The Pure Heart of Mary

During this month of the Immaculate Heart, I post a meditation on the Heart of Mary by St. Alphonsus Liguori

Under the Old Law there were two precepts concerning the birth of first-born sons. One was that the mother was regarded as unclean and was to remain in her house for forty days and then purify herself in the Temple. The other was that the parents of the first-born son should take him to the Temple and offer him there to God.

On the day of Her purification, the Blessed Virgin carried out both these precepts. Although She was not bound by the law of purification since She was still a virgin and was absolutely pure, Immaculate, nevertheless Her humility and sense of obedience made Her wish to go and purify Herself like other mothers.

At the same time, She fulfilled the other precept by presenting and offering Her Son to the Eternal Father. And when the days of Her purification were fulfilled according to the law of Moses, they took Him up to Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord [Lk. 2: 22]. But the Blessed Virgin did not offer Him as other mothers offered their sons. The others offered them to God, but they knew that this offering was a mere ceremonial fulfillment of the Law. By symbolically redeeming their children they made them truly their own, and they would not be obliged to sacrifice them to death at some other time. Mary, however, really offered Her Son to death. She knew for certain that the sacrifice of the life of Jesus which She was then making would actually be consummated on the altar of the cross. Because She loved Him so much, in offering the life of Her Son Mary actually sacrificed Her entire self to God.

Let us leave aside all other considerations that we might reflect on today and dwell only on the greatness of the sacrifice Mary made of Herself to God when She offered Him the life of Her Son. This will be the subject of our discourse.

The Eternal Father had already determined to save man who had fallen through sin, and to deliver him from eternal death. At the same time He willed that Divine justice should not be deprived of a worthy and fitting satisfaction. And so He did not spare the life of His Son Who had already become man to redeem men, but willed that He should pay with the utmost rigor the penalty which all men deserved. He who has not spared even His own Son, but has delivered Him for us all [Rom. 8: 32].

Sending Him to earth to become man, He gave Him a mother. He willed that this mother should be the Blessed Virgin. But since He willed that the Divine Word should not become Her Son before She had accepted Him by an express act of Her will, so He also willed that Jesus should not sacrifice His life for the salvation of mankind without the consent of Mary. The heart of the Mother was to be sacrificed along with the life of the Son.

St. Thomas teaches that the very office of motherhood gives mothers a special right over their children. [1] Thus, inasmuch as Jesus Himself was innocent and did not deserve punishment, it seemed only fitting that He should not be condemned to the Cross as a victim for the sins of the world without the consent of His Mother.

Now while Mary consented to His death from the moment that She became the Mother of Jesus, God nevertheless wished that She should make a solemn sacrifice of Herself in the Temple on this day by making a solemn offering of the life of Her Son. And it is because of this sacrifice that St. Epiphanius calls Mary a “priest.” [2]

We begin to see now how much this sacrifice cost Mary in the way of sorrow, and what heroic virtue She had to practice in order to assent to the sentence of death passed on Her Son.

Imagine, for instance, Mary on the road to Jerusalem on the first Presentation Day. She hurries toward the place of sacrifice and holds the beloved Victim in Her arms. She enters the Temple, approaches the altar, and there, unassumingly, humbly and devoutly presents Him to the Most High. Meanwhile holy Simeon, who had been promised by God that he should not die without first having seen the expected Messias, takes the Divine Child from the hands of the Blessed Virgin and, inspired by the Holy Spirit, tells Her how much the sacrifice of Her Son will cost Her. He tells Her too that together with Him Her own blessed soul will also be sacrificed.

In a sermon on the Purification, St. Thomas of Villanova pictures the holy old man becoming troubled and silent at the thought of having to make such a gloomy prophecy. Then he pictures Mary asking: “Why are you troubled on such a happy day, Simeon?” “O royal Virgin,” he replies, “I wish I did not have to give You such bitter news. But God wills it for Your greater merit. Listen then to what I have to say. This Child who is now such a joy to You——and how rightly so, O God——this Child will one day cause You such bitter grief as no other creature has ever experienced. You will see Him persecuted by men of all types and made a butt for their scoffing and outrages. They will even go so far as to put Him to death as a criminal before Your very eyes. You are most happy to have this Child, but I tell you that He will be a stumbling block to many, a sign of contradiction. After His death there will be many Martyrs who will be tortured and put to death for the love of Your Son. They will suffer Martyrdom in their bodies, but You, O holy Mother, will suffer it in Your heart.”

<>Yes, Mary was to suffer in Her heart. Her compassion for Her most beloved Son was the sword which was destined to pierce Her motherly heart, as St. Simeon accurately foretold: And Thy own soul a sword shall pierce [Lk. 2: 35].

St. Jerome assures us that the Blessed Virgin was well versed in the Sacred Scriptures and therefore was aware what the Redeemer would have to suffer during His life, and even more at the time of His death. She fully understood from the Prophets that He was to be betrayed by one of His own disciples: Even My friend who had My trust and partook of My bread, has raised his heel against Me [Ps. 40, 10]. And that He would be abandoned by them: Strike the shepherd, and the sheep shall be scattered [Zach. 13: 7]. She knew all about the contempt, the spitting, the blows, the scorn that He would be made to suffer at the hands of the people: I have given My body to the strikers, and My cheeks to them that plucked them: I have not turned away My face from them that rebuked Me and that spit upon Me [Isa. 50: 6]. She knew that He was to become the reproach of the vilest men and the outcast of the people, and would be overwhelmed with insults and injuries: But I am a worm, not a man: the scorn of men, despised by the people [Ps. 21, 7]; He shall be filled with reproaches [Lam. 3: 30]. She knew also that at the end of His life His most sacred flesh would be tom and mangled by scourges: But He was wounded for our iniquities, He was bruised for our sins [Isa. 53 : 5]. She knew that His whole body would be disfigured and become like that of a leper——all wounds, with the bones exposed where they pierced the flesh: There is no beauty in Him nor comeliness . . . and we have thought Him, as it were, a leper [Isa. 53: 5]. They have numbered all His bones [Ps. 21, 18]. She knew that He was to be pierced by nails: They have pierced My hands and My feet [Ps. 21, 17]. And would be ranked with criminals: And He was reputed with the wicked [Isa. 53: 12]. And that finally, hanging on a Cross, He would die for the salvation of mankind: And they shall look upon Me, Whom they have pierced [Zach. 12: 10].

Mary, I say, was already well aware of all these tortures that Jesus would have to suffer, but Simeon’s words, And Thy own soul a sword shall pierce, revealed to Her all the details of those sufferings, internal and external, that were to torment Him, as Our Lord Himself revealed to St. Teresa. [3] She consented to everything, however, with a steadfastness that filled even the Angels with astonishment. She pronounced the sentence that condemned Her Son to death——a death so ignominious and painful——when She said: “Eternal Father, since You will that it should be so, not My will, but Thine be done [Lk. 22: 42]. I unite My will to Your most holy will, and I sacrifice My Son to You. I am happy to have Him lose His life for Your glory and the salvation of the world. At the same time I sacrifice My heart to You so that it may be pierced with sorrow as much as You please. It is enough for Me, O My God, that You be glorified and content with My offering: Not My will, but Thine be done.”

O immeasurable charity! O unparalleled constancy! O victory deserving the eternal admiration of Heaven and earth!

This explains why Mary was silent during the Passion of Jesus when He was being unjustly accused. She said nothing to Pilate who was somewhat inclined to set Him free, fully aware as She was of His innocence. She only appeared in public to be present at His great sacrifice which was to take place on Calvary. She accompanied Him to the place of execution. She was with Him from the fIrst moment He was nailed on the Cross: There stood by the Cross of Jesus, His Mother [Jn. 19: 25]. She stood there until She saw Him expire and the sacrifice was consummated. All this She did in order to complete the offering She had made of Him to God in the Temple.

To appreciate what this sacrifice meant to Mary it would be necessary to understand the love She had for Jesus. Generally speaking, the love of mothers is so great that when their children are about to die and there is danger of losing them, they forget all their faults and shortcomings. They even forget the injuries they may have received from them, and suffer unimaginable heartache. But many times the love of these mothers is a divided love, a love that extends to other children, or at least to other creatures. Mary had only one child——the most admirable ever born. He was most lovable, for He had everything to make Him so. He was most obedient, most virtuous, most innocent, most holy. In a word, He was God. And Mary’s love stopped right there. It did not extend to any other created being. She concentrated all Her love on Her only Son. Nor was She afraid of going too far in loving Him. This Son was God and He deserved limitless love. This was the Son Who was at the same time the victim She was voluntarily sacrificing to death.

Let us then imagine how much it must have cost Mary, what strength of soul it must have taken, to perform this act which amounted to sacrificing the life of Her Son on the Cross. On the one hand, She was the most fortunate of all mothers because She was the Mother of God. On the other hand, She was at the same time the mother most to be pitied, the most sorrowful mother imaginable, because She was obliged to see Her Son destined for the Cross from the day He was born. What mother would accept a child knowing that she was destined to lose him later on by a disgraceful death, and knowing that she herself would be there and see him die? But Mary willingly accepted Her Son on these difficult terms. She not only accepted Him, but on this day offered Him to death with Her own hands, sacrificing Him to Divine justice.

St. Bonaventure says that the Blessed Virgin would have gladly agreed to suffer the pains and death of Her Son personally. But in order to obey God, She made the great offering of the life of Her Son Jesus, conquering the tender love She had for Him, but with an excess of grief.

“Had it been possible, She would willingly have endured all the torments of Her Son. But God willed that His only-begotten Son should be offered up for the salvation of the human race.”
By this sacrifice Mary brought Herself more grief and was more generous than if She had offered to suffer in Her own person all that Her Son was to endure. That is why we may say that She surpassed all the Martyrs in generosity; for the Martyrs offered their own lives to God, but the Blessed Virgin offered the life of Her Son Whom She loved and esteemed infinitely more than Her own life.

The pain of this sorrowful sacrifice did not end here. This was actually only the beginning. For from that time on, during the whole life of Her Son, Mary had constantly before Her eyes the bitter death and all the torments He was to endure.

The more charming, gracious, and loving Her Son became, the more Her heart was filled with increasing anguish.

O sorrowful Mother, if You had loved Your Son less, or if He had been less lovable or had loved You less, Your sufferings would certainly not have been so great when You offered Him to death. But there never was, and never will be, a mother who loved her son more than You did. And there never was, and never will be, a son more lovable, or one who loved his mother more than Jesus did. O God, had we beheld the beauty, the majesty of the face of that Divine Child, would we ever have had the courage to sacrifice His life for our salvation? And yet You, O Mary, although You were His Mother and loved Him with such a tender love, had the courage to offer Him for the salvation of mankind, to a death more cruel and painful than any criminal ever suffered on earth!

How sad a scene must love have placed before the eyes of the Blessed Virgin from that day on, a scene in which all the outrages and mockeries which Her poor Son was to endure were delineated. See how love already represents Him agonized with sorrow in the garden, torn with scourges, crowned with thorns in the praetorium, and finally hanging on a Cross of shame on Calvary! “See, O Mother,” says love, “what an amiable and innocent Son You are offering to such terrible tortures and to such a horrible death!” And what is the use of trying to save Him from the hands of Herod when You are only destining Him for a far more sorrowful fate?

Mary not only offered Jesus to death in the Temple, but She renewed that offering every moment of Her life. She revealed to St. Bridget: “That sorrow [foretold by the holy Simeon] never left My heart until I was assumed, body and soul, into Heaven.” Therefore St. Anselm addresses Her in these words: “O compassionate Mother, I cannot believe that You could have endured such excruciating torments even for a moment without dying, unless God Himself, the Spirit of Life, had sustained You.” But St. Bernard, in speaking of the great sorrow which Mary experienced on this day, says that from this time on “She endured a living death, bearing a sorrow more cruel than death.” Every moment that She lived She died, for She was assailed at every moment by sorrow for the coming death of Her Jesus, a torment more cruel than any death.

Because of the immense merit She acquired for the salvation of the world by this great sacrifice to God, St. Augustine was quite right in calling the Blessed Mother the “repairer of the human race.” And St. Epiphanius, “the redeemer of captives;” St. Germanus, “our deliverer from all calamities;” St. Ambrose, “the mother of all the faithful;” St. Augustine, “the mother of the living;” St. Andrew of Crete, “the mother of life.”

Arnold of Chartres says: “The will of Mary and the will of Christ were then united so intimately that both offered up the same sacrifice. Because of that union of wills, Mary brought about with Christ that one effect, namely, the salvation of the world.” Jesus accomplished it by making satisfaction for our sins; Mary by obtaining the application of this satisfaction to us . . .

Mary then, by the merit of Her sorrows and by sacrificing Her Son, became the Mother of all the redeemed, and it is only right to believe that it is through Her hands that the milk of Divine grace, the fruit of Christ’s merits and the means for obtaining eternal life are given to men. St. Bernard refers to this when he says: “When God was about to redeem the human race, He deposited the whole price in Mary’s hands.” By this he meant that the merits of the Redeemer are applied to our souls through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin, for the graces which are the fruit of the merits of Jesus Christ are dispensed by Her hands.

If God was so pleased by the sacrifice of his son Isaac which Abraham was to make to the Divine Majesty that He promised to multiply Abraham’s descendants as the stars of the heavens——Because thou hast done this thing, and hast not spared thy only-begotten son for My sake, I will bless thee, and I will multiply thy seed as the stars of Heaven [Gen. 22: 16-17]—— we must surely believe that the far nobler sacrifice of Her Son Jesus which Mary made was immeasurably more acceptable to God. And as a result, He has granted that by Her prayers the number of the elect should be increased. That is, the number of souls coming to Heaven through Her shall be great.

God promised St. Simeon that he would not die until he had seen the birth of the Messias: And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he should not see death before he had seen the Christ of the Lord [Lk. 2: 26]. But it was only through Mary that he received this grace, for it was in Her arms that he found the Savior. So we may say that anyone who wants to find Jesus will find Him only through Mary. Let us therefore go to this holy Mother if we wish to find Jesus, and let us go with great confidence.

Mary told Her servant Pudenziana Zagnoni that every year on the feast of Her Purification [February 2] some sinner would receive a great grace.

Who knows but that you or I may be the favored sinner this day? Our sins may be great but the power of Mary is still greater. “The Son can deny nothing to His Mother,” says St. Bernard. If Jesus is angry with us, Mary will immediately placate Him. Plutarch reports that Antipater wrote a long letter to Alexander the Great denouncing Alexander’s mother, Olympia. After reading the letter, Alexander observed: “Antipater does not know that a single tear of my mother is enough to cancel six hundred letters of denunciation.” We may also imagine Jesus giving the same answer to any denunciations made against us by the devil when we have Mary praying for us: “Does Lucifer not know that a prayer of My Mother in favor of a sinner is enough to make Me forget all the accusations against him?”

Footnotes:
(1) Scholars have been unable to locate a text corresponding to this in the works of St. Thomas Aquinas.
(2) This title of “priest’ was also given to Mary in a prayer composed at the direction of Pope St. Pius X and approved by him on May 9, 1906.
(3) St. Teresa probably received this revelation in the Convent of the Incarnation in 1572.

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