It is our intention to post a passage of Newman on Our Blessed Lady on Sundays. This is one of my favourites. It is an extract from one of his sermons, given on 26 March 1846.
OUR LADY IN THE GOSPEL
There is a passage in the Gospel of this day, which may have struck many of us as needing some illustration. While our Lord was preaching, a woman in the crowd cried out, “Blessed is the womb that bore Thee and the breasts which Thou hast sucked” (Luke 11). Our Lord assents, but instead of dwelling on the good words of this woman, He goes on to say something further. He speaks of a greater blessedness. “Yea,” He says, “but blessed are they who hear the word of God and keep it.”
Now these words of our Lord require notice, if it were only for this reason, because there are many persons nowadays who think they are said in depreciation of the glory and blessedness of the Most Holy Virgin Mary; as if our Lord had said, “My Mother is blessed, but my true servants are more blessed than she is.” I shall say some words then on this passage, and with a peculiar fitness, because we have just passed the festival of Lady Day, the great feast on which we commemorate the Annunciation, that is, the visit of the Angel Gabriel to her, and the miraculous conception of the Son of God, her Lord and Saviour, in her womb.
Now a very few words will be sufficient to show that our Lord’s words are no disparagement to the dignity and glory of His Mother, as the first of creatures and the Queen of all Saints. For consider, He says that it is a more blessed thing to keep His commandments than to be His Mother, and do you think that the Most Holy Mother of God did not keep the commandments of God? Of course no one, no Protestant even—no one will deny she did. Well, if so, what our Lord says is that the Blessed Virgin was more blessed in that she kept His commandments than because she was His Mother. And what Catholic denies this? On the contrary we all confess it. All Catholics confess it. The Holy Fathers of the Church tell us again and again that our Lady was more blessed in doing God’s will than in being His Mother. She was blessed in two ways. She was blessed in being His Mother; she was blessed in being filled with the spirit of faith and obedience. And the latter blessedness was the greater. I say the Holy Fathers say so expressly. St. Augustine says, “More blessed was Mary in receiving the faith of Christ, than in receiving the flesh of Christ.” In like manner St. Elizabeth says to her at the Visitation, “Beata es quae credidisti, Blessed art thou who didst believe”; and St. Chrysostom goes so far as to say that she would not have been blessed, even though she had borne Christ in the body, unless she had heard the word of God and kept it.
Now I have used the expression “St. Chrysostom goes so far as to say,” not that it is not a plain truth. I say, it is a plain truth that the Blessed Virgin would not have been blessed, though she had been the Mother of God, if she had not done His will, but it is an extreme thing to say, for it is supposing a thing impossible, it is supposing that she could be so highly favoured and yet not be inhabited and possessed by God’s grace, whereas the Angel, when he came, expressly hailed her as full of grace. “Ave, gratia plena.” The two blessednesses cannot be divided. (Still it is remarkable that she herself had an opportunity of contrasting and dividing them, and that she preferred to keep God’s commandments to being His Mother, if she could not have both.) She who was chosen to be the Mother of God was also chosen to be gratia plena, full of grace. This you see is an explanation of those high doctrines which are received among Catholics concerning the purity and sinlessness of the Blessed Virgin. St. Augustine will not listen to the notion that she ever committed sin, and the Holy Council of Trent declares that by special privilege she through all her life avoided all, even venial sin. And at this time you know it is the received belief of Catholics that she was not conceived in original sin, and that her conception was immaculate.
Whence come these doctrines? They come from the great principle contained in our Lord’s words on which I am commenting. He says, “More blessed is it to do God’s will than to be God’s Mother.” Do not say that Catholics do not feel this deeply—so deeply do they feel it that they are ever enlarging on her virginity, purity, immaculateness, faith, humility and obedience. Never say then that Catholics forget this passage of Scripture. Whenever they keep the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, the Purity, or the like, recollect it is because they make so much of the blessedness of sanctity. The woman in the crowd cried out, “Blessed is the womb and the breasts of Mary.” She spoke in faith; she did not mean to exclude her higher blessedness, but her words only went a certain way. Therefore our Lord completed them. And therefore His Church after Him, dwelling on the great and sacred mystery of His Incarnation, has ever felt that she, who so immediately ministered to it, must have been most holy. And therefore for the honour of the Son she has ever extolled the glory of the Mother. As we give Him of our best, ascribe to Him what is best, as on earth we make our churches costly and beautiful; as when He was taken down from the cross, His pious servants wrapped Him in fine linen, and laid Him in a tomb in which never man was laid; as His dwelling place in heaven is pure and stainless—so much more ought to be—so much more was—that tabernacle from which He took flesh, in which He lay, holy and immaculate and divine. As a body was prepared for Him, so was the place of that body prepared also. Before the Blessed Mary could be Mother of God, and in order to her being Mother, she was set apart, sanctified, filled with grace, and made meet for the presence of the Eternal.
Blessed John Henry Newman, pray for us.