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December 15, 2014

At both the first creation and the new creation, the Bible records the presence of the Holy Spirit. Even before God created light, the author of Genesis tells of "a wind from God" sweeping over the face of the waters (Genesis 1.2).

At the Annunciation, Mary, puzzled that she should give birth to "the Son of the Most High" while a virgin, was informed by the angel Gabriel "the Holy Spirit will come upon you" (Luke 1.35).

Mary, as is often noted, is the new Eve whose obedience overcomes the disobedience of the first Eve. St. Irenaeus in the second century described this as Mary untying the knot of disobedience that had been tied by Eve, an image that has recently gained new currency through Pope Francis' championing of devotion to Our Lady, Undoer of Knots.

When the Holy Spirit 'came upon' Mary at the Annunciation, the Spirit formed Mary into the perfect disciple worthy of imitation.

When the Holy Spirit 'came upon' Mary at the Annunciation, the Spirit formed Mary into the perfect disciple worthy of imitation.

At Cana, Mary fulfilled this role of the new Eve by convincing Jesus to turn the water of the first creation into the wine of the new creation, the good wine that supposedly had been saved until the end (John 2.10).

Everything with Mary is grace. She, of course, is not the originator of grace, but the one who is "full of grace," devoid of sin and filled with divine life to the fullest extent possible for any creature.

The New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, which is used in the Canadian Lectionary, translates Gabriel's greeting to Mary rather insipidly as "Greetings, favoured one!" (Luke 1.28). The Jerusalem Bible does better with "Rejoice, so highly favoured!"

Pope Benedict XVI points out that it is striking that the angel does not greet Mary with the Hebrew salutation, shalom, but with the Greek chaïre, that is, rejoice. The retired pope, writing in his small book Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, goes so far as to say this exclamation "marks the true beginning of the New Testament."

Why would he say this? Because the joy that Gabriel announces is a gift of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, in Greek, the words for joy and grace stem from the same root. "Joy and grace belong together."

Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, long-time personal preacher to the popes, writes, "Mary's truest identity is in grace." It is due to her immaculate conception that it is rightly said she is full of grace.

Grace, it should be added, is not some particular gift of God, but a share in the divine life itself. Negatively, it is liberation from sin; positively, it is being raised up to supernatural living.

So, when we say in our prayer that Mary is full of grace, it is equivalent to saying she is the highly favoured one.

Here, we need to be careful. What Scripture emphasizes is not Mary's exalted status so much as God's gift to her. The emphasis is on God's grace more than on Mary's possession of that gift. The full import of this is that we are to imitate Mary more than to be devoted to her.


In his book Mary: Mirror of the Church, Cantalamessa makes this a crucial point. "What should we do to practise what the Holy Spirit wished to communicate to us through Mary? The best answer we can give is not devotion to Mary but imitation of her."

This insight can form our entire view of Christian living. Accepting the gift comes before obeying the commandment. It is in grace that we carry out our duties, not the performance of duties that raises us to grace. We are not our own saviours; we accept the salvation that comes from God through Jesus. We are called to be receivers more than producers.

This runs completely contrary to modern ways of thinking and being. We want to create our own destiny. We should instead accept the destiny God has given us.

Today, the Church is often under attack. Understandably, we want to defend the Church and to prove the truth of her teachings. Cantalamessa urges us instead to serenely preach the Gospel of grace, having the faith that grace destroys falsehood more assuredly than does argument.


The Marian principle is more basic to the life of the Church than is the institutional principle. We are called, first, to accept God's gift of salvation in Christ. In doing so, we will take part in the Church's sacramental life, accept her teachings and live according to her moral teachings.

It is when we think that we are our own saviours that we run into trouble. It is but a short step from there to putting our beliefs above the Church's teachings and to believing we can earn salvation through our good deeds.

Hope comes from God. Mary understood this perfectly. The Holy Spirit gave her a joy that is intrinsic to being full of grace.