The Rector Writes
There was a very moving interview on a recent radio programme where a Catholic priest from Iraq described his capture and imprisonment at the hands of ISIL. During his months of imprisonment he was constantly ill-treated physically and the prospect of beheading was a daily reality. At first, the priest said he had been disoriented and very frightened, but eight days into his incarceration he had an experience of the closeness of the Blessed Virgin Mary and this sustained him throughout the rest of his ordeal. Although he continued to live with the likelihood of a violent death, he was able to face this reality with a certain equanimity. With Saint Paul, the priest could say: “if we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord, so that alive or dead we belong to the Lord” (Romans 14:8). There was (thank God) a positive outcome to this particular story as, with the help of Moslem friends, the priest eventually escaped, and has returned to minister to his parishioners.
The comfort drawn by the Iraqi priest from his devotion to Our Lady will touch a nerve in many. The place of Mary at the centre of salvation history is clear. In considering the Incarnation of Jesus, Saint Gregory Nazianzen (died 390) speaks for the early theologians of the Church when he acknowledges: “He took to himself all that was human, except sin. He was conceived by the Virgin who was first purified in body and soul by the Spirit. He came forth as God with what he had taken to himself”. Saint Augustine was not alone in perceiving Mary as the Woman of Faith who conceived the Word in her heart even before she conceived him in her womb.
The Annunciation is the key to everything as the Father first invites, and then awaits, the response of one of his creatures. Here we see the mystery of human free-will in its clearest form. The plans have been laid through the centuries: covenants established, prophecies made. Everything hangs on the discernment of a teenage girl. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux sees it in dramatic terms: “the angel awaits an answer. Answer quickly, O Virgin. Reply in haste to the angel, or rather through the angel to the Lord. Answer with a word, receive the Word of God. Speak your own word, conceive the divine Word. Breathe a passing word, embrace the eternal Word”. Although young, brought up in a backwater speaking with a regional accent and probably illiterate as well as being inexperienced in the ways of the world, Mary has received a gift from God which will enable her to make an authentic response.
On Thursday of this coming week, the Church asks us to join in celebrating the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin. For Catholics it is an article of faith that Mary received in her earliest moments of existence what each of us had to wait for until our Baptism – freedom from original sin that inherited bias towards self-interest which has marred the world since evil first wormed itself into the goodness of the creation. In order that Mary’s “yes” should be utterly authentic, it is a necessary understanding that anything which would jeopardise her decision must be excluded for this is the fulcrum of history, the moment on which human redemption depends. “The price of our salvation is offered to you. We shall be set free at once if you consent. In the eternal Word of God we all came to be, and behold, we die. In your brief response we are to be remade in order to be recalled to life”.
If the Marian dogmas are important expressions of profound truths (in this case the juxtaposition of human free will with divine grace) then the instinct of the faithful is not to receive them simply as theological statements but as expressions amplifying our understanding of the Mother of Jesus who is also the Mother of the Church and the Help of Christians. “It is the sign of a truly Catholic life when there grows to maturity in our hearts, slowly but genuinely, cultivated humbly and faithfully, a personal and tender love of the blessed Virgin. That is another grace that must be prayed for” (Karl Rahner).