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Ask a Franciscan: Did Mary Have Real Freedom?

Image: Wikipedia, by Pedro Berruguete

Q. A friend of mine believes that Mary did not have free will as other humans have. Therefore, she had no choice but to say yes to the angel at the Annunciation. This friend believes that God, who is all-knowing, knew that Mary was going to say yes and thus she was not about to say no after God had created her immaculate in her conception.

A. Your friend is wrong on one count and right on another. God is indeed all-knowing, but why should God’s foreknowledge of what Mary would say be any different from God’s foreknowledge of your decisions or my decisions?

Your friend is assuming that God is limited by time the way that we humans are. You are more present to me than Julius Caesar or Florence Nightingale because you are alive and they are not.

Human beings can only live sequentially; that is a limitation that God does not share. You, I, Julius Caesar and Florence Nightingale are all equally present to God. The term foreknowledge as applied to God is not very helpful because it presumes that God lives, as we do, sequentially.

If you took your friend’s position to an extreme, wouldn’t God’s foreknowledge about Adolf Hitler and Mother Teresa of Calcutta make God equally responsible for their vastly different actions? If God is not responsible for their personal decisions, why should God have toyed with Mary’s freedom at her Annunciation?

Human freedom is very real and can produce very different results. God’s knowledge does not cancel out human freedom—for good or for ill. God freely created everything that exists. Part of being made in God’s image is that we have a limited but very real freedom, which we need to use wisely and generously.

Mary can inspire us to grow as disciples. The generosity she showed at the Annunciation can help in that process.

Why 40? How Is Ash Wednesday’s Date Set?

Q. Why is Ash Wednesday 40 days before Easter? What is the significance of the number 40? I know that it is used many times in the Bible (for example, Jesus was in the desert 40 days and 40 nights). How do you determine the date of Ash Wednesday? And where does the word Lent come from?

A. Some biblical writers regarded 40 years as the length of a generation. Thus, the Hebrews wandered in the wilderness for 40 years between leaving Egypt and entering the Promised Land, long enough for everyone in the original group—except Joshua and Caleb (Numbers 26:65)—to die off.

Because the early Christians regarded Moses’ parting of the sea as an Old Testament antecedent for Baptism and because Moses spent 40 days and 40 nights on Mount Sinai before encountering God, Christians used the number 40 as the length of the season to prepare catechumens for receiving the Sacrament of Baptism at the Easter Vigil.

The date of Ash Wednesday is counted back from the date of Easter (first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox—March 21/22). Once you know the date of Easter, you count back six Sundays and then go to the previous Wednesday. That is Ash Wednesday; those six Sundays are not counted as part of the 40 days.

Lent comes from the Middle English lente (springtime). North of the equator, Lent roughly corresponds to spring.

Is ‘Offering It Up’ Still Valid?

Q. A friend of mine, who is a devout Catholic, says that when I get an injury or illness I should offer it up to God as some kind of payment for sin. I cannot image myself going up to some powerful political leader and saying that I would offer up my pain and illness to satisfy that leader’s anger. Who would accept that?

I have trouble dealing with the concept of God accepting pain or illness as payment for some kind of wrongdoing. Jesus did it, but he is God. Is my friend correct? Am I?

A. The idea of “offering it up” is still a valid one in the sense of “Don’t go through life complaining that life is unfair, because it is unfair for everyone.” Each one of us can imagine a more ideal life than we have experienced or are now experiencing. Emphasizing how non-ideal my situation is or has been could be a way of shifting onto others the major responsibility for my decisions and for my happiness.

I cannot change my past, but in a very real way I can choose how it impacts my present and my future. I can keep a chip on my shoulder for past injustices or I can notice that no one lives in ideal circumstances.

God does not cause evil so that people can offer it up. If God is sending cancer, traffic accidents and other tragedies as a way of punishing evil people, then God is also sending those sufferings to many innocent people.

Although sin frequently involves some suffering, not all suffering is a punishment for sin.

The person who cannot “offer it up” may become a perpetual whiner, someone whose life is explained by other people’s decisions—not that person’s. Perpetual whiners can never be truly compassionate because they must prove that their suffering is worse than anyone else’s.

Jesus “offered up” his death on the cross for the sake of sinners, an innocent man dying for the guilty. He died not as a bitter man but as a man full of love for us, including people who use their freedom selfishly.

People facing severe medical conditions or terminal illnesses sometimes speak of “offering up” their sufferings for others. In such cases, this “offering up” can lead them to a deep inner joy and compassion. Those who absolutely reject the idea of “offering it up” will never understand such joy and compassion.

The concept of “offering it up” could be misused as justification of one person’s injustice toward someone else. It could become a devious way of saying, “Keep quiet, do as I say and keep this dysfunctional relationship going because it benefits me.”

Why Mortify Myself?

Q. I have trouble placing mortification in perspective. I have heard that St. Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer advised, “Choose mortifications that don’t mortify others.” What does that mean?

A. Mortification could be described many ways, including “accepting reality as God sees it.” Mortification is a synonym for penance.

If, because of a bad temper, I decide to give up M&M’s as an act of mortification, that penance could reinforce my desire to be a less angry person (accepting reality as God sees it) or that penance could give me a false sense of security. How? I might think that having chosen the mortification, I am guaranteed to become less angry. Not so.

The quote you offered can illustrate this example. If I don’t really want to give up M&M’s but do so anyway, that decision may fuel my anger rather than decreasing it. Other people could suffer because I am not dealing effectively with my anger.

Mortification is about becoming more honest. It can reinforce a good decision but it cannot substitute for a good decision (for example, asking if my expectations of other people are reasonable).

When Jesus tells the story about the Pharisee and the tax collector in the Temple (Luke 18:9-14), Jesus does not criticize the Pharisee’s voluntary fasting and paying tithes beyond those required by the Law of Moses. Jesus, however, shows us that these penances did not lead this man to be more honest about God, himself and others.

What Do Those Initials Mean?

Q. I see or hear the expression “CCD” used quite often in connection with parish religious education programs, but I have no idea what those initials stand for or why they are associated with such programs. I cannot be the only one who finds this acronym puzzling.

A. “CCD” stands for Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, originally a religious education program for adult converts to the Catholic faith and students in public schools. The Council of Trent (1545-1563) recommended that it be established in each diocese.  In 1905, Pope St. Pius X ordered that this group be established in every Catholic parish.

A confraternity of Christian doctrine is a shared effort to hand on the faith. In the United States, the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine has a formal entity, a legal corporation governed by trustees chosen by the U.S. bishops. It is headquartered in Washington, D.C., in the same building as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The Confraternity holds the copyright for the New American Bible translation and oversees its publication.