One of the most beautiful documents ever to be issued by the U.S. Catholic hierarchy is the recent pastoral letter "Behold Your Mother: Woman of Faith" (Nov. 21, 1973). It promises to do much to overcome the distressing "loss of devotion to our Lady" which has had such harmful effects on the Church's life and activities in this country. As the bishops noted:
"In spite of the urging of the "Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy" that we celebrate the feasts of our Lady and deepen the sense of her association in the central saving mysteries of Jesus the Savior, the Church is suffering a malaise with respect to the commemoration of Mary."
Many Reasons for This Malaise
There are many reasons, of course, for this latter phenomenon and the bishops' pastoral notes some of them. This article wishes to draw attention to the strange teaching (issuing from certain Scripture scholars) which has, sadly, undermined the theological foundations for the honor and veneration the People of God have traditionally given the Blessed Virgin Mary. It is apparent that this strange teaching has filtered down to average rank and file Catholics.
For example, in the Diocese of Buffalo N.Y., the Diocesan paper formerly known as the "Magnificat" (3-29-73) (now become the independent "Catholic News of Western New York"), a lay correspondent wrote in a Letter to the Editor:
"We tend to concentrate on the full maturity of the glorified Queen of Heaven to the exclusion of the young Jewish girl, hardly more than a child when her Son was born. His mother knew that His birth had been miraculous; she knew that He was destined for greatness, but she did not know Who He was. Whether her knowledge was complete or not some eighteen years later, it was considerably increased by the time He began public ministry."
It is astonishing that the editors of a Catholic paper then bearing the title of our Blessed Lady's own Song of Thanksgiving should have neglected to comment on the expression of such bold opinion which, no doubt, has become standard fare in what passes for post-conciliar Adult Religious Education in some parishes of the Diocese. Like other errors of the "New Theology" which similarly tend to denigrate the honor of the All-Holy Mother of God, this false opinion alleges that the Mother of the Incarnate Word at the very time of the Annunciation was ignorant of her Son's divinity!
This bizarre hypothesis is not a new one. It was proposed by both Erasmus and Luther during the days of the Reformation. They were taken to task by the renowned Jesuit Doctor of the Church, St. Peter Canisius. His illustrious Jesuit confrere Fr. Francis Suarez, known as the 'Doctor Eximius', rejected such an opinion as "impious and heretical and contrary to the mind and tradition of the universal Church."*
Our Capuchin Mariologist, Father Unger, easily demonstrates that:
"Beginning with Leo the Great in the 5th century, to our own day, there has been an express and unwavering tradition in papal teaching and writing that Mary was aware of Christ's Divine Sonship, not only in His infancy, but at the Annunciation, because she gave consent to being God's Mother, of which dignity she learned through the message of the angel disclosing and announcing to her that her child would be God's Son."
(Luke 1, 35)
Church's Common Belief Challenged
Despite, however, the overwhelming consensus of the Fathers and theologians, as well as the testimony of the various Liturgies of the Church, the faith of the People of God has been challenged by a bevy of Biblical scholars who do not scruple to cast doubt on the common doctrine of the Church in this matter. E. F. Sutcliffe, S.J., ex-Jesuit Fr. John McKenzie, Abbe Rene Laurentin, Jean Galot, S.J., and Bruce Vawter, C.M., are among those modern writers who either deny outright the traditional Catholic teaching that Mary knew the divinity of Christ at the time of the Annunciation, or place it in doubt. According to such writers, "scientific" exegesis of the Annunciation scene reveals that at most St. Luke's verses (Luke 1-: 26-38) can only be made to show that our Lady would be mother of the mysterious Messiah-King of Israel. But she was not aware she would be the Mother of God. The Angel's words that the Messiah would be "Great," the "Son of the Most High," the " Holy One," "Everlasting King of all the earth," and the "Savior" do not necessarily imply any recognition by our Lady of the "fullness of divinity" possessed by her Son.
As we have seen, the results of such "modern Biblical scholarship" have now sifted down to ordinary Catholics who have been encouraged to openly deny the 'Theotokos' knowledge of the divinity of Jesus Christ at the Annunciation. (Theotokos is the Greek word meaning 'God-Bearer' – the Third Ecumenical Council of Ephesus 431 A.D. solemnly decreed that the Blessed Virgin should be honored by this name)
What Cardinal Suenens Wrote on This Point
Interestingly, no one has better expressed the age-old Faith of the Church that Mary was aware of Christ's divinity "from the very beginning" than the now controversial Cardinal L.J. Suenens. In a work published in 1959 he wrote superlatively of the Church's doctrine of the divine motherhood, taking pains to refute trenchantly that scandalous opinion so repugnant to true Catholic piety:
"Mary, a daughter of Israel and brought up on the Jewish Scriptures, is not an ordinary young Jewess. She is Mary Immaculate.... From Gabriel's words Mary learns not only of her virginal motherhood, and the Messianic character of the Child which was to be born, but His divine character as well. Such is undoubtedly the meaning of the teaching of the ordinary and unchangeable Magisterium of the Church, and of the saints."
"To be sure, the fact that the Blessed Virgin was aware of the divine Sonship of her Child does not imply that she possessed an elaborated knowledge expressible in formulas and concepts as later deduced by theology. Her knowledge as Mother of God was eminently intuitive and direct, and from the first she was explicitly informed of the divine identify of her Son."
"She was not led by some imperceptible progress, to argue from the human character to the divine. Jesus was not for her a man more or less God whose Godhead would become more established in course of time, but from the first He was God-Man, the mystery of whom she would scrutinize with an ever increasing veneration and a continually progressive knowledge deriving from her first initiation. If the Holy Spirit had not enlightened her concerning this fundamental fact, she would not have fully realized to what she was giving her consent, and some ambiguity would have clung about the beginning of that mystery."
"The Church teaches us that Mary conceived our Lord in her soul by faith before she conceived Him in her womb, and marvels at that same peerless faith."
("Mary, the Mother of God" Vol. 44 of the "Twentieth Century Encyclopedia of Catholicism"
- Hawthorn Publishers, N.Y. pp. 42-43)
Despite what the Church clearly and unequivocally teaches to be contained in the Biblical account of the Annunciation scene, the "New Catholic Encyclopedia" (Vol. 1, p. 564) chooses unhesitatingly (and presumptuously) to affirm that:
"From the Bible texts woven into the Annunciation account, one can never establish a clear awareness on Mary's part of Jesus' divinity.... Mary certainly agreed to be the mother of the promised Messiah; how much more she knew about her Son at the moment of the Annunciation cannot be clearly established from the Biblical text"
(writer, Carroll Stuhlmueller, C.P.)
Abstracting from the fact that numerous scholars would forthrightly question such statements on purely exegetical grounds, the issue of whether Mary knew her Son to be divine at the Annunciation strikingly highlights the folly of even the most accomplished scholars attempting to understand "scientifically" the full meaning of Scriptural texts by "bypassing the Living Tradition of the Church" as reflected in the Liturgy, the doctrine of the Fathers, the piety of the Faithful, and the Magisterial teaching of Popes and Bishops.
Byzantine Greek Texts on the Annunciation
For example, the liturgical texts of the Byzantine Greek rite for the Feast of the Annunciation (a Feast whose origins in the East go back to the 5th century: and in the West to the 7th century) are a most impressive witness to the Church's understanding of the Biblical account of the Annunciation. These texts (still sung in both Catholic and dissident Eastern churches of the Byzantine rite) leave no doubt that the Mother of God was considered to have been made aware of the divinity of her Son by the message of the Angel Gabriel.
But a few of such texts from the liturgy commemorating the Annunciation (and found in "Festal Menaion" translated from the original Greek by Mother Mary and Archimandrite Kallistos Ware, - London: Faber and Faber, 1969) can be given here:
"To her the great Archangel came, saying to her: Hail, O thou who art full of divine grace, our God is now with thee (Luke 1, 28). Be not afraid of me, the chief commander of the armies of the King. For thou hast found the grace that thy mother Eve once lost: and thou shalt conceive and bring forth Him Who is one in essence with the Father."
"In the 6th month the chief of the angelic hosts was sent to thee, pure Virgin, to declare unto thee the word of salvation and to greet thee saying: 'Hail thou who art full of grace: the Lord is with thee. Thou shalt bring forth a Son, begotten before the ages from the Father, and He shall save His people from their sins.'" (Small Vespers)
"The angel Gabriel was sent from heaven by God to the city of Nazareth in Galilee to an undefiled Virgin, to bring her glad tidings of the strange manner of her conceiving. The bodiless servant was sent to the Living City and the Spiritual Gate, to make known to her the condescension and the coming of the Master. The captain of heaven was sent to the Living Pavilion of the Glory, to make ready an everlasting Dwelling for the Maker. And coming before her he cried: 'Hail, fiery throne, more glorious by far than the living creatures with four faces (Ezechiel 1. 5-6) Hail, thou Seat of the King of Heaven, hail uncut mountain (Daniel 2. 34-35) and precious vessel. For in thee the whole fullness of the Godhead has come to dwell bodily, by the good pleasure of the everlasting Father, and by the joint operation of the Holy Spirit. Hail, thou who art full of grace: the Lord is with thee.'" (Great Compline)
The 5th Canticle Sung during Matins has this dialogue between the Archangel and the Theotokos ('God-Bearer'):
The Theotokos – 'I cannot understand the meaning of thy words. For there have often been miracles, wonders worked by the might of God, symbols and figures contained in the Law. But never has a virgin borne child without knowing a man.'
The Angel – 'Thou art amazed, O all-blameless Virgin: and amazing indeed is the wonder that comes to pass in thee: for thou alone shall receive in thy womb the King of all who is to take flesh. It is thou who art prefigured by the utterances and dark sayings of the prophets and by the symbols of the Law.'
The Theotokos – 'How can He whom nothing can contain, upon whom none can gaze, dwell in the womb of a virgin whom He Himself has formed? And how shall I conceive God the Word, Who with the Father and the Spirit has no beginning?'
The Angel – 'He Who has promised to thy forefather David that of the fruit of David's body He would set upon the throne of David's kingdom (Psalm 131, 11), He it is that has chosen thee, the only excellency of Jacob (Psalm 46, 5) as His spiritual dwelling-place.'
Church's Faith Reflected in the Liturgy
If the authentic Faith of the Church is truly reflected in its Liturgy – and it surely is – such texts as the above (suffused with rich doctrinal insights) plainly confirm the import of Scripture that the Immaculate Mother of God was illuminated with the consciousness of her Divine Maternity.
In conclusion, whatever the cavils of certain exegetes unduly influenced by a dangerous, theologically minimizing, neo-Modernist biblicism (which has even won its way into certain elementary catechetical materials), the conclusion insisted upon by Father Unger, O.F.M.Cap. remains unassailable:
"A Catholic is not free to deny that Mary knew of the divinity of her Son through and at the Annunciation. He is free only to discuss the degree of certitude today and to investigate further all the proofs that might be marshalled in its favor."