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Our Lady of the Rosary - Marian Retreat
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
Were now ready to begin the reflection on the Mysteries of the Holy Rosary and the first, obviously, is The Annunciation. We might begin by observing that there is no single event in the Gospels that has inspired more artists and more poets than the scene described in St. Lukes Gospel which is the First Mystery, not only of the Rosary, but of Christianity. What we will do now is go over each of the elements in the events described by the Evangelist. Then following Pope John XXIIIs recommendation, do some reflection on the meaning of these elements described by St. Luke and then, most practically, apply especially two lessons to our own spiritual lives. I will count each part of the narrative.
No Doubt about the Historicity
Part One. The Angel Gabriel was sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth to a Virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph of the House of David. And the Virgins Name was Mary. In one verse no less than six proper names are identified: Gabriel, Galilee, Nazareth, Joseph, David and Mary. Whatever else the Holy Spirit wanted to teach us through the Evangelist in being so specific, it was to make sure we had no doubt about the historicity, the reality, of what was taking place. No generalities here.
Full of Grace
Second. The Angel speaks to Mary and tells her (with apologies again for counting) tells her three things. He identifies her as Full of Grace, the only Catholic translation of that statement of the Archangel to Mary. No matter who says what theres only one title which the Catholic Church recognizes as having been addressed by the Angel to Mary: Full of Grace. Secondly he told her, The Lord is with you, and then all in one declarative sentence: Blessed are you among women. By now a veritable library of commentary has been written on what we call the Angelic Salutation. Mary is, indeed, full of grace, whereby by Grace we mean Gods love shown to his rational creatures. Why Full of Grace? Because she was already then, the most beloved by God, the most blessed by God.
Blessed - Made Happy by God
Question. Does God give every human being His grace? Yes. Does He give some people more grace than others? Indeed. And He gave one human person fullness of grace, absolutely sinless. Indeed. When the Church came to define Marys Immaculate Conception, this statement of the Angel to Mary was the Biblical Foundation for that Solemn Definition. She was in the grace of God and therefore, sinless from the first moment of her human existence. Moreover, it was not just the grace that she herself possessed that qualified her to be called full of grace. She was in a few moments to become the Mother of the Author of Grace, so that He then, from her and through her might communicate all the grace that the human race would receive until the end of time. The Angel told her that, the Lord is with you. Is the Lord with everyone? Absolutely speaking, yes. But being full of grace what the Angel was doing is describing the Source of that fullness of grace. We possess as much grace as God is proportionally near us, with us. Finally, the Angel tells her she is blessed. Meaning what? Made happy. Indeed, the superlative, the happiest of all women. She alone, of all the members of the human race in her gender, was not only Mother but to be the Mother of God and all the while remaining an inviolate Virgin. We may say, in general, that happiness can come from two sources: can either come from creatures or can come from the Creator. In Marys case, her happiness came from God and that is the first and most important meaning - whenever we find it in Sacred Scriptures - of the word blessed; made happy, indeed, but made happy by God.
She Kept These Words in Her Heart
Third feature of that foundational mystery of our faith: We are told that Mary was troubled by the Angels greeting. To make sure I wouldnt be drawing on my fertile theological imagination, I consulted as many sources as I had time for. What is the Churchs reason why Mary was troubled? We could think of a hundred, at least a dozen reasons. The main reason, the Church tells us, that Mary was troubled - because of her humility. She was troubled by being told who she was and what she was contrary to her own estimate of herself. But she kept the Angels words in her heart. So were told. This phrase that occurs again in the Gospels, for example, remember on Christmas morning, the angels announced to the shepherds, they came to visit; conversation must have gone on. All were told as at Nazareth so at Bethlehem. She kept these words in her heart. Im anticipating what were going to say before this conference is over. There is no deeper wisdom than to think in our hearts. The most important conversation (what a cheap superlative) the most important conversation we can engage in does not open the lips, speaks no vocal words is deep down in the heart communing with God. And that, by the way, is the essence of prayer.
Her Child Would Be King Forever
Fourth element in this narrative. Seeing her troubled the Angel reassured Mary and notice, reassured her on the very level that he knew she was troubled by his saying. He explained to her how she was full of grace and why the Lord was with her and how she could be called blessed, indeed, the most blessed among women. When we are in conversation with other people the principal means of communication is not in words, I repeat, our principal means of communication is not in words, it is in spirit. The Angel, being who he was knew, you might say he could hear with angelic ears what Mary was saying though she did not utter a word. He told her by way of explanation she would conceive and bring forth a Son and she was to call His Name, JESUS. This Son of hers would be the Son of the Most High. Her Child therefore would have a double filiation: A filiation from all eternity and a filiation which was in a moment to begin in time. He would, the Angel further explained, be descended through her from King David. Her Child would be King forever. Indeed, His Kingdom would be without end. How we need to hear these words today! Christs Kingdom as He told Pilate, remember during the Passion, is not of this world. Moreover the Basileia, the Kingdom that Christ founded will last through time and into eternity. We need this! We need it! What as we have said and will repeat more than once before the retreat is over the Kingdom of God on earth, the Catholic Church, no question, is undergoing the most convulsive struggle in her now 2000 years existence. Have no fear the Angels promise to Mary will be fulfilled.
Virgin Most Prudent
Fifth element: Now Mary spoke. She asked the Angel how this could be because, as she implied in her words, she had resolved to remain a virgin. Lets make sure we are sure that Mary did not doubt like Zachary. But being the Virgin most prudent and that combination has been chosen by the Church: Virgin most prudent - She did want an explanation. All fifteen mysteries of the Rosary, either directly or indirectly, involve the Blessed (emphasis) Virgin Mary. If there is one mystery of our faith that the modern world had better hear and learn (and let me tell you) and see and practice; it is consecrated chastity.
Rational Foundation for Marys Believing
Sixth element: Having raised the question the Angel was ready with an answer. But in answering Marys question how she was to remain a virgin, would nevertheless conceive and bear a child, the Angel did two things. He not only told her how she would conceive, but he added what she did not ask for a rational explanation. She would conceive, the Angel said, by the power of the Holy Spirit and that is why - hear it - thats why the Child that she would conceive would be called the Son of God. It was by Divine Power that when God was to become Man, His Conception would take place and not as, absolutely speaking, God might have allowed. He might have, He didnt that Jesus would have two natural fathers: a Natural Divine Father and a natural human father. How many natural fathers did Christ have? One. Receiving from the First Person of the Holy Trinity the Divine Nature which Christ as God had possessed from all eternity. But then the Angel goes out of his way to give what we may call a rational foundation for Marys believing that, although a virgin, would nevertheless conceive.
Nothing is Impossible with God
What did Gabriel tell her? Told her that her kinswoman (again very specific) not some woman in general, but Elizabeth, a well-known near relative she though naturally sterile the Angel told her, you didnt know Mary, let me tell you, Elizabeth is already in her sixth month. How thoughtful of God! Having decided (this is God) to be miraculously conceived of a Virgin-Mother, God provided not only for Mary but for all of us the rational basis for believing in Marys Virginal Conception of Jesus. What are we saying? The miracle of Marys Virginal Conception of Her Son could not humanly speaking be proved. Remember Josephs dilemma? But a woman way beyond child-bearing years her husband an old man, so unexpected was Elizabeths conception, remember that her husband in effect told the same Angel now, tell me another. Do we follow the divine logic? Our faith, if Marys faith needed rational grounds for credibility so does ours. Mary was provided what her human mind could easily understand. The Angel did not merely tell her: Now Mary, dont worry, you will conceive by the power of the Holy Spirit. Period. Am I still clear? He went on shall we say, to explain how this is possible. In fact, what did the Angel finally tell Mary? Nothing is impossible with God. In fact, what we in theology call miracles are precisely things that are impossible to nature but are possible through the Power of God. I hope you hear this again. We should expect miracles in our lives. Let me repeat. We should expect miracles in our lives. And provided our faith is strong enough, God will perform them as he did in favor of Mary when she was about to conceive her Divine Son.
Handmaid - Divinely Chosen Term Mary Used
Were almost but not quite finished with the account of the elements in that narrative. Mary then said, Behold the Handmaid of the Lord, Be it done unto me according to your Word. Its not too many audiences I can say this: Handmaid is the divinely chosen term that Mary was inspired to use when she submitted her human will to the Will of the Almighty. This is her self-identification. Handmaid, maidservant I like the Latin - Ancilla - always ready, always available. But, notice, there is no direct divine communication from the Almighty. And Mary told the Angel, Behold the Handmaid of the Lord. Thats part one. But then she added Be it done to me according to your word. Whose word? The Angels word. May God have directly revealed to Mary what He wanted her to do? Of course. But He did not. God uses created messengers of His Word. And the hardest test of faith for many of us (I know for me) is to see Gods Word behind a very, (comma) very, human being telling me what to do.
Fiat Mihi Secundum Verbum Tuum
The Church, from the first century on, has told us that Mary first had to consent before the Incarnation could take place. We are aghast at the power of the human will to have as we may reverently say the human will has at its disposal the power of God. Unlike the constellations in the heavens, the huge suns that we call stars, millions of light years away from us, unlike the Rockies or the Himalayas, unlike the seas or the wind; there is one creature on whose free will Divine Omnipotence depends. Even as I say those words I ask myself have I been perfectly correct? Theologically, I have. In our wildest cosmic dreams we cannot fathom what God will do through us, to us and with us, provided (but what a proviso) provided, like Mary, we tell Him, Fiat Mihi Secundum Verbum Tuum. Thats Part One of our conference. The other two will be shorter.
Two Principal Truths of our Faith
Having pictured remember what Pope John tells us, having pictured, except (pardon the expression) this is a talking picture. And Ignatius tells us to tell those who make retreats to not just see with the eyes of the imagination but to hear with the ears of imagination and to touch and to feel the scenes on which we are meditating. Having done that, now some reflection. There are, and once again Ive consulted the Churchs Magisterial sources: What are the two principal truths of our Faith that God wants to reveal to us in the Annunciation? They are, first, the unspeakable generosity of God in becoming Man and secondly, the profound humility of Mary in the estimation of herself.
The Three Levels of Generosity
What do we mean when we say that the Annunciation reveals the ineffable generosity of God? There are three levels of generosity that the Church, over the centuries in her Wisdom, identifies in the Loving God.
Generosity of Creation
There is, first of all, the generosity of Creation. God was perfectly happy. He needed no world to add to His Beatitude. Nevertheless out of complete selfless Divine Goodness He created the world and within the world - the human race.
Generosity of Redemption
Second level of generosity: This human race, unlike the angelic hosts, when the human race sinned God in His generosity decided to redeem mankind. If the basic level of Divine Generosity is Creation; the second is Redemption.
Generosity of God Become Man Incarnation
But not satisfied with that Im sharing with you the Wisdom of the Church - the highest and most sublime generosity on Gods part was not only to Create the human race or to Redeem the human race: but to become Man.
The Triad, therefore, of Divine Generosity in ascending order of sublimity is: Creation, Redemption and Incarnation.
That He Might be able to Endure
God chose to become Man so that as Man as so much of the Rosary will teach us God became Man in order to experience what we experience (sin alone always excepted). That He might be able to endure. Dear Lord! Dear Lord, teach us the meaning and the greatness of endurance! All we want dear Lord is the power to endure! But prevent us ever, ever, ever from complaining that we have to endure and all of this out of Love for us.
The Profound Humility of Mary
Second mystery that our reflecting on the Annunciation teaches us the profound humility of Mary. As weve said earlier she did not consider herself what the Angel called her. But she was willing to do Gods Will. She believed that God wanted her to remain a virgin. Remember this! Humility does not exclude prudence. I repeat. Humility does not exclude prudence. Once she was given the explanation she accepted Gods mysterious Providence and as weve heard, told the Angel, Be it done unto me - ah! that precious prepositional phrase - to me. How grateful we are when we believe that God has done things for me and we sing with grateful joy. It is submitting Gods Will when He does things to us which, by prior definition, are contrary either to what we have chosen or surely, as in Marys case - as she would ever have anticipated. Leave it to God to demand the unexpected.
Adoration of Divine Goodness
Finally, implications of Pope John, remember, calls the Pious Intentions - applying the mysteries to ourselves. What we do now is go back over what weve just seen and then reflect both on the generosity of God and the humility of Mary should inspire us. How should Gods generosity in becoming Man inspire us? It should inspire first, with the adoration of Divine Goodness. Our Faith for many people when they hear the verb adore or the noun adoration, they think of the Divine Power or Majesty. Of course! Of course we are to adore God because of His Infinite Majesty. But we adore God for any, and their number is beyond counting, any of the Divine Attributes. Any of the Divine Attributes here - the Divine Goodness.
Acknowledge - Admire - Accept
So what do we do when we adore the Divine Goodness? A number of As in sequence. When we adore the Divine Goodness, we acknowledge the Divine Goodness. We recognize it with our minds. We admire the Divine Goodness- we stand in marvel and how good the Good God really is. And we accept the Divine Goodness because we (each of us individually as we shall know only in Eternity) are the beneficiaries of Gods Love.
How should the generosity of God in becoming Incarnate in the Womb of His Mother inspire us? Inspire us with gratitude. How spontaneously grateful we are for the smallest favor that a person does to us. Well! There is no gratitude that should be deeper in our hearts than gratitude for Gods Love.
We further ask ourselves: How should the Divine Generosity inspire us? With a resolution. Listen! To show our adoration of the Divine Goodness by our sacrifice. The highest form of adoration is sacrifice. Surrendering what we like. Why? In order to acknowledge the Greatness and here, the Goodness of God. Finally, Gods generosity toward us should inspire us with as far as we can use the language corresponding generosity in return. Is there anything, anything that we possess that weve not received from God? Everything is from Him. Well! If that is what we believe, what should be our response? And here Im talking the language of my Father in God - giving Him everything in return and God - I trust you believe me - can be very demanding. And the more He expects of us, the more He exacts of us: Listen! The more he wants us to love Him! Even this. Even this!
Most Humble in Her own Eyes
One more implication. Even as we are to respond to Gods generosity toward us - and the word takes on a very different meaning - and being, therefore, correspondingly (what are we saying?) correspondingly generous toward God; so Marys humility should inspire us with admiration that the greatest of human persons was also the most humble in her own eyes. How we need that! Beginning with the speaker, how desperately we need that! And the more gifted we are - whether naturally or supernaturally - the more we need to learn from Mary the real meaning of true humility. We go on.
The Seat of Humility is in the Mind
Our Ladys humility is to inspire us to imitate her in her humility. Lets be clear! The seat of humility is in the mind! It is what you think of yourself that makes you humble or otherwise. Mary, in her humility - as Sacred Scripture tells us - was frightened, frightened by what she was told. She was. How then are we to follow and become more and more like our Blessed Mother? If the Seat of Humility is in the mind, the foundation of Marys Humility was (and she meant it with all her heart), she was only the lowly Handmaid, servant - we would even speak correctly by saying - slave of the Lord. No wonder the Evangelist tells us that Mary pondered in her heart, which means in her mind. What do we have to learn? To watch, be on constant guard against the first risings of pride in our mind, to avoid the first thought of self-adoration, of self-adulation, of self-praise. And the Churchs consecrated term is to avoid the first rising of the first thought of self-complacency. How we need to imitate Our Lady down deep in our minds and hearts, resolving with her help to watch over our minds until the end of our lives; so as never for a moment to allow a single, deliberate, conscious thought of self-praise.
Mary, Teach Us the Indispensability of Humility
Id like to close with a statement by the great biblical scholar, St. Jerome. Says Jerome, God chose Mary for His Mother more on account of her humility than because of all her other sublime virtues, period. Whatever else we may learn from this retreat - in the Name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit - let us beg Our Lady to teach us the indispensability of humility if like her we are to please the Living God. Amen. In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
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