Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Veritatis Splendor: Part 38--Mary and Morals

TOTUS TUUS, "ALL YOURS," was John Paul II's papal motto. And, true to this motto, the Pope in his encyclical on the fundamentals of morality "entrusts . . . the moral life of believers and people of good will, and the research of moralists, to Mary, Mother of God and Mother of Mercy." VS, 118. The final sections of his encyclical are devoted to the role that Mary, the Mother of Mercy, Mater misericordiae, plays in the moral life of Christians.

The Pope focuses on three reasons of why Mary is important in the Christian moral life: two ontological (relating to her position as fully human mediatrix to the one and only divine Mediator between God and man, Christ Jesus) and one exemplary.

Mary is the Mother of Mercy "because her son, Jesus Christ, was sent by the Father as the revelation of God's mercy" through her. VS, 118. Mary is also the Mother of Mercy "because it is to her that Jesus entrusts his Church and all humanity." VS, 120. Finally, Mary, the Mother of Mercy, is also fulgidum est ac pulcherrimum vitae moralis exemplum, "the radiant sign and inviting model of the moral life," perhaps better translated as the most refulgent and beautiful exemplar of the moral life. VS, 120. Mary, Advocata, Auxiliatrix, Adiutrix, et Mediatrix nostrae, therefore, ushers in Mercy into human history--fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum. Mary continues to be the custodian, by God's design--ἴδε ἡ μήτηρ σου! Ecce mater tua! Behold your mother!*--of God's mercy in Jesus. And Mary remains for us the epitome, the paradigm of Christian discipleship, a perfect example of following Christ, even being by him while he hung on the Cross--Stabat mater dolorosa iuxta Crucem lacrimosa, dum pendebat Filius.

During his exposition of Mary's role in bring us God's mercy in Christ, the Pope delivers an important truth: "No human since can erase the mercy of God, or prevent him from unleashing all his triumphant power, if only we call upon him." VS, 118. To suggest that any particular sin can overcome God's infinite mercy is, in a real way, to claim that our sin is more powerful than God. The thought is blasphemous, if not also foolish. There is no sin too large for God's mercy. To suggest that we can sin in a manner that overcomes God's infinite mercy is, at bottom, a claim that we are more omnipotent than God! What a foolish falsehood and false folly is behind the notion of a sin that is unforgivable. The only unforgivable sin is believing that one's sin is unforgiveable!

O felix culpa quae talem et tantum meruit habere redemptorem. "O happy fault that merited such and so great a Redeemer," we sing in the grand Exsultet during the Easter liturgy, overjoyed at Christ's victory over sin and death. It is this spirit--the same spirit that the Patriarch Joseph invoked when he told is brothers that they had plotted evil against him, but that God had used their evil as an occasion of good (Gen. 50:20)--that drives the Pope to say that even sin cannot defeat God: "Indeed, sin itself makes even more radiant the love of the Father who, in order to ransom a slave, sacrificed his Son: his mercy toward us in Redemption." VS, 118. Indeed, the Pope himself invokes the Exsultet when he cites to those beautiful words that are also part of it:
O inaestimabilis dilectio caritatis: ut servum redimeres, Filium tradidisti!

O inestimable affection of love: that Thou mightest redeem a slave, Thou didst deliver up Thy Son!

God's mercy is infinite, almost offensively prodigious and ostentatious. Why would God give up his son for us slaves! What sort of God is this! "Rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die," says St. Paul. Rom. 5:7. But to die for slaves, to those enslaved in sin? For Uncontingent Being to assume contingent being so that he can redeem contingent beings? This is too impossible a thought. And yet this is precisely what is at the nut of the Gospel. Though never forced on anyone, the least movement even implicitly towards the Divine Mercy that became incarnate in Jesus wins its favor,** and, ultimately draws us toward and leads us to the fullness of Mercy, which is found "in the gift of the Spirit who bestows new life and demands that it be lived." VS, 118.

No matter how many and great the obstacles put in his way by human frailty and sin, the Spirit, who renews the face of the earth (cf.Ps 104:30), makes possible the miracle of the perfect accomplishment of the good. This renewal, which gives the ability to do what is good, noble, beautiful, pleasing to God and in conformity with his will, is in some way the flowering of the gift of mercy, which offers liberation from the slavery of evil and gives the strength to sin no more. Through the gift of new life, Jesus makes us sharers in his love and leads us to the Father in the Spirit.

VS, 118. Where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more. Cf. Rom. 5:20-21. This is a spiritual law in a theology where God is mercy.

Christian morality, at its root, which is to say most radically, is extraordinarily simple. This is the great beauty of the Christian Gospel. While in the concrete all life can seem hopelessly complex, difficult, or burdensome, at the heart of Christian morality is an utterly simple concept: "Christian morality consists, in the simplicity of the Gospel, in following Jesus Christ, in abandoning oneself to him, in letting oneself be transformed by his grace and renewed by his mercy, gifts which come to us in the living communion of his Church." VS, 119. The heart of the Christian life is readily available and comprehensible to everyone. Follow Jesus, or, as St. Francis de Sales was wont to put it in his French, Vive Jesus! Vive Jesus! Live Jesus! Live Jesus!

The motto of St. Francis de Sales, Vive Jesus! Vive Jesus!
encapsulates Christian morality

Again, though the heart of the Christian moral enterprise is extraordinarily simple, this does not mean that the Christian moral life is simplistic.
[T]his evangelical simplicity does not exempt one from facing reality in its complexity; rather it can lead to a more genuine understanding of reality, inasmuch as following Christ will gradually bring out the distinctive character of authentic Christian morality, while providing the vital energy needed to carry it out. It is the task of the Church's Magisterium to see that the dynamic process of following Christ develops in an organic manner, without the falsification or obscuring of its moral demands, with all their consequences. The one who loves Christ keeps his commandments (cf. Jn 14:15).
VS, 119. Since responding to Christ's merciful invitation is so much at the heart of Christian morality, it follows that Mary is also at the heart of it. Not only is she a model of humble response to God's invitation--fiat mihi secundum Verbum tuum, be it done to me according to your Word--she is herself, as a result of her great fiat, the Mother of Mercy, the mother of the Jesus who tells each of us, "Follow me!" Mary's "yes" is ensconced between God pre-incarnate and God incarnate. Mary's "yes" is the conjunction, the copula between the Son of God as only true God and the Son of God as true God and true man. Mary is the Mother of the one whom we need to follow as we follow Christ. She is the one who has made the Lord seen, who gave him his human nature, who gave him the body that he offered up for us on the Cross, and so, in a real albeit mystical way, Mary is the mother of all the faithful.

Virgin of Ostrobramska also called
Mater Misericordiae, Mother of Mercy

Mary is the exemplar of a Christian response to the invitation of Christ to "follow me," an invitation she accepted fully, even from the time--through a singular grace of God--of her Immaculate Conception. By a singular act of grace, she was following the Lord, even at the moment of conception.

Mary is the radiant sign and inviting model of the moral life. As Saint Ambrose put it, "The life of this one person can serve as a model for everyone," and while speaking specifically to virgins but within a context open to all, he affirmed: "The first stimulus to learning is the nobility of the teacher. Who can be more noble than the Mother of God? Who can be more glorious than the one chosen by Glory Itself?" Mary lived and exercised her freedom precisely by giving herself to God and accepting God's gift within herself. Until the time of his birth, she sheltered in her womb the Son of God who became man; she raised him and enabled him to grow, and she accompanied him in that supreme act of freedom which is the complete sacrifice of his own life. By the gift of herself, Mary entered fully into the plan of God who gives himself to the world. By accepting and pondering in her heart events which she did not always understand (cf. Lk 2:19), she became the model of all those who hear the word of God and keep it (cf. Lk 11:28), and merited the title of "Seat of Wisdom". This Wisdom is Jesus Christ himself, the Eternal Word of God, who perfectly reveals and accomplishes the will of the Father (cf.Heb 10:5-10). Mary invites everyone to accept this Wisdom. To us too she addresses the command she gave to the servants at Cana in Galilee during the marriage feast: "Do whatever he tells you" (Jn 2:5).

VS, 120.***

Mary's Scriptural role is intended to continue in history and outside of history, and so the Pope concludes, before closing his encyclical to a prayer to Mary, with a summary of her solicitude toward men as they strive to follow her Son, the Lord's invitation to come and follow him:
Mary shares our human condition, but in complete openness to the grace of God. Not having known sin, she is able to have compassion on every kind of weakness. She understands sinful man and loves him with a Mother's love. Precisely for this reason she is on the side of truth and shares the Church's burden in recalling always and to everyone the demands of morality. Nor does she permit sinful man to be deceived by those who claim to love him by justifying his sin, for she knows that the sacrifice of Christ her Son would thus be emptied of its power. No absolution offered by beguiling doctrines, even in the areas of philosophy and theology, can make man truly happy: only the Cross and the glory of the Risen Christ can grant peace to his conscience and salvation to his life.
VS, 120.

So let us end this series of reflections on Veritatis splendor with the Pope's own prayer, so full of Scriptural reference:
O Maria,
Mater Misericordiae,
omnibus nobis prospice,
ne inanis reddatur crux Christi,
ne deerret homo a via bonitatis,
neque peccati conscientiam amittat,
sed spem sibi augeat in Deo,
qui dives est in misericordia,
libere exsequatur opera bona ab Eo praeparata
et sic fiat totam per vitam
in laudem gloriae eius.

O Mary,
Mother of Mercy,
watch over all people,
that the Cross of Christ
may not be emptied of its power,
that man may not stray
from the path of the good
or become blind to sin,
but may put his hope ever more fully in God
who is rich in mercy.
May he carry out the good works prepared
by God beforehand
and so live completely
for the praise of his glory.
*John 19:27.
**This notion, of course, is what was behind Pope Benedict XVI's much misunderstood statement in his book
Light of the World, regarding a male prostitute with AIDS who decides to use a condom so as to protect others. It is not that this action is right, but that it might, under some envisionable circumstances, represent the first tentative step, the first leaning back towards a life of moral norms in human sexuality where the pleasure principle is for the first time eschewed or limited: the use of such prophylaxis in such speculative and specific circumstance being "a first step toward moralization, that is, becoming moral. In such a case, condom use might be their first act of responsibility to redevelop their consciousness of the fact that not everything is permitted and that one cannot do everything one wants." One would think that when a heart begins to turn, that the grace of God will be there drawing it still further into Himself, so that step-by-step, from this most tentative of beginnings, the Lord may eventually draw this soul into communion with Himself, which is where He desires all mankind to be. For Christ came into the world not to condemn the world, but to save it. Cf. John 3:17.
***The Pope quotes from St. Ambrose,
De Virginibus, II.2.15: PL 16, 222.

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