Monday, August 31, 2009

Marian Dogmas for the 21st Century: 1. Mary, Mother of God

Finally, as promised, here is some more of Sr. Teresa Forcades i Vila's theological writing, translated into English. This is a talk she gave about the Marian dogmas under the title "The Future of the Christian Experience". It is available on her Web site in its original Catalan and in a computer-assisted Spanish translation. I found it interesting because many feminists and progressives in the Church shy away from Mariology while Forcades i Vila is rising to the challenge of giving a modern interpretation to the most traditional of Catholic Church teachings.

Since I'm putting it on the blog, I have divided the text into four parts. It is complex and was a bit difficult to translate. I would appreciate any comments or suggestions about the translation. In the case of quotes, I have tried to use existing English translations so they may be a little different from what Sr. Teresa has. I am aware that the Hebrew and Greek in the footnotes do not come across for technical reasons. Unfortunately, this is also a problem on Sr. Teresa's original version on her Web site. Comments on this blog are moderated so if you want to just suggest something but not have your comment published "live", simply indicate this somewhere in your message.

1. Introduction and Mary, Mother of God
2. Virgin Mary
3. Immaculate Mary
4. The Assumption of Mary, Conclusion and footnotes

The Future of the Christian Experience

By Teresa Forcades i Vila

Karl Rahner’s statement is well-known: “The Christian of the future will be a mystic or he will not exist at all.”[1]

It seems that Rahner was paraphrasing an earlier statement by André Malraux, even though Malraux himself denies having said what others claim to have heard him say, which is: “The 21st century will either be religious or it will not be…” [2]

Just a couple of months ago (November 8) at the 7th Trinitarian Theology Conference of Grenada, Juan de Dios Martín Velasco, the religion phenomenologist, stated: “The Christianity of the 21st century will either be theological or it will not be.”[3]

The colleagues of Espacio Abierto (“Open Space”) have not proposed that I speak today on the future of Christianity but on the future of the “Christian experience.” I give a lot of importance to that word “experience” which reminds us from the start that our question about the future cannot ignore the environment of freedom and irrepressible love that makes up our “interiority”. The recourse to interiority does not imply a denial of, or scorn for, the political dimension of faith but rather a recognition of its deeper roots: the social and political commitment without which Christianity has no future in the 21st century or in any other – it is simultaneous and inseparable from the personal experience of God’s love. In that sense, I propose to develop a thesis that paraphrases the earlier ones and that I hope will help us discover perhaps new or not previously taken into account aspects of our “Christian being”. My thesis is: “The Christian experience in the 21st century will either be Marian or it will not exist.”

The figure of Mary has had a difficult relationhip both with progressive Christianity in general and with feminist theology in particular. The exaltation of the figure of Mary is associated at least with Catholic groups and movements with conservative sociopolitical leanings that long for the model of the patriarchal family and tend to legitimize the extreme injustices of the prevailing economic system as if they were the law of life. In contrast with the revoluionary mistrust of Mariology, one must affirm that the Biblical text that most clearly and emphatically supports liberation theology and its preferential option for the poor is none other than the Magnificat of Mary of Nazareth. Mary, as soon as she felt herself pregnant with God, proclaimed that the Almighty would “cast down the mighty from their thrones”, “lift up the lowly”, “fill the hungry with good things”, and “send the rich away empty-handed.” Not a very politically correct canticle, one that we sing every day at Vespers, in honor of the Mother of God.

I will now present a lecture on the four Marian dogmas -- Mary, Mother of God (Theotokos), the Virgin Mary, Immaculate Mary, and the Assumption of Mary -- that place the feminine figure of Mary as a reference point and catalyst for a Christian experience that rises to the level of the challenges posed by the 21st century.

Mary, Mother of God (Theotokos), Council of Ephesus, 5th cent. (431)

The title “Theotokos” (Mother of God) is the first dogmatic statement of the Church in relation to Mary. The title was much debated during the first centuries of Christianity; in fact, all the Christian dogmas were preceded not by days, or months or years, but by centuries of heated theological debate, controversy, struggles that included defamation, exile, excommunication, and even execution by the civil authority of those who held opposite views. The goal of these discussions and the reason for the formulation of the dogmas isn’t, as John Henry Newmann [4] explained so well, to encapsulate the truth of the Revelation in human formulas, but quite the opposite: to save the mystery of God from remaining limited by any concrete conceptual universe through formulations that force our rational mind to go beyond itself. The mystical step is not opposed to reason, nor does it ignore it, but it is only possible from reason, even though it goes beyond it. The trinitarian dogma (one nature, three persons) and the Christological one (one person, two natures) have forced human reason, over and over again over the course of history, to face its own limitations and to discover its own greatness in the act of acknowledging them. The anonymous 14th cent. writer speaks of the “cloud of unknowing” and Kierkegaard of the “suicide of reason”, but for both, the mystical dimension is an absolute and eminently positive anthropological dimension, the acknowledgement of which is a sine qua non for theology. Our language for God is always insufficient (the apophatic dimension) but it is never indifferent (the cataphatic or analogical dimension). Stating that “God is good and faithful” is not the same as stating that “God is evil and treacherous”. (cf. Thomas Aquinas, ST 1, pp. 12-13)

Then what does it mean to state that Mary is the “Mother of God”? If God is the Absolute, how can He have a mother? [5] Already in the 5th cent., Nestor, the patriarch of Constantinople, did not see it clearly and thought that Mary’s title should be Christotokos, not Theotokos, since strictly speaking, Mary is the mother only of the human nature of Christ and not the divine one that is eternal. Cyril of Alexandria, for his part, thought that Mary had not begotten any “nature”, divine or human, but that she had given birth to a “person”, and did so when this “person” – as the Council of Nicea had already defined it a century earlier – was already fully God. Mary could be called completely rightfully the “Mother of God”. The Christian faith states that Jesus is God Himself, who was born in the space and time of our history and is begotten in it. By begetting Jesus, giving birth to Jesus, Mary begets God in the space and time of our history. From which it is clear (or should be clear) that, in fact, God did not create “history”. God created all the necessary conditions for “history” to exist, but the notion of history – as distinct from the notion of life cycle or eternal rebirth – presupposed a dialogue between God and His creation; history is the common space (of God and humanity) that gives meaning to Creation.

That has already been masterfully expressed by the Baroque era theologian María Jesús de Ágreda (1602-1665). In her work, The Mystical City of God, this great theologian to whom history has not done justice, states that Mary’s maternity is the theological place of our freedom. Our mission as people – the purpose of our existence – is, like Mary, to “give birth to the Light”, to beget Christ in the world, and the only way to do this is to conceive Him before hand in ourselves through the working – and grace – of the Holy Spirit. This is an ancient doctrine and the reason why Mary is the image of the Church. In the divine economy, Mary – who is not, never was, and never will be a “divine person” – is not, in spite of that, “subordinate” to God because God, through a free decision of his sovereignty, does not seek us out as “subjects” but as “friends”. God could not have become incarnate through Mary in any way without Mary’s freely given “YES”. He could not violate Mary and He cannot violate us because God is love (to argue that God can act with indifference is a contradiction that is equivalent to stating that Love cannot love). To state “He can’t” in the case of God is the same as saying “He doesn’t want to” because God is of all and only that which He wants to be. God is totally free and has made us so that we can be as well. But we will not be so without our active participation, we will not be so without wanting to be, just as, mutatis mutandis, Mary would not have been the Mother of God without wanting to be. God is totally free because He is totally love. We are free to the exact extent that we love.

Let’s see how María de Ágreda describes this coming into awareness of Mary of Nazareth, this calm and lucid pondering of that which the angel announced to her and this taking charge of her own freedom before God:

Therefore this great Lady considered and inspected profoundly this spacious field of the dignity of Mother of God (Prov. 21, 16) in order to purchase it by her fiat; She clothed Herself in fortitude more than human, and She tasted and saw how profitable was this enterprise and commerce with the Divinity. She comprehended the ways of his hidden benevolence and adorned Herself with fortitude and beauty. And having conferred with Herself and with the heavenly messenger Gabriel about the grandeur of these high and divine sacraments, and finding herself in excellent condition to receive the message sent to Her, her purest soul was absorbed and elevated in admiration, reverence and highest intensity of divine love.[6]

The verbs of which Mary is an active subject in this description of the Annunciation are: to consider, to inspect profoundly, to purchase, to clothe herself, to taste, to see, to comprehend, to adorn herself, to confer with herself and the angel Gabriel, to be in excellent condition, and finally to receive. The only verb of which Mary is a passive subject is: her soul was absorbed and elevated.

María de Ágreda continues by describing how the free and conscious act of love of Mary of Nazaareth made it possible for three drops of blood to emerge from her heart that stopped at the uterus and became the initial material and at the same time symbol and expression of Mary’s love, the total, free, and conscious gift of herself without which the Incarnation would not have been able to take place. According to María of Ágreda, the Incarnation is not the result of the union of the Spirit of God with the matter of Mary. The Incarnation is the result of the union of the Spirit of God with the spirit and the flesh – the entire person – of Mary. Mary’s “fiat” is not her consent because God “takes her body” and is incarnated. It is infinitely more than that. It is a true interpersonal dialogue, the loving union of two fully free persons: the divine person of the Spirit and the human person of Mary. God, who is Love, could not have been incarnated in Mary without her active and conscious love. The mystery of the Incarnation is the mystery of interpersonal love, on a first name basis, between God (Holy Spirit) and Mary, and in her, every one of us. The mystery of Mary is the mystery of the hoped for paschal New Creation.

Ágreda’s theology focuses on Mary’s words to the angel Gabriel:

Ecce ancilla Domine, fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum. Behold the handmaid of the Lord, let it be done to me according to your word.[7]

And she asks herself what this ‘Word of God’ [verbum tuum] that Mary refers to is. The Gospel of John begins: “In the beginning was the Word.”[8] María de Ágreda, as Thomas Aquinas seems to have done four centuries earlier[9], puts Mary’s “fiat” [fiat mihi] in relation to the first word God pronounces in the Bible, that is:

Fiat lux. Let there be light. (Gen. 1:3 [10])

Fiat lux. What light are we talking about? The quote cannot refer to the light of the sun because the Biblical text indicates clearly further along the moment when the stars in the firmament are created (Gen 1:14-18). This light that makes the cosmos emerge from the darkness of chaos is none other than the Logos understood as the “principle of intelligibility” of Creation. The Logos as the alpha and omega of the Creation. The Logos as the “exemplary cause” of Creation. The Logos-word that existed since the beginning is the second person of the Trinity and it is in no way “created” but rather a “condition of possibility” of Creation, a condition of possibility for that which is not God to be able to exist and have meaning.

The diversity of Creation, and the “no” associated with the coordinates of space and time that characterize it (here is not there; today is not tomorrow) are only possible because in the immanent reality of God – source and origin of Creation –a form of “diversity” and a form of “negation” have existed since the beginning: The Father is not the Son and the Son is not the Father. The existence of the Logos-word characterized by “pure receptivity” (the Son was begotten by the Father and received everything from Him) and by “alterity”, makes the existence of Creation possible as a “receiver” and truly “distinct” from God.

At the beginning of Genesis, God says: Fiat lux. When the fullness of time has come, Mary says: Fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum…and gives birth to the Light. Only then can Creation be considered complete, when the Logos-Light is not only present as exemplary cause and principle of intelligibility but lives in historical and personal form (when to further support it, the Logos-Light that is God manifests Himself in the world: epiphany). The old man Simeon announces: “I have seen the Light that enlightens the nations” (Luke 2:32) and Jesus Himself states: “I am the Light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12, cf. tb. 3:19-21, 9:5, 11:10, 12:35-36, 12:46). Creation finds its fullness in Mary’s Fiat.

Our mission as human beings is none other than to “give birth to the Light.” The Logos cannot exist in the world without our collaboration. Mary’s maternity is extraordinary and unique in history because she alone has begotten God in the flesh. This is a definite given. However, the Incarnation and the Redemption, which are unique events in history, do not achieve their objective except to the extent that each one of us makes ourselves freely available for the loving dialogue with God as Mary did. Each chapter of María de Ágreda’s The Mystical City of God ends with a speech by the Mother of God that supports what the author has written and makes some of her own corrections and contributions. I think it is of utmost importance that María de Ágreda puts the following explanation in Mary of Nazareth’s mouth, after the passage on the Annunciation that we just quoted:

My daughter, thou art filled with astonishment at seeing, by means of new light, the mystery of the humiliation of the Divinity in uniting Himself with the human nature in the womb of a poor maiden such as I was. I wish, however, my dearest, that thou turn thy attention toward thyself and consider, how God humiliated Himself, and came into my womb, not only for myself alone, but for thee as well. The Lord is infinite in his mercy and his love has no limit, and thus He attends and esteems and assists every soul who receives Him, and He rejoices in it, as if He had created it alone, and as if He had been made man for it alone. Therefore with all the affection of thy soul thou must, as it were, consider thyself as being thyself in person bound to render the full measure of thanks of all the world for his coming; and for his coming to redeem all. And if, with a lively faith thou art convinced and confessest, that the same God who, infinite in his attributes and eternal in his majesty, lowered Himself to assume human flesh in my womb, seeks also thee, calls thee, rejoices thee, caresses thee, and thinks of thee alone, as if thou wert his only creature (Gal. 2, 20) ; think well and reflect to what his admirable condescension obliges thee. Convert this admiration into living acts of faith and love; for, that He condescends to come to thee, thou owest entirely to the goodness of the King and Savior, since thou thyself couldst never find Him nor attain Him.[11]

The culmination of Creation is initiated in Mary, but it is still not complete. It will only be when each one of us does as she did and expresses from the innermost nucleus of freedom itself the Fiat that begets the Light in the world.

The decisive point of Mary’s maternity for the Christianity of the future is the awareness of where the Christian scandal of the Incarnation leads: in addition to relating to us as Father (as the one who gives), God relates to us – each one of us – as Son (as the one who receives). This is the Trinitarian dimension of the Christian experience: God is pure giving (tradition expresses it in the word of the Father), pure receiving (Son) and pure sharing (Spirit). The task of co-creation to which God calls us, happens through discovering one’s own responsibility in relationship to God and the radicalness of the reciprocity God wants to establish with each one of us.


  1. Printer busy spewing the Catalan version, I don’t read enough of it and I need to refresh its sweet rhythm in my mind…this soror seems to be or her way to become a modern Hildegard of Bingen.
    If you translated all that, well, I don’t know what to say…Amazing! Thanks.
    Readers form Romania, Peru and Sweden were on line.

  2. Well, I have found what I have read by Sr. Teresa interesting so far. She seems to do her medical/public health writing mainly in English (language of the head) and her theological writing mainly in Catalan (language of the heart). Anyway, while I dearly love all the old guys (Leonardo, Gustavo, Jon, etc.) it's refreshing to be working with material from a younger (and female) theologian. It's a different perspective, though coming from the same "root". And, while not stating so explicitely, she makes an excellent case for chastity from a feminist perspective -- something that was lacking in the women's movement when I was growing up.

  3. That comment that you made about the languages, touched me deeply. I have three languages in me and I don’t know which one goes where in my psique.
    Of course, my case is different, When I was growing up, Catalan was the language of the home, all else was Spanish, school, government, commerce, etc.
    I have to reevaluate a little who am I, in that sense.