Saint Alphonsus de Liguori – Of the Birth of Mary

[Saint Alphonsus Maria de Liguori]Mary was born a Saint, and a great Saint; for the grace with which God enriched her from the beginning was great, and the fidelity with which she immediately corresponded with it was great.

Men usually celebrate the birth of their children with great feasts and rejoicings; but they should rather pity them, and show signs of mourning, and grief on reflecting that they are born, not only deprived of grace and reason, but worse than this they are infected with sin and children of wrath, and therefore condemned to misery and death. It is indeed right, however, to celebrate with festivity and universal joy the birth of our infant Mary; for she first saw the light of this world a baby, it is true, in point of age, but great in merit and virtue. Mary was born a Saint, and a great Saint. But to form an idea of the greatness of her sanctity, even at this early period, we must consider, first, the greatness of the first grace with which God enriched her; and secondly, the greatness of her fidelity in immediately corresponding with it.

First point. – To begin with the first point, it is certain that Mary’s soul was the most beautiful that God had ever created; nay more, after the work of the Incarnation of the Eternal Word, this was the greatest and most worthy of Himself that an omnipotent God ever did in the world. Saint Peter Damian calls it ‘a work only surpassed by God.’ Hence it follows that Divine grace did not come into Mary by drops as in other Saints, “but like rain on the fleece,” as it was foretold by David. The soul of Mary was like fleece, and imbibed the whole shower of grace, without losing a drop. Saint Basil of Seleucia says, ‘that the holy Virgin was full of grace, because she was elected and preelected by God, and the Holy Spirit was about to take full possession of her.’ Hence she said, by the lips of Ecclesiasticus, “My abode is in the full assembly of saints;” that is, as Saint Bonaventure explains it, ‘I hold in plenitude all that other Saints have held in part.’ And Saint Vincent Ferrer, speaking particularly of the sanctity of Mary before her birth, says ‘that the Blessed Virgin was sanctified’ (surpassed in sanctity) ‘in her mother’s womb above all Saints and angels.’

The grace that the Blessed Virgin received exceeded not only that of each particular Saint, but of all the angels and saints put together, as the most learned Father Francis Pepe, of the Society of Jesus, proves in his beautiful work on the greatness of Jesus and Mary. And he asserts that this opinion, so glorious for our Queen, is now generally admitted, and considered as beyond doubt by modern theologians (such as Carthagena, Suarez, Spinelli, Recupito, and Guerra, who have professedly examined the question, and this was never done by the more ancient theologians). And besides this he relates, that the Divine Mother sent Father Martin Guttierez to thank Father Suarez, on her part, for having so courageously defended this most probable opinion, and which, according to Father Segneri, in his ‘Client of Mary,’ was afterwards believed and defended by the University of Salamanca.

But if this opinion is general and certain, the other is also very probable; namely, that Mary received this grace, exceeding that all men and angels together, in the first instant of her Immaculate Conception. Father Suarez strongly maintains this opinion, as do also Father Spinelli, Father Recupito, and Father la Colombiere. But besides the authority of theologians, there are two great and convincing, arguments, which sufficiently prove the correctness of the above opinion. The first is, that Mary was chosen by God to be the Mother of the Divine Word. Hence Denis the Carthusian says, ‘that as she was chosen to an order superior to that of all other creatures (for in a certain sense the dignity of Mother of God, as Father Suarez asserts, belongs to the order of hypostatic union), it is reasonable to suppose that from the very beginning of her life gifts of a superior order were conferred upon her, and such gifts, that they must have incomparably surpassed those granted to all other creatures. And indeed it cannot be doubted that when the Person of the Eternal Word was, in the Divine decrees, predestined to make Himself man, a Mother was also destined for Him, from whom He was to take His human nature; and this Mother was our infant Mary. Now Saint Thomas teaches that ‘God gives everyone grace proportioned to the dignity which He destines him.’ And Saint Paul teaches us the same thing when he says, “Who also hath made us fit ministers of the New Testament;” that is, the apostles received gifts from God, proportioned to the greatness of the office with which they were charged. Saint Bernardine of Sienna adds, ‘that it is an axiom in theology, that when a person is chosen by God for any state, he receives not only the dispositions necessary for it, but even the gifts which he needs to sustain that state with decorum.’ But as Mary was chosen to be the Mother of God, it was quite becoming that God should adorn her in the first Moment of her existence, with an immense grace, and one of a superior order to that of all other men and angels, since it had to correspond with the immense and high dignity to which God exalted her. And all theologians come to this conclusion with Saint Thomas, who says, ‘the Blessed Virgin was chosen to be the Mother of God; and therefore it is not to be doubted but that God fitted her for it by His grace;’ so much so, that Mary, before becoming Mother of God, was adorned with a sanctity so perfect that it rendered her fit for this great dignity. The holy Doctor says, ‘that in the Blessed Virgin there was a preparatory perfection, which rendered her fit to be the Mother of Christ, and this was the perfection of sanctification.

And before making this last remark the Saint had said, that Mary was called full of grace, not on the part of grace itself, for she had it not in the highest possible degree, since even the habitual grace of Jesus Christ (according to the same holy Doctor) was not such, that the absolute power of God could not have made it greater, although it was a grace sufficient for the end for which His humanity was ordained by the Divine Wisdom, that is, for its union with the Person of the Eternal Word: ‘Although the Divine power could make something greater and better than the habitual grace of Christ, it could not fit it for anything greater than the personal union with the only begotten Son of the Father, and with which union that measure of grace sufficiently corresponds, according to the limit placed by Divine Wisdom.’ For the same angelic Doctor teaches that the Divine power is so great, that, however much it gives, it can always give more; and although the natural capacity of creatures is in itself limited as to receiving, so that it can be entirely filled, nevertheless its power to obey the Divine will is illimited, and God can always fill it – more by increasing its capacity to receive.’ As far as its natural capacity goes, it can be filled; but it cannot be filled as far as its power of obeying goes.’ But now to return to our proposition, Saint Thomas says, ‘that the Blessed Virgin was not filled with grace, as to grace itself; nevertheless she is called full of grace as to herself, for she had an immense grace, one which was sufficient, and corresponded with her immense dignity, so much so that it fitted her to be the Mother of God: ‘ The Blessed Virgin is full of grace, not with the fulness of grace itself, for she had not grace in the highest degree of excellence in which it can be had, nor had she it as to all its effects; but she was said to be full of grace as to herself, because she had sufficient grace for that state to which she was chosen by God, that is, to be the Mother of His only-begotten Son.’ Hence Benedict Fernandez says, ‘that the measure whereby we may know the greatness of the grace communicated to Mary is her dignity of Mother of God.’

It was not without reason, then, that David said that the foundations of this city of God, that is, Mary, are planted above the summits of the mountains: “The foundations thereof are in the holy mountains.” Whereby we are to understand that Mary, in the very beginning, of her life, was to be more perfect than the united perfections of the entire lives of the Saints could have made her. And the Prophet continues: ‘The Lord loveth the gates of Sion above all the tabernacles of Jacob.” And the same King David tells us why God thus loved her; it was because He was to become man in her virginal womb: ” A man is born in her.” Hence it was becoming that God should give this Blessed Virgin; in the very moment that He created her, a grace corresponding with the dignity of Mother of God.

Isaias signified the same thing, when he said that, in a time to come, a mountain of the house of the Lord (which was the Blessed Virgin) was to be prepared on the top of all other mountains; and that, in consequence, all nations would run to this mountain to receive the Divine mercies. “And in the last days the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be prepared on the top of mountains, and it shall be exalted above the hills, and all nations shall flow unto it.” Saint Gregory, explaining this passage, says, ‘It is a mountain on the top of mountains; for the perfection of Mary is resplendent above that of all the Saints.’ And Saint John Damascen, that it is ‘a mountain in which God was well pleased to dwell.’ Therefore Mary was called a cypress, but a cypress of Mount Sion: she was called a cedar, but a cedar of Libanus: an olive-tree, but a fair olive-tree; beautiful, but beautiful as the sun; for as Saint Peter Damian says, ‘As the light of the sun so greatly surpasses that of the stars, that in it they are no longer visible; it so overwhelms them, that they are as if they were not;’ ‘so does the great Virgin Mother surpass in sanctity the whole court of heaven.’ So much so that Saint Bernard elegantly remarks, that the sanctity of Mary, as so sublime, that ‘no other mother than Mary became a God, and no other Son than God became Mary.’

The second argument by which it is proved that Mary was more holy in the first moment of her existence than all the Saints together, is founded on the great office of mediatress of men, with which she was charged from the beginning; and which made it necessary that she should possess a greater treasure of grace from the beginning than all other men together. It is well known with what unanimity theologians and holy fathers give Mary this title of Mediatress, on account of her having obtained salvation for all, by her powerful intercession and merit, so called of congruity, thereby procuring the great benefit of redemption for the lost world. By her merit of congruity, I say; for Jesus Christ alone is our Mediator by way of justice and by merit, ‘de condigno’ as the scholastics say, He having offered His merits to the Eternal Father, who accepted them for our salvation. Mary, on the other hand, is a mediatress of grace, by way of simple intercession and merit of congruity, she having offered to God, as theologians say, with Saint Bonaventure, her merits, for the salvation of all men; and God, as a favour, accepted them with the merits of Jesus Christ. On this account Arnold of Chartres says that ‘she effected our salvation in common with Christ.’ And Richard of Saint Victor says that ‘Mary desired, sought, and obtained the salvation of all; nay, even she effected the salvation of all.’ So that everything good, and every gift in the order of grace, which each of the Saints received from God, Mary obtained for them.

And the holy Church wishes us to understand this, when she honours the Divine Mother hy applying the following verses of Ecclesiasticus to her: “In me is all grace of the way and the truth.” ‘Of the way,’ because by Mary all graces are dispensed to wayfarers. ‘(Of the truth,’ because the light of truth is imparted by her. “In me is all hope of life and of virtue.” ‘Of life,’ for by Mary we hope to obtain the life of grace in this world, and that of glory in heaven; ‘And of virtue,’ for through her we acquire virtues, and especially the theological virtues, which are the principal virtues of the Saints. “I am the Mother of fair love, and of fear, and of knowledge, and of holy hope.” Mary, by her intercession, obtains for her servants the gifts of Divine love, holy fear, heavenly light, and holy perseverance. From which Saint Bernard concludes that it is a doctrine of the Church, that Mary is the universal mediatress of our salvation. He says: ‘Magnify the finder of grace, the mediatress of salvation, the restorer of ages. This I am taught by the Church proclaiming it; and thus also she teaches me to proclaim the same thing to others.’

Saint Sophronius, Patriarch of Jerusalem, asserts that the reason for which the Archangel Gabriel called her full of grace, “Hail, full of grace!” was because only limited grace was given to others, but it was given to Mary in all its plenitude: ‘Truly was she full; for grace is given to other Saints partially, but the whole plenitude of grace poured itself into Mary.’ Saint Basil of Seleucia declares that she received this plenitude, that she might thus be a worthy mediatress between men and God: ‘Hail, full of grace, mediatress between God and men, and by whom heaven and earth are brought together and united.’ `Otherwise,’ says Saint Lawrence Justinian, ‘had not the Blessed Virgin been full of Divine grace, how could she have become the ladder to heaven, the advocate of the world, and the most true mediatress between men and God?’

The second argument has now become clear and evident. If Mary, as the already-destined Mother of our common Redeemer, received from the very beginning the office of mediatress of all men, and consequently even of the Saints, it was also requisite from the very beginning she should have a grace exceeding that of all the Saints for whom she was to intercede. I will explain myself more clearly. If, by the means of Mary, all men were to render themselves dear to God, necessarily Mary was more holy and more dear to Him than all men together. Otherwise, how could she have interceded for all others? That an intercessor may obtain the favour of a prince for all his vassals, it is absolutely necessary that he should be more dear to his prince than all the other vassals. And therefore Saint Anselm concludes, that Mary deserved to be made the worthy repairer of the lost world, because she was the most holy and the most pure of all creatures. ‘The pure sanctity of her heart, surpassing the purity and sanctity of all other creatures, merited for her that she should be made the repairer of the lost world.

Mary, then, was the mediatress of men; it may be asked, but how can she be called also the mediatress of angels? Many theologians maintain that Jesus Christ merited the grace of perseverance for the angels also; so that as Jesus was their mediator ‘de condigno,’ so Mary may be said to be the mediatress even of the angels ‘de congruo,’ she having hastened the coming of the Redeemer by her prayers. At least meriting ‘de congruo’ to become the Mother of the Messiah, she merited for the angels that the thrones lost by the devils should be filled up. Thus she at least merited this accidental glory-for them; and therefore Richard of Saint Victor says, ‘By her every creature is repaired; by her the ruin of the angels is remedied; and by her human nature is reconciled.’ And before him Saint Anselm said, ‘All things are recalled and reinstated in their primitive state by this Blessed Virgin.’

So that our heavenly child, because she was appointed mediatress of the world, as also because she was destined to be the Mother of the Redeemer, received, at the very beginning of her existence, grace exceeding in greatness that of all the Saints together. Hence, how delightful a sight must the beautiful soul of this happy child have been to heaven and earth, although still enclosed in her mother’s womb! She was the most amiable creature in the eyes of God, because she was already loaded with grace and merit, and could say, ‘When I was a little one I pleased the Most High.’ And she was at the same time the creature of all others that had ever appeared in the world up to that moment, who loved God the most; so much so that had Mary been born immediately after her most pure conception, she would have come into the world richer in merits, and more holy, than all the Saints united. ‘Then let us only reflect how much greater her sanctity must have been at her nativity; coming into the world after acquiring all the merits that she did acquire during the whole of the nine months that she remained in the womb of her mother. And now let us pass to the consideration of the second point, that is to say, the greatness of the fidelity with which Mary immediately corresponded with Divine grace.

Second point. – It is not a private opinion only, says a learned author, but it is the opinion of all, that the holy child, when she received sanctifying grace in the womb of Saint Anne, received also the perfect use of her reason, and was also divinely enlightened, in a degree corresponding with the grace with which she was enriched. So that we may well believe, that from the first moment that her beautiful soul was united to her most pure body, she, by the light she had received from the Wisdom of God, knew well the eternal truths, the beauty of virtue, and above all, the infinite goodness of God; and how much He deserved to be loved by all, and particularly by himself, on account of the singular gifts with which He had adorned and distinguished her above all creatures, by preserving her from the stain of original sin, by bestowing on her such immense grace, and destining her to be the Mother of the Eternal Word, and Queen of the Universe.

Hence from that first moment Mary, grateful to God, began to do all that she could do, by immediately and faithfully trafficking with that great capital of grace which had been bestowed upon her; and applying herself entirely to please and love the Divine goodness, from that moment she loved Him with all her strength, and continued thus to love Him always, during the whole of the nine months preceding her birth, during which she never ceased for a moment to unite herself more and more closely with God by fervent acts of love. She was already free from original sin, and hence was exempt from every earthly affection, from every irregular movement, from every distraction, from every opposition on the part of the senses, which could in any way have hindered her from always advancing more and more in Divine love: her senses also concurred with her blessed spirit in tending towards God. Hence her beautiful soul, free from every impediment, never lingered, but always flew towards God, always loved Him, and always increased in love towards Him. It was for this reason that she called herself a plane-tree, planted by flowing waters: “As a plane-tree by the waters … was I exalted.” For she was that noble plant of God which always grew by the streams of Divine grace. And therefore she also calls herself a vine. “As a vine I have brought forth a pleasant odour.” Not only because she was so humble in the eyes of the world, but because she was like the vine, which, according to the common proverb, never ceases to grow.’ Other trees–the orange-tree, the mulberry, the pear-tree–have a determined height, which they attain; but the vine always grows, and grows to the height of the tree to which it is attached. And thus did the most Blessed Virgin always grow in perfection. Hail, then, O vine, always growing!’ says Saint Gregory Thaumaturgus; for she was always united to God, on whom alone she depended. Hence it was of her that the Holy Ghost spoke, saying, “Who is this that cometh up from the desert, flowing with delights, leaning upon her beloved?” which Saint Ambrose thus paraphrases: She it is that cometh up, clinging to the Eternal Word, as a vine to a vine-stock.’ Who is this accompanied by the Divine Word, that grows as a vine planted against a great tree?

Many learned theologians say that a soul which possesses a habit of virtue, as long as she corresponds faithfully with the actual grace which she receives from God, always produces an act equal in intensity to the habit she possesses; so much so that she acquires each time a new and double merit, equal to the sum of all the merits previously acquired. This kind of augmentation was, it is said, granted to the angels in the time of their probation; and if it was granted to the angels, who can ever deny that it was granted to the Divine Mother when living in this world, and especially during the time of which I speak, that she was in the womb of her mother, in which she was certainly more faithful than the angels in corresponding with Divine grace? Mary, then, during the whole of that time, in each moment, doubled that sublime grace which she possessed from the first instant; for, corresponding with her whole strength, and in the most perfect manner in her every act, she subsequently doubled her merits in every instant. So that supposing she had a thousand degrees of grace in the first instant, in the second she had two thousand, in the third four thousand, in the fourth eight thousand, and in the fifth sixteen thousand, in the sixth thirty-two thousand. And we are as yet only at the sixth instant; but multiplied thus for an entire day, multiplied for nine months, consider what treasures of grace, merit, and sanctity Mary had already acquired at the moment of her birth!

Let us, then, rejoice with our beloved infant, who was born so holy, so dear to God, and so full of grace. And let us rejoice, not only on her account, but also on our own; for she came into the world full of grace, not only for her own glory, but also for our good. Saint Thomas remarks, in his eighth treatise, that the most Blessed Virgin was full of grace in three ways: first, she was filled with grace as to her soul, so that from the beginning her beautiful soul belonged all to God, Secondly, she was filled with grace as to her body, so that she merited to clothe the Eternal Word with her most pure flesh. Thirdly, she was filled with grace for the benefit of all, so that all men might partake of it: She was also full of grace as to its overflowing for the benefit of all men.’ The angelical Doctor adds, that some Saints have so much grace that it is not only sufficient for themselves, but also for the salvation of many, though not for all men.’ The angelical Doctor adds, that some Saints have so much grace that it is not only sufficient for themselves, but also for the salvation of many, though not for all men; only to Jesus Christ and to Mary was such a grace given as sufficed to save all: should anyone have as much as would suffice for the salvation of all, this would be the greatest; and this was in Christ and in the Blessed Virgin.’ Thus far Saint Thomas. So that what Saint John says of Jesus, “And of His fulness we all have received,” the Saints say of Mary. Saint Thomas of Villanova calls her full of grace, of whose plenitude all receive;’ so much so that Saint Anselm says, that there is no one who does not partake of the grace of Mary.’ And who is there in the world to whom Mary is not benign, and does not dispense some mercy? Who was ever found to whom the Blessed Virgin was not propitious? Who is there whom her mercy does not reach?’ From Jesus, however, it is (we must understand) that we receive grace as the author of grace, from Mary as a mediatress; from Jesus as a Saviour, from Mary as an advocate; from Jesus as a source, from Mary as a channel.

Hence Saint Bernard says, that God established Mary as the channel of the mercies that He wished to dispense to men; therefore He filled her with grace, that each one’s part might be communicated to him from her fulness: A full aqueduct, that others may receive of her fulness, but not fulness itself.’ Therefore the Saint exhorts all to consider, with how much love God wills that we should honour this great Virgin, since He has deposited the whole treasure of His graces in her: so that whatever we possess of hope, grace, and salvation, we may thank our most loving Queen for all, since all comes to us from her hands and by her powerful intercession. He thus beautifully expresses himself: Behold with what tender feelings of devotion He wills that we should honour her! He who has placed the plenitude of all good in Mary; that thus, if we have any hope, or anything salutary in us, we may know that it was from her that it overflowed.’ Miserable is that soul which closes this channel of grace against itself, by neglecting to recommend itself to Mary! When Holofernes wished to gain possession of the city of Bethulia, he took care to destroy the aqueducts: “He commanded their aqueduct to be cut off.” And this the devil does when he wishes to become master of a soul; he causes her to give up devotion to the most Blessed Virgin Mary; and when once this channel is closed, she easily loses supernatural light, the fear of God, and finally eternal salvation. Read the following example, in which may be seen how great is the compassion of the heart of Mary, and the destruction that he brings on himself who closes this channel against himself, by giving up devotion to the Queen of Heaven.

EXAMPLE

Trithemius, Canisius, and others, relate that in Magdeburg, a city of Saxony, there was a man called Udo, who from his youth was so destitute of talent, that he was the laughing-stock of all his companions. One day, more afflicted than usual at his own incapacity, he went to recommend himself to the most Blessed Virgin, and for this purpose was kneeling before her statue. Mary appeared to him in a vision, and said, Udo, I will console thee, and not only will I obtain thee from God sufficient capacity to free thee from the scoffs of others, but, moreover, such talents as to render thee an object of wonder; and besides this, I promise thee, that after the death of the bishop, thou shalt be chosen to fill his place.’ All that Mary said was verified. Udo made rapid progress in the sciences, and obtained the bishopric of that city. But Udo was to such a degree ungrateful to God and his benefactress, as to give up every devotion, and became a scandal to all. One night, when in bed, he heard a voice which said, Udo, cease thy wickedness; thou hast sinned enough.’ The first time he was enraged at these words, thinking it was some one who had concealed himself, and thus addressed him for his correction. Hearing the same voice a second and a third night, he began to fear that it was a voice from heaven. Yet with all this he continued his wicked life. After three months which God gave him to repent, chastisement came, and it was this: a devout canon named Frederic was one night in the church of Saint Maurice, praying that God would apply a remedy to the scandal given by the prelate, when a violent wind threw open the doors of the church, and two young men entered with lighted torches in their hands, stationing themselves on either side of the high altar. Two others followed, and extended a carpet before the altar, and placed two golden chairs on it. After this another young man came dressed as a soldier, with a sword in his hand, and standing in the midst of the church, cried out: O ye Saints of heaven, whose sacred relics are in this church, come and witness the great act of justice about to be executed by the Sovereign Judge.’ At this cry many Saints appeared, and also the twelve Apostles as assessors of this judgment; and finally Jesus Christ entered, and seated Himself on one of the chairs that had been prepared. Mary then appeared, accompanied by many holy virgins, and her Son seated her on the other chair. The Judge now commanded the criminal to be brought, and it was the miserable Udo. Saint Maurice spoke, and on the part of the scandalised people asked that justice should be executed on the prelate for his infamous life. All raised their voices and exclaimed, Lord, he deserves death.’ Let him die immediately,’ answered the Eternal Judge. But before the execution of the sentence (see how great is the compassion of Mary!) The compassionate Mother, that she might not assist at that tremendous act of justice, left the church; and then the heavenly minister, who entered with a sword amongst the first, approached Udo, and with one stroke cut off his head, and all disappeared. All remained in darkness. The canon trembling went to get a light from a lamp which was burning under the church, and found the decapitated body of Udo and the pavement all covered with blood. On the following morning, when the people had assembled in the church, the canon related the vision, and the whole history of the horrible tragedy he had witnessed. On the same day, the miserable Udo appeared, in the flames of hell, to one of his chaplains, who knew nothing of what had taken place in the church. Udo’s dead body was thrown into a marsh, and his blood remained on the pavement as a perpetual memorial, and was always kept covered with a carpet. From that time forward it became the custom to uncover it when a new bishop took possession of his see, that at the sight of such a chastisement he might learn how to regulate his life, and not be ungrateful for the graces of our Lord, and those of His most Holy Mother.

PRAYER

O holy and heavenly Infant, Thou who art the destined Mother of my Redeemer and the great Mediatress of miserable sinners, pity me. Behold at thy feet another ungrateful sinner who has recourse to thee and asks thy compassion. It is true, that for my ingratitude to God and to thee, I deserve that God and thou should abandon me; but I have heard, and believe it to be so (knowing the greatness of thy mercy), that thou dost not refuse to help any one who recommends himself to thee with confidence. O most exalted creature in the world! Since this is the case, and since there is no one but God above thee, so that compared with thee the greatest Saints of heaven are little; O Saint of Saints, O Mary! Abyss of charity, and full of grace, succour a miserable creature who by his own fault has lost the divine favour. I know that thou art so dear to God that He denies thee nothing. I know also that thy pleasure is to use thy greatness for the relief of miserable sinners. Ah, then, show how great is the favour that thou enjoyest with God, by obtaining me a divine light and flame so powerful that I may be changed from a sinner into a Saint; and detaching myself from every earthly affection, divine love may be enkindled in me. Do this, O Lady, for thou canst do it. Do it for the love of God, who has made thee so great, so powerful, and so compassionate. This is my hope. Amen.