HAPPY BIRTHDAY, BLESSED MOTHER!
THE BIRTH OF MARY
From the Glories of Mary
By St. Alphonsus de Liguori
Mary was born a saint, and a great saint, for great was the grace with which our Lord enriched her from the beginning, and great was the fidelity with which Mary at once corresponded with it.
Men are accustomed to celebrate the birth of their children with joy and feasting; but rather ought they to weep and give signs of grief and mourning, considering that these are born, not only destitute of merits and of reason, but moreover infected by sin and children of wrath, and therefore condemned to misery and death. But with reason do we celebrate, with feasts and universal praise, the birth of our infant Mary, for she came into this world an infant in age, it is true, but great in merits and in virtue Mary was born a saint, and a great saint. But to conceive the degree of sanctity in which she was born, we must call to mind, in the first place, how great was the first grace with which God enriched Mary; and in the second, with how great fidelity Mary at once corresponded with God.
Commencing with the first point, it is certain that the soul of Mary was the most beautiful soul that God ever created; indeed, next to the incarnation of the Word, this work was the greatest and most worthy of himself that the Omnipotent could accomplish in this world a work, as St. Peter Damian terms it, which God alone excels: “Opus quod solus Dens supergreditur.” Hence it was that the divine grace did not descend upon Mary in drops as upon the other saints, but as David predicted: “Like rain upon the fleece.” The soul of Mary was like wool, that happily imbibed all that great shower of graces without losing a drop. The holy Virgin, says St. Basil, drew into herself all the graces of the Holy Spirit. Hence she herself said by the mouth of Ecclesiasticus: “My abode is in the fullness of saints,” which St. Bonaventure thus explains: I have in fullness all that the other saints have in part; and St. Vincent Ferrer, speaking especially of the sanctity of Mary before her birth, said, that she surpassed all the saints and angels in sanctity.
The grace of the blessed Virgin surpassed the grace not only of each saint in particular, but of all the saints and angels together, as the most learned Father Francis Pepe, of the Society of Jesus, proves, in his admirable work on the grandeur of Jesus and Mary; and he asserts that this opinion, so glorious for our queen, is now common and established among modern theologians, as Carthagena, Suarez, Spinelli, Recupito, Guerra, and others, who have avowedly examined it, which was not done by the ancients; and he further relates, that the divine mother sent Father Martin Guttierez to thank Father Suarez in her name for having, with so much courage, defended this most probable opinion, which Father Segneri asserts, in his work entitled “The Servant of Mary,” was maintained by the common consent of the Faculty of Salamanca.
Now if this opinion is universal and certain, the other opinion is also very probable, namely, that Mary received from the first moment of her immaculate conception this grace, superior to the grace of all the saints and angels together. This the same Father Suarez powerfully defends, and Father Spinelli, Recupito, and Colombiere, follow him. But besides the authority of theologians, there are yet two great and convincing reasons sufficient to prove the above-mentioned opinion. The first reason is, that Mary was chosen by God to be the mother of the divine Word, hence blessed Denis the Carthusian says, that having been elected to an order superior to all creatures (for in a certain sense the dignity of mother of God, as Father Suarez affirms, belongs to the order of the hypostatic union), gifts of a superior order were justly bestowed upon her from the beginning of her life, so that her graces far exceeded those granted to all other creatures. And, indeed, it cannot be doubted, that at the same time, when in the divine decrees the person of the eternal Word was predestined to become man, a mother was also destined for him, from whom he was to take the human nature, and this was our infant Mary. Now St. Thomas teaches that the Lord gives to every one grace proportioned to that dignity for which he destines him; St. Paul taught this before, when he said: “Who also hath made us fit ministers of the New Testament;” signifying to us that the Apostles received from God gifts proportioned to the great office to which they were elected. St. Bernardine of Sienna adds, that when a man is chosen by God for any state, he not only receives the dispositions requisite for that, but also the gifts necessary to fill the office in a becoming manner. Now if Mary was chosen to be mother of God, it was meet that God should adorn her, even from the first moment, with an immense grace, and of an order superior to the grace of all other men and angels; it being requisite that the grace should correspond with the most high and immense dignity to which God exalted her; in which opinion all theologians agree with St. Thomas, who says: The Virgin was elected to be the mother of God, and therefore there can be no doubt that God, by his grace, rendered her it for it. Hence Mary, before being made mother of God, was adorned with a sanctity so perfect, that it rendered her fit for this great dignity. In the blessed Virgin, therefore, says the holy doctor, was a perfection, as it were preparative, by which she was fitted to become the mother of Christ; and this was the perfection of sanctification.
And St. Thomas had before said, that Mary was called full of grace, not on account of the degree of grace, since she had not grace in its highest possible degree; for even the habitual grace of Jesus Christ (as the same doctor says) was not the highest possible, so that God, by his absolute power, could not make it greater; although it was grace sufficient to correspond to the end for which his humanity was destined by the divine Wisdom, that is, for the union with the person of the Word. The divine power, although it may form something greater and better than the habitual grace of Christ, yet could make nothing that should be destined to any thing greater than the personal union of the only begotten Son of the Father, to which union such a measure of grace would sufficiently correspond, according to the idea of divine wisdom. The same angelic Doctor teaches, that the divine power is so great, that however much it gives, there always remains something more to give; and although the natural power of the creature in receiving is in itself limited, so that it can be entirely filled, yet the power of its obedience to the divine will is unlimited, and God can always increase its fullness by making it more capable of receiving; and hence, to return to our proposition, St. Thomas declares, that the blessed Virgin, although not full of grace, in respect to absolute grace; yet is called full of grace in respect to herself, since she possessed a grace immense, sufficient, and corresponding to her great dignity, which rendered her fit to become the mother of a God. Hence the blessed Fernandez says, that the measure by which we can know how great was the grace communicated to Mary is her dignity as mother of God.
Justly, then, did David say, that the foundations of this city of God, Mary, should be laid upon the summits of the mountains; by which we are to understand that the beginning of the life of Mary was more exalted than the completed lives of all the saints put together. “The Lord loveth the gates of Sion,” the prophet continues, “above all the tabernacles of Jacob.” And David himself gave this as the reason, namely, that God was to make himself man in her virginal womb: “Man was born in her.” Hence it was fitting that God should give to this Virgin, even from the first moment be created her, a grace corresponding with the dignity of the mother of God.
Isaiah foretold the same when he said, that in future the mountain of the house of the Lord, which was the blessed Virgin, should be prepared on the summit of all the other mountains, and therefore all the nations must hasten to this mountain, to receive the divine favors. St. Gregory explains this by saying: Yea, the mountain on the top of mountains, because the glory of Mary shone above that of all the saints. And as St. John Damascene expresses it: The mountain which it pleased God to choose for his habitation. Mary was called a cypress, but a cypress of Mount Sion: she was also called a cedar, but a cedar of Lebanon; an olive-tree, but a fair olive-tree; chosen, but chosen as the sun; for, as the sun, says St. Peter Damian, with his light so far exceeds all the splendor of the stars, that they are seen no more when be appears, so the great Virgin Mary surpasses, with her sanctity, the merits of the whole celestial court. And as St. Bernard elegantly ex presses it: Mary was so sublime in sanctity, that none but Mary was a fitting mother of God. And no other Son than God was befitting Mary.
The second argument which proves that Mary, in the first moment of her life, was more holy than all the saints united, is founded upon the great office which she had from the beginning, of mediatrix of men; for which it was requisite that she should possess a greater treasure of grace than the whole human race together. It is very well known how universally this title of mediatrix is applied by theologians and by the very holy Fathers to Mary, since by her powerful intercession and merits de congruo she has obtained salvation for all, procuring for the ruined world the great blessing of redemption. It is said by merit de congruo, because Jesus Christ alone is our mediator by way of justice, and by merit de condigno, as it is expressed by the schools, he having offered to the eternal Father his merits, which he has accepted for our salvation. Mary, on the contrary, is the mediatrix of grace by way of simple intercession, and of merit de congruo, she having offered to God, as the theologians say with St. Bonaventure, her merits for the salvation of all men; and God, through grace, has accepted them in union with the merits of Jesus Christ. Hence Arnold Carnotensis says: She effected our salvation in common with Christ. And Richard of St. Victor, also: She desired, sought, and obtained the salvation of all; nay, more, the salvation of all was effected through her. So that every blessing and every gift of eternal life which each of the saints has received from God, has been obtained for them by Mary.
And it is this which the holy Church wishes us to understand, when she honors the divine mother by applying to her these passages of Ecclesiasticus: “In me is all grace of the way and of the truth.” It is said: Of the way, because through Mary all graces are dispensed to those who are still on the road to heaven; Of the truth, because through Mary is given the light of truth. “In me is all hope of life and of virtue.” Of life, because through Mary we hope to attain the life of grace upon earth, and of glory in heaven; and of virtue, because through Mary virtue is obtained, and especially the theological virtues, which are the principal virtues of the saints. I am the mother of fair love, and of fear, and of knowledge, and of holy hope. Mary by her intercession obtains for her servants the gifts of divine love, of holy fear, of celestial light, and of holy confidence. And St. Bernard infers that it is taught by the Church, that Mary is the universal mediatrix of our salvation. “Extol the finder of grace, the mediatrix of salvation, the restorer of ages.” Thus the Church sings of her to me, and hath taught me to sing the same.
Therefore, as St. Sophronius, Patriarch of Jerusalem, asserts, the archangel Gabriel called her full of grace: “Ave gratia plena;” because whilst to others, as the saint above mentioned remarks, limited grace is given, to Mary it was given in fullness. And thus it was ordered, as St. Basil attests, that in this way she might become the worthy mediatrix between God and men. For if the Virgin had not been full of divine grace, as St. Lawrence Justinian adds, how could she be the ladder of paradise, the advocate of the world, and the true mediatrix between God and men?
The second argument is now made perfectly clear: If Mary, even from the beginning, as al ready destined to be the mother of the common Redeemer, received the office of mediatrix of all men, and consequently also of all the saints, it was requisite that she, from the beginning, should have a greater grace than all the saint had, for whom she was to intercede. To explain myself more clearly, if by means of Mary all men were to render themselves dear to God, it was meet that Mary should be more holy and more dear to God than all other men united. Otherwise, how could she intercede for all others? In order that an intercessor may obtain from his prince favor for all his vassals, it is absolutely necessary that he, more than all the other vassals, should be dear to his monarch. And Mary, therefore, concludes St. Anselm, merited to be the worthy restorer of the ruined world, because she was the most holy and most pure of all creatures.
Mary was, then, the mediatrix of men, someone will say, but can she be called also the mediatrix of angels? Many theologians are of opinion that Jesus Christ obtained by his merits the grace of perseverance also for the angels; so that as Jesus Christ was their mediator de condign. So Mary may also be called their mediatrix de congruo, having hastened by her prayers the coming of the Redeemer. At least, having merited de congruo to be chosen for the mother of the Messias, she merited for the angels the restoration of their seats which had been lost by the demons. Then, at least, she merited for them this accidental glory; hence, Richard of St. Victor says: Every creature by her is restored, the ruin of the angels by her is repaired, and human nature is reconciled. And St. Anselm before had said: All things by this Virgin are reclaimed and restored to their pristine state.
So that our heavenly child, because she was appointed mediatrix of the world, as well as pre destined for the mother of the Redeemer, even from the first moment of her life, received grace greater than that of all the saints united. Hence how lovely in the sight of heaven and earth was the beautiful soul of that happy infant, although still enclosed in the womb of its mother! In the eye of God she was the creature most worthy of love, because, already full of grace and of merit, she could, even at that time, exult and say: “When I was a little child I pleased the Most High.” And at the same time she was the creature most full of love for God that until that time had appeared in this world; so that Mary, had she been born immediately after her most pure conception, would have come into the world more rich in merits, and more holy, than all the saints united. Now, let us consider how much more holy she was at her birth, coming to the light after the acquisition of those merits which she made during the nine months that she remained in her mother s womb. Let us now go on to consider the second point, namely: how great was the fidelity with which Mary at once corresponded with the divine grace.
It is not now an individual opinion of some few divines, says a learned author, it is the opinion of the whole world, that the holy infant, when she received sanctifying grace in the womb of St. Anna, received at the same time the perfect use of reason, with a great divine light corresponding to the grace with which she was enriched. Hence we may believe, that from the first moment when her pure soul was united to her most pure body, she was enlightened with divine wisdom to comprehend eternal truths, the beauty of virtue, above all, the infinite goodness of her God, and how much he deserves to be loved by all men, but especially by her, on account of the peculiar graces with which he had adorned her and distinguished her from all creatures, preserving her from the stain of original sin, bestowing on her a grace so abundant, and destining her for the mother of the Word and the queen of the universe.
Hence Mary, from that moment grateful to her God, began to effect all that she could, using faithfully all that great treasure of grace that she had received; and wholly applying herself to please and love the divine goodness. From that moment she loved him with all her strength, and thus continued to love him through all those nine months that she lived before her birth, in which she did not cease for a moment to unite herself to God by fervent acts of love. She was free from original sin, and therefore she was also exempt from every earthly attachment, from every irregular tendency, from every distraction, from all strife of the senses, which could have prevented her from advancing constantly in the divine love. All her senses united with her blessed spirit in drawing her near to God. Hence her pure soul, freed from every hindrance, without lingering, always rose to God, always loved him, and always increased in love to him. Therefore she called herself a “plane-tree planted by the waters;” for she, indeed, was that noble tree of God that always grew beside the stream of divine grace. She also called herself a vine: “As the vine I have brought forth a pleasant odor;” not only because she was so humble in the eyes of the world, but also because, as the vine never ceases to grow. According to the Proverb, so the most holy Virgin always increased in perfection. The growth of other trees, as the orange, mulberry, pear, is determinate, but the vine always increases, and increases in proportion to the height of the tree by which it is supported. Hail, oh vine, always vigorous! Thus St. Gregory Thaumaturgus salutes her; for she was always united to her God, who was her only support. Thus it was of her that the Holy Spirit spoke when he said: Who is this that cometh up from the desert flowing with delights, leaning on her be loved?! Commenting on this, St. Ambrose says: Who is that, accompanied by the divine Word, increases like the vine supported by a lofty tree?
Many grave theologians teach, that the soul which possesses a habit of virtue, whenever she corresponds faithfully with the actual graces which she afterwards receives from God, always produces an act equal in intensity to the habit she possesses; so that each time she acquires a new and double merit, equal to the aggregate of all the merits before acquired. This increase, as they say, was granted to the angels in the time of their probation; and if it were granted to the angels, who shall say that it was not also given to the divine mother while she lived on this earth, but especially in the time of which I am speaking, when she remained in the womb of her mother, and was certainly more faithful than the angels, in corresponding with grace? Mary, then, during all that time was redoubling continually that sublime grace, which from the first moment she possessed; for, corresponding with all her power and perfection, in every act she performed, at every successive moment she redoubled her merits. Hence, if, in the first moment, she had received a thousand degrees of grace, in the second she had two thousand, in the third four thousand, in the fourth eight thousand, in the fifth sixteen thousand, in the sixth thirty thousand; and yet we have only reached the sixth moment. But multiply in this way for a whole day, multiply for nine months, and consider, what treasures of grace, of merits, and of sanctity Mary brought into the world when she was born.
Let us rejoice, then, with our infant, who was born so holy, so dear to God, and so full of grace; and let us rejoice not only for her, but also for ourselves, since she came into the world full of grace, not only for her own glory, but for our good. St. Thomas says the most holy Virgin was full of grace in three ways: 1st, She was full of grace in soul, so that from the beginning her holy soul belonged entirely to God. 2nd, She was full of grace in body, so that she merited to clothe the eternal Word with her pure flesh. 3rd, She was full of grace for the common benefit, so that all men might share it. Some saints, adds the angelic Doctor, have so much grace, that not only is it enough for themselves but also to save many others, not, how ever, all men; only to Jesus Christ and Mary was given so great a grace that it was sufficient to save all men. If any one bad enough for the salvation of all, that would be the greatest; and this was in Jesus Christ and the blessed Virgin. Thus St. Thomas writes. Hence what St. John said of Jesus “And of his fullness we all have received,” the saints say of Mary. St. Thomas of Villanova says: Full of grace, of whose fullness all receive. Therefore St. Anselm remarks, there is no one who does not share in the grace of Mary. And is there any one in the world to whom Mary is not merciful, and on whom she does not bestow some favor? From Jesus, however (we should understand), we receive grace as from the author of grace, from Mary as the mediatrix; from Jesus as the Saviour, from Mary as the advocate: from Jesus as the fountain, from Mary as the channel.
Therefore St. Bernard says that God has established Mary as the channel of the mercies which he wishes to dispense to men; and for this reason he filled her with grace, that every one might receive his portion of her fullness. A full channel, that all might partake of its fullness, but not receive the fullness itself. Hence the saint exhorts all to consider with how much love God will have us honor this great Virgin, since in her he has placed all the treasure of his blessings; that whatever we possess of hope, grace, and salvation, we may thank our most loving queen for it; since it all comes to us through her hands, and by her intercession. Miserable is that soul who closes for herself this channel of grace, by neglecting to recommend herself to Mary! When Holophenes wished to make himself master of the city of Bethulia, he ordered the aqueducts to be destroyed: “And he commanded their aqueduct to be cut off.” And this the devil does when he wishes to make himself master of a soul, who makes her abandon the devotion to the most holy Mary. When this channel is closed, she will at once lose the light and the fear of God, and finally eternal salvation. By the following example it will be seen how great is the compassion of the heart of Mary, and the ruin which he brings upon himself who closes this channel, and abandons devotion to this queen of heaven.
It is narrated by Tritemius, Camsius, and others, that in Magdeburg, a city of Saxony, there was a certain man named Udo, who, from his youth, had been so destitute of talent that he was the ridicule of all his schoolfellows. Now one day, being more than usually disheartened, he went to pray to the most holy Virgin before her image. Mary appeared to him in a dream, and said to him: “Udo, I will console you abilities which will protect you from derision, but even talents which will make you admired; and moreover, after the death of the bishop, I promise that you shall be elected in his place.” Thus Mary said, and thus it came to pass. Udo made great progress in the sciences, and obtained the bishopric of that city. But Udo was so ungrateful to God and to his benefactress for these favors, that he neglected all his devotions arid became the scandal of the place. Whilst he was in bed one night with a wicked companion, he heard a voice saying to him: “Udo, cease this sinful pastime; you have sinned enough.” At first he was irritated by these words, thinking it was some one who was reproving him; but hearing it repeated a second and a third night, he began to tremble a little, lest it should be a voice from heaven. Notwithstanding all this, he continued in his wickedness. But after God had given him three months for repentance, behold the punishment! One night a devout canon, named Frederick, was praying, in the church of St. Maurice, that God would remove the scandal which Udo gave; when, behold, the door of the church was burst open by a strong wind. Two youths entered with lighted torches in their hands, and stood on each side of the high altar. Then two others followed, who spread before the altar a carpet, and placed upon it two thrones of gold. Another youth, in military attire, followed, with a sword in his hand, and stopping in the midst of the church, cried: “Oh ye saints of heaven, whose relics are preserved in this church, come to assist at the great justice which the sovereign Judge is about to execute.” At these words many saints appeared, and also the twelve apostles, as assistants in this judgment. Lastly, Jesus Christ entered, and seated himself on one of these thrones. Afterwards Mary appeared, attended by many holy virgins, and seated herself on the other throne at the side of her Son. The Judge now ordered that the culprit should be brought forward, and he was the miserable Udo. St. Maurice spoke, and demanded, in the name of the people whom he had scandalized, justice for his infamous life. All present raised their voices and said: “Oh Lord, he merits death.” “Let him die, then,” said the eternal Judge. But before the sentence was executed (see how great is the mercy of Mary) she, the kind mother, that she might not be present at that tremendous act of justice, left the church; and then the heavenly minister, who entered among the first, with the sword, approaching Udo, with one blow severed the head from the body, and the vision vanished. The place was left dark. The canon, trembling, went for a light from a lamp which was burning under the church; and when he returned, saw the body of Udo with the head cut off, and the pavement all covered with blood. When daylight came, the people thronged the church, and the canon related the whole vision and the circumstances of that fearful tragedy. And on the same day the wretched Udo, who was condemned to hell, appeared to one of his chaplains, who knew nothing of what had taken place in the church. The body of Udo was thrown into a marsh, and his blood remained for a perpetual memorial on that pavement, which was always covered with a carpet; and from that time it became the custom to uncover it when a new bishop took possession of the church, that at the sight of such a punishment he might be mindful to lead a good life, and not be ungrateful for the graces of the Lord and of his most holy mother.
Oh holy and heavenly infant Mary! Thou who art the destined mother of my Redeemer and the great mediatrix of miserable sinners, have pity on me. Behold at thy feet another ungrateful creature who has recourse to thee and implores thy mercy. It is true that, for my in gratitude towards God and thee, I am deserving of being abandoned by God and by thee; but I have been told, and thus I believe, knowing how great is thy compassion, that thou wilt not refuse to help him who, with confidence, recommends himself to thee. Thou, oh most exalted of all creatures, since there is no one above thee but God, and, in comparison with thee, the greatest in heaven are but small; oh saint of saints, oh Mary, abyss of grace, full of grace, help a miserable sinner who has lost it by his own fault. I know that thou art so dear to God that he denies thee nothing. I know also that thou dost rejoice to employ thy greatness in relieving the distressed. Ah, make known how great is thy favor with God by obtaining for me a divine light and a flame so powerful that it may change me from a sinner into a saint, and. detaching me from every earthly affection, may wholly inflame me with divine love. Do this, oh Lady, because thou canst do it; do this for the love of that God who has made thee so great, so powerful, and merciful. Thus I hope. Amen.