Michelangelo's "Pieta"

Last time, we took a brief glance at Scripture and meditated on Mary’s mediation of Christ to Elizabeth in Luke 1:39-56. It seems in this pericope that Mary’s mediation of her Son is quite stark, quite strong, and indeed unavoidable. (In contrast, indeed, to 1 Timothy.) The further question pertains to whether her mediation can ever be avoided subsequent to this. That is: can we move beyond the Virgin Mary’s mediation? My argument – if it may be called that, though it was much more a meditation – tended in the last toward the negative.

That argument, briefly, went as follows: the Visitation revolves around Christ, but it is Mary who brings Christ to the center – and indeed who refuses to let God out of the picture. In this moment, at least, Mary is both in the middle of things and resisting her own absolutization. Note, for example, her canticle (Lk 1:46-55). Does such a “moment” continue? Can it? This led me to wonder whether motherhood, specifically Mary’s motherhood, can really be said to “end.” I responded that it does not really. To reinforce this point, I sought out general human experience. This experience remains true whether or not one’s experience with a mother is good, bad, or indifferent. The point is, we remain related to our mothers, and by more than just blood. (Though, in all honesty, I could have as easily brought in the Scriptural witness.)[1] The main drive of the argument circles around discerning the nature of Mary’s motherhood, and motherhood – as we will see – demands a simultaneous reference to both experience and logic, a demand governed by Scripture. Specifically, I began to look toward a peculiar, as of yet unnamed, element of the Catholic Scriptural imagination. So, that was the basic position in which we more or less ended.

But let us take a step back and think.

And let me try to be more explicit this time.

Something happens to the Catholic imagination when it encounters Mary in Scripture. Something expansive and almost inevitable. It is not so simple as a vast importation of later dogma onto an ancient text. It is much more like this: imagining the Scriptural passages as if they were real, pervasive, and present. The Incarnation is singular, yes – but even more, the Incarnation lives. Christ lives. He continues to live in his Church in particular, and there is a sense in which every moment of the Incarnation is re-lived (recapitulated) in the Church. There is no great and vast historical chasm between “then” and “now.” The Catholic imagination rests upon this principle. It views everything through this vitalizing lens, even the Virgin Mary.

Let us, for example, examine G.M. Hopkins as the Catholic poet turns his eye toward the Virgin Mary:

Of her flesh he took flesh:
He does take fresh and fresh,
Though much the mystery how,
Not flesh but spirit now
And makes us, O marvellous!
New Nazareths in us,
Where she shall yet conceive
Him, morning, noon, and eve;
New Bethlems, and he born
There, evening, noon, and morn —
Bethlem or Nazareth,
Men here may draw like breath
More Christ and baffle death

– “The Blessed Virgin Compared to the Air we Breathe,” excerpt

In this work from Hopkins, we get a poetic view of the Word becoming flesh – taking on the flesh of Mary, his mother: “of her flesh he took flesh.” In one line, Hopkins grasps the specificity of Christ’s life. He has but one mother, and she gave to him everything that is human. In the very next line, Hopkins poses the idea that this in-carnation has not ceased: “He does take [flesh] fresh and fresh.” That is to say, the common and ancient Christian trope – that we become alter Christi[2] – receives (a rather traditional) expansion: if Christ is “born” in us, then he is born through Mary in us. The essential relationship between Mother and Son has not ceased; indeed, it continues in the Spirit (“but spirit now”) in every believer.

It is not simply that we bear Christ in a manner analogous to Mary. More than that: if Christ becomes present in us, if we “become” Christ as a member of his Church, then Hopkins’s poem argues that this “becoming” is not radically distinct from how it originally happened: Christ still comes to us through Mary, even spiritually. Hopkins imagines the present moment, our lives of faith, in terms of the “original” moment: Nazareth and Bethlehem. Each has the same outcome: overcoming (“baffling”) death.

The poet’s move strikes at the heart of the Catholic imagination. It strikes at the sense that Christ’s life on earth is not only the originating source of our salvation, but also its living and persistent paradigm. Its eternally present paradigm. And what is paradigmatic about Christ’s life is especially preserved in canonical Scripture. Its images give us our primary means of understanding our present lives according to the past. We can even enter into the past. Let us look again at another Catholic, this time St. Bernard of Clairvaux addressing the Virgin at the Annunciation:

Answer quickly, O Virgin. Reply in haste to the angel, or rather through the angel to the Lord. Answer with a word, receive the Word of God. Speak your own word, conceive the divine Word. Breathe a passing word, embrace the eternal Word.

– excerpt, Homily in Praise of the Virgin Mother

Bernard speaks to her as if he were with her. He corresponds to the moment by multiple allusions to Scripture. Again, the past and the present are not mutually exclusive. They converse with one another. And the nexus of this conversation is Scriptural.

I am not (yet) arguing that this sort of imaginative move makes sense. I say only that it happens, and frequently. Nor am I arguing that this imagination is alien to Protestantism. It is certainly much, much more pronounced in Catholicism. Particularly when it comes to the Virgin Mary. The Catholic mind, on approaching Mary in Scripture, approaches her both with the weight of the present moment (from daily worries to what is presently believed about her, both of which involve a past regardless of whether it is known) and the full gamut of Scripture. A nerve is struck. Other passages in Scripture fall together, either as references to Mary or as moments in which her role may be clarified.[3] This is partially an imaginative habit (the most ancient is to call Mary the “New Eve”), and actively imaginative (as in Michelangelo’s creative investment in Mary’s anachronistic youth in his Pieta).

So, not only does Mary’s motherhood never cease in the case of her Son, but it is also expanded: she is the mother of the Church, the mother of all believers. To call Mary Mother of God and Mother of the Church in itself sums up the titanic act of Catholic Scriptural thought, forever uniting the experience of the Church with Scripture and permitting Scripture to govern it. How is Mary’s motherhood (even her “mothering” of the image of Christ in the believer) continually governed by Scripture? Because it cannot understand itself outside of or beyond her motherhood of Christ as it is expressed in Scripture. We have no idea in what way she is mother unless we observe it with care in Scripture.

All of this because she was chosen to be the Mother of God. Mother: this makes her forever related to her Son – indeed, it is the only way we know her – and related to us for the sake of her Son. Being defined as a mother means being defined primarily in terms of your relationship to your children. Not otherwise. A woman who has no children is not a mother. Chosen: her exaltation itself is a grace, and much as we laud her Fiat, we understand first that it is a an obedient act of faith and not an independent choice over-against God. More than any other mother, Mary receives her identity as mother. (And yet we can see, even in this, a reflection of ordinary motherhood – which is also a gift.)

This sort of thinking helps to explain the chapter on the Virgin Mary in Lumen Gentium. It moves smoothly from God’s will toward salvation into Mary’s motherhood and onto her motherhood of the Church, presuming their intricate link:

52. Wishing in His supreme goodness and wisdom to effect the redemption of the world, “when the fullness of time came, God sent His Son, born of a woman…that we might receive the adoption of sons”.(Gal 4:4-5) “He for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit from the Virgin Mary.”(Cfr. S. Cyprianus, S. Hilarius Pict., S. Augustinus, S. Cyrillus Alex.) This divine mystery of salvation is revealed to us and continued in the Church, which the Lord established as His body. Joined to Christ the Head and in the unity of fellowship with all His saints, the faithful must in the first place reverence the memory “of the glorious ever Virgin Mary, Mother of our God and Lord Jesus Christ”.(Cfr. S. Gregorius M., S Augustinus, S. Io. Damascenus.)

53. The Virgin Mary, who at the message of the angel received the Word of God in her heart and in her body and gave Life to the world, is acknowledged and honored as being truly the Mother of God and Mother of the Redeemer. Redeemed by reason of the merits of her Son and united to Him by a close and indissoluble tie, she is endowed with the high office and dignity of being the Mother of the Son of God, by which account she is also the beloved daughter of the Father and the temple of the Holy Spirit. Because of this gift of sublime grace she far surpasses all creatures, both in heaven and on earth. At the same time, however, because she belongs to the offspring of Adam she is one with all those who are to be saved. She is “the mother of the members of Christ . . . having cooperated by charity that faithful might be born in the Church, who are members of that Head.”(Cfr. S. Irenaeus) Wherefore she is hailed as a pre-eminent and singular member of the Church, and as its type and excellent exemplar in faith and charity. The Catholic Church, taught by the Holy Spirit, honors her with filial affection and piety as a most beloved mother.

We can see, both in the overall “logic” of the excerpt as well as its entwining of Scripture with patristic authors, the Catholic imagination work. We can see what I am trying to explain. Mary remains central, remains mediator, because their is a very real sense in which the age of Scripture has not, and will never, pass. This is not due to Mary, but, as she herself said, because “he who is mighty has done great things for me” (Lk 1:49)

I will next attempt a third part to this series, a more fully theological-systematic account of mediation. It would be my effort to understand and explain what I understand to be already the “fact” as it stands in Catholicism of the past and present.

See Part III.

[1] In the Gospel of Matthew, as much as Luke, Mary is referenced almost exclusively as Jesus’ mother (see Mt 1:18, 2:11, et passim; or even later in Jesus’ life in 13:55). She is not identified in terms separate from him. Of course this is so: Jesus is the whole point of the narrative, and everyone else revolve around him. Thus, Mary’s motherhood is her primary and lasting identity. Who is Mary? We are at our most precise when we say, “The Mother of God.” The anomaly, as always, is the Gospel of John. Mary appears only twice in John, at the Wedding at Cana (Jn 2) and the Crucifixion (Jn 19), and never called by name. She is called simply “Woman” (Jn 2:4, 19:26).

[2] Cf. Gal 4:19. It is a major theme as well in the work of St. Augustine: “Let us rejoice then and give thanks that we have become not only Christians, but Christ himself. Do you understand and grasp, brethren, God’s grace toward us? Marvel and rejoice: we have become Christ. For if he is the head, we are the members; he and we together are the whole man. . . . The fullness of Christ then is the head and the members. But what does “head and members” mean? Christ and the Church.” (Cited in the Catechism of the Catholic Church 795)

[3] Marian Scriptural tropes in Catholicism abound. She is related to Eve as the New Eve; she is identified as the woman clothed with the sun in Revelation 12. She has been identified as the burning bush, filled with the presence of God but unconsumed. The tent of meeting in Exodus. The enclosed garden in the Song of Songs. Etc.