The Mother Of Christ by Father Vassall-Phillips Part 14

Teaching of Augustine and Ambrose

This truth was handed down from age to age, until when the doctrine of Original Sin was denied by the heretic Pelagius, he urged, appealing to a fact recognised by all, which no Christian would be rash enough to deny, that in the case of the Mother of our Lord and Saviour, it is necessary to orthodoxy to believe that she is without sin. The answer of St. Augustine is famous:

"With the exception of the holy Virgin Mary, touching whom, out of respect to our Lord, when we are on the subject of sins, I have no mind to entertain the question—for how are we to know what greater degree of grace was conferred, in order to vanquish sin in every respect, upon her who merited to conceive and bring forth Him whom all allow to have had no sin ? with the exception of this Virgin, if it was in our power to bring together into one place all the Saints, men and women, when they lived here, and ask them whether they were with out sin, what are we to suppose they would have answered—that which this man [Pelagius] says, or that which John the Apostle said. ... ' If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.' "

St. Augustine had himself been baptised by St. Ambrose, who writes of Mary as " a Virgin by grace, entirely free from any stain of sin."

In these words we find summed up the ancient doctrine of the Church, East and West, handed down from the Apostles. Like other Apostolic doctrines, it was destined in the Providence of God, before formal definition by the Church, to be closely examined by the schoolmen of the early Middle Ages. During that time of searching analysis, some great Dominicans held that our Lady was sanctified, not in the first, but in the second moment of her existence. This view was novel, unknown to antiquity, and never widely spread. It soon disappeared, and when Pius IX., of holy memory, consulted the Catholic Episcopate as to the tradition of their Churches, the reply from every part of Christendom was unanimous. Catholics had received from their fathers the truth which they in their turn were faithfully handing-down to their children, that the Blessed Mother of God from the first moment of her existence, by a special privilege of God, through the Merits of her Son and Saviour, had been preserved immune from all taint of Original Sin. The way was now clear. To the great joy of all Catholics, it was solemnly defined in the Dogmatic Bull Ineffabilis that this is a Truth revealed by God—a truth which no man henceforth, now that the Church has spoken, may deny without thereby making shipwreck of the Faith that was once delivered to the Saints.

It should be clearly understood that Catholics do not hold that all revealed Truth is taught explicitly in Holy Scripture. It abundantly suffices that a truth of revelation be contained in the Divine Tradition. The same authority which taught Christians before a line of the New Testament was written, teaches Christians now. The Catholic Church bears, within her consciousness, a living memory of that which was committed to her keeping in the beginning. She has been built upon a rock, and is ever guided by the Holy Spirit, in accordance with the Promises of Christ. When therefore she teaches, she draws upon her divinely protected memory. This is involved in the idea of the Infallibility of the Church.

It is difficult to understand how any Christian can find intellectual difficulty in the fact of the Immaculate Conception of the Mother of our Lord. As Cardinal Newman has observed, the real difficulty lies, not in the Exception, but in the Law to which the Exception has been made.

" Many, many doctrines are far harder than the Immaculate Conception. The doctrine of Original Sin is indefinitely harder. Mary has not got this difficulty. Our teaching about Mary has just one difficulty less than our teaching about the state of mankind generally."

Granted the Law, the Exception is surely that which we should expect—we who believe that Christ is God and that Mary is His Mother. " It was fitting; it was possible; God accomplished it." This was the argument of the great Franciscan Duns Scotus in the Schools of Paris in the twelfth century. We know that this likelihood, arising from our idea of the Ineffable Sanctity of God and His nearness to Mary, corresponds with reality, for of this we are assured by the infallible teaching of His Church, which in our own day has afforded the certainty of Faith to the conviction of Saints and Doctors and Mystics, and of the simple Faithful of every land and of all the ages. Jesus and His Mother stand apart. Jesus sinless of His own Nature; His Mother sinless through His Grace and Goodness — the House of peerless beauty which Wisdom built for Himself to be His living Home.

I have thought it advisable in this chapter to dwell upon the Immaculate Conception of our Lady mainly from its theological aspect. It must, how ever, never be imagined that this Mystery possesses merely a theoretic or intellectual interest for Catholics. On the contrary, in an age of naturalism it floods the soul with supernatural light, forcing us to remember our own weakness as members of a fallen race, and insisting on God's abhorrence of sin. For, whilst " we have not a High Priest who cannot have compassion on our infirmities," yet "it was fitting" that He should be "separate from sinners." (Cf. Hebrews iv. 15 and vii. 26.) From His Mother he was never " separate." She was Immaculate from the first moment of her being. This is the wellspring of all her sanctity. Her foundations were laid on Mount Sion ; her first steps were in the beginning upon the everlasting hills; the Lord clothed her with His vesture that her path might be in security and her ways in peace. Thus does she stand without a peer, unique in her grace—incom parable. Of all creatures there is none beside her. Yet, from sinful men she is not aloof. Mary is the Mother appointed to undo Eve's work in our regard. For our sake is she thus graced and gifted, that she may give to us freely, with loving outstretched hands, that which she has so freely received from God. So does it come to pass, that as the sense of her unstained purity sinks deeper and deeper into our minds, we learn with ever-increasing confidence to seek the aid of God's Immaculate Mother in our longing to be cleansed from the stain of sin—that so we may ' be found by her side in the never-ending fight with evil. "O Mary," we cry to her, "O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us poor sinners who have re course to thee." And indeed all experience bears witness to the untold value of prayer to Mary Immaculate, as a weapon given us by God, to be wielded in the warfare we all have to wage day by day within our own souls in the strength of the love of Christ our Lord.

Devotion to the Immaculate Mother of God spans ; and unites the Christian ages. I will set down here a prayer penned by Ephrem the Syrian. Some sixteen centuries have passed since first it was inspired by his confidence in the stainless Virgin's intercession. We share St. Ephrem's faith. If we will but pray as he has taught us, and the Church would have us, we need fear no foe. Like the Saints who have gone before us, we shall never ask our Lady's help in vain.

"But now we unite to praise thee, O pure and immaculate One, Blessed Virgin and sinless Mother of thy great Son and the God of all. O perfectly spotless and altogether holy, thou art the hope of despairing sinners. We bless thee as most full of grace, who didst give birth to Christ, God and Man. We all fall down before thee. We all invoke thee and implore thy help. Deliver us, O Virgin, holy and undefiled, from every pressing strait and from all temptations of the Evil One. Be thou our peacemaker in the hour of death and judgment. Do thou save us from the future unquenchable fire and from the exterior darkness. Do thou render us worthy of the Glory of thy Son, O Virgin and Mother most sweet and clement."

O ! clemens, O ! pia, O ! dulcis Virgo Maria.