August 28th is commonly the memorial of Saint Augustine of Hippo, but since it fell yesterday, which was on a Sunday, the Sunday Solemnity always trumps it and we celebrated the 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (in the Latin Rite). Since yesterday was August 28th, I found it fitting today to discuss with you some of the Marian writings of Saint Augustine of Hippo. He continued the strong tradition of explaining her role in the Church, as did his predecessors, especially drawing from his master, another theological powerhouse, Saint Ambrose of Milan.
I would encourage you, as I do often, to research on your own the writings of these great saints that I draw from for this blog. I would also encourage you to check out my previous writings on him – Saint Augustine of Hippo: The Doctor of Grace, The Life of Saint Augustine Through the Words of Pope Benedict XVI, and The Words of Saint Augustine of Hippo.
The writings of St. Augustine are so dynamic and profound that many of his statements show up in the writings of the Second Vatican Council. The Council Fathers found his writings so impactful, that they singlehandedly cite his quotations the most of all the Early Church Fathers. And since we are drawing from St. Augustine today, this blog post is bit lengthier than most of my other “Mondays with Mary.” Remember, Pope Benedict XVI spent five Wednesday audiences on him in 2008, the most time he spent on one Early Church Father.
The first theme we are going to focus on today is the idea of ‘Mary and the Predestination of Christ.’ Predestination is a central theme in the writings of St. Augustine, although the very concept has been confused and distorted in theological circles over the centuries. His concepts of this subject found their genesis in his battling with the Pelagians and the Pelagian heresy. He says first and foremost that the Son of God, Jesus Christ, is a subject of divine predestination –
“I repeat: there is no more outstanding example of predestination than the Mediator himself. The faithful Christian who wishes to understand this well should pay attention to this example, for in it he will find himself.”
Coming after Our Lord, St. Augustine follows up with the predestination of Mary. She is an indispensible part of God’s plan, chosen by Christ himself upon the cross –
“Then [at the foot of the Cross] he recognized her; yet, he had always known her. Even before he was born of her, he knew his Mother in her predestination. Before he, as God, created her from whom he would be created as man, he knew his Mother.”
According to St. Augustine, the Virgin Mary’s future destiny originates from God himself and through his divine will. God knows her and chooses her. She was completely chosen by God –
“And so he created a Virgin, whom he had chosen to be his Mother; a woman who did not conceive according to the law of the sinful flesh…He chose her, to b created from her…He came into the Virgin, who existed before the Virgin. He chose the Mother he had created; he created the Mother he had chosen.”
Another theme we see his writings, drawing from the first theme, is Mary as Virgin and Mother. These two prerogatives define her role in salvation history for it gives her a personal and intimate relationship with both Christ and the Church. Her role in the Incarnation, Augustine says, is a vital element for protecting the one true faith.He goes on to say that for a Christian to obtain salvation, he or she must place their faith in the word of God.
Mary’s divine motherhood, according to St. Augustine, derives from the divine Son that she carried in her womb, which in its own right is a miraculous sign. Her womb was sanctified for all time – which makes her the Perpetual Ever Virgin. Augustine writes – “Virgin in conceiving, virgin in giving birth, virgin with child, virgin mother, virgin forever.”
Madonna and Child with Angels – Duccio
Although this divine plan was of God, Augustine argues that Mary’s decision to be a consecrated virgin (my words) did not eliminate a free choice on her own part. St. Augustine is considered the first Early Church Father in the West to think that Mary made a vow of virginity at some point in time before the Annunciation. In the East, St. Gregory of Nyssa believed the same concept. Augustine says the proof of this vow lies in her own words at the Annunciation when she is perplexed and questions the divine messenger –
“Because she had made a vow of virginity and her husband did not have to be the thief of her modesty instead of its guardian (and yet her husband was not its guardian, since it was God who guarded it; her husband was only the witness of her virginal chastity, so that her pregnancy would not be considered the result of adultery), when the angel brought her the news, she said: How can this be, since I do not know man?” (Lk 1:34). Had she intended to know man, she would not have been amazed. Her amazement is a sign of the vow.”
Another theme we see his writings is that of ‘Mary and the Church.’ Her spiritual motherhood is connected to the members of the Church since she herself is part of the Church, even though she preceded the Church. For St. Augustine, Mary’s motherhood and the motherhood of the Church are often united. He says,
“…She is clearly the Mother of his members; that is, of ourselves, because she cooperated by her charity, so that faithful Christians, members of the Head, might be born in the Church. As for the body, she is the Mother of its Head…Mary gave birth to our Head; the Church gave birth to you. Indeed, the Church also is both virgin and mother, mother because of her womb of charity, virgin because of the integrity of her faith and piety.”
The last theme we are going to focus on today is Mary’s holiness and faith. We believe that Mary is the highest and most holy of all creatures; Christ was not created but begotten – he always was a distinct person of the Most Holy Trinity. Through her Immaculate Conception (Augustine is a forerunner of the doctrine), she was given particular gifts, extraordinary gifts; that made her exceptional in a way no other creature of God had been created before. Mary’s holiness is rooted in the idea that God preserved her from all sin – both original and actual.
Augustine holds this position in complete opposition to the Pelagians who thought that man was capable of not sinning through the power of his own will. Following his master, St. Ambrose, Augustine believes that it’s only through a singular grace from God that allows the Virgin Mary to live without the effects of sin. St. Augustine says –
“With the exception of the holy Virgin Mary, in whose case, out of respect for the Lord, I do not wish there to be any further question as far as sin in concerned, since how can we know what great abundance of grace was conferred on her to conquer sin in every way, seeing that she merited to conceive and bear him who certainly had no sin at all?”
Again, like his master, St. Ambrose, the Doctor of Grace, emphasizes that Mary’s faith, which is rooted in her holiness, is seen practically at the Annunciation and in her dialogue with the angel and contrasts the questioning of Zechariah, who is punished for his skeptical words. True faith, authentic faith is rooted in our heart, requires obedience to God; a love for God, and we see this with the Virgin Mary most distinctly. St. Augustine writes –
“Because Mary says: ‘How will this happen, since I do not know man’ (Lk 1:34), calumniators might accuse her of having little faith. But she is inquiring about the “how” and does not doubt the power of God…
Zechariah, on the other hand, who spoke more or less in the same way, is reproved as unbeliever and punished by the loss of his voice. Why? Was it not because God does not judge according to the words we speak but according to what is in our hearts?”
When it comes down it all, Mary is a great example to us all in many things, but specifically that she hears the Word of God and knows how to practice it with obedience. When it comes to our own lives, we must have a Marian disposition, we must say “Yes” to God in obedience. Her fiat to God must be our fiat to God.
Holy Virgin and Mother of God…Pray for us.
St. Augustine of Hippo…Pray for us.
Gambero, Luigi. Mary and the Fathers of the Church. Ignatius Press, 1999.