Thursday of the Fourth Week of Advent, Year A: 1 Samuel 1:24-28, Luke 1:46-56.
Today the Church reminds us how humanity has been working in concert with God, 1,000 years apart; specifically, how unlikely mothers bore a child who would be a special link for the people to their God (see readings). Hannah, the mother of the great Jewish prophet and leader, Samuel, is a forerunner of Mary in her complete devotion to God and assent to keep her covenant with her God. Mary echoes and Hannah’s words in the amazing Magnificat prayer, and supersedes Hannah in perfection. Both women work with God (as do their sons). In a past post, I compared their incredible prayers side-by-side. Today, I’d like to reflect on what this working with God might be – something more, surely than “living right,” or even doing God’s will. These women are in scripture because they inaugurated a special kind of cooperation with God.
We are accustomed to the word “cooperate” in our catechism: “Grace responds to the deepest yearnings of human freedom, calls freedom to cooperate with it, and perfects freedom” (CCC 2022). Cooperate in the religious sense means that our will gives over to God’s will, knowingly. It is different than the way we might cooperate with someone to, say, build a community garden. It’s not really just a cooperation of our intellect; it requires faith. Furthermore, it requires that our faith draw us into a correct relationship with God wherein we recognize His sovereignty and give ourselves over to His grace and love. We fully assent and He guides and draws us to Himself. If this sounds a little slippery and difficult, then we need to work on strengthening our faith, trust, and relationship with God.
Jean Corbon, OP, prefers the Greek word synergeia, which he defines as “combined energy” or “joint activity,” instead of cooperate. His book Wellspring of Worship is a deep dive into the liturgy, where synergy plays an important role: “when [God] elicits our response to his multiform energy, the Spirit and the Church become one in an astounding ‘synergy’: the liturgy” (66). Mary is the first person where the liturgy as we know it forms; her will is completely turned over to God. The Holy Spirit dwells in her, in fact, impregnates her with divinity. She fully cooperates with God. She achieves an astounding synergy with God in forming Jesus. As Corbon writes, “When the river of life joins the energy of acceptance, it acquires a name: JESUS” (39).
Let’s turn to just one small piece of textual analysis: Mary’s first line in the gospel reading. The lectionary says, “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,” but this common English translation has removed perhaps the most intriguing and potent word from the original Greek: Megalynei (to magnify). The original Vulgate Latin got it right: Magnificat anima mea Dominum. Heck, that’s why we call this prayer the Magnificat! The literal translation is “My soul magnifies my Lord,” and it is a perfect way for Mary to describe what is happening within her. Mary is both growing a human child and also cooperating spiritually with God to magnify His image, not only within herself but for the whole world. I say “magnify his image” because this is what the Church has always taught. In his Homilies on the Gospel of Luke, Origen of Alexandria explains that, while we cannot enlarge God in His nature, we can enlarge His Image within us. Likewise, in his Commentary on Luke, St. Ambrose elaborates:
Truly the Lord is magnified: for you read somewhere else, ‘Magnify the Lord with me’ (Ps 33:4). This does not mean that human speech can add anything to the Lord; it means rather that the Lord grows within us. ‘Christ is the image of God’ (2 Cor 4:4), and therefore the soul that acts justly and devoutly magnifies this image of God, in whose likeness it was created (cf. Gn 1:27). It magnifies that image and – while magnifying it – participates in some sort in its grandeur and is made sublime. It appears to reproduce this icon within itself by the brilliant colors of its good deeds; and by its virtue it seems to copy the original. (2, 27).
Yet even Mary is awaiting a more perfect sacramental synergy that won’t be gifted to humanity until Christ fulfills his life, sacrifice, and resurrection. This is another piece of the waiting and preparation we can connect to Advent. The reason we anticipate the Christ child so expectantly is that he will usher in a new life for us all, one where the gates of heaven are opened to us. One where we, too, can cooperate and achieve synergy with God along the lines of what Mary experienced. A life where our souls can magnify the image of God and through our charity we can be a source of inspiration for others to join the Church in liturgy.
The Catechism (which Corbon had a hand in helping to write) provides us with a summary: “The desire and work of the Spirit in the heart of the Church is that we may live from the life of the risen Christ. When the Spirit encounters in us the response of faith which he has aroused in us, he brings about genuine cooperation. Through it, the liturgy becomes the common work of the Holy Spirit and the Church” (CCC 1091) [emphasis added]. This is our Church, the one, holy, apostolic, Catholic Church instituted before time began and in a special way in history with Mary’s great “yes” to God. May we reverence her and see how she is a great signpost pointing to God, showing us how to cooperate, participate, and commune with the Spirit in the great liturgy that gives us life.