Preserved by Love
If we see that the Son of God took on all our weaknesses, save only sin, and if his design in becoming man entailed that he did not refuse hunger, thirst, fear, sadness, or any of our other infirmities, no matter how unworthy of his greatness, then we ought to believe that he was deeply moved by filial piety, that just and holy love for those who give us life, a love impressed by nature upon our hearts. The truth is clear: it was this love that preserved the most holy Virgin in her blessed conception.
To understand this doctrine, we must note that the Blessed Virgin had a quality that distinguishes her from every other mother: she gave birth to the Giver of grace. Her Son, in this way different from every other child, was capable of acting with power from the first moment of his life. What is even more extraordinary is that the Blessed Virgin was the mother of a son who was before her. From this quality follow three beautiful effects. As Mary’s Son is the dispenser of grace, he gave it to her abundantly. As he was capable of acting from the first moment of his life, he did not delay his generosity toward her, but showed it immediately. Finally, from having a Son who was before her comes this miracle: her Son’s love was able to preserve her from the time of her own conception, to make her innocent. Let us ponder the love of the Son of God for the Blessed Virgin.
Have you ever wondered about the way God speaks in Sacred Scripture, how he pretends, as it were, to act as a man, by imitating our actions, our habits, and even our emotions? Sometimes he says, by the mouth of his prophets, that he has a heart made tender by compassion, sometimes that he is burning with anger, that he is appeased, that he repents, or that he has joy or sadness. What kind of mystery is this? Should God act or suffer in such ways? If the incarnate Word speaks to us in this way, we are not surprised, because he was a man. But that God, prior to being man, should speak and act as men do: this astonishes us.
You will say that God speaks in this way so as to accommodate himself to our understanding. Yes, but the Fathers teach us that God, having resolved to unite himself to our nature, did not judge it unworthy of himself to take on our sentiments beforehand. On the contrary, he made them his own and purposefully conformed himself to them.
Can we explain so great a mystery by means of some familiar example? A man wishes to gain a high office. He prepares for it by taking on all the feelings proper to it and begins accustoming himself to the gravity of a judge or to the bravery of a soldier. God resolved to become man. He had not yet done so at the time of the prophets but had decided that he should be, and so we should not be surprised that he speaks and acts as a man before he was one, if, in some sense, it pleased him to appear to the prophets and the patriarchs with a human likeness. Why? Tertullian explained it well. These were so many preparations for the Incarnation. The one who would lower himself to the point of taking on our nature fulfilled a sort of apprenticeship by conforming himself to our sentiments. “Little by little he made himself ready to become man, and it pleased him to be from the beginning of the world what he would become in the fullness of time.”
We should not, therefore, think that he waited until the day of his coming to have a son’s love for the Blessed Virgin. It was enough that he had resolved to become man for him to take on every human sentiment. And if he took on human sentiments, could he have omitted those of a son, of all sentiments the most natural and most human? He has, therefore, always loved Mary as a mother, and he considered her as such from the very moment of her conception. Given this, could he have looked upon her in anger? Would sin belong together with so much grace, vengeance with love, enmity with friendship? Cannot Mary say with the psalmist, “[B]y my God I can leap over a wall” (Ps. 18:29)? Sin places a wall of separation, an unfriendliness, between God and man. But she says, “I can leap over the wall.” How? In the name of my God, of this God who loved me as mother from the first instant of my life, of this God whose all-powerful love preserved me from the anger that menaces all the children of Eve. This is what was accomplished in the Blessed Virgin.
It is the very foundation of Christianity to understand that we did not first love God, but that he first loved us (cf. 1 John 4:10), and not only before we loved him, but while we were his enemies. The blood of the New Testament, poured out for the remission of our sins, bears witness to this truth. For if we had not been God’s enemies, we would not have needed a mediator to reconcile us with him, nor a victim to appease his anger, nor blood to satisfy his justice. It is he who first loved us, by giving up his only Son for the love of us.
And you, children of God, you who love your Father: did you love him first? Or do you not confess with the apostle that “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Rom. 5:5)? Would God have given you such a great gift if, before giving it, he had not already loved you? He has preserved us: do not doubt it. He always takes the first step. Yet he does so in order that we may approach him.
Listen to the exhortation of the psalmist: “Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving” (Ps. 95:2). This thanksgiving, however, should be joined to penance. For how can we give thanks for God’s greatness any better than by humbling ourselves for our sins and falling down before his face?
Let us then fall down before him now, Christians, so that we do not fall down on that terrible day. Let us anticipate his just anger by the confession of our crimes. Let us plumb the very depths of our conscience where our enemies lie hidden. Let us descend, with a flaming torch in one hand and a sword in the other: the torch, to discover our sins by a serious examination, and the sword to cut them out at their roots by our deep sorrow. In this way, we will go before the anger of our great God, whose mercy goes always before us.
O Mary, miraculously preserved, singularly set apart, mercifully anticipated,
bring aid to us in our weakness by your prayers, and obtain for us this grace,
that our penance may go before the vengeance that pursues us
so that we may at last be received into the kingdom of eternal peace
with Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Art for this post: Cover and featured image used with permission.