The Heart of the Handmaid
Having been set apart for God, Mary lived her youth in profound contemplation and devotion to God, while at the same time attending diligently to whatever work or studies her parents required of her. She set her Heart on things of Heaven, as the Apostle Paul would later urge us all, because even though the fullness of the mysteries of her own life were not clearly revealed to her, she knew her deepest identity: the Handmaid of the Lord. Mary did not realize, in placing herself wholly at his service, that she would therefore eventually be glorified as the Queen of Heaven—her profound humility would never have permitted her to have such a thought! But her life is the most dramatic example of what her Son would later say: “Whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”
Mary’s life of prayer and loving service to God helped prepare her for her life’s mission, which hadn’t yet been revealed to her. But she still couldn’t help being taken aback by the appearance of the glorious Archangel Gabriel from Heaven. The first word out of his mouth was: “Rejoice!” (Lk. 1:28). This greeting is usually translated “hail.” But that is not only an inadequate translation from the Greek (the language in which the New Testament was written), it also fails to capture the spirit and power of the moment. I believe that St Luke wanted his original readers to share the joy of that astonishing encounter. Our hearts, too, ought to be filled with joy as we hear the annunciation of our salvation.
I wonder if even this great Angelic Announcer didn’t need a few moments to compose himself before he could speak at all! Even though Mary is the Handmaid of the Lord, all the angels are still her servants, because the holiness of the Blessed Virgin far surpasses even theirs. This is given dramatic expression in another liturgical text from the Byzantine Christian tradition: “Before the incomparable grace of your virginity, before the beauty of divine brightness radiating from your holiness, Gabriel was struck with fear, O Mother of God, and cried out: ‘What praise worthy of your holiness can I offer you? What sublime name can I call you? But in accordance with the command given me, I sing: Rejoice, O Full of Grace!’”
Full of Grace. This brief expression speaks volumes on the mystery of the Mother of God. The translation “full of grace” best expresses the term in the Christian context of the Gospel, while the other possible translation, “highly favored,” reflects only the secular usage. This would not be of interest to the evangelist St Luke, who was only interested in the things of God.
What is still more important is the form of the word, which implies something done in the past that still stands today, as when we say, “it is written,” which means it once was written and remains so now. So by calling Mary “full of grace” using that form of the word, St Luke is telling us that the Archangel from Heaven was beginning the revelation of the mystery of Mary’s Immaculate Conception and personal sinlessness. She had been filled with grace from the moment of her conception, she remained so at the Annunciation, and she remains so forever.
The Archangel Gabriel went on to say, “The Lord is with you!” This is a biblical way of expressing God’s choice of someone for a special mission or honor. Humbly unaware of her great privileges, and the great things the Almighty intended to do in her, Mary was troubled that the angel would say these marvelous things to her, full of such high praise. But the holy angel assured her that all of this was straight from God, who had claimed her as his own, choosing her to be the Mother of his eternal Son. The power of the Holy Spirit would make her pregnant with God, thus allowing her to remain a virgin for the rest of her life. This is crucially important: what God solemnly consecrates for his own use can never be returned to ordinary usage again.
As Mary pondered these astounding, unprecedented words from Heaven, her Immaculate Heart beat with love for God, and perhaps also with a little fear. God Himself was seeking Mary’s permission to become man inside her own body! Nothing even remotely like this had ever happened or will ever happen again in the history of the universe. The angel waited for the response that would determine the course of human history and the salvation of countless immortal souls. “And Mary said, ‘Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be done to me according to your word’” (Lk. 1:38). Now the Word would become flesh in Mary and dwell among us, and henceforth Mary would be in truth the Mother of God.
There are some who do not accept this beautiful title of Mary, “Mother of God,” at least in part because they do not understand it. But the theological basis is clear. Jesus is the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, God the Son incarnate, having assumed our human nature in Mary’s womb. Mary is therefore the Mother of God the Son, precisely insofar as He is incarnate. A woman can only be the mother of a person, not a nature. So as Mother of the Divine Person who is the Son of God made flesh, Mary is rightly called the Mother of God.
One can also simply appeal to the Bible for evidence that Mary is the Mother of God. It is explicitly stated in the Gospel of Matthew that Mary is the mother of Him who is called Emmanuel (1:22-23), which means “God with us.” Jesus is therefore God with us. If, then, the Bible says that Mary is the Mother of “God with us,” how could any true Christian dare object to her being called the Mother of God?
Before Emmanuel made his appearance, another aspect of Mary’s mission had to be carried out. When she heard from the angel that her aged kinswoman Elizabeth was six months pregnant, Mary went to visit her. Aside from demonstrating Mary’s selflessness and charity, this visitation also introduces us to Mary as Mediatrix of Grace.
Bearing Christ within her, Mary could bring Him to others. Having been filled with the Holy Spirit since her conception, Mary could communicate his grace to others. Scripture tells us that two things happened when Mary merely greeted Elizabeth: the child leapt in Elizabeth’s womb, and she was filled with the Holy Spirit. Being thus filled with the Spirit, Elizabeth immediately began to praise Mary and her unborn Son with these immortal words: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” (Lk. 1:39-45).
At the sound of Mary’s voice, the Holy Spirit was communicated to both the unborn John and the soul of Elizabeth. The Archangel Gabriel had said to John’s father, Zachariah, that his son would “be filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother’s womb” (Lk. 1:15). This prophecy was fulfilled when Mary greeted Elizabeth. So the Blessed Mother, because she both carried Christ in her womb and was filled all her life with the Holy Spirit, became the Mediatrix of Grace to Elizabeth and to John.
These, then, are the two bases for our understanding of Mary’s ongoing mission in Heaven as Mediatrix: she is the Mother of God and Spouse of the Holy Spirit. Hence the Holy Spirit works through Mary to bring grace to us today, just as it happened when the Holy Spirit came to Elizabeth and John through the God-bearing Mother.
Mary responded to these wonderful manifestations of divine activity with her immortal Magnificat (Lk. 1:46-55). For she was not only aware that the Almighty Holy One had done great things in and for her. She also saw how God was already working through her for the sake of Elizabeth and John. Mary, the young and humble handmaid, was praised by Elizabeth as the Mother of her Lord. Mary also witnessed the power that God had given her when the Holy Spirit filled both Elizabeth and John merely at the sweet sound of her voice. So the Mother of the Lord had to say—in all truth and in the power of the same Spirit of God—that henceforth all ages would call her blessed. And so we do.
To be continued…