Memorial of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of the Church
Happy Memorial of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of the Church to you!
Today’s celebration of the Memorial of Mary, Mother of the Church is a relatively new one. The celebration was instituted by Pope Francis in 2018. In the decree officially inserting this celebration into the General Roman Calendar, Cardinal Robert Sarah (then Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments), explained that the Pope’s reason for instituting this celebration was twofold: in order to cultivate a deeper understanding of the Church’s maternal sense among Her pastors, religious and laity, and in order to cultivate the growth of genuine Marian piety (Decree on the Celebration of the Blessed Virgin Mary Mother of the Church in the General Roman Calendar). The twofold aim described by Sarah suggests a couple of things. First, Pope Francis recognizes the sad reality that Marian devotion has radically declined in the life of the Church today. And second, recapturing an authentic Marian devotion will have an influence in the way the Church understands Her role and carries out Her work in today’s society. In other words, as so much of Pope Francis’ pontificate has been about, instituting this Marian celebration into the Church’s liturgical calendar has everything to do with evangelization. And it seems that, for Pope Francis’ money, gaining a deeper understanding of how it is that Mary is the Mother of the Church has a central role to play in the renewal of the Church’s evangelical efforts.
There are certainly many reasons why Marian devotion has waned in recent years, and I think a couple worth mentioning here at the outset as they speak to the role such devotion can play in the Church’s evangelizing efforts. First, the general decline in religious activity plays a role to be sure. How does Mary help here? Well, there are simply few things more welcoming than a mother. Being blessed with a beautiful mother of my own, I see the way she makes people feel welcome as soon as they walk into the door of my parents’ home, doing so precisely through service. Can I get you anything? Something to drink? Are you hungry? Sit down, you must be tired. When it comes to the home of the Church, Mary does the same. She doesn’t ask first when the last time you visited was, doesn’t interrogate us as to what we’ve been up to in our time away. She’s simply there, waiting to offer us everything she has (more on this in a minute). I think this is part of what Pope Francis means when he asks us to reflect on how Mary can teach us what it means for the Church to be a Mother, and to welcome the world into the home of the Church, which is something much needed today when so many people, especially young people, don’t feel as though they have a place in “organized religion.”
Mary’s motherhood can also help with a second reason it seems to me that Marian devotion has declined over recent decades. There is just something about Mary that rubs Christians from denominations outside Catholicism and Orthodoxy the wrong way. This tends to nudge Catholics over time to underplay the Marian devotion that makes them stick out like sore thumbs among Christians in a sort of, go along to get along fashion. Yet, there is no reason this need be the case, especially if we approach the subject as Pope Francis via Cardinal Sarah suggests, by recapturing such devotion in its authenticity. To be sure, there have been some Catholic thinkers who play a little fast and loose in working out their Mariology. As Fr. Brian Daley notes, there are some thinkers whose enthusiasm gets so high when considering Mary’s role in the economy of salvation that “the emphasis of Christian belief and piety” seems to shift “from Jesus to Mary,” such that, in the worst case scenario, what we are left with is something along the lines of “Marianity” rather than Christianity (Brian E. Daley, S.J., “Sign and Source of the Church: Mary in the Ressourcement and at Vatican II,” in Mary on the Eve of the Second Vatican Council, 37-38). Such unrestrained enthusiasm is unwise in any situation, to be sure, but especially when dealing with matters theological. And it is such moments of unrestrained enthusiasm that has left Catholics themselves with a misunderstanding as to what role Mary plays in the life of the Church such that to non-Catholics, devotions to Mary and Marian piety are seen to transform Christianity into Marianity de facto. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth if we stick to what the Church has taught about Mary drawing from Scripture. That said, we all tend to praise our mothers in an ‘over-the-top’ fashion when we love them, especially when we think of the amazing things they do. So, for instance, in reflecting upon Mary’s great prayer the Magnificat, we might be inclined to heap praise upon praise on her for uttering such a wondrous prayer to our Heavenly Father along these lines:
The “great things” are nothing less than that she became the Mother of God, in which work so many and such great good things are bestowed on her as pass man’s understanding. For on this there follows all honor, all blessedness, and her unique place in the whole of mankind, among which she has no equal, namely, that she had a child by the Father in heaven, and such a child (Commentary on the Magnificat).
Yes, Mary, our Mother, is entirely unique and has no equal among the rest of the human family. Sounds like someone in love with this Mother of Christians. The author? None other than the leader of the Reformation himself, Martin Luther. Luther’s commentary on Mary’s Magnificat has many beautiful things to say about Mary, yet with the steady caution that everything we say about Mary should find roots in Scripture and never deviate attention away from her son, Jesus Christ. I couldn’t agree more. And Luther’s quote, in addition to demonstrating why there is no reason Marian devotion shouldn’t be a unifying force among Catholics and Protestants rather than a cause for division, also points us in the right direction to get our exploration of what it means to call Mary the Mother of the Church started: the belief that Mary is the Mother of God.
Calling Mary the Mother of God seems pretty pedestrian for anyone who grew up in a Catholic home. After all, this title is a central part of the Hail Mary we pray, which concludes, “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.” Aside from the italicized words very clearly denoting that Catholics ask for Mary’s intercession rather than worshipping her as a god, this line also points to this most central and fundamental of all Marian doctrines. This doctrine, which came intuitively to the early Christian community and which is held commonplace by Christians today, was not always without scrutiny and detraction. Rather, the belief that in giving birth to Jesus Mary had in fact given birth to God was a hotly contested subject in the 5th century between Nestorius and St. Cyril of Alexandria. Nestorius’ contention that Mary had given birth to Christ’s human nature apart from His divine nature was rooted in a faulty Christology, that held the human and divine natures in Christ to be separate from one another. Accordingly, Nestorius said Mary should be called Christotokos (“the Christ bearer”), not Theotokos (“the God bearer”; the Mother of God). However, from the perspective of St. Cyril, if we say Mary gave birth to the human in Christ and not the divine in Him, we have incorporated division into His very Person, such that there are two actors, two agents, which in turn leads to problems as to how our salvation is carried out. Most specifically, how death and sin are overcome. For if there is a division in Christ, how has human sin and death been overcome by the human death of Christ if left to its own devices in the grave apart from His divine nature, for only God can overcome sin and death? Instead, Cyril says, Christ, the One Person, both human and divine natures together, underwent death and was resurrected, and so too was born of the Virgin Mary, for there is no division in Christ’s Person (Third Letter of Cyril to Nestorius). Under Cyril’s lead, the Church proclaimed at the Council of Ephesus in 431 that Mary was indeed properly titled Theotokos.
The reason why this very brief foray into the Nestorian controversy is important for the discussion at hand is that it demonstrates that everything we say about Mary has everything to do with what we believe about Jesus. Accordingly, it tells us that if we want to understand how Mary is the Mother of Christians on a deeper level we ought to look at the relationship between Mary and Jesus for answers. The scene that comes most readily to mind here takes place on Calvary. There, the disciple who Jesus loved stood alongside His Mother, Mary. As the moment of death drew near, seeing the two standing together, John tells us, “[Jesus] said to his mother, ‘Woman, here is your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’” And, we are told, “from that hour the disciple took her into his home” (Jn. 19:26-27). At surface level we may be tempted to read this though a simple arrangement had been made whereby metaphorically speaking by taking care of her and allowing her to live as a member of his household Mary became a motherly figure to John and, again in a metaphorical sense, John a son to Mary. However, this is a totally inadequate reading. In order to see this, two interrelated points might be made. First, notice please how Jesus addresses Mary here. He doesn’t call her by her name or address her as “mother.” Instead, Jesus addresses Mary as “woman,” which is also how he addresses her at the Wedding of Cana (John 2:4). Why? To our ears this sounds not just informal, but even cool and possibly disrespectful. I would not respond to my mother by calling her “woman,” and I suspect this would hold true for many of us. Why then does Jesus address Mary this way?
To understand why we need to go back to the very first words of John’s Gospel: “In the beginning…” By commencing his Gospel with these words John is clearly drawing a parallel with the Book of Genesis, which opens the very same way: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth…” (Genesis 1:1). What John is teaching us is that the salvation brought by Christ is appropriately thought of as a sort of re-creation, the inauguration of making all things new, as the One seated on the throne says in the Book of Revelation (Rev. 21:5). This then provides the right framework for understanding why Jesus addressed Mary as “woman.” “Woman” is precisely how Adam addresses Eve when encountering her for the first time: “this one shall be called Woman, for out of man this one was taken,” (Gen. 2:23). Then, later, we are told that “the man named his wife Eve, because she was the mother of all living” (Gen. 3:20). This leads to the conclusion that Jesus is teaching us that Mary is somehow the Mother of all the living.
How can this be so? Mary is clearly not like Eve in that we might all be able to draw a biological genealogical connection to her. Thus we must look for a different answer, and if we want an answer about Mary we have already learned to look to what Scripture tells us about Jesus. The pertinent texts here refer to Jesus as the firstborn from the dead. And to be most succinct, Paul’s Letter to the Colossians will get us to our next step more quickly. There, Paul writes:
He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross (Col. 1:18-20).
What’s important to note here is that in the same verse (18), Paul refers to Jesus as the firstborn from the dead and the Head of the Body, the Church. What it means for Jesus to be the firstborn from the dead means simply that He was the first to overcome death and sin in His very Person in His Passion, death and Resurrection. Here the last line quoted comes into play, for we are joined to this saving action of overcoming death and sin precisely by sharing in Christ’s Passion, death and Resurrection.
For Christians, this is precisely what the sacrament of Baptism does. Thus, in his Letter to the Romans, Paul asks rhetorically, “Do you now know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” And then immediately adds, “Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:3-4). Later on in the same epistle, Paul goes on to explain that those who have been so reborn in Christ have been conformed to His image, “in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family” (Rom. 8:29). In short, just as through His Passion, death, and Resurrection, Jesus becomes the firstborn from the dead, so too we, by sharing in Christ’s Passion, death, and Resurrection via the sacrament of Baptism are born from the dead into the family of God.
This all sounds fine, one might say, but what does this have to do with Mary? Well, recall that in our earlier excursion into the Theotokos controversy, Cyril tied Jesus’ death directly to His birth in order to arrive at the conclusion that Mary in fact gave birth to God. The movement here moves the opposite direction conceptually. Just as Mary gives birth to the whole Person of the Son of God, humanity and divinity, at the beginning of His earthly life, so now at the end of His earthly life she gives birth to Him into eternity. How so? For the answer we go back to the foot of the Cross. And here we must ask ourselves, why is Mary present at the foot of the Cross? What precisely is she doing there? To be sure, on some level she is simply being present to Christ, being a comfort to Him in His darkest hour. Indeed, as Raniero Cantalamessa so wonderfully puts it:
Jesus no longer said, ‘O woman, what have you to do with me? My hour has not yet come’ (John 2:4). Now that his hour had come, he and his mother had something very important in common, the same suffering. In those last moments in which even the Father mysteriously withdrew from his human gaze, Jesus had only his mother’s gaze from which to draw solace and comfort (Mary, Mirror of the Church, 101).
Aside from so eloquently expressing how Mary is the one source of comfort Jesus has when agonizingly expiring from this life, Cantalamessa gives us the clue to find our answer as to how Mary gives birth to Jesus as the firstborn from the dead. He writes that they share in the same suffering. Just as a mother only gives birth to a child biologically through much pain, so now, on a level only analogically comparable, Mary gives birth to Jesus at the foot of the Cross by sharing in His agony. However, it is not a simply passive sharing Mary is involved in here. She is not simply along for the ride. She is actively offering her Son to the Heavenly Father as the only means by which the human family might be saved from the pains of eternal death to sin and be reborn to eternal life. How does Mary express this active sharing in Christ’s self-sacrifice? In the same way she conceived Him, by fiat. Only this time not a fiat uttered vocally to an angel, but in the silent tears falling from her eyes as she gazed upon her only Son, tears of sorrow at so brutal a treatment, tears of joy at witnessing the inexpressible love of God made present before her. As Cantalamessa writes, Mary knew full well who Jesus was, and she “knew that if Jesus had appealed to the Father, he would have sent him ‘more than twelve legions of angels’” to save Him (Mt. 26:53):
But she saw that Jesus didn’t do this. If he freed himself from the cross, he would also free her from this dreadful sorrow, but he didn’t do it. Yet Mary didn’t cry out, ‘Come down from the cross; save yourself and me!’…Mary was silent. ‘She lovingly consented to the immolation of this Victim which she herself had brought forth,’ a text of the Second Vatican Council tells us. She celebrated his Passover with him (Mary, Mirror of the Church, 99).
It is precisely by her consent and mutual self-offering with Christ that Mary gives birth to Jesus as the firstborn from the dead, and so becomes the Mother of the Church, His Body, who shares in His risen life together with all Her members, for where the Head is, the Body must also be. However, if the above gives us the strictly theological explanation for how Mary is appropriately called Mother of the Church, there is another dimension to her motherhood no less profound.
I speak of the great example she has left us of how to live the Christian life. To see the importance of this we can bring what is known as one of the “hard sayings” of Scripture where Mary is concerned. In the Gospels we are told that on one occasion, while Jesus is teaching, Mary and some other relatives come to see Him. And in response, Jesus asks, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” Then, pointing to His disciples, he added, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Mt. 12:49-50). As we saw above with respect to Jesus’ reference to Mary simply as “mother” both at the foot of the Cross and at the Wedding at Cana, these can seem like pretty harsh words. However, for someone like Augustine, this makes perfect sense, and it leads him to what we might consider a pretty radical conclusion:
It means more for Mary to have been a disciple of Christ than to have been the mother of Christ. It means more for her, an altogether greater blessing, to have been Christ’s disciple than to have been Christ’s mother. That’s why Mary was blessed, because even before she gave him birth, she bore her teacher in her womb (s. 72A.7).
How could this possibly be? Because Mary did the will of the Heavenly Father as Jesus says above. Her fiat at the Annunciation and her silent fiat at the foot of the Cross are the clearest examples of this. Thus, when Mary shows up the people around Him think she should have priority simply for being His biological mother, but Jesus corrects them saying, no, you are looking in the right place but at the wrong thing. My mother is indeed blessed, but precisely because she said yes to the Heavenly Father not just in word, but even more profoundly in deed. It is therefore upon her exemplary life as a Christian who does the will of God that Augustine allows the accent of Mary’s motherhood to fall. And with this we come full circle. Because, to this emphasis Augustine adds, this is a type of spiritual motherhood we can all imitate and share in:
In addition every devout soul that does the will of [Christ’s] Father by the fertile power of charity is Christ’s mother in those to whom [the Church] gives birth, until Christ himself is formed in them (Holy Virginity, 5,5).
It is thus by living the life of discipleship, in imitation of Mary, that we all partake in giving birth to Christ by giving birth to the members of His Body. There is nothing so contagious as true Love, no pen will ever write with more eloquent rhetoric. Love is stronger than death (Sg. 8:6), it bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things. In short, love never fails (1 Cor. 13:6), it will not quit until it is able to draw the beloved close. On the other hand, the beloved will not be drawn close unless it knows it is loved. Thus, when we look around at our world and we wonder why it is, or how it is that the world has lost its faith, the answer is really quite simple, the world does not know it is loved. As Hans Urs von Balthasar says: Indeed, for the world, love alone is credible” (Love Alone is Credible, 137-138).
My friends, there is a reason Pope Francis stops by to visit the Icon of Maria Salus Populi Romani housed in the Basilica of St. Mary Major before embarking upon and upon returning from his Apostolic journeys. To ask for and express gratitude to Our Lady for her maternal protection, yes, but more than this, to ask for her intercession to be given the grace to imitate the Love she quite literally gave birth to and which she embodied with the whole of her life. Like Balthasar, Pope Francis knows love alone is credible, and thus “only the commandment to love, in all its simplicity—steady, humble, unassuming but firm in conviction and in commitment to others—can save us” (Only Love Can Save Us, 90). On this day, may we too ask Mary to beseech her Son to give us the grace needed to live a life completely animated by this Love, so that our world, so broken and so divided, may die to all forms of sin by falling into the open arms of her Son stretched out upon the Cross, so that it may rise to a new life of peaceful flourishing in His eternal embrace of our Heavenly Father.
Your servant in Christ,
Tony Crescio is the founder of FRESHImage Ministries. He holds an MTS from the University of Notre Dame and is currently a PhD candidate in Christian Theology at Saint Louis University. His research focuses on the intersection between moral and sacramental theology. His dissertation is entitled, Presencing the Divine: Augustine, the Eucharist and the Ethics of Exemplarity.
Tony’s academic publications can be found here.