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Mary The Advent Woman

Byline: Lecture by Father Lickteig
Posted: November 29, 2011

Introduction

I have entitled this meditation “Mary the Advent Woman”? What is an “Advent Woman” anyway? Some look at the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew, where the Evangelist in Chapter 1 traces the human genealogy of Jesus from Abraham through David all the way to Joseph. Matthew mentions 5 women in this long line: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, and finally Mary. One could argue that these 5 women are all “Advent Women” in that they play a real role in God preparing his people for the coming, or advent, of his Son.

Of course among these women, the role of Mary obviously stands out. Indeed, before he became pope, Benedict XVI, then known as Cardinal Ratzinger, wrote, “The season of Advent…is the time of Mary: the time, indeed, when Mary offered her womb to receive the Savior of the world, when she carried in herself the expectations and hopes of all mankind. To celebrate Advent means to become like Mary, to enter into and become part of Mary’s Yes, which, always anew, is the area of God’s birth, of the ‘fullness of time’”[1].

The scripture passage the future pope quotes is from St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. It is worth quoting in full: “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to ransom those under the law, so that we might receive adoption.” (Galatians 4:4-5). God chose to send his Son to redeem us through a woman. The role of woman is thus central to God’s plan to save mankind. In other words, the “figure of woman occupies an irreplaceable place”[2] in the faith of Israel and of the whole Old Testament. Just as salvation history contains a line running from Adam through the patriarchs, a male line if you will, so too does this same salvation history contain a female line, running from Eve through the various female figures in the Old Testament. And just as “the line running from Adam receives its full meaning in Christ”, so too “the significance of the female line…is reveled in Mary”[3].

In other words, Ratzinger writes, “We should become again aware that Christology does not exclude or suppress the female aspect as inconsequential, and that recognition of the female role does not diminish Christology. Only in the right coordination of one to the other can we discover the truth about God and about ourselves”[4].

During Advent, we meditate on how God works in history to prepare his People to receive his Son. In this reflection on “Mary the Advent Woman”, I would like to spend some time on looking at the role of woman in this preparation, a role that culminates in the person of Mary, who became the Mother of God. To that end, I will borrow a lot of material from a small book then-Cardinal Ratzinger wrote in 1977, entitled Daughter Zion: Meditations on the Church’s Marian Belief, and from the introduction he wrote ten years later, in 1987, to John Paul II’s encyclical Redemptoris Mater entitled, “The Sign of the Woman”.

Eve

I want to begin, “in the beginning” with Eve. Eve “is the necessary opposite pole of man, Adam”[5]. She was created by God because it was “not good” for man to be alone. Already at her creation, she is intimately linked to man; she is not created out of the earth, but out of his side. However, this is done while Adam is in a deep sleep. Eve is thus the result of God’s free act, not Adam’s. Therefore she is equal in dignity to him before God. Thus from the very beginning, mankind is “masculine and feminine in its likeness to God”[6].

It is true that Eve acts as a temptation for man, as we can see in the story of the forbidden fruit, but this is not the last word to the story. Eve receives her name after the Fall, and what name is that? “The man called his wife Eve, because she became the mother of all the living.” (Genesis 3:20). Ratzinger has something very profound to say about her name: “In this way, the undestroyed dignity and majesty of woman are expressed. She preserves the mystery of life, the power opposed to death…She, who offers the fruit which leads to death…is nonetheless from now on the keeper of the seal of life and the antithesis of death. The woman, who bears the key of life, thus touches directly the mystery of being, the living God, from whom…all life originates”[7].

And this title given to Eve does not end with her. After the sin of Adam and Eve, God pronounces these words to the serpent: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, between your offspring and hers; he will strike at your head, while you strike at his heel” (Genesis 3:15). Many Church Fathers, as Ratzinger points out, “took this judgment on the serpent after the Fall as the first promise of the Redeemer, a reference to the offspring who will smash the serpent’s head”[8]. The future pope explains that all of salvation history has at its core these same three actors: the offspring, the serpent, the woman. Ratzinger writes, “The offspring promises blessing and liberation: he strikes at the serpent’s head. But the curse, the bondage, retain their power: the serpent strikes at his heel. Blessing and curse may remain in balance, the outcome is uncertain. In the book of Revelation all three actors return. The drama of history has reached its climax” [9].

So already in the book of Genesis, we see the drama of humanity explained to us. Mankind has fallen. God promises a blessing that will redeem humanity, the pinnacle of his Creation. But the curse is still alive, still tempting mankind to say “no” to God.

And yet between the blessing and the curse, between the offspring and the serpent, there exists the figure of the woman. Eve was not a passive actor in the drama of the Fall. And we see in God’s promise that woman will also not be a passive actor in the drama of salvation. God promises enmity not just between the offspring and the serpent, but also between the serpent and the woman herself. We can see this enmity confirmed in the book of Revelation, which also contains these three actors.

Let us briefly look at that passage: “A great sign appeared in the sky, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was with child and wailed aloud in pain as she labored to give birth. Then another sign appeared in the sky; it was a huge red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on its heads were seven diadems. Its tail swept away a third of the stars in the sky and hurled them down to the earth. Then the dragon stood before the woman about to give birth, to devour her child when she gave birth. She gave birth to a son, a male child, destined to rule all the nations with an iron rod” (Revelation 12:1-5a).

Wisdom

So the figure of woman stands in the middle of this promise of the Redeemer, and is critical to its fulfillment. Again, this is seen in the Old Testament where the figure of woman often occupies a central place in salvation history. If we took more time, we could see this in the figure of Sarah, the wife of Abraham and mother of Isaac, who though infertile, bore the son of the promise. We could see this in the figure of Hannah, who though barren, was blessed with a son through God’s grace, a son named Samuel who would be the last Judge of Israel, and the one who would anoint David as King of Israel. We could see this in the figure of Judith, who, though a widow in an Israelite town threatened with destruction by the army of the Assyrians, skillfully defeats the army’s general and thus saves the people. We can see this in the figure of Queen Esther, who, though forbidden to enter the king’s chamber, goes into his presence on behalf of her people in Exile and saves all of Israel. So this line of woman extends down through the whole of the Old Testament, as God prepares Israel to receive his Son. In fact, in many texts, “Israel herself, the chosen people, is interpreted simultaneously as woman, virgin, beloved, wife and mother”[10]. But with the future pope, I want to look at how the figure of woman is seen in the Old Testament’s description of Wisdom.

When the Old Testament speaks of Wisdom, this is rightly a prefiguring of Christ, the Wisdom of God. For example, we can read in the book of Sirach (also called Ecclesaticus):

"Then the Creator of all gave me his command, and he who formed me chose the spot for my tent, saying, 'In Jacob make your dwelling, in Israel your inheritance. 'Before all ages, in the beginning, he created me, and through all ages I shall not cease to be.

In the holy tent I ministered before him, and in Zion I fixed my abode. Thus in the chosen city he has given me rest, in Jerusalem is my domain. I have struck root among the glorious people, in the portion of the LORD, his heritage.” (Sirach 24: 8-12).

But Ratzinger makes the interesting point that this personification of Wisdom “resists total integration into Christology. In both Hebrew and Greek, ‘wisdom’ is a feminine noun, and this is no empty grammatical phenomenon in antiquity’s vivid awareness of language. ‘Sophia’, a feminine noun, stands on that side of reality which is represented by the woman, by what is purely and simply feminine. It signifies the answer which emerges from the divine call of creation and election. It expresses precisely this: that there is a pure answer and that God’s love finds its irrevocable dwelling place within it…Sophia refers to the Logos, the Word who establishes wisdom, and also to the womanly answer which receives wisdom and brings it to fruition”[11].

In other words, the fullness of time arrives when God has prepared the place for his dwelling. God took our humanity and made it a place for him to dwell. John’s Gospel tells us, “And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14). The Word took his humanity from woman, who by her “yes” allowed to make of her the new Ark of the Covenant. An Orthodox theologian wrote, “All the sacred tradition of the Jews is a history of the slow and laborious journey of fallen humanity toward the ‘fullness of time’ when the angel was sent to announce to the chosen Virgin the Incarnation of God and to hear from her lips human consent, so that the divine plan might be accomplished”[12]. The Advent of Jesus Christ is the turning point in the history of the world. God dwells with his people. And yet woman stands at the center of this salvific event, just as God promised to the serpent that she would.

Mary

We have been talking about the female line present in the Old Testament, the record of salvation history. This began with the promise to the serpent right after the Fall of the central place woman would have in the advent of the Redeemer. And we saw how salvation, which is God’s free gift, depends on an answer from his creation, personified in the feminine Wisdom. So woman’s central role in salvation history depends upon her “yes” to become a dwelling place for God.

There is a very old Marian hymn that is sung during Advent, called “Alma Redemptoris Mater” that goes like this: “Loving mother of the Redeemer, gate of heaven, star of the sea, assist your people who have fallen but strive to rise again. To the wonderment of nature you bore your Creator, yet remained a virgin as before. You who received Gabriel’s joyful greeting, have pity on us poor sinners.”

The future pope develops this wonderful image of Mary, and thus the figure of woman, as being at the critical point between falling and rising, between the curse of sin and the redemption from God. Mary’s response to the angel is thus the turning point in salvation history, the pause, the silence as mankind strives to stop falling and to rise again.

There is a beautiful homily written by St. Bernard of Clairvaux that describes in a wonderful way this turning point that happens at the Annunciation. He writes:

You have heard, O Virgin, that you will conceive and bear a son; you have heard that it will not be by man but by the Holy Spirit. The angel awaits an answer; it is time for him to return to God who sent him. We too are waiting, O Lady, for your word of compassion; the sentence of condemnation weighs heavily upon us.

The price of our salvation is offered to you. We shall be set free at once if you consent. In the eternal Word of God we all came to be, and behold, we die. In your brief response we are to be remade in order to be recalled to life.

Tearful Adam with his sorrowing family begs this of you, O loving Virgin, in their exile from Paradise. Abraham begs it, David begs it. All the other holy patriarchs, your ancestors, ask it of you, as they dwell in the country of the shadow of death. This is what the whole earth waits for, prostrate at your feet. It is right in doing so, for on your word depends comfort for the wretched, ransom for the captive, freedom for the condemned, indeed, salvation for all the sons of Adam, the whole of your race.

Answer quickly, O Virgin. Reply in haste to the angel, or rather through the angel to the Lord. Answer with a word, receive the Word of God. Speak your own word, conceive the divine Word. Breathe a passing word, embrace the eternal Word.

Why do you delay, why are you afraid? Believe, give praise, and receive. Let humility be bold, let modesty be confident. This is no time for virginal simplicity to forget prudence. In this matter alone, O prudent Virgin, do not fear to be presumptuous. Though modest silence is pleasing, dutiful speech is now more necessary. Open your heart to faith, O blessed Virgin, your lips to praise, your womb to the Creator. See, the desired of all nations is at your door, knocking to enter. If he should pass by because of your delay, in sorrow you would begin to seek him afresh, the One whom your soul loves. Arise, hasten, open. Arise in faith, hasten in devotion, open in praise and thanksgiving. Behold the handmaid of the Lord, she says, be it done to me according to your word.

Mary’s “Yes” is the pure answer that God has been waiting for. And Mary’s free response to God’s plan makes her the sign that God’s “blessing is stronger than the curse. The sign of the woman has become the sign of hope”[13].

God’s plan of salvation, already fully initiated, presses on towards its fulfillment at the end of time, when God will be “all in all”. And how fitting that the sign of woman, now personified by Holy Mother Church, accompanies Christ her spouse and we her children as we wait in joyful expectation the second Advent of Christ at the end of time.

May Mary, the morning star that appears just before dawn, give us hope this Advent that even in the darkest of night, that even in the midst of our sins and failings, God’s blessing is stronger. And in our patient acceptance of every trial, we may join our yes to Mary’s, and so participate in the very salvation of the whole world. Amen.



[1] Ratzinger, Josef, “The Sign of the Woman: An Introduction to the Encyclical ‘Redemptoris Mater’”, in Mary: God’s Yes to Man: John Paul’s Encyclical Redemptoris Mater, Ignatius Press, San Francisco 1988, p. 22.

[2] ID, Daughter Zion: Meditations on the Church’s Marian Belief, Ignatius Press, San Francisco 1983, p. 13.

[3] Id., “The Sign…”, p. 18.

[4] Ibid., p. 19.

[5] Id., Daughter Zion…, p. 16.

[6] Ibid., p. 17.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Id., “The Sign…”, p. 28.

[9] Ibid., pp. 29-30.

[10] Id., Daughter Zion…, p. 21.

[11] Ibid., pp.26-27.

[12] Lossky, Vladimir, In the Image and Likeness of God, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Crestwood, New Jersey 1974, p. 202.

[13] Ibid., pp. 29-30.