Saint Mary The Virgin - Her Surroundings And Family, The Immaculate Conception - Her Birth (About The Year 22 B.C.) Part 2. By Rene-Marie De La Broise

At length, bending over the cradle of Mary, appear two reverent and gentle faces, those of the two holy persons always designated under the names of Joachim and Anne. These two were, doubtless, such as they are represented in ancient legends, the imaginative episodes of which may retain something of their true appearance. Full of gravity, goodness, charity to the poor, love of God, and reverence for His Temple, they came as near to Christianity as it was possible for the saints of the Old Testament to attain. In their virtues they far surpassed the little that is said of them by the old narrators, who were not always men of a very delicate spirituality. But besides these narratives, the exact amount of truth in which it is difficult to determine, we may be assured of their great saintliness because of its propriety, or rather its necessity, in their high calling, and by the belief of the whole Christian church. 1

Practically, all generations have repeated their praises in these words, which express far more than a long narration, " By their fruits ye shall know them." 2 Sometimes, it is true, the righteous are born of sinful parents, and, even in the genealogy of Jesus, there are several names which awaken sad memories. But the contrast between the errors of humanity and the redeeming purity of the Saviour and His mother, beautiful and consoling as it appears in the case of the Holy Family and their remote ancestors, would seem very shocking if it occurred in connection with their immediate relatives. It is an affecting sight to see sinners prostrated before the sacred Host, but the priest who handles it, and the vessel which receives it must be pure and holy. Thus, the nearer the promised Son of David approached, the more was it necessary to purify the ancient blood of the kings of Judah. At the blissful end of that long series of generations, the divine motherhood exacted pre-eminent holiness in Mary, and that holiness, radiant in the mystery of her conception, demanded a superabundant proportion of virtues in those from whom she derived her most pure origin. The blessed Anne had received the grace befitting her who should bring into the world the mother of the Word incarnate; while Joachim had been chosen in preference to all the other saints, to become the father of the mother of the Son of God. 3 By these things, then, we may judge of the merits of these two saints. " O blessed couple, Joachim and Anne—unto you is all creation laid under debt, since through you creation hath offered to the Creator the noblest of gifts, namely, that chaste mother, who alone was worthy of the Creator . . . O blessed couple, Joachim and Anne, most truly immaculate! . . . That that which should be born of you might be worthy and well-pleasing in the sight of God, ye ordered your own lives by rule." 4

On the same grounds of appropriateness we are assured that at an advanced age Anne and Joachim obtained by prayer the birth of their blessed child. This circumstance well accords with the general harmony of the mystery. It is thought by saints and theologians that the Immaculate Conception was a wholly divine work, and that nature had in it the least possible part; its only mission was to supply the slight foundation necessary for the spiritual grace and wonders.

In the case of all others (who, being born of Adam, follow ordinary laws) natural existence begins after the manner of that of the first man, when disobedience had estranged him from God; it is shorn of grace, and disfigured by the absence of that perfection, which is nevertheless required by his spiritual destiny. Later on, the redeeming power of Christ intervenes; it effaces that blemish by pouring grace into the soul, and incorporates into the divine family the offspring of the human family. In Mary, however, there was never any spiritual poverty, never any spot, never any estrangement from God. From the beginning of her life, grace adorned and filled her soul. If it was necessary that she should be redeemed, since she, like others, was born of the race of Adam, the redeeming power influenced her in an entirely different manner. Instead of atoning for her sins it guarded her from committing them, instead of raising her again from the common fall, it preserved her from being numbered with the fallen, and from her first moments it elevated her to the dignity of the children of God. That unique mode of redemption and that inversion of the ordinary connection between nature and grace, proclaimed her who should bear a unique relation to the author of grace and redemption. And in truth the Immaculate Conception of Mary — and this is what makes that mystery so glorious for her—is intimately connected with all her prerogatives. If God brought her into the world with such fulness of innocence and holiness, it was because He saw her beforehand in the part for which in His eternal love He destined and prepared her.

And this conception without sin is the incomparable purity which is fit and becoming in the mother of God. It is because she is to bear, nourish, and hold in her arms the incarnate Word and call Him " my Son," that she must not, even for an instant, turn aside from God, and range herself under the standard of the devil. It is because all her members, all her senses, and her whole being were made for the service of Jesus, that she must not feel any of those earthly inclinations, which, in the ordinary course, are the result of original sin. Absolute innocence must establish in her a perfect harmony, and from her first moments, turn her entirely towards Him who is the reason of her existence. As she is destined to offer Jesus for the salvation of the world, and to sacrifice herself mystically with Him, she must, following the example of the high priest, be " undefiled, separate from sinners,"5 and, as a sacrifice worthy of God, have neither spot nor blemish. Raised above all the choirs of angels, she is, by her innocence as well as by her dignity, the queen of all those pure beings.

This conception without sin is the full and perfect victory of the mother of God. By it she becomes the coadjutor of her Son in His work, which is the destruction of Satan and the overthrow of sin; and as she is redeemed by Him, so must she also cooperate with Him in the redemption of the world; and she will always be near Him in the conflict as well as in the triumph. God willed from the beginning that she should occupy this place, which, chosen of her own free will, should later on bring her new rights and privileges. By illuminating her with His light and quickening her by His grace, in those first moments when all other mortals lie in darkness and the shadow of death, He separated her from the multitude of the redeemed, He set her apart and elevated her to a special place. In giving her the victory over that sin which came to us from the first human couple, He placed her in opposition to Eve the sinner, as the new sanctified Eve, and stationed her by the side of the new Adam ; so that, united to His Son, " by a close and indissoluble bond, with Him and by Him she wages eternal war against the venomous serpent, and completely triumphant, she bruises his head with her immaculate foot." 6

The conception without sin is the fulness of grace which belongs to the mother of God alone. She is destined to bear within her the source itself of all spiritual good; she will become the channel by which all these gifts are distributed to all the world; her divine motherhood makes her at the same time the mother of all the righteous and of the holy Church throughout the world. And this is why from henceforth she must receive, in a manner special to herself, the mercy of the redemption ; at the time when we have no spiritual life, it abounded in her; by her stainless beauty Mary is already the model of the bride without " spot or wrinkle " ; 7 the firstborn of the redemption and first among the adopted children of God, 8 she absorbs, so to speak, unto herself, all the redeeming and sanctifying power of the Saviour.

All are waiting for her, the bride of that union which shall reconcile two empires; the King sends to her, almost to the frontier, ambassadors laden with priceless presents. The angels see the divine jewels prepared; there already rises "the smoke of myrrh, frankincense, and all perfumes" ; 9 and behind the procession as it advances comes the King of Peace, Who will unite the kingdoms of earth and heaven. Soon will the bride appear, soon shall we hear her song: " I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my soul shall be joyful in my God; for He hath clothed me with the garments of salvation, He hath covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bride adorned with her jewels." 10

The moment when the soul of Mary was created was, practically, for her, the time of her first betrothal, her first meeting with God. Seen in that light her Immaculate Conception presents, by the side of its glorious aspect, another and more intimate aspect. We can scarcely imagine what may have passed at that time : this mystery of grace remains an impenetrable secret between God and Mary.

It is the general opinion among theologians that the Immaculate received the grace of sanctification in a sentient and free soul, in perfect accord with the action of her Creator. Grace is a mysterious union between God and the intelligent creature. The dignity of this union requires, provided there is nothing to prevent it, that it should be freely accepted, and that turning towards Him, human love should respond to the advances of infinite love. It is, besides, the method of Providence that the greatest possible personal freedom of action and merit should be given to His creatures. Thus Adam, and the multitude of angels, when, at the beginning of their existence, God elevated them to spiritual rank, were neither passive nor unconscious. By love and understanding they drew towards that grace at the very moment when God was bestowing it upon them. 11 As Mary was superior in all things to the angels and to sinless man, she could not have been sanctified in a less perfect manner. It is true that, for her, the exercise of intelligence, natural to angels and to the first man created adult, must have been the effect of a miracle ; but how could God have refused that miracle at the moment when He poured out His marvels upon her?

But even with the power of using her spiritual faculties without the co-operation of j her senses, Mary could neither merit the first actual grace, always essentially a gift, nor prepare herself to be sanctified by an act, which, in the matter of time, preceded the sanctification itself. 12 But by the action of those faculties which are superior to the laws of time, 13 she could turn towards God at the same moment in which He turned to her, and in that way she could fitly merit that the sanctifying grace should forthwith be poured into her soul. 14 As, when the morning sun greets and revives the flower, the stem lifts itself towards the sun, and the corolla opens and expands as if to attract and drink in the warm rays; so Mary, predisposed by the divine influence, welcomed grace as freely as possible with all her faculties and all the capacity of her being.

Her spirit awoke to life, filled with ideas which she had not acquired, but which the Creator had implanted in her when He gave her being. God was there, present to her intelligence, not visible in substance, 15 but clearly revealing Himself as infinite beauty, perfect goodness, the object to which all would lead up through the Word, the Mediator. At the same time, her soul, inspired by the predisposing grace of God, cast itself entirely upon that supreme good which invited and attracted it; her intellect acquiesced in the revelation of itself, 16 and her will surrendered itself without reserve and with the most ardent love. At the same indivisible moment, when all this took place in Mary's soul, grace overflowed in her according to the unfathomable depth of her love for God, and the yet more unfathomable depth of the love of God for her. With sanctifying grace came all the privileges which belong to the essence of the grace itself, or which form its brilliant train: participation in the divine life, friendship with God, the indwelling of the Holy Trinity within the soul as in a consecrated temple, gifts of the Holy Ghost, and an endowment of the faculties with an inclination to all virtuous acts. And in Mary these divine forces were not in an embryonic and dormant state, as in other children who are regenerated by grace, but she was from the very beginning filled with a developed and active spiritual life; her soul was already a garden of delight which beautified all flowers, and scented all perfumes.

Man and sinful angels had both fallen because of pride. But Mary had not a thought for herself. From her first moment she turned herself entirely to God; the most simple and perfect act that one could conceive, in which was nothing but humility and love; the action of a creature forgetting herself entirely, in order that she might bring herself into harmony with her Creator. And will not this attitude of the Immaculate be, even up to the end, the attitude of " the servant of the Lord ? "

The months of waiting glided away till the day of that great festival when Mary came into the world ; when the All Holy illuminated and perfumed with her presence the humble dwelling of her parents; when the blessed couple could contemplate that which they had so long desired. The angels also, surrounding her cradle, rejoiced in her, venerated her already as their queen, and exalted her as the chief work of creation. God, who alone completely knew the most excellent of His works, regarded her with favour, and through His love for her looked upon all men with increased loving-kindness. This child of benediction, announced by her birth the joy of the world ; bathed in the beams of redeeming grace, she was the dawn of salvation; the Messiah Himself would soon appear, and the earth, so to speak, already possessed something of Him.

Nevertheless, the beginning of the great work was accomplished in silence, and dwelt unknown of men. The members of the holy family alone rejoiced and had a glimpse of the divine work, but without realising all its grandeur. Anne and Joachim, who had doubtless been warned from on high of the priceless treasure which had been confided to their care, thanked God for having so superabundantly answered their prayer, and, conscious that His guiding hand was with them, they prayed Him to fulfil His intentions to the very end. And Mary, in the retirement and silence of her home life, offered to God the most perfect praises He had ever received from human creature, and surrendered herself entirely to His love.

1 It is well known that numerous details concerning Anne and Joachim, their virtues, their prayers, their desire to have a child, their vow to consecrate it to the Temple, and the announcement of the birth of Mary made to them by an angel, are to be found in the apocryphal gospels. See, for example, Tischendorfs edition of the Protevangelium of James, and the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, or the Gospel of (he nativity of Mary and the infancy of the Saviour (often cited wrongly under the name of St Jerome). The narratives of the oriental Fathers, which appeared only at a comparatively late epoch, and seem to be derived mainly from the apocryphal books, are of no value in support of the truth of these particulars. Among all these details, some bear on the face of them the stamp of falsehood ; others may possibly be true, and it would be hazardous to deny them ; but also it is very difficult to decide what is actual history, and to separate it with certainty from legendary additions.

2 St Matthew vii. 20.

3 This is said by the Church in the prayers for the feast of St Anne (July 26), and of St Joachim (the Sunday in the octave of the Assumption).

4 St John of Damascus : sermo in nativitatem B. V. Mariac (PG., xcvi., 664 and 668). Quoted in the fifth and sixth lessons at Matins of the feast of St Joachim.

5 Hebrews vii. 26.

6 Pius IX., Bull Ineffabilis Deus (1854), about the middle.

7 Ephesians v. 27.

8 This is the appropriate title of Mary; Jesus Christ, even as man, was in no way a son by adoption.

9 See the scene described in the Song of Solomon iii. 6-11.

10 Introit of the Mass of the Immaculate Conception (taken from Isaiah Ixi. 10).

11 This is the opinion of all the chief theologians, following that of St Thomas.

12 For she was sanctified at the first moment when her soul was created. Bull Ineffabilis, towards the end.

13 St Thomas, in a similar case, says (l a p., q. xcv., a. i): " As the movement of the will is not successive, there is no reason why the first man, at the first moment of his creation, should not have consented to grace." Mary's first thoughts were not the result of development; she was created with an intellect full of intuitive perception, and in the act of thought. This act of the knowledge of God corresponds in the will to an act of love; and these acts of knowledge and of will are spiritual, for they are produced under the influence of actual grace : all of which does not require time. But in the single actual moment in which all this was accomplished, it is possible to distinguish some virtual moments and some actions of God or of Mary, anterior to the infusion of the sanctifying grace, in their natural order alone, and not in the order of time. Thus : 1st., Mary was predisposed by actual grace ; 2nd., under the influence of this grace, her intellect, created with intuitive perception, knew God, and her will through love turned towards Him ; 3rd., the sanctifying grace was poured into her soul, without there being any interval between the inclination towards grace and the grace itself.

14 In technical terms, the personal inclination of Mary towards grace had a merit of fitness (de congruo) and not of condignity (de condigno), since the merit of condignity exists only when the sanctifying grace has already been poured into the soul.

15 The being who is admitted to the intuitive vision of God, is so possessed by that incomparable object, that the acts of love which it produces are at that time no longer acts of free-will. Since it is admitted that Mary, in the first moment of her existence, gave herself freely to God, one can only conclude that she was at that same moment favoured with the vision of the divine essence. The writers who believe that this privilege was accorded to her at that time, speak then, or should do, not of the first moment but of one of those which immediately followed.

16 Concerning the necessity of faith in the analogous cases of the angels and the first man, see St Thomas, 2R 2æ, q. v., a. I.