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The Virgin Mary: Icon of Obedient Faith

Catechesis by Papa Benedict XVI    
in Arabic, English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese & Spanish

"Dear brothers and sisters,
On the pathway of Advent the Virgin Mary occupies a special place as the one who in a unique way awaited the realization of the promises of God, accepting
Jesus, the Son of God, in faith and in the flesh, in full obedience to the divine will. Today, I would like to reflect with you briefly on Mary’s faith starting from the great mystery of the Annunciation.

“Chaîre kecharitomene, ho Kyrios meta sou”, “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you” (Lk 1:28). These are the words — recounted by the Evangelist Luke — with which the archangel Gabriel greets Mary. At first sight the term chaîre, “rejoice”, seems a normal greeting, usual in Greek, but this word, when read against the background of the biblical tradition, acquires a much deeper meaning. This same term is present four times in the Greek version of the Old Testament and always as a proclamation of joy at the coming of the Messiah (cf Zeph 3:14, Joel 2:21; Zech 9:9; Lam 4:21). The angel’s greeting to Mary is thus an invitation to joy, to a deep joy, it announces an end of the sadness that is in the world in front of the limit of life, in front of suffering, death, wickedness, the darkness of evil which seems to obscure the light of divine goodness. It is a greeting which marks the beginning of the Gospel, of the Good News.

But why is Mary invited to rejoice in this way? The answer is to be found in the second part of the greeting: “The Lord is with you”. Here too, we must turn to the Old Testament in order to well understand the meaning of the expression. In the Book of Zephaniah, we find this expression “Sing aloud, daughter of Zion.... The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst.... The Lord, your God, in your midst, is a mighty saviour” (3:14-17). In these words a twofold promise is made to Israel, to the daughter of Zion: God will come as saviour and will dwell in the midst of his people, in the womb of the daughter of Zion. In the dialogue between the angel and Mary this promise is fulfilled exactly: Mary is identified with the people espoused to God, she is truly the Daughter of Zion in person; in her is accomplished the expectation of the definitive coming of God, in her the living God makes his dwelling place.

In the angel's greeting, Mary is called “full of grace”; in Greek the term “grace”, charis, has the same linguistic root as the word “joy”. Also in this expression the source of Mary’s rejoicing is further clarified: joy comes from grace, comes that is from communion with God, from having such a vital connection with Him, from being the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit, totally shaped by the action of God. Mary is the creature who in a unique way has opened the door to her Creator, she placed herself in his hands, without limits. She lives entirely from and in the relationship with the Lord; she is in an attitude of listening, attentive to recognizing the signs of God along the pathway of his people; she is inserted into a history of faith and hope in the promises of God, which constitutes the fabric of her existence. And she submits freely to the word received, to the divine will in the obedience of faith.

The Evangelist Luke narrates the story of Mary through a fine parallel to the story of Abraham. As the great Patriarch is the father of believers, who responded to God’s call to leave the land in which he lived, to leave his security, so as to start out on the pathway to a land unknown and possessed only in the divine promise, so Mary with full trust relies on the word that the messenger of God announces to her and becomes model and mother of all believers.

I would like to emphasize another important point: the opening of the soul to God and to his action in faith also includes the element of obscurity. The relationship of the human being with God does not cancel out the distance between Creator and creature, it does not eliminate what the Apostle Paul affirmed in front of the depth of God’s wisdom: “How unsearchable are his judgements and how inscrutable his ways!” (Rom 11:33). But the one who — like Mary — is totally open to God, comes to accept the divine will, even if it is mysterious, even if it often does not correspond with ones own will and is a sword that pierces the soul, as the old man Simeon prophetically tells Mary, at the time when Jesus is presented in the Temple (cf Lk 2:35). Abraham’s pathway of faith includes the moment of joy for the gift of his son Isaac, but also the moment of obscurity, when he had to climb Mount Moriah to perform a paradoxical gesture: God asks him to sacrifice the son which He had just given him. On the mountain, the angel orders Abraham: “Do not lay your hand on the boy nor do anything to him! Now I know that you fear God and have not refused me your son, your only son, from me” (Gen 22:12). Abraham's full trust in the God who is faithful to his promises exists even when his word is mysterious and is difficult, almost impossible, to accept. So it is with Mary, her faith lives the joy of the Annunciation, but also passes through the darkness of the crucifixion of the Son, so as to be able to reach the light of the Resurrection.

It is no different for the pathway of faith for each one of us: we encounter moments of light, but we also encounter passages in which God seems absent, his silence weighs on our hearts and his will does not correspond to ours, to what we would like. But the more we open ourselves to God, welcome the gift of faith, put our trust totally in him — like Abraham and like Mary — so much the more He renders us capable, with his presence, of living every situation of life in peace and in the certainty of his faithfulness and of his love. This however means coming out of oneself and ones own projects, because the Word of God is the lamp which guides our thoughts and our actions.

I would like to dwell once again on an aspect that emerges in the infancy narratives of Jesus narrated by St Luke. Mary and Joseph bring their son to Jerusalem, to the Temple, to present and consecrate him to the Lord as required by the law of Moses: “Every firstborn male shall be consecrated to the Lord” (cf Lk 2:22-24). This gesture of the Holy Family acquires an even more profound meaning if we read it in the light of the evangelical knowledge of the 12-year-old Jesus who, after three days of searching, is found in the Temple in discussion with the teachers. To the words full of Mary and Joseph's concern: “Son, why have you done this to us? Behold, your father and I, in anguish, have been searching for you”, corresponds Jesus’ mysterious response: “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be about the things of my Father?” (Lk 2:48-49). That is in the property of the Father, in the house of the Father, as a son is. Mary must renew the deep faith with which she said “yes” at the Annunciation; she must accept the precedence that the true and proper Father of Jesus has; she must be able to leave  this Son that she has generated free to follow his mission. And Mary's “yes” to the will of God, in the obedience of faith, is repeated throughout her whole life, up to the most difficult moment, that of the Cross.

Faced with all this, we can ask ourselves: how was Mary able to live this pathway alongside her Son with a faith so strong, even in obscurity, without losing full trust in the action of God? There is an underlying attitude that Mary assumes in the face of what happens in her life. At the Annunciation she is disturbed on hearing the words of the angel — it is the fear a man feels when touched by the closeness of God —, but it is not the attitude of someone who is afraid in front of what God might ask. Mary reflects, she ponders the meaning of such a greeting (cf Lk 1:29). The Greek term used in the Gospel to define this “reflection”, “dielogizeto”, evokes  the root of the word “dialogue”. This means that Mary enters into intimate dialogue with the Word of God that has been announced to her, she does not consider it superficially, but dwells on it, lets it penetrate into her mind and her heart so as to understand what the Lord wants from her, the meaning of the announcement. We find another hint of Mary's interior attitude in front of the action of God, again in the Gospel of St Luke, at the time of Jesus' birth, after the adoration of the shepherds. Luke affirms that Mary “kept all these things, meditating upon them in her heart” (Lk 2:19); in Greek the term is symballon, we could say that she “holds together”, “puts together” in her heart all the events that were happening; she placed each single element, each word, each fact within the whole and compared it, cherished it, recognizing that everything comes from the will of God. Mary does not stop at a first superficial understanding of what is happening in her life, but knows to look in depth, she lets herself be questioned by events, she digests them, discerns them, and acquires that understanding that only faith can guarantee. It is the profound humility of the obedient faith of Mary, who welcomes within her even what she does not understand in the action of God, leaving it to God to open her mind and her heart. “Blessed is she who believed in the fulfillment of the word of the Lord” (Lk 1:45), exclaims her kinswoman Elizabeth. It is precisely for her faith that all generations will call her blessed.

Dear friends, the Solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord which we will soon be celebrating, invites us to live this same humility and obedience of faith. The glory of God is not manifested in the triumph and power of a king, it does not shine out in a famous city, in a sumptuous palace, but dwells in the womb of a virgin, is revealed in the poverty of a child. The omnipotence of God acts, also in our lives, with the force, often silent, of truth and love. Faith tells us, then, that the defenceless power of this Child in the end triumphs over the clamour of the powers of the world. Thank you."

BXVI - General Audience, Wednesday, 19 December 2012, Paul VI Hall