Can it be rightly said of you, O Mary, that you have neither beginning nor end? For you were in the heart of the Trinity for as long as God is eternal! You are a creature extraordinaire, from the beginning of which there is no beginning. If you are not praised enough, it is because ignorant humanity is poverty stricken of your glory and greatness, preventing it from crying out “my Mother, my all,” so remaining ever deficient in comprehending the “all” of who you are and the “yes” which you pronounced.
The “Yes” Heard Round the World (Without End)
She said yes! Every man who has courted a woman knows the joy, and the significance, contained in these three words! As significant as every “yes” spoken by every woman is, from an eternal perspective—God’s perspective—Mary’s “yes” has a truly awesome significance. Mary’s “yes” was, and is, truly “the ‘yes’ heard round the world!” Not only did Mary’s “yes”—Fiat—change the world, but by God’s marvelous design, it also “changed” eternity.
Of course, eternity is outside of time, so, by definition, eternity cannot change. But what can be said of God taking human flesh in the womb of a virgin—the Virgin Mary—at a particular moment in human history? How can God, who is unchangeable, make his own action depend on the will of this beautiful young girl? How can he wait with bated breath in expectation of her reply? Imagine the rejoicing in Heaven as God himself declared to all the Heavenly courts: “She said yes!” One can even imagine God dancing, like David—the man after God’s own heart—before the tabernacle!
Yet, you say, God must have known in advance that Mary would say “yes.” After all, God knows everything, both what was and what is to come. This is true, but this is truly a mystery, because God also gives each and every one of us a free will, which he never rescinds. Even more than us, Mary was free, because she was free from all sin! Mary’s Fiat was truly her own, decided by her own freest of free wills, and God and Heaven rejoiced. She said yes!
Now we encounter something that is completely beyond our understanding. We may think we understand it, because we know the meaning of the words used to express it (more or less), but how can we understand that which words cannot express and which surpasses all human understanding? The Word was made Flesh and dwelt among us in the Immaculate Womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary—Ancilla Domini—and THE WORD WAS GOD.
Immediately, we encounter the central mystery of our Faith: God became man. As we say in the Nicene Creed: Jesus Christ was incarnate of the Virgin Mary. How can God “become” anything, when God, in eternity, is outside of time, and therefore cannot change? One might object: God “can” do anything, so how can I say that God “cannot” change? But this is a sophism (and the heresy of voluntarism), because, as C.S. Lewis argued (essentially quoting Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas Aquinas), just as a circle cannot be a square, God cannot be other than who he is!
God is eternal and unchanging, and Jesus Christ is God. Still, we know that Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary in time. How do we resolve this paradox? As usual, we find the key in St. Paul’s letters:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in Him before the foundation of the world [emphasis added], that we should be holy and blameless before him (Eph 1:3-4).
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in Him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities. All things were created through and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together [emphasis added]. He is the Head of the body, the Church; He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything He might be preeminent. For in Him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through Him to reconcile to Himself all things, whether on the earth or in heaven, making peace by the Blood of His Cross (Col 1:15-20).
Thus, St. Paul asserts that the God-Man Jesus Christ was “before the foundation of the world,” and “before all things,” and the cause not only of the Redemption, but also of the creation and continuing existence of “all things in heaven and on earth.” This includes the angels and the prophets of the Old Testament, who would appear to have “come before” Him in time.
In diagram form, we could view the Incarnation of Jesus Christ as a point on a timeline with rays that extend both forward and backward to infinity in both directions. Thus, the point corresponding to the Incarnation extends to become a geometric line, with no beginning or end. This view of human history is truly Christocentric. The inevitable implication in all of this is that if God does not change, and God became Incarnate as Jesus Christ in the womb of the Virgin Mary, then both the God-Man Jesus Christ and the Woman Mary must, in some ineffable and singular way, be “wrapped up” with God in eternity. This sentiment is beautifully and clearly expressed by Bl. Pius IX in the apostolic constitution, Ineffabilis Deus, when he says:
From the very beginning, and before time began, the eternal Father chose and prepared for his only-begotten Son a Mother in whom the Son of God would become incarnate and from whom, in the blessed fullness of time, he would be born into this world. Above all creatures did God so love her that truly in her was the Father well pleased with singular delight. Therefore, far above all the angels and all the saints so wondrously did God endow her with the abundance of all heavenly gifts poured from the treasury of his divinity that this Mother, ever absolutely free of all stain of sin, all fair and perfect, would possess that fullness of holy innocence and sanctity than which, under God, one cannot even imagine anything greater, and which, outside of God, no mind can succeed in comprehending fully. 1
The Eternal Woman and the Everlasting Man
According to the theology of Blessed John Duns Scotus, God created the universe only on condition of the fact that he would become man in the Incarnation. Thus, the Incarnation of Jesus was decreed in eternity. God did not become man because of Adam and Eve’s sin, but rather the world and Adam and Eve were created only on condition of the fact that God would become man.
Since the very fact of the Incarnation of Jesus is bound to the existence of the Virgin in whom He would be conceived, Mary, the Mother of God, was present in God’s plan before God created the first man, Adam, and the first woman, Eve—before the creation of the world, and indeed even before the fall of the angels, and before the existence of sin. This is why Mary is the only created being whose existence actually belongs to the order of the hypostatic union (which is the interior life of God), because she was uniquely present in God’s thought in eternity, and in this way she was with him before he had created any other thing. That is why the Catholic Church uses this reading from Proverbs in the Liturgy of the Hours for Mary’s feast days:
The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of old. Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth. When there were no depths I was brought forth, when there were no springs abounding with water. Before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills, I was brought forth; before he had made the earth with its fields, or the first of the dust of the world. When he established the heavens, I was there, when he drew a circle on the face of the deep, when he made firm the skies above, when he established the fountains of the deep, when he assigned to the sea its limit, so that the waters might not transgress his command, when he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him like a master workman; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the sons of men (Prov 8:22-31).
The Church recognizes both Jesus and Mary as the one who is speaking in this passage of Proverbs, as confirmed by Bl. Pius IX:
And hence the very words with which the Sacred Scriptures speak of Uncreated Wisdom and set forth his eternal origin, the Church, both in its ecclesiastical offices and in its liturgy, has been wont to apply likewise to the origin of the Blessed Virgin, inasmuch as God, by one and the same decree, had established the origin of Mary and the Incarnation of Divine Wisdom.2
Mary is truly “the Eternal Woman” of Gertrud von Le Fort,3 as Jesus Christ is “the Everlasting Man” of G.K. Chesterton.4 In the next section, we will face the ineffable but inevitable mystery that Mary’s Fiat actually caused the creation of the universe!
The “Yes” that Created (and Redeemed) the Universe
As we have seen, the Incarnation of the God-Man Jesus was ordained before the creation of the world, and before the creation of the first man, Adam. By association, Mary was ordained to be the Mother of God before the creation of the world, and before the creation of the first woman, Eve. But this leads us to an amazing logical conclusion. If God created the world on condition of the Incarnation, as Blessed John Duns Scotus holds, and Mary was chosen to be the Mother of Jesus before the creation of the world, then the creation of the world in fact depended on Mary’s reply to the Archangel Gabriel, when he asked her if she would consent to be the Mother of God. The creation of the universe, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities (Col 1:16), depended on Mary’s Fiat. In fact, as a member of the human race, Mary’s own existence depended on her Fiat.
This appears to place Mary, a mere creature and nothing more than the handmaid of the Lord, in a unique category very much like that of God himself, who declares his own existence when he says “I Am Who Am!” However, logically, this observation is inescapable. Nor are we the first to observe this fact, since in the 14th century St. Gregory Palamas said:
She [Mary] is the cause of what came before her, the champion of what came after her and the agent of things eternal. She is the substance of the prophets, the principle of the apostles, the firm foundation of the martyrs and the premise of the teachers of the Church. She is the glory of those upon earth, the joy of celestial beings, the adornment of all creation. She is the beginning and the source and the root of unutterable good things; she is the summit and the consummation of everything holy.5
This sentiment of St. Gregory Palamas in the East echoes that of St. Anselm of Canterbury in the West, who said in the 11th century:
The whole universe was created by God, and God was born of Mary. God created all things, and Mary gave birth to God. The God who made all things gave himself form through Mary, and thus he made his own creation. He who could create all things from nothing would not remake his ruined creation without Mary. God, then, is the Father of the created world and Mary is the mother of the re-created world… Truly the Lord is with you, to whom the Lord granted that all nature should owe as much to you as to himself.6
Once again, we have a paradox! How can a creature take part in creation? How can all nature owe as much to Mary as it owes to God himself? This is a great mystery! However, perhaps we can shed some light on the situation by considering the following line of thought: (1) God created the world on the condition of the fact of the Incarnation of Christ. (2) Given the observable fact that the world exists, from our point of view as creatures, the Incarnation of Christ was then necessary, and thus, again from our point of view as creatures, Mary’s predestination to be the Mother of God was also necessary. (3) Thus, again from our point of view as creatures, Mary was necessarily predestined to say yes when the Archangel Gabriel asked her if she would consent to be the Mother of God.
This seems to the modern eye to deny Mary the use of her free will, which from God’s point of view would, of course, be unthinkable, since God never rescinds his gift of free will to any human person, least of all his Mother. Here, of course, we have a mystery beyond our human understanding. However, as David Bentley Hart7 rightly observes, the modern eye is trained to think of freedom as the ability to choose sin (or not). But this is not true freedom. St. Augustine defines perfect freedom, not as being able not to sin, but as being unable to sin! Just as God lacks no freedom in being unable to sin, Mary could, in perfect freedom, be unable to deny the request God made of her. To be unable to deny God’s proposal, Mary needed to be in possession of perfect freedom (as defined by St. Augustine), which means that she needed to be totally free from sin, because sin limits freedom. Thus, in order for God’s eternal plan to be free from any contingency, and unchangeable as he is unchangeable, it was absolutely necessary that Mary be totally free from sin, including original sin. Hence, following this line of thought, we perceive the necessity of Mary’s Immaculate Conception for the existence of all created things!
The “Yes” Thrice Pronounced
There are, in fact, three Fiats pronounced in the New Testament, which together form the most perfect, the most free, and the most significant choices made by human beings in the history of the world. All three Fiats were made with free human wills that were perfectly conformed to the Divine Will of the Heavenly Father.
The first “yes”—Fiat—was pronounced by the Woman Mary when the Archangel Gabriel appeared to her. “And Mary said: Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let be it done to me according to your word” (Lk 1:38). The second “yes”—Fiat—was pronounced by God-Man Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. “Again the second time, he went and prayed, saying: My Father, if this chalice may not pass away, but I must drink it, thy will be done” (Mt 26:42).
The third “yes”—Fiat—was pronounced without words by the God-Man Jesus and the Woman Mary, simultaneously, on Mount Calvary, at the hour of His painful and humiliating death. Jesus, our Redeemer, offered His sacrifice of infinite merit to the Heavenly Father, and Mary, our Coredemptrix, offered her Son and herself to the Heavenly Father, giving up her maternal rights. It was in this joint offering of Jesus and Mary, with Hearts united, that the Redemption of the world—of all created things, visible and invisible—was accomplished. In the words of Pope Benedict XV:
Mary suffered and, as it were, nearly died with her suffering Son; for the salvation of mankind she renounced her mother’s rights and, as far as it depended on her, offered her Son to placate divine justice; so we may well say that she with Christ redeemed mankind.8
And in the words of Ven. Pius XII:
She [Mary] it was, the second Eve, who, immune from all sin, personal or original, and ever most closely united with her Son, offered Him on Golgotha to the Eternal Father together with the holocaust of her maternal rights and motherly love, like a new Eve, for all the children of Adam contaminated through this unhappy fall.9
Since, as Pope Leo XIII observes, the Eucharist is the prolongation of the Incarnation in time and space,10 all three of these Fiats, and especially the third Fiat, are re-pronounced in every Catholic Mass until the Parousia. In the words of St. John Paul II:
Born of the Virgin to be a pure, holy and immaculate oblation, Christ offered on the Cross the one perfect Sacrifice which every Mass, in an unbloody manner, renews and makes present. In that one Sacrifice, Mary, the first redeemed, the Mother of the Church, had an active part. She stood near the Crucified, suffering deeply with her Firstborn; with a motherly heart she associated herself with His Sacrifice; with love she consented to his immolation (cf. Lumen Gentium, 58; Marialis Cultus, 20): she offered Him and she offered herself to the Father.11
And again, the same pope says:
At the root of the Eucharist, therefore, there is the virginal and maternal life of Mary, her overflowing experience of God, her journey of faith and love, which through the work of the Holy Spirit made her flesh a temple and her heart an altar: because she conceived not according to nature, but through faith, with a free and conscious act: an act of obedience. And if the Body that we eat and the Blood that we drink is the inestimable gift of the Risen Lord, to us travelers, it still has in itself, as fragrant Bread, the taste and aroma of the Virgin Mother.12
Thus, at every Mass, and especially at the moment of Consecration and at the moment of our reception of Jesus’ Body, when we experience “the taste and aroma of the Virgin Mother,” we can rejoice with the Thrice Holy Trinity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; and we can join the Choirs of Angels in a hymn of awe and thanksgiving for our shared redemption and existence, singing: “She said yes!”
1 Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus, Apostolic Constitution, December 8, 1854.
3 Cf. Gertrud von Le Fort, The Eternal Woman, Ignatius Press, 2010 (translation of Die ewige Frau, 1934).
4 Cf. G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man, Ignatius Press, 1993 (originally published in 1925).
5 St. Gregory Palamas, A Homily on the Dormition of Our Supremely Pure Lady Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary (Homily 37), as quoted by Father Paul Haffner, The Mystery of Mary, Gracewing, 2004.
6 St. Anselm of Canterbury, Sermon (Oratio 52) used in the Roman Office of Readings for the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception.
7 David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions, Yale University Press, 2010.
8 Benedict XV, Inter Sodalicia, Letter, May 22, 1918.
9 Ven. Pius XII, Mystici Corporis, Encyclical Letter, June 29, 1943.
10 Leo XIII, Mirae Caritatis, Encyclical Letter, May 28, 1902.
11 St. John Paul II, Angelus Address for Corpus Christi, June 5, 1983.