The Annunciation - Mary's joyful acceptance of the cross.
It is very fitting that this year the feast of the Annunciation lies so close to Holy Week and Good Friday, for as regards Mary, the two are intimately connected. On the great day of her annunciation, Mary humbly accepted all that God asked of her, freely offering her fiat to the plan of God - namely, to become the Mother of God, the Mediatrix of graces, and the Co-Redemptrix.
Mary’s fiat was characteristic of her union with Christ in His salvific mission: it was not given grudgingly, in annoyance, or lowly submission, but in ardent longing for the completion of the will of God and the salvation of man. As such, her response was one of perfect union with God, not merely submitting herself to His ordinances, but making His will her own. “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done to me according to thy word.”
But nor was Mary accepting the will of God blindly, as if completely unaware of all that was asked of her. In her fiat she accepted each and every part of the joys and sorrows which were required of her, as Mother of God and Co-Redemptrix, knowing that such was in accordance with the will of God. In his work Mary in Doctrine, Father Emil Neubert comments on this aspect, noting that Mary gave her willing response to the angelic messenger in full knowledge of what it meant for her: “In answering she shows to what she is engaging herself. She gives her consent to this motherhood and to all that her Son’s mission will include.”
Indeed, Fr. Neubert notes that from the very moment “that she pronounced her fiat, Mary was already in truth the co-operatrix of Christ in the work of our Redemption.” This acceptance of the Mother of God is whole and entire, it is necessarily an acceptance of the motherly mission to be Co-Redemptrix. It is a joyful cry of obedient unison to the will of God.
On this feast, salvation history hinges, for on this day Mary accepted to become the mother of God, who was that day made incarnate, and joyfully became co-operator in His work. Her fiat led to the Incarnation, and ultimately to redemption. Thus writes St. Alphonsus Ligouri in his sermon for the feast of the Annunciation: “O admirable answer, which rejoiced heaven, and brought an immense treasure of good things to the world. Answer which drew the only-begotten Son from the bosom of His eternal Father into this world to become man; for these words had hardly fallen from the lips of Mary before ‘the Word was made flesh,’ the Son of God became also the Son of Mary.”
Mary’s answer is an act of perfect humility, not seeking to draw honour or attention to herself, but wishing only to perform the will of God. It is in this way that those few words which she utters truly shed light upon the mystery of Mary’s life and her co-operation with her Son. “Wholly annihilated within herself, yet all inflamed at the same time by the ardour of her desire to uniter herself thus still more closely with God, and abandoning herself entirely to the Divine will, she replies, ‘Behold the handmaid of the Lord’.”
With this humble union with the Divine Will, comes the acceptance of the great sufferings which are requested of her as Mother of God and Co-Redemptrix. Mary is not ignorant of these either, and makes no hesitation in accepting these with a joyful heart. From this instant of the Annunciation, her life becomes one which is devoted to the workings of the salvation, not motivated by visions of self-glory, but by acts of sacrificial love. The torments which lie before her, she views as blessings from God, firstly because they are in accord with His will, and also because they allow her to immolate herself with her Son in the work of Redemption.
St. Bernard writes beautifully in his sermon for the Assumption, referring to the depth of sorrow which the Blessed Virgin endured with Christ: “One can well say, indeed, that a sword pierced your heart, o blessed Mother, for it was only through your heart that it could penetrate the flesh of your Son…His pain, like a violent sword, has thus passed through your heart, and we can call you, with reason, more than a martyr, since in you the sense of compassion has prevailed so strongly over that passion endured by the body.”
The life of Mary cannot be understood without this reference to the cross. It was precisely for this salvific action that Christ came upon the earth, to pay the price for man’s sin, and Mary joins Him in this, as she does in every part of His life. In fact, Mary’s co-operation in Redemption stems from, and is a necessary part, of her motherhood. Fr. Neubert teaches that “Mary’s co-operation in our salvation gives a special orientation to our cult of her. Without that co-operation Mary would not be truly, or at least not completely, a mother.” Out of love for God, love for her Divine Son, and love for her children, Mary gives herself entirely so that she might also empty herself on the altar of the cross.
The teaching of Mary as Co-Redemptrix has been a constant and rich tradition, dating back to the early fathers of the Church, and most recently proclaimed by Popes from the last century, such as St. Pius X, Benedict XV and Pius XI. Yet perhaps the most profound description of the reality of Mary’s Co-Redemption comes from St. Bonaventure: “there was but one altar - that of the cross of the Son, on which, together with this Divine Lamb, the victim, the Mother was also sacrificed; …O Lady, where are thou? near the cross? Nay, rather, thou art on the cross, crucified, sacrificing thyself with thy Son.”
St. Alphonsus’s great work, The Glories of Mary, is a veritable wealth of Co-Redemptive theology, as the doctor of the Church describes the intimate union between mother and Son, and how her co-operation in no way detracts from His salvific action, but is subordinated and joined to His. “Mary, then, having by the merit of her sorrows, and by sacrificing her Son, become the Mother of all the redeemed, it is right to believe that through her hands Divine graces, and the means to obtain eternal life, which are the fruits of the merits of Jesus Christ, are given to men.”
St. Alphonsus cements the teaching by presenting an image of Calvary, urging his readers to dwell upon it in the run up to the Passion: “To show the sufferings endured by other martyrs, they are represented with the instruments of their torture…Mary is represented with her dead Son in her arms; for He alone was the instrument of her martyrdom, and compassion for Him made her the Queen of martyrs.”
On this feast of the Annunciation then, it falls to Catholics around the world to rejoice for the humility and self-sacrifice which moved Mary at all times. On this day she joined her will to God’s: on this day she humbly accepted to be the Mother of God, and joyfully welcomed the immense sorrows which were asked of her as Co-Redemptrix.
Indeed, this year there is another providential alignment of dates, for on the Friday before Good Friday, Holy Mother Church commemorates the feast of the ‘Compassion of Our Lady,’ instituted in 1482, and later moved to the Friday before Palm Sunday by Pope Benedict XIII. Just days before dwelling on the Redemption and Co-Redemption on Good Friday, the Church urges Her children to consider the sorrowful compassion of Mary, in an effort to nurture devotion to the Mother of God.
In a year marked by prolonged, forced absences from Churches, due to their enforced and unjust closure, it is particularly fitting that the great feast of the Annunciation is closely followed by the Compassion of Our Lady, and soon followed by the day of the passion and death of Christ, so that meditating on the sorrows of Mary can console and strengthen those of her children sorely afflicted.
The feast of the Annunciation summarises Mary’s entire life - leading her children to God, by faithful uniting her will to His and joyfully accepting the sufferings for which He asks.