With May crownings, rosary devotions, and liturgical celebrations, the month of May focuses our attention on Mary, the Theotόkos, the Mother of God. To reflect on Mary, though, is at once to reflect on the Holy Spirit and the Church. Mary is not simply the greatest saint. She is God’s masterpiece. She embodies God’s plan for all creation. The Church doesn’t exist without her because she is the primordial Church, the first cell to which every other cell is related and indebted. She is the Church in its original form, the exemplary and perfect Temple of the Holy Spirit. And, she is the Church assumed into Heaven, the eschatological fulfillment of the Church. To look at Mary is to see the future and perfect fulfillment of God’s plan.
As we prepare for Pentecost, it is appropriate that we reflect on Mary. Pentecost, we say, is the birthday of the Church. This description is powerful, for it acknowledges that the Spirit brought about something new that would continue to grow and will ultimately revolutionize all of creation as Christ brings to fulfillment the Kingdom of God. To use this birthday analogy, though, we must recognize a pre-natal period. The Church which came to birth at Pentecost with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit already existed in the solitary figure of Mary of Nazareth. What the Holy Spirit had already accomplished in Mary, conforming her totally to the Logos and making her the perfect Temple of God, now the Spirit accomplished beyond (but never without) Mary. The Spirit had prepared Mary for the Incarnation: through her “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). Now, at Pentecost, the Spirit once again turned to Mary to bring the Body of Christ, the Church, into the world.
Mary’s experience of Pentecost had to be categorically different from what every other disciple experienced. They received the Holy Spirit. She, from the moment of her conception, already had this salvific gift. She could not receive the Holy Spirit in any more measure; she was already “full of grace.” The others—and we to this day—were being made to resemble Mary, becoming Temples of the Holy Spirit. We became the Church. We joined Mary, who alone had always lived her Son’s command: “Remain in my love… love one another as I love you.” At Pentecost, she, the first of the redeemed, was a witness of the singular gift she had received being now given liberally to all believers.
She was more than a witness though. As she prayed with the disciples, her prayer was different from the others’. She alone was the Church at prayer, interceding for those who would be saved. Her prayer was necessary for the gift of the Spirit to be given, just as her fiat was necessary for the Incarnation. God does not force salvation. In the words of St. Augustine, “God created us without us: but he did not will to save us without us.” God loves first, and awaits a free response of love. Mary, the entire Church at that moment, was “our tainted nature’s solitary boast” as she prayed again her prayer of perfect love. Her novena was the Church’s prayer. Though Christ desired to send us another Advocate, in the divine workings of love, nothing is forced. Love has to be met with love. In Mary, this was accomplished. For this, she is rightly called the Mother of the Church. Her experience of Pentecost was as the Spouse of the Holy Spirit. By God’s plan, she was as necessary for the birth of the Church as she was for the birth of Christ. Without Mary’s fiat, there would be no Incarnation. Without her prayer in the Upper Room, there would be no Pentecost.
At first, all of this might make us nervous that we are giving Mary too lofty a place in salvation history. In fact, we are simply acknowledging what she herself knew: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my savior. For he has looked upon his handmaid’s lowliness; behold, from now on will all ages call me blessed. The Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name” (Luke 1:46-49). Peter followed her example when he said to Cornelius, “Get up. I myself am also a human being.” Mary’s role is always and only Christological. What Christ accomplished in His perfect sacrifice of love to the Father, he invites us into by the power of the Holy Spirit. This is the Church, the wedded union with Christ, where two become one. Mary—the first of the redeemed, full of grace, the Church at its fullest realization—never does anything apart from the will of Christ, for the Church is one with Christ, and that union is perfect and without blemish in Mary. We hear her through the centuries answer every prayer: “Do whatever He tells you” (John 2:5). In her prayer—in the Church’s prayer—we discern the presence of Christ at work through the Spirit to the glory of God the Father.
Mary’s humility is the reminder that, in the words of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, “Everything is grace.” To think of Mary is immediately to recognize the work of the Spirit. To see the heights to which God has exalted her is to recognize the future of the Church: “eye has not seen, and ear has not heard…
what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corintians 2:9). Still, if we worry that we have her too high on a pedestal, we must remember the words of St. Maximilian Kolbe, “Never be afraid of loving the Blessed Virgin too much. You can never love her more than Jesus did.”