was there at the foot of the Cross. And her Mother's heart so intimately united with Jesus and so profoundly linked with God's heart because of her deep holiness, we can presume, suffered most at the sight of the cruelty of sinners. Thus she earned her being Queen of Martyrs. And the title is apt because the essence of martyrdom is to attest, not to the strength and fortitude of the martyrs but to God's love which sustains our weakness and transforms our sorrow into joy and our defeat into victory. Mary's love was great. But only Jesus, only LOVE himself, can put on all human hatred and bitterness and transform it into Love at the Cross; only LIFE himself can embrace our death to transform it into resurrection; only LIGHT can transform our darkness; PEACE, our strife and JOY, our sorrow-- the very act of REDEMPTION.
And this is what Mary's beauty and honor is all about, not that we exalt her unduly but that God is given glory in her. We can never praise Mary enough. But we can praise Mary wrongly when she becomes a distraction from and not a direction to Jesus.
This is what Mary's Army is all about. That through Mary's example and help, we discover God working in our lives and we say our yes to him and allow him to work in us and through us. We do not become co-redeemers when we are able to lead a soul to God. We are only directions, instruments, channels. Unltimately, it is God himself who is our all. Without him, Mary, as well as any of us are but nothing.
Please feel free to respond to the group or to me about your feelings on the matter or on any issue. It is good for us to discern together or we could consult those who are more knowledgeable to help us.
To Jesus through Mary!
Fair as the moon, Bright as the Sun,
Terrible as an army set in battle array (5 December 2004)
This year marks the 150th anniversary of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. The article seeks to understand anew this mystery of faith.
Throughout the ages, the Church praises the Mother of God for her exceeding beauty, highlighting the graces bestowed on her by the Lord. And in heaving such praises on her whom we acclaim as our prototype and exemplar, we are also discovering our identity as people of God. One of these praises is the ancient antiphon many of us are familiar with. Who is she that comes forth as the morning rising: fair as the moon, bright as the sun, terrible as an army set in battle array?
This image of the dawn is truly fit to illustrate Mary, whom we acclaim as the Immaculate Conception. As the light of the sun is first seen in the dawn even before its rising, so did salvation bear its first and most perfect fruit in Mary even before the coming of the Savior. Many a time in Christian art the Immaculate Conception is portrayed as a young woman with folded hands wearing the blue and white robes of royalty. Yet in Scriptures, the apostle John sees a different vision as Juan Diego will also do in Guadalupe centuries later, of “a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head.” Moon, stars and sun all together in a picture evoke only a single image: dawn.
Who is She?
Devotion to Mary, the Mother of Jesus, is an established Catholic characteristic. After Jesus, Mary is the most central figure in the faith. We honor her with various prayers and revere her under various titles. Her apparitions continue to draw pilgrimages accompanied by miraculous cures and astounding conversions. In the Philippine setting, she can even take center stage. Her festivals and images draw the most people to the Church. Some even fear that our devotion to Mary is but bordering on the idolatrous. The growing challenge then is to establish a Marian theology that clarifies rather than confuses the faith and a devotion that leads us to rather than distracts us from Christ.
One of the most ancient titles of Mary is the Immaculate Conception. Even if the dogma was proclaimed by Pius IX only in 1854, it has always consistently appeared in Catholic tradition. In fact, the over 400-year old archdiocese of Manila is dedicated to the Immaculate Conception. In 1830, Our Lady appeared in Paris to Catherine Laboure asking that a medal be struck with the inscription “Ö Mary conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.” And four years after its proclamation, in 1858, there was another apparition in Lourdes where she introduced herself explicitly as “the Immaculate Conception”.
The dogma states that “by a singular privilege of God almighty, in view of the foreseen merits of Christ the Savior, the Blessed Virgin Mary was preserved from all stain of original sin from the first moment of her conception.” But the idea isn’t as simple as that; at least while it wasn’t well laid out yet as “dogma”. It has been in fact subject of prolonged and extensive theological debate. The great Thomas Aquinas did not agree since he could not imagine Christ being the “Savior of all except Mary” since she was sinless and did not need any redemption. Thus the issue was resolved only when Duns Scotus came up with “in view of the foreseen merits of Christ”, making Mary pre-redeemed or in our present-day parlance, post-paid. But while the theological and philosophical underpinnings of the Immaculate Conception seems to be relatively settled and definitively (dogmatically, even) defined, its pastoral significance remains a task to be done. What exactly does this dogma mean to us and our faith? This article, even if insufficiently, attempts to address this problematic.
Fair as the moon
The moon doesn’t seem to be a very fitting image with our modern knowledge of it. It is but a barren mass of rock with plenty of ugly craters. The moon is barren and lifeless. And yet when we go out one clear night and gaze at the sky, we continue to look with wonder at the moon. The moon remains to be beautiful. It continues to enchant us despite its known unattractiveness.
The moon is nothing in itself. But it is beautiful because it shines with the light of the sun. In this sense does the moon qualify as an image of Mary. Mary is nothing without God. Deprived of all the graces God lavished on her, she would be just another woman. But she shines with the light of God living in her. Another woman also, when she lets God enter her life will find more meaning and purpose than being “just another woman”. In cosmology we know the moon is made of exactly the same elements as our earth. When viewed from space, from a wider perspective, they still differ a lot but both are just as beautiful. As Catholics, we often see Mary as being more than us or greater than us. Hence we revere her so much yet care so little about imitating her. But in fact, she is just as frail and weak as any of us. Both planets would be nothing without the sun. The moon will be dark and the earth will die. The only difference is that she was “full of grace”. She was full of God. And this is not impossible for us but is even the invitation to us. Grace is offered to us at every moment. Grace never lacks. We only need to let grace work in our lives, to let God enter, like Mary did.
When we look beyond the light of the moon, we see that it actually points us to the sun. In the darkness of the night, the moon is our assurance of morning because as long as the moon still shines, we know that the sun is also there. Mary too, when we gaze at her would always direct us to the reality of a living God. When we look at her, it is not her own greatness we see but the glory of God who raises the lowly. “The Almighty has wrought marvels for me. Holy is his Name.” When we praise her, we are in fact praising God who is the Giver of all that is good in her.
One thing also about the moon is that it never leaves the earth. We know this is because of gravity. Mary too never isolates herself from us even when she is exalted by God. It is this humility that makes her even more admirable. Thus she is the cause of our joy, the glory of God’s people, the highest honor of humanity. Her beauty is not something purely personal but a beauty which overflows and sheds its radiance on the whole Church, to the entire world just as the moon sheds on us its borrowed light. The gift of Mary may be singular but it is a gift that is shared. The graces lavished by God on Mary are his gifts to all his children in giving her to us to be our Mother.
Bright as the Sun
This image seems confusing at first since we know that the metaphor of the sun is almost always used to refer to Christ, the Sun of Justice which sustains all creation. It is dangerous because such perception of Mary may seem to obscure rather than elucidate Christ’s role in our lives. There is a spreading movement today which advocates Mary as Co-Redemptrix. The Church has not yet made any official pronouncement for or against the proposition. But it seems rather inconsistent with our faith and subtly misleading because it attributes to Mary a work, a faculty that is only God’s—to give new birth to creation.
All human persons have only two God-given faculties for salvation: intellect that we may know God and freedom that we may choose God. “No man can buy his own ransom.” We can only accept God’s call to holiness. Mary did not help redeem us. She only allowed God to use her in this plan of salvation, with fullness of freedom. While it is true that Mary played a most important role in the story of our salvation, she is nevertheless only God’s instrument, though an instrument par excellence. “Everyone who hears my word and keeps it is my mother, my sister, my brother.” Every vocation is most sublime. We should never equate Mary with God and separate her from us in the process. As a finite creature like all of us, she can only be so much but never like God. Like any of us, she is also in need of redemption, in need of God’s saving love which is shown in her Immaculate Conception. The Immaculate Conception is not a demonstration of Mary’s strength but even of her weakness before God who then embraced her frailty and became her strength.
And here comes the proper understanding of Mary as being bright as the Sun. Mary is bright as the Sun who is Christ, not because she is equal to Christ but because she is configured to Christ, attuned to Christ, wholly one with Christ. She is not the sun but “the woman clothed with the sun”, shining with the same marvelous light. Mary had the same call, the same vocation all of us share. She is our model of our aspiring and striving to be “holy as our Father is holy”, to be light of the world in Christ our light. Yet even when she has attained this perfection, she humbly acknowledges that it is all God working in her. Mary’s story all started with her Fiat, a simple yet wholehearted yes to God. All the rest just followed. “For he has looked with favor on his lowly servant, henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.” By herself she cannot do it, just like any of us find the struggle to be good increasingly difficult. But “nothing is impossible with God”. And she believed and let God work in her life.
Mary’s life is a continual yes to God’s call. Discipleship is but a faithful following of Christ. We do not go our own ways to heaven or use our own “techniques” on being holy. No one can be good or holy on one’s own accord. For where else can we get or produce holiness or goodness unless God, who is himself Holiness and Good will grant us? We simply follow Jesus, our only Way. And that is precisely what Mary did and what all of us should do.
Terrible as an army set in battle array
“Terrible” is not a very flattering praise, especially to a woman. On first hearing, it is sounds more becoming of the devil than Our Lady. An army in battle array is also not a very promising image. It seems foreboding of war and destruction. But it is in this last phrase that the true meaning of the Immaculate Conception seems to be unraveled.
We are used to seeing Mary as beautiful. We dress her in all these embroidered gowns and heave on her all these heavy crowns that if we do a real person would render him or her unable to move. But the real beauty of the Immaculate Conception is in the struggle. In the Book of Revelation, John sees the vision of a woman, not just enrobed with the heavenly bodies but also actively in labor, and in a struggle with the enemy symboloized by the dragon.
God made the first move when he preserved Mary from all stain of sin from her conception. But even more wonderfully did Mary faithfully preserve this life of grace which is God’s gift. If she did not, then all would have been a mockery and we will all remember her as one who wasted God’s singular gift. But she did. And so her Immaculate Conception is the glory and mystery of a person’s working with God, of the Creator and of all Creation. Her beauty is not static but the beauty of the ancient Greeks’ “logos”, a struggle that gives birth to order and of “cosmos”, the universe that grows ever more beautiful in the tussle.
She is not just a decoration in the Church but our model. Before she became our Mother, she has always been our sister and companion in this pilgrimage of faith. In Mary we see the restoration of the dignity and perfection we have lost to sin. Humanity is given a new beginning in her, a clean slate and she did not fail God. Thus we are also given a new chance. The old Testament begins with a fallen humanity that has lost its God and goes on to search for Him. The new Testament begins with God, seeking us out and finding us by the rise of Mary to answer God’s call. The Word-made-flesh is the Eternal Word of God and the Human Flesh of Mary on behalf of all humanity, and all Creation. Salvation is wrought by mankind’s accepting God once again through Mary after our isolating ourselves from him by sin. God enters the human scene once again and begins an Everlasting covenant in Jesus, Son of God and Son of Mary. Mary is our prototype and model but she is not a statue or mannequin. She is a living embodiment of what we are called to be and what we shall be if we follow Jesus.
An army in battle array, indeed, speaks of a struggle to victory. Our situations may be hopeless and infinitely more difficult now. But she is our assurance that holiness is possible and the battle of struggling to be perfect can be won. “For he has cast down the mighty from their thrones and has lifted up the lowly.” This discriminated woman of a conquered people triumphed not because of the strength or power she did not have but because she worked and struggled with a God who is her everything. And with God as fortress and rampart, who will not be terribly assured of victory?
She comes forth as the morning rising
The Immaculate Conception after all is more than just a decorative title or a singular privilege that has meaning only to Mary who received it. More than that she be a worthy vessel, it was such that she may freely say her yes to God. So that her reflecting God’s light or sharing in God’s blessed life is not a passive accident but an active discipleship. Her Immaculate Conception, then, not only awes us but spurs us on to pursue holiness with perseverance and fidelity. Hence, the gift of Mary is not only her honor but is extended to us as a challenge. Thus, she is the moon in this dark night of exile that promises us there is still the Sun which will soon rise. In these dark and distressing times, she shines as a beacon of hope which points out to Christ who is our true Hope. She is like the Sun, telling us that our struggle to be holy is not impossible if only we let God work in us. We are mere dust but kindled with the fire of God’s love we shine with brightest light.
And so she comes forth as the morning rising. This woman is radiant yet also pregnant and in labor. This sign is a promise of greater things that the glorious vision we now see. “The night is far spent” and the day draws near proclaimed by the luminous dawn. In that Morning, we too shall be “fair as the moon, bright as the Sun, and terrible as an army set in battle array”. Let us continue to struggle even as we wait. Let us march with her to the rising of the Sun.
Mary, Mother of Jesus, yours is the singular privilege, given by the Father, to be free from all stain of sin from your conception. The guilt of our parents and of all humanity is forgiven by the saving work of Christ and it is in you, O Daughter full of grace, that his redemption first shines in its fullness as the light of the sun is first seen in the radiant dawn even before its rising. It was necessary that you be without all sin, not only that you become a worthy vessel, but that you may give your yes to God with fullness of freedom.
As the ancient Eve opened herself to sin, you, the New Eve, gave yourself completely to God’s plan. It is through this disobedience that sin and death entered our world, the Old Covenant begins with this vacuum of humanity searching for God it has rejected. By your Fiat is this undone. The life in God we have lost is restored. And in your immaculate womb, the Word is made flesh by the power of the Holy Spirit. God Eternal enters the human scene once again to bring us back when we have gone astray. In Jesus, our New Covenant, every longing for God is fulfilled; sin is vanquished and life is restored by his Resurrection.
Accompany us in our constant search for God for you also longed for the promised Savior and found its fulfillment in your firmness of faith. Shine among us, O Star which guides our way, for you are the image of the Church in its perfection and where you are we all aspire to be. Especially in these difficult and confusing times, be the sure Beacon which points us to God who alone gives us true meaning and fulfillment. We take you as our model; help us open ourselves to God so he may dwell in us and work through us. You are the cause of our joy; be our consolation in this valley of tears. Always bring Christ in our lives, He who is our hope and our peace. Amen.