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How Can We Imitate Mary in Our Own Lives? – Fr. Cantalamessa Contemplates in 3rd Advent Sermon of 2019

Reminds Jesus Explained Two Ways We Can Become Like His Mother

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How can we imitate the Mother of God in our own lives?…

This was contemplated during the third Advent homily of Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, the preacher of the pontifical household, given today, December 19, 2019, where he reflected on the Mother of God and her giving birth to the Lord.

In his reflection, titled ‘She Gave Birth to Her First Born Son,’ he reminds: «Our method of advancing in our pilgrimage in Mary’s wake consists in contemplating the single steps she took so as to then imitate her in our own lives.»

«How can we imitate the Madonna as the Mother of God? Is it possible for Mary to be the figure of the Church, her model, on this point too?» he asked.

«Not only is it pos­sible,» the Papal Preacher answers, «but there have been those, for example, Origen, St. Au­gustine, St. Bernard, who went so far as to say that without imitation Mary’s title would be of no value to us: “What use would it be to me that Christ was born once of Mary in Bethle­hem if he were not born of faith in my soul too?”

Father Cantalamessa also gives a historical glance at the formation of dogma and reflects on «how to conceive and bring forth Christ again.»

He calls on faithful to see how to apply the title “Mother of God” to each one of us.

«Let us see how we can really become mothers of Christ,» he continued, pointing out: «Jesus himself told us how we become his mother. It happens in two ways: by hearing the Word and by practicing it.»

The full English text of the Advent sermon follows:


  1. Raniero Cantalamessa, ofmcap


Mary, the Mother of God

Third Advent Sermon 2019


The steps we are taking in Mary’s wake correspond to the historical development of her life as we know it from the Gospels. The meditation on the faith of Mary took us back to the moment of the Annunciation, that of the Magnificat to the moment of the Visitation; and now, that of Mary Mother of God, to Christmas. It was at Christmas, in fact, at the moment in which “she gave birth to her first-born son” (Luke 2:7), that Mary truly and fully became the Mother of God.

When talking of Mary, Scripture constantly stresses two fun­damental acts, or moments, which correspond to what common human experience considers essential for a real and full maternity to take place—to conceive and to give birth. “Behold,” the angel said to Mary, “you will conceive in your womb and bear a son” (Luke 1:31). These two moments also exist in Matthew’s account: that which was conceived in her was of the Holy Spirit, and she would bear a son (see Matt 1:20 f.). The prophecy of Isaiah in which all of this had been foretold used the same ex­pression: A “young woman shall conceive and bear a son” (Isa 7:14). Now you can see why I said that it was only at Christmas, when Mary gave birth to Jesus, that she became in a full sense the Mother of God.

The title “Mother of God” (Dei Genitrix), used by the Latin Church, places more emphasis on the first of the two moments, on the moment of the conception; whereas the title Theotokos, used by the Greek Church, places greater em­phasis on the second stage, on the giving birth (tikto in Greek means “lam giving birth”). The first moment, the conception, is common to both the father and the mother, while the second, the giving birth, belongs exclusively to the mother.

Mother of God: a title that expresses one of the greatest mys­teries and, for human reason, one of the greatest paradoxes in Christianity. The title “Mother of God” is Mary’s old­est and most important dogmatic title, since at the Council of Ephesus in 431 it was defined by the Church as a truth of faith to be believed by all Christians. It is the basis of all Mary’s great­ness. It is the principle itself of Mariology. Because of it, Mary is not just an object of devotion in Christianity but also an ob­ject of theology, and that means that she is part of the discourse on God himself, because God is directly involved in the divine maternity of Mary.

A Historical Glance at the Formation of Dogma

In the New Testament Mary is never explicitly given the title “Mother of God.” However, there are certain affirmations, which in the light of careful meditation by the Church under the guid­ance of the Holy Spirit, will later prove to hold this truth in mice. As we have seen, Mary conceived and bore a son who was the Son of the Most High, holy, and Son of God (see Luke 1:31-32, 35). It results, therefore, from the Gospels that Mary was the mother of a son whom we know to be the Son of God. In the Gospels she is commonly called the mother of Jesus, the mother of the Lord (see Luke 1:43), or simply the mother or his mother (see John 2:1-3).

In the development of the faith, the Church it­self must be clear about who Jesus is before knowing who Mary was the mother of. Mary certainly didn’t become the Mother of God at the Council of Ephesus in 431, just as Jesus didn’t be­come God at the Council of Nicaea in 325, which defined him as such. He was God before that. That was the moment when the Church, in the process of developing and making explicit her faith under the pressure of heresy, became fully aware of this truth and defended it. It’s like what happens when a new star is discovered: it is not born when its light first reaches the earth and is observed by someone. It had probably existed for thousands of years. A council definition is the moment in which the light is placed on the candelabrum, which is the creed of the Church.

In the process leading to the solemn proclamation of Mary Mother of God, there are three great stages I shall now mention. At the beginning and while the battle against Gnosticism and Docetism dominated, Mary’s maternity was seen almost only in its physical aspect. These heretics denied that Christ possessed a real human body or, if he did possess one, that this human body was born of a woman or, if it was born of a woman, that it was really part of her flesh and blood. There was the necessity, there­fore, of strongly affirming that Jesus was Mary’s son and the “fruit of her womb” (Luke 1:42) and that Mary was the true and natural mother of Jesus.

In this most ancient phase, Mary’s maternity serves to demon­strate the true humanity of Jesus more than anything else. It was at that time and in such an atmosphere that the article of the Creed “born [or incarnated] by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary” was formulated. At the beginning this simply meant that Jesus was both God and man: God insofar as he was generated by the Spirit, that is to say, by God, and man insofar as he was generated ac­cording to the flesh, that is to say, of Mary.

In the most ancient stage, already with Origen in the third century, the title Theotokos started being used for Mary. From then on, it was the use of this title that brought the Church to the discov­ery of a deeper divine maternity, which we could call “metaphysi­cal maternity.” It was the time of the great Christological controversies of the fifth century, when the main problem con­cerning Jesus Christ was no longer that of his true humanity but that of the unity of his person. Mary’s maternity was no longer seen in reference to the human nature of Christ but, more right­fully, in reference to the one person of the Word made man. And as this one person, generated by Mary according to the flesh, was none other than the divine person of the Son, she, in consequence, was seen as the true Mother of God.

There is not just a physical relation between Mary and Jesus. There is also a metaphysical relation, and this places her on a ver­tiginous height, creating a unique relation between her and the Father. At the Council of Ephesus, this became a permanent con­quest of the Church.

“Anyone,” a council text reads, “who doesn’t confess that God is truly Emmanuel and that, therefore, the Blessed Virgin, having generated according to the flesh the Word of God made flesh, is the Theotokos, he is anathema.”[1]

It was a time of great jubilation for the people of Ephesus, who awaited the Fathers outside the council room and accompanied them to their dwelling places with torch lights and hymns. Such a proclamation caused an explosion of veneration to the Mother of God that has never decreased, neither in the West nor the East, which is manifested in liturgical feasts, icons, hymns, and in the numerous churches dedicated to her, including “Santa Maria Maggiore” in Rome.

There was still another depth to be discovered in Mary’s di­vine maternity besides the physical and metaphysical ones. In Christological controversies, the title Theotokos was valued more in function of the person of Christ than of Mary, even if it is a Marian title. The logical consequences concerning the person of Mary and, in particular, her singular holiness, were still to be drawn. Theotokos was in danger of becoming a tool of conflict between opposing theological trends instead of being an expres­sion of the Church’s faith and devotion to Mary.

This was the big contribution made by Latin authors and espe­cially by St. Augustine. Mary’s maternity was seen as a mater­nity in faith, one that was also a spiritual maternity. It was the epopee of Mary’s faith. As regards the words of Jesus, “Who is my mother?” Augustine’s answer attributed to Mary to the highest degree the spiritual maternity that comes from doing the Father’s will:

“Did, perhaps, the Virgin Mary not do the Father’s will, she who in faith believed, in faith conceived, who was chosen so that man’s salvation would be born of her and who was created by Christ before Christ was created in her? Certainly, the holy Mary did the Father’s will and therefore, it is a higher thing for Mary to have been Christ’s disciple than to have been Christ’s Mother.”[2]

Mary’s physical and metaphysical maternity was now crowned by the acknowledgment of a spiritual maternity, or a maternity of faith, which makes Mary the first and holiest child of God, the first and most docile disciple of Christ, the creature who, St. Augustine continued, “for the honor due to the Lord must not even be mentioned when sin is spoken of.”[3] Mary’s physical or “real” maternity, because of the exceptional and unique relation­ship it created between her and Jesus and between her and the whole Trinity, was and will remain from an objective point of view the greatest honor and a privilege that cannot be equaled, but this is true precisely because it finds a subjective counterpart in Mary’s humble faith. It was certainly a unique privilege for Eve to be the “mother of all the living,” but because she lacked faith it was of no avail to her, and instead of being blessed, she became unfortunate.

Mary is the only one in the world who could say to Jesus what his heavenly Father said to him: “You are my son; I have begot­ten you!” (see Ps 2:7; Heb 1:5). St. Ignatius of Antioch, in all simplicity and almost unaware of the tremendous dignity he was giving a human creature, said that Jesus is “of God and of Mary.”[4] It’s like saying that a man is the son of a particular man and woman. Dante Alighieri managed to contain the dual para­dox (virgin and mother; mother and daughter) in one verse: “Vir­gin Mother, daughter of thy Son!”[5]

The title “Mother of God” is sufficient in itself to establish the greatness of Mary and to justify the honor attributed to her. Catholics are sometimes reproached for exaggerating the honor and importance they attribute to Mary, and, we must admit, the reproach has often been justified, at least for the way she has been honored. But we never think of what God did. By making her the Mother of God, he so honored her that no one could possi­bly honor her more even if he possessed, as Luther said, as many tongues as there are blades of grass.[6]

The title “Mother of God” is still today, for all Christians, the meeting point or the common base from which to begin to find an agreement on Mary’s place in the faith. It is the only ecumen­ical title in the sense that it is recognized by all the Churches. Luther has written: “The article affirming that Mary is the Mother of God has been in force in the Church from the beginning and the Coun­cil of Ephesus did not define it as being new because it is a belief that had already been asserted in the Gospel and Holy Scrip­ture. . . . These words (Luke 1:32; Gal 4:4) strongly affirm that Mary is the Mother of God.”[7] Zwingli wrote, “In my opinion Mary is rightly called the Genitrix of God, Theotokos, ” and the same Zwingli elsewhere called Mary “the divine Theotokos, chosen even before she could have faith.”[8] Calvin, in his turn, wrote, “Scripture explicitly tells us that he who is to be born of the Virgin Mary will be called the Son of God (Luke 1:32) and that the same Virgin is the Mother of our Lord.”[9]

The title “Mother of God,” Theotokos, is therefore the title we must always go back to, distinguishing it as Orthodox Chris­tians do from the other innumerable Marian names and titles. If it were taken seriously by all the Churches and made the most of, besides being theoretically acknowledged it would suffice to create a basic unity around Mary, who instead of being a cause of division among Christians would become one of the most im­portant factors of Christian unity, a maternal help “to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad” (John 11:52).

Mothers of Christ: The Imitation of the Mother of God

Our method of advancing in our pilgrimage in Mary’s wake consists in contemplating the single steps she took so as to then imitate her in our own lives. How can we imitate the Madonna as the Mother of God? Is it possible for Mary to be the figure of the Church, her model, on this point too? Not only is it pos­sible but there have been those, for example, Origen, St. Au­gustine, St. Bernard, who went so far as to say that without imitation Mary’s title would be of no value to us: “What use would it be to me that Christ was born once of Mary in Bethle­hem if he were not born of faith in my soul too?”[10]

We must remember that Mary’s divine maternity was fulfilled on two levels: physical and spiritual. Mary is the Mother of God not only because she carried him in her womb but also because she first conceived him in her heart in faith. We cannot, of course, imitate Mary in the first sense by giving birth to Christ again, but we can imitate her in the second sense, that of faith.

It was Jesus himself who first gave the Church the title “Mother of Christ” when he declared, “My mother and my brethren are those who hear the word of God and do it” (Luke 8:21; see Mark 3:31 ff.; Matt 12:49). This belief has been applied by tradition on two complemen­tary levels. In one case this maternity is realized in the Church as a whole, insofar as she is a universal sacrament of salvation; in the other case, this maternity is real­ized in each single person or soul who believes. Vatican Council II follows the first view:

“The Church. . . becomes herself a mother, for by her preaching and by baptism she brings forth to a new and immortal life children who are conceived of the Holy Spirit and born of God.”[11]

But the personal application to each soul is even clearer: “Each soul that believes, conceives and brings forth the Word of God …. If, according to the flesh, the Mother of Christ is one alone, all should bring forth Christ, ac­cording to the Spirit, when they accept the word of God.”[12] As an Eastern Father said, “Christ is always mystically born in the soul by taking flesh from those who are saved and making the soul a virgin mother.”[13]

How to Conceive and Bring Forth Christ Again

Let us now see how to apply the title “Mother of God” to each one of us. Let us see how we can really become mothers of Christ. Jesus himself told us how we become his mother. It happens in two ways: by hearing the Word and by practicing it. Let us just think again of how Mary became a mother: by conceiving Jesus and giving him birth. There are two types of unfulfilled maternities, two ways in which a maternity can be terminated. One is by abortion, when a child is conceived but not given birth to because the fetus dies either through natural causes or the sin of man.

Up to recently this was the only known cause of an un­fulfilled maternity. Today, there exists another type, which con­sists in giving birth to a child without having conceived it. This is the case of babies conceived in test tubes and then placed in the womb, and in the distressing and squalid case where the uter­us is lent, even hired out, to develop human beings conceived else­where. In this case the child the woman gives birth to is not hers and has not first been conceived “in the heart before being con­ceived in the body.” Unfortunately, these two sad possibilities exist on a spiritual level too. Those who conceive Jesus without giving him birth are those who accept the Word without practicing it; those who have one spiritual abortion after the other, making proposals to con­vert that are then systematically forgotten and abandoned half­way; those who see the Word like someone glancing hurriedly at himself in a mirror and then forgetting what he looked like (see Jas 1:23-24). In a word, those who have faith without works. On the contrary, those who give birth to Christ without having con­ceived him are those who do many works, even good works, that are not done with the heart for love of God and good intentions but rather from habit, hypocrisy, the seeking of one’s own glory or interests, or simply for the satisfaction that doing something gives. In a word, those who have works but not faith.

The Five Feasts of the Child Jesus

We have considered the negative case of unfulfilled maternity for lack of faith or works. Let us now consider a fulfilled mater­nity that makes us similar to Mary. St. Francis of Assisi beauti­fully summed up what I want to stress:

“We are mothers of Christ when we carry him in our hearts and bodies through divine love and a pure and sincere conscience; we bring him forth through works which must be a shining example to others. . . . O, how blessed and dear, how pleasant, humble, peaceful, sweet, ami­able and desirable above all things to have such a brother and such a son as Our Lord Jesus Christ!”[14]

The saint was telling us that we conceive Christ when we love him in all sincerity of heart and uprightness of conscience and we give him birth when we do works that show him to the world. This echoes the words of Jesus: ‘‘Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father, who is in heaven” (Matt 5:16).

St. Bonaventure, a disciple of St. Francis, developed this thought in a tract The Five Feasts of the Child Jesus. In it he explains how the soul devoted to God  can spiritually conceive the blessed Word and firstborn Son of the Father, bring him forth, give him a name, seek him and adore him with the Magi, and finally, happily pres­ent him to God the Father in his temple.[15]

Of these five feasts of the Child Jesus to be lived by the soul, we are particularly interested in the first two: the conception and birth. St. Bonaventure said that a person conceives Jesus in his soul when, dissatisfied with his life, prompted by holy inspira­tion, and filled with holy fervor, he resolutely breaks away from his old habits and sins; he is, as it were, made spiritually fertile by the grace of the Holy Spirit, and he conceives the proposal to lead a new life. Christ has been conceived! Once the blessed Son of God has been conceived, he is born in the heart, as long as the person, after making the right discernment, seeking the right advice, and invoking God’s help, immediately puts his holy pro­posal into practice and begins to act on what has been develop­ing in his mind but which he disregarded for fear of failure.

However, the proposal must be carried out immediately, it must bring about an outward visible change, if possible, in our way of living and in our habits. If the proposal isn’t put into practice, then Jesus has been conceived but is not born. This is one form of the many spiritual abortions that take place. The second feast of the Child Jesus, Christmas, will never be celebrated! It is one of the many postponements that have perhaps marked our lives and one of the main reasons why so few reach holiness.

If you decide to convert and become one of the poor and humble who, like Mary, seek only God’s grace and not to please others, then you really need to arm yourself with courage. You’ll have to face two types of temptation. St. Bonaventure warned us: the “worldly” people in your environment will be quick to tell you that you’ve undertaken the impossible, you’ll never suc­ceed, you won’t have the necessary strength, your health will suf­fer; these things are not suitable for you, you’re compromising your good name and the dignity of your position.

Once you’ve overcome these problems there will be others caused by people who are probably devout and religious but who really don’t be­lieve in the power of God and his Spirit. These will tell you that if you begin to live in a certain way—giving much time to prayer, avoiding useless gossip, doing good works—you will soon be con­sidered a saint, a devout spiritual person, and as you well know that you have not yet reached this stage, you’ll end up deceiving people, a hypocrite, bringing upon yourself the wrath of God, who sees into the heart. Your answer to all these temptations is faith: “Behold, the Lord’s hand is not shortened that it cannot save” (Isa 59:1), and in fury with yourself, exclaim, as Augustine did on the eve of his conversion: “If these and those can do it, why not I? (“Si isti et istae, cur non ego?”)[16]

In our three Advent meditations, we have tried to prepare ourselves to Christmas at the school of the Mother of God. Now that we have reached the end all we have to do is to unite ourselves to her in a silent and ecstatic contemplation of the God made man for our salvation. The Byzantine liturgy of vespers on Christmas Eve contains a prayer full of holy pride, which we can make our own in front of the crib:

What can we offer you as a gift, O Christ our God, for having appeared on earth taking on our own humanity? Each of the creatures shaped by your hands offers you something to give you thanks: the angels offer you their song, the heavens the star, the magi their gifts, the shepherds their wonder, the earth a cave, the desert a manger. But we offer you a virgin Mother!

Holy Father, Venerable Fathers, brothers and sisters, Happy Christmas!

[1] Denzinger-Schoenmetzer, En­chiridion Symbolorum, no. 252.

[2] St. Augustine, Sermons, 72 A (Denis 25), 7 {Miscellanea Agostiniana I, p. 162).

[3] St. Augustine, On Nature and Grace, 36, 42 (CSEL 60, p. 263).

[4] St. Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Ephesians, 7, 2.

[5] Dante Alighieri, Paradiso XXXIII, 1.

[6] Luther, The Magnificat (ed. Weimar 7, p. 572 f.).

[7] Luther, On the Councils and the Church (ed. Weimar 50, p. 591 f.).

[8] H. Zwingli, Exposition of Christian Faith, in Zwingli, Hauptschriften der Theologie III, Zurich, 1948, p. 319; Account of Faith (Fidei ra­tio), 6.

[9] Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, II, 14, 4 (London, SCM Press, 1961, I, p. 486 f.).

[10] See Origen, Commentary on the Gospel of Luke, 22, 3 (SCh 87, p. 302).

[11] Lumen gentium 64.

[12] St. Ambrose, Commentary on the Gospel of Luke, II, 26 (CSEL 32, 4, p. 55).

[13] St. Maximus Confessor, Commentary on the “Our Father” (PG 90, 889).

[14] St. Francis of Assisi, Letter to All the Faithful, I (Writings, cit., p. 96).

[15] See St. Bonaventure, The Five Feasts of the Child Jesus (ed. Quaracchi, Grottaferrata, 1949, p. 207 f.).

[16] St. Augustine, Confessions, VIII, 8, 19.

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Deborah Castellano Lubov

Deborah Castellano Lubov is Senior Vatican & Rome Correspondent for ZENIT; author of 'The Other Francis' ('L'Altro Francesco') featuring interviews with those closest to the Pope and preface by Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Parolin (currently published in 5 languages); Deborah is also NBC & MSNBC Vatican Analyst. She often covers the Pope's travels abroad, often from the Papal Flight (including for historic trips such as to Abu Dhabi and Japan & Thailand), and has also asked him questions on the return-flight press conference on behalf of the English-speaking press present. Lubov has done much TV & radio commentary, including for NBC, Sky, EWTN, BBC, Vatican Radio, AP, Reuters and more. She also has contributed to various books on the Pope and has written for various Catholic publications. For 'The Other Francis': http://www.gracewing.co.uk/page219.html or https://www.amazon.com/Other-Francis-Everything-They-about/dp/0852449348/

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