Monthly Archives: March 2013

Heaven in Her Heart (Part 7)

Chapter Three: The Earthly Mission of the Immaculate Heart

            When the fullness of time had nearly come for God to send his Son into the world, He created Mary.  She was created as the Immaculate Conception, the first fruit of the divinely-foreknown Redemption.  So even the first beats of her Immaculate Heart in the womb of St Anne were well-pleasing to God.

            We know practically nothing of the childhood of Mary.  Sacred art and popular piety, and especially the visions of saints and mystics, have icon_nativity_of_theotokosgiven us a general picture of her holy life, of her being taught the Scriptures by her mother, of being protected by angels and enlightened by the Holy Spirit from her infancy.

The accounts of Mary’s birth and her entrance or presentation in the Temple are found in ancient Christian writings, which, to some extent, satisfy the longings of the hearts of the faithful to know more about the origins of their Lady and Queen.  These writings do not form part of the canon of Holy Scripture.  But the same Church that discerned and decided which holy books were infallibly inspired by the Holy Spirit, also discerned and decided that certain portions of other ancient writings were worthy to be included in the life, piety, and liturgical celebration of those who held the true and Catholic faith.

            We need not go into great detail about these accounts of Our Lady’s nativity and early childhood, but there are a few points that bear upon our understanding of who she is and hence her mission as Mother of the Savior.

            According to the Proto-Gospel of James, written in the second century, Mary’s parents, Saints Joachim and Anne, were elderly and childless, which was a great grief to them.  So they prayed fervently to the Lord and in response they were visited by angels.  Here is a portion of the account:

“And behold, an angel of the Lord stood by, saying: ‘Anne, Anne, the Lord has heard your prayer, and you shall conceive, and shall bring forth; and your seed shall be spoken of in all the world.’ And Anne said: ‘As the Lord my God lives, if I beget either male or female, I will bring it as a gift to the Lord my God; and the child shall minister to Him in holy things all the days of its life.’ And behold, two angels came, saying to her: ‘Behold, Joachim your husband is coming with his flocks.’ For an angel of the Lord had gone down to him, saying: ‘Joachim, Joachim, the Lord God has heard your prayer. Go down hence; for behold, your wife Anne shall conceive’…

“And her months were fulfilled, and in the ninth month Anne brought forth. And she said to the midwife: ‘What have I brought forth?’ And she said: ‘A girl.’ And said Anne: ‘My soul has been magnified this day.’ And she laid her down. And the days having been fulfilled, Anne was purified, and gave the breast to the child, and called her name Mary…

“And when she was a year old, Joachim made a great feast, and invited the priests, and the scribes, and the elders, and all the people of Israel. And Joachim brought the child to the priests; and they blessed her, saying: ‘O God of our fathers, bless this child, and give her an everlasting name to be named in all generations.’ And all the people said: ‘So be it, so be it, amen.’ And he brought her to the chief priests; and they blessed her, saying: ‘O God most high, look upon this child, and bless her with the utmost blessing, which shall be forever.’”

We see, then, that the early Christians held Mary in great reverence.  Further theological reflection, and light from the Holy Spirit over the ensuing years, would be needed to understand the mystery of her Immaculate Conception.  Yet it is clear from her miraculous beginnings that Mary was set apart by God for a unique and universally-recognized mission, for which God’s most precious graces and blessings would be bestowed.  God would indeed “give her an everlasting name to be named in all generations,” and He would “bless her with the utmost blessing, which shall be forever.”

A further indication of Mary’s unique holiness and mission is found in the mystery of her presentation in the Temple.  At the age of three, she was brought to the Temple in order to live in the holy presence of God (although, as the Byzantine liturgy declares, she herself was already more holy than the Temple, being filled as she was with the Holy Spirit).  The account is somewhat embellished, at least from a historical perspective.  For example, it says that Mary was raised in the Holy of Holies.  While it was evidently possible for a woman to remain indefinitely in the Temple precincts (like the prophetess Anna in Lk. 2:36-37), only the high priest was allowed into the Holy of Holies.

The point of all this is to highlight her person and mission.  Mary was set apart solely for God; she was consecrated to Him from the moment of her Immaculate Conception.  The liturgy even says she was consecrated to God before her conception, in his eternal will.  Because God would dwell within her in an incomparably more profound and tangible manner than He ever did in the Temple, Mary is understood to be the new and definitive Temple of God.

Therefore we read in the Byzantine liturgical prayers for the Feast of the Entrance of the Mother of God: “Today the living Temple of the holy glory of Christ our God, Mary, the pure and blessed one, is being brought into the temple according to the law, to live in its holy precincts… since she is to be the sublime Temple, the palace, the throne, and the wondrous abode of our God… Let us praise the only-Immaculate One, who was foretold by the prophets and is being led into the temple.  She was chosen from eternity to be the Mother, and in time she was revealed as the God-bearer…”

So Mary’s little Heart belonged to God from the very beginning.  He loved it, because it would eventually produce the very life-blood of the humanity of the Eternal Word.  The Precious Blood that Jesus shed to take away our sins was originally given to Him by Mary in her virginal womb.  The Blood that flowed from the Pierced Heart of Jesus on the Cross first flowed through the Immaculate Heart of Mary.  In giving life to Him in the flesh, Mary made it possible for the Son of God to give his life for us, and thus to give us eternal life in Heaven.

 To be continued…

Heaven in Her Heart (Part 6)

Immaculate Mary and the Holy Spirit

            Our Lady is traditionally referred to as the “Spouse of the Holy Spirit.”  The usual reason is this: Scripture says that in orHoly Spirit and Maryder for the Son of God to become man in Mary’s virginal womb, the Holy Spirit would come upon her (see Lk. 1:35).  Thus through the overshadowing power of the Most High (here meaning the Father) working through the Holy Spirit, Mary would become the Mother of God Incarnate.  Yet there is another way to understand this mystery of Mary’s “spousal” relationship to the Holy Spirit.  She was entirely united to the Holy Spirit in her whole being as she was created, and this union was never diminished in the least, but rather became more profound throughout Mary’s life. It is this ineffably intimate and indissoluble union with God the Holy Spirit that merits Mary’s title of “Spouse of the Holy Spirit.”

            St Maximilian Kolbe, who died in Auschwitz in 1941, reflected deeply upon the mystery of Mary as the Immaculate Conception, the name she gave to herself at Lourdes in 1858.  In order to learn more about who Mary is, he reasoned, we ought to begin with the way she spoke of herself.  The words, “Immaculate Conception,” writes the saint, “must tell us in the most precise and essential manner who she really is.”

            It is the grace of the Holy Spirit that sanctified Mary from the first moment of her existence. St Maximilian wrote in notes for a book he did not live to complete:

“United to the Holy Spirit as his spouse, she is one with God in an incomparably more perfect way than can be predicated of any other creature.  What sort of union is this?  It is above all an interior union, a union of her essence with the ‘essence’ of the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit dwells in her, lives in her.  This was true from the first instant of her existence.  It was always true; it will always be true…

“Among creatures made in God’s image, the union brought about by married love is the most intimate of all (cf. Mt. 19:6).  In a much more precise, more interior, more essential manner, the Holy Spirit lives in the soul of the Immaculata, in the depths of her very being… the virginal womb of Mary’s body is kept sacred for him; there he conceives…the human life of the Man-God… In the Holy Spirit’s union with Mary we observe more than the love of two beings; in one there is all the love of the Blessed Trinity; in the other, all of creation’s love.  So it is that in this union heaven and earth are joined; all of heaven with all of the earth, the totality of eternal love with the totality of created love.  It is truly the summit of love.”

            I will have more to say about the union of Mary and the Holy Spirit later, when we discuss Our Lady’s mediation of grace. For now we have seen the beginning of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.  It was created and sanctified by the Holy Spirit at her conception.  Mary’s Heart was created to be in eternal union with God through the Holy Spirit.  Her Heart was created solely to love, in a manner and depth far surpassing any other human person (remember that Jesus is a Divine Person who assumed our human nature), and even to represent us by gathering all created love within her Heart and offering it to the Lord.  This was manifested in an especially beautiful and profound way when she said “yes” to God on our behalf, welcoming the Son of God, our Savior, into this world.

To be continued…

Heaven in Her Heart (Part 5)

Chapter Two: The Creation of the Immaculate Heart

            Since we’re already discussing devotion and consecration to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, we might now wish to ask why Mary’s Heart is called the “Immaculate” Heart?  For the answer, we have to go all the way back to the creation of Mary herself.  Or better yet, let’s go back to the creation of the universe, and even to the eternity before anything was created at all.

            God, of course, has no beginning and has existed from all eternity as three Divine Persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—in one Divine Nature.  When God decided to create the material universe—and its crowning glory, man, made in God’s own image—He already had in mind the mystery of the Incarnation of the Son.  The Father’s eternal divine Son would become a man.

            Therefore we have go back to the beginning of creation to understand the mystery of Christ.  We learn this from St Paul in the Epistle to the Colossians: “For in [Christ] all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible… all things were created through him and for him” (1:16).  All things were created for Him: that’s the important thing here.  God created everything for his Son!  We, of course, fit in there somewhere, but the main reason the material universe exists is that it is a gift of the Father to his Son.

            Note the mystery here, though.  St Paul is talking about the incarnate Son, not only the eternal, pre-existing divine Son.  In this whole passage from Colossians (1:9-23), the “he” and “his” that refer to the Son of God often refer to things pertaining specifically to the incarnate Son: He is Head of the body, the Church; He is the first-born from the dead; his Cross was the means of making peace and reconciliation.  To say that everything was created for Christ means that the Incarnation of the Son was in view from the very beginning.  It was not a “Plan B” executed only when the first humans, Adam and Eve, ruined “Plan A” by their sin.

            Because the whole of creation is focused on the Incarnate Son of God, we naturally come to the conclusion that Mary would also have been in God’s mind from the very beginning, for there could be no truly human Son without a human Mother.  So when God was contemplating the incarnation of his Son from a virginal Mother, Mary’s Immaculate Conception was undoubtedly part of his plan.  This the basic reason why Mary’s Heart is Immaculate, but there is more.

            If the incarnation of the Son was part of God’s eternal plan, and not merely a response to the fall of Adam and Eve, then of course the Mother of the Son would be created sinless.  This is the only fitting condition for one who would bring God into this world as man.  The introduction of sin into the world did nothing to change God’s plan for Mary’s sinless and immaculate conception.   She would have been immaculate whether or not there was a fall.  It is only because of the fall that Mary’s conception is looked upon as exceptional.

            Mary’s Heart is immaculate because her soul and her whole being are immaculate.  She was intimately and completely united to the Holy Spirit from the first instant of her existence.  But to say, as I did above, that Mary was “created sinless,” does not mean that her Immaculate Conception was somehow independent from the merits of Christ the Savior.  God is not bound by time.  Foreseeing the redemption wrought by his Son for the salvation of the world, He applied the merits of Jesus’ Sacrifice to Mary’s soul at the moment of her conception.  Thus she was redeemed and sanctified in a unique manner—for the sake of her unique mission—but still by the grace and mercy of the one Redeemer.

 

Mary, the New Eve

            Both Adam and Eve were at fault in the original sin.  This is important for understanding God’s plan of redemption.  The sin and hence the death that the first Adam and Eve introduced into the world would be undone, according to God’s inscrutable wisdom, by a New Adam and a New Eve, Jesus Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary.  It is clear, however, that the role of the New Adam is primary and indispensable.  The Scriptures present Christ as the New Adam, and a number of the Fathers of the Church unveil the mystery of Mary as the New Eve.  Mary’s role as the New Eve is important for our understanding of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception.

            Our Lady is called the New Eve, in the Christian traditions of both East and West, because her Yes to God cancelled Eve’s primordial No. But since the first Eve was originally created without sin, it would be absurd to conclude that the New Eve bore the legacy of the fallen Eve.  Since God wanted to “re-create” humanity in Christ, Mary was created to be the “place” of God’s unprecedented intervention in human history—the Incarnation of the Son.  She was therefore a new creature, the first-fruit of the Redemption, wherein the Son of the Most High was wholly pleased to dwell.  The Fathers of the Church have affirmed that Mary gave birth without pain, which means that she alone was free from the curse laid upon Eve and her descendants.  If she was free from the curse, it means she was free from the reason for the curse, that is, sin.

            The Immaculate Conception marked the beginning of the new creation in Christ.  Just as God created everything at the beginning, so now with Mary He began his wondrous act of re-creating everything, renewing the entire heaven and earth through the redemption that her Son would accomplish.

            Another reason for the Immaculate Conception is that God willed Mary to have absolute power over the devil and all evil.  This would not be possible if she had been conceived in sin.  Mary’s unique union with God, both in her Immaculate Conception and in the Incarnation of the Son, prepared her to share in his mission.  Henceforth eternally united to God, Mary continues in this mission of conquering evil in her role as Queen and Mistress of Heaven and Earth.  As heavenly Mother, she also protects her children from spiritual harm, insofar as they have recourse to her.

            Early in the Book of Genesis we have what is sometimes called the “proto-gospel,” the first indication of the redemption of mankind from our-lady-crushes-the-serpent-2sin.  It follows immediately upon the primordial wrongdoing of Adam and Eve.  In Genesis 3:15, God addresses the serpent who tempted them: “I will put enmities between thee and the woman, and thy seed and her seed: she shall crush thy head, and thou shalt lie in wait for her heel.”  This quote is from the Douay-Rheims Bible, a translation of the Latin Vulgate which has been normative for Roman Catholicism for many centuries.  Blessed Pius IX relied on the Vulgate in 1854 when he promulgated the dogma of the Immaculate Conception in his apostolic constitution Ineffabilis Deus: “The most holy Virgin, united with him [Christ] by a most intimate and indissoluble bond, was, with him and through him, eternally at enmity with the evil serpent, and most completely triumphed over him, and thus crushed his head with her immaculate foot.”

            There has been some dispute as to whether the correct reading for the one who will crush the serpent is “he” or “she.”  Traditional piety and art—and even approved apparitions like that granted to St Catherine Labouré—clearly understand it as the Woman who crushes the serpent, probably because in the text of the Bible it is clearly stated that the enmity is between the woman and the serpent.  But to say that Mary crushes the serpent is not to imply that she does so independently of the power of Christ.  Blessed Pius IX makes it clear that it is because of her indissoluble and intimate union with Christ that she can crush the enemy of our salvation.

To be continued…

Heaven in Her Heart (Part 4)

Bearing Fruit through Union with the Heart of Mary

            There are several reasons for wishing to unite our hearts to the Immaculate Heart of Mary through a personal consecration to her.  You will Hand of the Sowerdiscover these as you continue to read.  To help understand one of the most fundamental reasons, we can reflect upon Jesus’ parable of the sower, especially as recorded by St Luke (Lk. 8:5-15).

            The Lord wants to find hearts full of the “good soil” that receives the word of God and bears abundant fruit.  But there are three major reasons why this might not happen.  Jesus tells us that the devil can take away the word of God from our hearts—causing us to doubt, forget, or ignore the message of the Gospel.  For others—who did not allow the word to send forth deep roots—times of trial, testing, or temptation make them falter and they fall away from faithfulness to Our Lord.  Still others are choked (as a sprouting plant would be among weeds and thorns) by “the cares and riches and pleasures of life.”   In such people, “their fruit does not mature,” that is, it remains sour, bitter, and good for nothing.

            It is only when the seed falls into good soil, which the Lord describes as “an honest and good heart,” that it will  bear fruit—but even then the Lord says this takes patience and perseverance.  The term “honest” does not adequately express the meaning of the Greek word kalos in the ancient manuscripts of the Bible.  This term is better translated “beautiful,” “noble,” or “admirable.”  An extended definition of some of its uses in the Bible, which fits best here, is “beautiful by reason of purity of heart and life.”  This is what Our Lord is looking for when He casts the seed of his word upon souls.

            Now we have to ask two questions.  First, who among us can honestly claim that his or her heart is consistently beautiful, pure, noble, and praiseworthy?  Even a brief examination of conscience should easily answer that question for us.  Second, whose heart has always been completely pure and hence the most worthy to receive the Gospel of Jesus and bear rich and abundant fruit?  This is easily answered as well: Mary’s Immaculate Heart.  In her the Lord found the most beautiful and noble heart in which his word could mature, in which there would not be the slightest impediment to his grace and his will.

            Therefore, when we bind our own hearts to the Heart of Mary through our consecration to her, the word of God will find fertile “soil” in us and be able to send deep roots into our hearts and bear the fruit of the Holy Spirit (see Gal. 5:22-23) in great abundance.  Our own experience teaches us that we are all too vulnerable to the attacks of the devil, all too likely to falter under trials and hardships, and all too likely to be attracted by the deceitfulness of riches and pleasures, or simply distracted by worldly cares.  We could spend our whole life bearing little or no fruit if we remain in one or more of the unfavorable conditions Jesus described in the parable.

            So we look to that “beautiful and good heart,” in which the word of the Lord has found the richest fruitfulness of all his creatures.  By consecrating ourselves to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, we are granted the gift of sharing in her own purity and goodness, and thus in her immeasurable fruitfulness.  By the grace of the Holy Spirit, she will make this happen in us, in the measure that we give ourselves over to her for this purpose.

            This is the ultimate goal of our consecration to Our Lady: to bear spiritual fruit for the glory of God.  “By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit” (Jn. 15:8).  This goal is intimately linked to our individual ultimate goal: the eternal salvation of our souls.  Several great saints have said that no true child of Mary is ever lost, that if we persevere in our devotion to Our Lady, she will see to it that we are protected from all that could take us away from God forever.  To bind our hearts to Mary’s through consecration—and to persevere in living this consecration—is to make it much easier to bear fruit for God’s glory, as our hearts, in union with the Immaculate Heart, are enabled to receive and respond to the word of God.

            When Our Lady comes from Heaven, as she did at Fatima, she does not give us long sermons.  It is enough for her to say, “God wishes to establish in the world devotion to my Immaculate Heart.”  Much of this mystery is then left for our own hearts and minds to penetrate more deeply (though we do know that Mary also said this devotion would help prevent souls from going to Hell).  Since devotion to the Immaculate Heart of Mary is what God and the Blessed Mother have asked of us, we must seek to understand this gift, this call.  So we turn to the Scriptures to discover their hidden treasures, and we listen to the Saints and the Popes who have faithfully interpreted the divine mysteries for us over the centuries.  Then we live our lives virtuously according to the wisdom of the Church, in her sacraments, devotions, and good works.  Thus we are assured that “there will be richly provided for [us] an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:11).

            The word of Christ—which He wishes to implant within our hearts—is the message of the Gospel, the “word of the Cross” and the power of God, as St Paul says (1 Cor. 1:17-18).  Our consecration to the Heart of Mary enables us to unite with the Heart that is by far the most fertile for bearing spiritual fruit from the implanted word.  Understanding this truth is simply one more way of seeing the connection of the Gospel with the revelation of the heavenly Mother—and the place God wants her to have in our lives.

            Another image for the graces to be gained by uniting our hearts to  Mary’s Heart comes from a little reflection I once found on the internet (http://vultus.stblogs.org/2012/07/the-maternal-and-merciful-hear.html).  I’ve reproduced an excerpt here.  It was written by a Benedictine priest-monk, and in his reflection, Our Lady says this:

I am your Mother,
the Mother given you by my Son Jesus, from the Cross,
in the solemn hour of His Sacrifice…

Speak to me simply
and with complete trust in the compassion of my maternal Heart
and in the power given to my maternal intercession.

There is nothing
that you cannot bring to me,
nothing that you cannot present to me,
nothing that you cannot offer me,
even to your very sins.
Anything given to me by my [children], I press to my Heart;
all that is impure, every vestige of sin
is consumed in the flame of love
that burns in my Immaculate Heart,
in the fire of love that is the Holy Spirit in me,
the very Fire of the Divinity.

Give to me, then, all that you would offer to my Son and to His Father.
It will be purified as gold in the furnace
because I will press it to my Heart.
Nothing impure can endure the flame of love
that burns in my Heart.  Only love remains.

Give me your weaknesses,
your past sins, your daily faults,
and I will present to my Son only the love with which,
in spite of all your weaknesses,
you desire to love Him, and with Him, love the Father.

I am your Mother…

            So the Immaculate Heart of Mary not only provides for us the fertile ground for bearing spiritual fruit by means of the word of the Lord.  Her Heart also burns away in its Flame of Love all that is impure and unworthy of the absolute holiness of Christ.  Therefore, after binding our hearts to Mary’s, “only love remains.”

            The power of evil is limited—it cannot endure the Flame of Love in the Heart of Mary.  This spiritual purification is what Our Lady does for us when we give ourselves to her, when we make union with her the means in this life to eternal union with God in the next.  With the grace of the Holy Spirit, she burns off the dross, purifies the heart, soul, and mind of evil as she holds us close to her Heart.  Thus she removes obstacles to loving God, be they spiritual, psychological, or emotional.

            Whatever we offer to Mary she presses to her Heart; the evil is undone, made ineffectual.  Even layers of the effects of years of habitual sin are burned off until our true hearts are revealed.  When the evil is removed, we become aware that we are in fact branches of the Vine, drawing life from the Lord, from the secret wellsprings of his love and grace, which cannot be touched by the devil, no matter how much he rages, no matter what he throws at us or tries to dredge up from the past.  Nothing evil can withstand the Fire in Mary’s Heart.  Only love remains.  That is what she brings to the Lord on our behalf.  And that is the sweetest fruit of the Holy Spirit, by which we will live forever in the glory of the God who is Love.

To be continued…