By Patrick T. Twomey
Any description or defense of Christian belief will necessarily make frequent references to foundational documents: sacred Scripture, of course, being preeminent. But also to be included are the Creeds and the Councils of the early Church. Within this same period, roughly the first five centuries, there are epistles, hymns, prayers, and theological discourses, all of which together give a general and broad impression of what is sometimes called the “Great Tradition of the Church,” a designation which suggests that this formative and early period crafted for all future Christians a coherent theological vision, a font to which every generation returns. Part of the deposit of this faith is the role of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
The statement in the Apostles’ Creed “conceived by the power of Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary” is anchored most obviously in the early narrative of Luke’s gospel.
“In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph … And the angel came to her and said, ‘Hail, 0 favored one, the Lord is with you … And behold you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.”‘ Mary was troubled and did not understand the greeting and asked, “How shall this be, since I have no husband?” The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy.” The closing remark, issued by Mary, has echoed in the church for centuries, inscribed in prayers, hymns, and paintings. What we call the Annunciation (the announcement) concludes with Mary saying, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1).
Having heard the story, let us observe and review cherished details that say a great deal not only about God’s dealing with Mary, but also God’s dealing with us, Mary operating in the story as an icon or image of the Church. First, we begin with a divine invitation to a unique vocation. The so-called problem of her virginity underscores, in dramatic religious language, that the coming of the Savior into the world is not the result of simple human agency. God has done this. Second, Mary’s consent to her role is absolutely free, severed from any manipulation or compulsion. The invitation is free, to which her response is also free. Her consent is a vital step in moving the story forward. This explains in no small measure the honor that has been attributed to Mary throughout the ages.
Her famous “fiat,” “Let it be to me,” is a momentous consent to the will of God worked out mysteriously in the interior recesses of her body and soul. Mary is said to be “pondering all these things in her heart,” a statement suggesting that her consent is not a simple agreement to a plan that has been laid out in full view before her eyes. Not unlike a couple making marriage vows before God and their families, she consents to a vocation she does not understand, a mystery reaching into a distant future, giving a notable disturbance to her young life – “How can this be?” she asks.
While not diminishing in any way Mary’s unique vocation and role in the mystery of the “incarnation,” her part has striking parallels to our own. For instance, we who receive Christ’s body in the Eucharist bear his body into the world. The deacon’s dismissal, “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord,” implies our bearing the Risen Christ, whose body we have received, and whose body we are as members of the Church. And we, like Mary the Mother of our Lord, consent to God’s will unfolding in our lives without knowing in advance all that God’s will entails, either in blessing or in sorrow.
So we each are asked to utter our “Yes” to God’s “Yes,” our “Amen” to God’s mysterious summons.
As a way of looking at this a bit more deeply, I’d like to turn to two important theologians, Thomas Aquinas and Richard Hooker, the first known as a doctor of the Roman Catholic Church, the second remembered as the preeminent Anglican theologian of the 17th century. I will not be looking at what they say explicitly about the Virgin Mary. Rather, I am particularly interested in their understanding of how God’s operation in our lives is ever coupled with free human consent. In this sense, what they each say about “grace,” “God’s gratuitous action in our lives,” may be related both to Mary’s “fiat” and to our own calling as Christ-bearers in the world.
Aquinas on Grace
I must first deal with a certain impediment enshrined in much of Protestant theology. “Salvation by grace alone and not by works” is both a scriptural and Protestant principle, which, when elevated to its most extreme expression, gives no allowance to “human consent,” fearing that this may itself become a “work,” a means by which salvation is thought to be earned.
This is, of course, a reaction to an entire host of medieval devotional exercises which were thought to purchase benefits for both the living and the dead, religious exercises which degenerated into negotiations in which human effort played the primary role, rather than a simple trust in God’s gratuitous action toward his creatures. In this regard we might recall Luther’s remark about baptism as he insists on the primacy of divine action: “your baptism is nothing less than grace clutching you by the throat; a grace-full throttling.” Note the tendency to invoke violent language (see Karl Barth, Epistle to the Romans, p. 194).
The Virgin Mary, however, is not forced, violence and compulsion having no part in the story. She is invited. The salutation comes entirely from God. And yet the story hangs upon her free reply. She does not thereby earn her role; she willingly accepts it. In speaking about “grace,” Thomas Aquinas makes a famous distinction between “operating grace” and “cooperating grace,” the first of which is entirely God’s action, the second of which implies our response. He nonetheless concludes his discussion by saying, “it ought to be said that operating grace and cooperating grace are one and the same grace.” That is to say, God is at work in prompting us, and at work in our reply, though it means our free reply.
Let us imagine for a moment Mary’s summons to be the Mother of our Lord, recalling at the same time that she is the icon of all future Christ-bearers. At the moment of address, there is a deep stirring in the mind. In the words of Thomas Aquinas, “in that effect in which our mind has been moved, not moving itself, God alone however moving, this operation is attributed to God alone.” In other words, God alone stirs the inner being, the effect of which is that one is moved or agitated within.
Thomas continues, citing a critical moment in which our participation is signaled by a free response . “In that effect in which our mind moves and is moved, the operation is not attributed to God alone, but also to the soul, and for this reason is called ‘cooperating grace.”‘ Stated differently: The human being is justified (by God alone) through operating grace in order that he may want/desire (cooperating grace) the good. What we notice here is Thomas’s careful attention to preserve entirely God’s gracious action. We are justified and called by God. And yet with equal care Thomas maintains our human freedom. We are moved by God, and then we freely move to say “Yes” (see Summa Theologiae I-II, question 111, article 2).
Hooker on Justification
Hooker’s “Learned Discourse of Justification” is, like many theological works, polemical in nature, occasioned by the controversies of his day. In this discourse, Hooker argues that the Church of Rome has overthrown the foundation of faith in its teaching that works may add something meritorious, understood as an increase of infused grace, which works toward the attainment of eternal salvation.
Hooker, like all the reformers, retrieves the New Testament teaching that we “are justified by grace.” He says there is a righteousness which is “perfect but not inherent,” by which he means our being justified entirely by God. This grace is not inherent in the sense that it is not our own to be diminished by sin or increased by devotions or good works. This grace is “imputed” to us, assigned to sinful human beings, given without merit. Thus he joins the battle cry of the reforming churches. God alone saves.
Strikingly, like Aquinas, Hooker is cautious about discounting entirely the role of human agency. Though careful to insist, as did Aquinas, that all grace is of God, he nonetheless speaks of “sanctifying righteousness” in which persons have a real, active, and free role. There is, he says, a righteousness “whereby we are sanctified, inherent, but not perfect.” This righteousness is “not perfect” because human cooperation and progress are presumed. Hooker says: “Now concerning the righteousness of sanctification, we deny it not to be inherent; we grant, that unless we work, we have it not.” Explaining further, he says: “God giveth us both the one justice (justification) and the other (sanctification): the one by accepting us for righteous in Christ; the other by working Christian righteousness in us.” So, insists Hooker, God works upon us in such a way that human works of mercy and kindness and service, though not the cause of salvation, are the natural and necessary outgrowth of our transformation in Christ. He has, then, carefully reserved a place for human reflection, deliberation, and consent. The person, in cooperation with the inner working of God’s grace, is sanctified through effort and work.
Aquinas’s thoughts on grace and Hooker’s reflection on ”justification” both seek to safeguard two themes. On the one hand, God is God, the giver of life and the author of our salvation. God discharges his mercy preveniently, coming before we ask and without our deserving. “God showed his love toward us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” On the other hand, God works upon free human agency. Famously, Aquinas said that “grace perfects nature, it does not destroy it.” So grace – God’s action – moves and prompts, summons and judges in such a way that a human “fiat” (Let it be to me) is always awaited.
We have the model of Mary, the Mother of our Lord, who said to the Angel Gabriel, “Let it be to me according to your word.” And, of course, we remember the prayer of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane: “Not my will, but thy will be done.” We may add the example of countless saints and indeed many people we have known who are growing into the full stature of Christ by the daily interaction of God’s loving and assisting grace and their open reception to this action in their lives and their full and determined cooperation.
So, we honor Mary the Mother of our Lord in many different ways, but we certainly honor her insufficiently until we see her unique vocation as a model for our own. We are being called. God awaits our reply. In saying our “Yes,” we consent to a future we do not know in advance, carrying with us Christ’s promise to be with us to the close of the age. In the meantime, saying our “Yes” each and every day, each and every moment, we may expect many blessings, and we may expect no less our measure of sorrows.
The Rev. Patrick T. Twomey was rector of All Saints’ Church, Appleton, Wisconsin.