Justin Nickelsen, at Ressourcement - Restoration in Catholic Theology, had an interesting post late yesterday on The Feast of Mary, Mother of God. He offers a good explanation of the proper focus of this feast and the ways in which it is sometimes misunderstood:
"The statement “Mary is the Mother of God” is projected less to praise her than the God-Man which she was chosen (with "active participation") to bear and any good which that entails for Mary (which we, Catholics, believe to be great) is a profound grace and honor from the Most High."
Since I had so many other posts yesterday, and emphasized the World Day of Peace rather than the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, I want to focus a little bit more on Mary today.
St. John Climacus, the greatest saint and writer of the seventh century, made only one comment about Mary in his classic, The Ladder of Divine Ascent:
"Humility is the beginning of dispassion, as Moses is the beginning of the Law, as the daughter completes the mother and Mary completes the synagogue."
That's it. Writing from the seventh century Greek speaking Eastern desert, his only mention of Mary was a passing comment in a paragraph about humility in Step 4 of the Ladder, "On Obedience." But what better context is there to mention Mary than in a chapter on obedience, mentioning her who said to the angel, "Be it unto me according to your word"?
Then what does it mean that "Mary completes the synagogue"? Mary completes the synagogue as a daughter completes her mother, he wrote. The Church was the daughter of the synagogue. Mary is the mother of the Church, as Jesus on the Cross told the Apostle John "Behold your mother." That position as mother of the Church is affirmed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church section 963. "She is the mother of the members of Christ . . . since she has by her charity joined in bringing about the birth of believers in the Church." In being that, Mary is symbolically the Church.
It is a bit of a strange twist of metaphors which can be quite confusing. She who is the Mother of our Lord and thus the Mother of God is also, in another sense, the Church which is the Bride of Christ. The metaphors "Mother" and "Bride", of course, do not mix easily.
Edith Stein wrote, in "Church, Woman, Youth" from Essays on Woman:
"Mary is the most perfect symbol of the Church because she is its prefigurement and origin. She is also a unique organ of the Church, that organ from which the entire Mystical Body, even the Head itself, was formed. She might be called, and happily so, the heart of the Church in order to indicate her central and vital position in it. . . . The title of Mary as our mother is not merely symbolic. Mary is our mother in the most real and lofty sense, a sense which surpasses that of earthly maternity. She begot our life of grace for us because she offered up her entire being, body and soul, as the Mother of God."
Mary is thus "the most perfect symbol of the Church" and "the heart of the Church" precisely because she is our mother and the Mother of God. Yet, Justin is right that the focus of all of this is still Christ, and not Mary herself.
Adrienne von Speyr, in Mary in the Redemption works with the metaphors, saying:
"A servant girl is usually required to provide limited services, and these are set out in advance. Mary's service, however, can assume all manner of changing forms, because her Son's demands demonstrate a limitless "all the more" of wanting and demanding. Her service thus changes according to the Son's age and needs. Again and again, he requires entirely different things of his Mother, things that show no concern for her needs or age, but rather are suited to his. In her bridal years she is his Mother, and in later years, when she is no longer of bridal age, she becomes his bride without ceasing to be his Mother."
In a chapter entitled "The Church as Eve and Mary", in the same book, Adrienne addresses in detail the role of Mary as the Church and as the New Eve, the sense in which St. John Climacus saw her as completing the synagogue as a daughter completes her mother. The idea of Mary as the New Eve goes back to the very early Church and appears in the writings of St. Irenaeus, from the late second century, among others. Trying to take one short quote from that chapter is difficult, and yet to read the entire chapter it would be best to read the entire book. Starting from the middle of a paragraph, here is an excerpt in an effort to convey the basic concept without printing, at the same time, both too much and too little:
"The Church, who shows us her less than immaculate face on which we have so much to expose, is simultaneously our Mother in heaven, who possesses the utmost purity, absolute certainty, and infallibility. She, in turn, is not first this and then that, but rather both at the same time. It is not just Mary but also Eve who continues to live in the Church. All of us, who are not holy, belong to her. And yet she is also Mary: in everything that she experiences and endures, that she sees, accepts, and rejects, the Mother of the Lord is the Church and the Church's prayer; on earth, however, she carries it out with a hidden countenance. All sinners have the opportunity to come together with her beneath this hidden countenance, but also to exchange her for their existence as sinners. They do not then recognize her as she is in truth, or else they would cease to live in darkness; but they can, nonetheless, recognize her in her hiddenness. And she herself will lift her veil before them and show them her face and radiate so much of her purity that they will be compelled to convert and give their darkness up to the Church. Suddenly, paradise comes into being precisely where the Church reveals herself. The sinner can then make the return journey from Eve to Mary, who has never left paradise."
As seen in these short quotes, and as explained by Father Donald H. Calloway, M..I.C., "Adrienne always presents Mary, whether in person or in mission, as a nuptial person -- in this sense Mary is always the nuptial handmaid." (Father Calloway's essay, "The Immaculate Conception in the Thought of Adrienne von Speyr" from Calloway, ed., The Immaculate Conception in the Life of the Church). Concerning Adrienne's view of Mary as the Church, Father Calloway explains the tie between this role and the Cross, to which Adrienne alluded in the section quoted above, tying Mary's role as the Church and the New Eve to salvation. Father Calloway writes:
"Christ's mission is to die for the sake of His one bride (Mary-Church); He does not have two brides. As a matter of fact, Christ must die for His Immaculate bride (Mary-Church) because if He does not, then we have an ontological problem due to the fact that the Virgin Mary has received the privilege of the Immaculate Conception in light of the merits of Christ's sacrifice on the Cross, and God's people (the Church) have been given divine promises of complete bridal renewal (immaculateness). Thus, the Immaculate Conception, the prototype of the bridal Church, is sure proof that Christ will necessarily die on the Cross for His one bride; and if the Immaculate Conception is from the Cross -- and she is -- then Christ must go there in order to redeem His one bride, Mary-Church. . . .
"In making bold statements about Mary being the Church and Christ dying for her necessarily, it must be remembered that Christ has only one bride, Mary-Church. As Adrienne states: 'The Lord turns his Mother into his bride, the Church.' . . . These two, Mary and the Church, form a unity due to the fact that, as was stated earlier: 'whatever the Lord did to His Mother he did with his Church in mind.' The earthly Church will always have sinful members but as Adrienne states: 'All the Church's shortcomings, her inadequacies, faults, and blemishes, are, however, dissolved in the immaculate being of the virginal Bride.'"
Thus in viewing Mary as the Mother of God, we do not see only the Madonna with the Holy Child at Christmas, but also her role in salvation history. From the moment of the annunciation that she would be the Mother of God, there was also the Cross as part of the same plan, as the purpose of Christ's birth and the purpose of her becoming the Mother of God. The mission was always salvation, always Christ, always the Church and salvation of the people of God. In becoming the Mother of God, she completed the synagogue as a daughter of the synagogue, as a Jewish girl in first century Palestine, and yet also as the New Eve and as the Church, the Bride of Christ.
What seem to be "bold statements about Mary being the Church" (in Father Calloway's words) thus echo the words of the early saints, of the second century St. Irenaeus who spoke of Mary as the "New Eve" and of the seventh century St. John Climacus who spoke of her as completing the synagogue. As Eve symbolized all of humanity in the fall, and the synagogue was the people of God seeking salvation, awaiting the Bridegroom; so Mary as the New Eve symbolizes all of humanity in the resurrection, and the Church is the people of God as the Bride of Christ.
The metaphors do not mix well, but they work in a way that only metaphors can work. Mary, as Mother of God, represents not only a role in the Nativity but more fully a role in salvation history that is best explained by the mystics through Church history, from St. Irenaeus through St. John Climacus to St. Edith Stein and Adrienne. Only they can fully explain its significance to our lives.
Photos: Artwork from the Church of the Nativity in Rancho Santa Fe California, including bronze statute of Mary cast by Max DeMoss; 16th century corpus of Christ from a church in Mexico, now held on a cross designed by Renzo Zecchetto.