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Saint Abraham the Poor

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The handmaid of the Lord



Mary’s participation in the Trinity’s mystery of love (1)

17/11/2010: General House

After defining the meaning of the « Marial principle », Von Balthasar develops three traits by means of an analysis in which he underlines its depth, width and extent. The ensemble of  intellectual traits with which he works out these three creations could constitute three  icons offered to the eyes and heart of the believer.

The first might be called the icon of the mystery. In this description, Von Balthasar paints in broad features the deep and generous reality of the mystery of the Church as a « multitude united in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. » The Church is composed of all those who have been chosen « in Christ from before the creation of the world ». Christ loved the Church and delivered himself for her « to sanctify her » (Ep 4,5.25-27). We are born as Church in the mystery of God one and three, of God who is love. The foundations of this mystery of love can be found in the letter to the Ephesians. Von Balthasar invites us to see the Church as the manifestation of the « great mystery » of the Trinitarian love for mankind. So he defines this relationship as a « miracle of love ».

When Von Balthasar underlines the mysterious dimension of the Church in its origins, to place in relief Mary’s role as prototype of the Church, he considers that one should put aside chronological calculations about the precise time of its foundation. The different  moments (Annunciation, Calvary, Pentecost…) « are rather the ‘historical’ actualisation of a  supratemporal and eternal reality within history1. » The deepest origins of the Church are to be traced through the vast design of creation and salvation history as far as God, who is the true source of love.

The fundamental cell of the Church is the union of Christ and Mary. The physical union in Mary’s womb, and the mystical union, in the heart of the Church, is what sustains all other  unions between mankind and God. Mary’s « yes » embraces all other « yeses » addressed to  God. Mary participates in the mystery of the « multitude of those gathered in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit » as « handmaid » of the Lord, as « woman » and as « disciple ».

Manifestation of the beginning of the Church in the house of Nazareth

The fundamental disposition of the Church is an echo of the handmaid of the Lord (Ancilla Domini2) which allows the gift of love of Trinitarian life to mould her. Von Balthasar recognises the beginnings of the Church in the incarnation of the Son of God. « The message of the angel was addressed to Mary; she accepted it and, when from the threefold depths of her heart she responded: « I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be done to me according to your word » (Lc 1,38), at that moment, the eternal Word began existence as a human being in time3. » This union of the Son of God with the woman Mary was the first  cell of the Church.

Mary’s « yes » at the Incarnation offers the point of departure of the ecclesial New Testament faith. This « yes » is the encounter between the « totality » of God and our  disposability. At that moment, the encounter between God’s totality and man’s total disposability is at the origin of a totality of communion. The Holy Spirit comes down from the first to the second, bearer of the divine seed, of the Word, to sow it in a woman’s womb4. »

Von Balthasar considers the union produced at the Annunciation between the virgin mother and the child as the « first cell » of the Church, fruit of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit who « will always be present in the prayers, sacraments and charisms of the Church5. »

Mary’s « yes » to the Word which impregnates her womb is not simply an individual response: it contains the collective dimension of openness to God. The communitarian  « we » of the Church which is formed from the Trinitarian  « we », already finds its  expression in the « yes » of Mary to God in the name of the whole human race6. » « The whole faith of her people finds its definitive formulation there7. » In other terms, Mary’s  « yes » is produced by the Holy Spirit with a universality which recapitulates and incarnates every moment of disposability with rapport to God:

« Even the slightest future indicator of gift and disposability of whatever human being was already understood in the yes of Mary; according to Saint Thomas Aquinas, Mary responds for the whole human race. So this yes is also open to the future, to accomodate all the yeses expressed in the real womb of the Church. In Mary, the Church has already been perfected by the Holy Spirit, in whom she pronounces her « yes », is from always the « we » of God and has already commenced her work on earth, that of building up the « we » pronounced and lived by each one in everyday life8. »

 « The icon of the Annunciation, more than any other, permits us to see clearly how everything in the Church goes back to this mystery of acceptance of the Divine Word when, by the work of the Holy Spirit, the alliance between God and humanity was sealed in a perfect manner. Everything in the Church, every institution and every ministry, including that of Peter and his successors, is “placed” under the mantle of the Virgin, in the space full of grace of her “yes” to the will of God9. »

A.M. Estaún
This article continues those published on 20 and 31 May and 20 June 2010.

1Il Tutto nel frammento, 136.

2 “The expression ‘ handmaid of the Lord ‘ is a problematic one for Feminist theology. The master-servant relationship is a detestable one in human society. Centuries of patriarchal interpretation have presented Mary’s response as submissive obedience, and offered this position as the ideal of the woman with regard to man. This vision is in contradiction with the expectations of women regarding their own dignity. Traditional demands of  conformity with the patriarchal order and the attitude of obedience to male religious authorities – whether it is a matter of God, husband, or priest – cause women to react differently to this text and refuse it as harmful to physical and psychological health, as well as to a spirituality of liberation.
All the same, exegetes find it very positive that Mary appears in her relationship with God as independant  of man’s control, an attitude which in itself saps patriarchal ideology. Women observe that,  in this scene  God speaks  directly to Mary; the message does not pass through the mediation of her father, her betrothed or a priest. Moreover, she has no recourse to a masculine authority to ask guidance or permission about what she should do. Mary’s consent is a free act of self giving, the aim of which is to co-operate in the creation of a new world. In touching on the roots of our humanity, these messages reveal the possibilities hidden at the limits of our existence; there is one of the great founding decisions of the person which shape human life. » The annunciation is an event of faith. In a dramatic way, the free and autonomous response of this poor and absolutely unconventional peasant girl inaugurates a new chapter in God’s history with the world. ’ It is Mary’s faith which makes possible God’s entry into history ‘, writes Ruether”. Elizabet A. Johnson Verdadera hermana nuestra, Herder, Barcelona 2005, p. 296

3 Homélie de Benoît XVI lors de la concélébration eucharistique avec les nouveaux cardinaux. 25 mars 2006.

4 Católico, 73.

5 « Concepito di Spirito Santo, nato da Maria Vergine », dans H. U. VON BALLTHASAR, Maria, icona della Chiesa, San Paolo, Milano 1998,53-65, spécialement 61.

6 Sponsa Verbi, 201; Teodramática, IV, 328-336.

7 Católico, 73-74.

8 Ibid. [NdT: traducción retocada].

9 Homilía de Benedicto XVI en la concelebración eucarística con nuevos cardenales. 25 de marzo de 2006.

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