“Mary, God’s most beautiful child, helps man to become, as she is, a gratuitous longing for God. She intercedes so that man may, as she did, become prayer.”
Forty years ago, in a meditation on Holy Saturday, Joseph Ratzinger wrote poignantly that “there is a fear—the actual fear dwelling in the depth of our solitude—that cannot be overcome by reason but only through the presence of a living person, because this fear does not concern something we can give a name to, but rather the eerie strangeness of our final solitude.”1 Ultimately, every fear is the flourishing of a suspicion that loneliness may very well be the final word on human existence. But solitude is not merely the physical isolation that finds its ultimate expression in death. One can be alone in a ship packed with people. Final solitude, instead, has to do with a radical absence of relation with the love that is the logos of existence. The horror of complete isolation is then “the fear of not being loved,” the fear of “having forfeited all love forever.”2 Scripture calls hell “loneliness, so deep that love no longer gains access.”3 All kinds of small hopes that in their own way affirm life’s positivity fade away unless there is a living person who can accompany us down and through that realm at whose entrance, as Dante put it, everyone is commanded to “abandon all hope.”4 In a way that eludes our comprehension, the true shepherd, the icon of the Father’s love (2 Cor 4:4; Col 1:15), descended to hell that we might not remain ultimately orphans (Jn 14:18). “This is the new hope,” wrote Benedict XVI in his latest encyclical, “that arose over the life of the believers.”5
As the moon requires the sun’s light in the dark hours of the night, so man needs the company of people whose lives are transfigured by Christ’s presence if he is himself to receive Christ, and learn to take Christ’s hopeful light as his guide through the shadows ofexistence. This “need” for others, of course, does not stem from a deficiency in Christ’s salvific deed. Rather, in a mysterious way, Christ incorporates man as part of the consolation he brings in shining forth the Father’s mercy. “Surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses” (Heb 12:1), as Benedict XVI writes, “who more than Mary,” archetype of the Church, “could be the star of hope for us?” (SS, 49).6 She, as this guide, brings certainty to man’s hope for life with the One who does not deceive. Following the work of Benedict XVI and other contemporary theologians, this essay offers an elucidation in six parts of Mary’s engagement in and confirmation of man’s hope. First, it shows that Mary, the mother of the Redeemer, helps us to recognize Christ’s presence in faith and to discover how his consoling accompaniment gives rise to hope.Sections two and three show how faith in Christ means following someone who continuously educates man to grow in hope. Sections four and five explain how, as we see in Mary, growth in the faithfilled hope brought by Christ’s Spirit means allowing oneself to be removed from the solitude brought by original sin and, at the same time, to be grafted on to love’s true form: virginity. The last section indicates that Mary’s virginal motherhood also teaches us that prayer is the language of both hope and love.
1. Encounter with the living God
In its simplicity, the account of the Annunciation, the tidings brought to Mary, discloses a truth about man that our contemporary ears tend to hear only with difficulty: man’s existence is dialogue with God—a dialogue initiated and sought by God himself. As Dionysius eloquently put it, God “is, as it were, beguiled by goodness, by love, and by yearning and is enticed away from his transcendent dwelling place and comes to abide within all things, and he does so by virtue of his supernatural and ecstatic capacity to remain, nevertheless, within himself.”7 Dionysius’s description is true of every being, but it is particularly fitting for Mary. God, with a yearning beyond man’s comprehension, calls man into being and teaches him through beauty to recognize his presence—to believe in him—and to make room within himself for him—to hope in him—so that man, by being with the triune love, can become like God (2 Pt 1:4). Man’s dialogue with God is not a simple conversation, as we may tend to understand the word. It is a constitutive relation, that is, participation in a love that desires the other to be itself by abiding within this love. This dialogue, which can also be called prayer, “is an act of being.”8
Mary’s recitation of the psalms taught her that the one true God is a person who has a name that can be called upon and is to be honored in and above everything (Dt 6:4–6). His face is to be sought in the midst of every circumstance, because every single event is a different moment of this ongoing dialogue between God and man.9 No other creature perceived God’s greatness and her own nothingness as she did. She knew as no one else did of being “dry, wearyland without water” (Ps 62:1). Eastern iconography often depicts Mary clothed in a dark brown garment precisely to represent that she is the truth of earth: she is the humus that is perfectly aware of itself as arid land that burns in longing for the rain that will come one day to render her fruitful. She is indeed the “lowly servant” (Lk 1:48), the open vessel of longing, as the Fathers used to call her. Mary had not forgotten the promises that God repeatedly made to the people of Israel. She had faith in him, that is, she recognized his active and loving presence in the temple and history of her people. She, more radically than Abraham, waited and hoped for the fulfillment of God’s promises, without predetermining their final form.
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