Have you ever noticed that when a mother smiles at her infant, it will soon smile back? The child is learning how to love.
It is like this too for the children of God: You could say that grace is God’s smile upon us and we, like the child, through recognition of this gift, respond. Remember the answer to the old catechism question, “Why did God create us?” “God created us to know him, to love him, and to serve him.”
But how does a mere human come to “know” God? And if God wants our love, how are we to give it unless we know him first? It would seem that God must first make himself recognizable to us. We cannot give what has not been previously given to us. Thus, the inner reality of love can only be perceived by knowledge acquired through a prior gift of the same. And so God does this through the gift of his grace.
The current Holy Father seizes upon the ultimate reality of our need for God’s first loving us when he writes, “Man cannot live without love” (Redemptor Hominis 10). He explains that man will always be incomprehensible to himself if love is not revealed to him. Only in drawing near to Christ will the reality of the Incarnation and our redemption find a place in our lives and begin to produce the fruit of adoration of this Divine Lover. We should be dazzled by such immense, unconditional love.
It is no accident that God has chosen to show us this love through a mother’s smile. He disclosed it once and for all when he reached down to a young maiden with the cry “Come!” (Rev. 11:12), and she answered, “Let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). God the Father first poured his love into the world’s darkness and prepared in Mary a womb for his Son’s coming-Mary, the sinless one whose redemption was granted in advance by the grace of the cross. It is the love of this woman, who said “yes” to God and the love of her divine Son, “yes” to fallen humanity, that we will consider here. Let’s begin the same way God did: with the mother.
In Pope John Paul II’s thinking, the creation of man was completed only when God created Eve, and Adam recognized her as a human creature like himself, although different. The first love cry is echoed through all creation in Adam’s recognition that his yearning for a radical giving of self and receiving of another will at last be fulfilled through Eve, who he called “flesh of my flesh” (Ex. 2:23). Since this action carried with it the blessings of fertility, it was another expression of man’s imaging his Creator both in the reproductive act and in the mystery of the communio that is the Blessed Three-in-One. You might even say that, from the beginning, our creation as embodied, gendered persons is a sacramental reality, an icon of the life of God. Our human bodies make visible the invisible, the spiritual and divine.
When this spiritual dimension of human flesh is disregarded, the body is no longer a sign of the sacred but too easily becomes an object of selfish pleasure. The differences between male and female, which were a source of unity of the two sexes, become a source of confrontation.
Initially, gender differences resulted in holy interdependence. After sin entered Eden, the human heart became a battlefield upon which are played out the most difficult battles between love and lust, self-mastery and self-assertion, freedom as giving and freedom as taking-and often at the expense of the woman. The world became a place of fear and toil. Man was estranged from God, from the creation around him, and from himself through interior disharmony.
St. Edith Stein wrote that Adam’s God-given role in the created universe is to name the animals and master creation. His vocation is reflected in his body and his spirit: Both equip him to fight and conquer that world, to understand it as a manifestation of God’s beauty and by knowledge to possess and enjoy it. Adam is called to make the world, in a sense, his own creation through purposeful activity. He tends towards effectiveness in both cognitive and creative action. His immediate desires reveal themselves in work and objective achievements.
On the other hand, it is Eve’s primary vocation to be mother, and her body and spirit reflect this clearly. Her feminine qualities are best seen wherever feeling, intuition, empathy, and adaptability come into play. Such activity necessarily involves her total person in caring for, cultivating, helping, understanding, and encouraging the gifts of others. Of the threefold approach to the world-to know it, to enjoy it, to form it creatively-it is the second way that most concerns Eve. She seems more capable of feeling reverent joy in creatures because as mother she is sensitive to the good in others.
Thus we see that while a woman’s primary vocation is maternal, her maternal heart colors all she is. Man’s primary vocation is that of ruler, with his paternal vocation being secondary (though not subordinate to it). The physiological differences of the sexes reveal their use and function. A man’s body has more the character of an instrument that serves him in his work and is accompanied by a certain detachment.
There is much less division between a woman’s spirit and body because her emotions so strongly influence her physiological well being. These interior stirrings of her spirit, as she perceives her own being and grasps the relationship of another to herself, need the control of reason and the direction of the will. As mother, she assimilates into herself and nourishes from her own body a person separate and yet intimately connected to herself. Edith Stein believed God combats evil in the world through the power of woman’s maternal love: “Everywhere there is a need for such love, and it is essential to woman’s nature that she give it.”
Woman’s sensitivity affects her decisions concerning moral values. Through empathy she becomes capable of fulfilling her other vocation as companion and helpmate of man. She is psychologically stronger in resisting possible dangers of seduction that may more easily tempt the man. Thus she will call forth his growth in holiness as he accepts his responsibility to assist her growth in holiness.
John Paul II treats this in Mulieris Dignitatem when he says, “The moral and spiritual strength of a woman is joined to her awareness that God entrusts the human being to her in a special way. This entrusting concerns woman by reason of her femininity. A woman is strong because of her awareness of this entrusting. . . . Thus the ‘perfect woman’ (Prov. 31:10) becomes an irreplaceable support and source of spiritual strength for other people who perceive the great energies of her spirit” (MD 30).
While the entrustment of life to woman is her greatest glory, it also becomes her greatest act of sacrificial love. Adam’s punishment resulted in his loss of undisputed sovereignty over the earth, in his harsh struggle for daily bread, and in the difficulty of his labor and the meager reward reaps.
A completely different judgment is meted out to the woman. “I will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain shall you bring forth your children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” (Gen. 3:16). One wonders just how it is that a woman’s natural sense of motherhood has become so numbed in today’s prevalent culture of death. Her femininity is lost when she acts against her God-given purpose to nurture human life. She loses her beauty, dignity, and grace when she no longer fashions herself along the lines of beauty, dignity, and grace emanating from the greatest of all women, the Mother of God. It is to this great woman, the Theotokos who gives birth to God, that we should now turn our attention.
Mary is the bridge who links mankind to God. Because of her, the Church will always be seen as mother, with all the beauty, sentiments, humiliations, and exaltations of feminine warmth. This Bride of Christ, Mother Church, is loved by her children as the one who brought them to birth in the new world of Christ, who nourished them with her own bread from heaven, and prepared them for their entry into eternal life. For John Paul II, the whole order of “created grace”-and thus of the whole cosmos-takes its deepest meaning from the spousal relation that God established between his Son and his Church.
Due to widespread misunderstanding of the Church’s position regarding Mary, it is expedient to point out that a substantial body of beliefs concerning her existed from the beginnings of theological reflection and developed out of the Church’s growing understanding of who Christ is. We know about Mary only because we know Christ. From the earliest days of the Church, the Marian understanding formed an indispensable part of the objective Christian doctrine of salvation. Looking at this more carefully, we progress logically through Mary to Jesus and through Jesus to the Blessed Trinity. Thus Mariology not only doesn’t take us away from God, it paves the way for our ascent to the Triune God.
The Church’s dogmas on our Lady point us back to the Divinity. Mary was first called “Mother of God” when the Church defined Christ’s hypostatic union in the year 451 at the Council of Chalcedon. The statement that her conception was immaculate is in the first place a statement whose setting is the doctrine of grace and redemption. The belief in her perpetual virginity underlines the scriptural witness concerning the theology of the covenant and the doctrine of the people of the Church. The dogma of the assumption of her body into heaven is a part of the universal Christian doctrine of the Last Things. Thus each.aspect of Marian grace reveals to the Church a fuller dimension of the trinitarian life.
Hans Urs Von Balthasar makes an interesting observation regarding two Marian dogmas, both defined within the last 150 years. Not by chance, he says, do the dogmas of the Immaculate Conception defined in 1854 and the Bodily Assumption of Mary in 1950 form the frame for the Petrine dogma of infallibility. Critical to von Balthasar’s thinking about these two.aspects of the Church-the Marian and the Petrine-is the knowledge that it is the Holy Spirit who forms their point of convergence.
In Against the Heresies, Irenaeus tries to defend the goodness of creation against certain gnostic sects. To emphasize this, he calls the Holy Spirit and Christ “the two arms of the Father.” Might we not, then, call Mary and Peter the “two arms of Christ,” as it is through their persons and ongoing charisms that the Church is what she is?
The whole tendency of the Christian faith is incarnational. It is never an abstraction from the world. Mary is the reality of the Bride; Peter is a participatory icon for Christ. Mary is what gives the Church her flesh: She keeps the Church-and thus God-from becoming a mere abstraction, a community without flesh and blood in history. Peter is the one who keeps this corporeality structured. Mary is the flesh; Peter is the bone.
Since we have not yet reached perfection in love, we need the “rules” given by the Holy Spirit through the Petrine Church to fashion us into perfect Marian holiness. We have been “called to freedom” (Gal. 5:13) that we might grow in perfect love and be formed in the mind of Christ. Peter provides the pedagogical instruction; Mary, as seat of wisdom, provides our sharing in that wisdom. Both the Marian and Petrine dimensions interrelate in living, guarding, and making explicit the prophetic sense of believers’ faith. In short, we might say the Marian graces mold personal holiness and the Petrine grace guides the Church in authority and discernment.
This thinking is reflected in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “Holiness is measured according to the ‘great mystery’ in which the Bride responds with the gift of love to the gift of the Bridegroom. Mary goes before us all in the holiness that is the Church ‘s mystery as the ‘bride without spot or wrinkle’ (Eph. 5:27). . . . The ‘Marian’ dimension of the Church precedes the ‘ Petrine’ (MD 27)” (CCC 773).
What follows is a personal theory, developed after praying and reflecting on today’s culture of death. It is difficult for me to imagine any thinking person who has been gifted with knowledge of a woman’s physiological, psychological, and emotional make-up to ever consider abortion to be a good. And even if one should be so deceived, why have the multitudes followed this erroneous lead? Holy Mother Church has shown us through 2,000 years of Christendom the vital importance of von Balthasar’s Marian principle, which he thought must precede the Petrine if the Church is to have a heart-that is, a rich interior life.
It is in the womb of the Church that Peter’s seed is able to become life-giving and to develop. Without a Marian dimension, the Church becomes a nonsensical “masculine mother” and is devoid of her mystical characteristics. She becomes a Church of permanent organizations, advisory commissions, academies, functions, structures, and restructurings. The Church would lose her feminine qualities of warmth, sensitivity, nurturing, and guidance of her children.
Sadly, one does not find such an atmosphere estranged from a world that clings to a culture of death. But this culture of death goes beyond the death of certain human beings. John Paul understands the most urgent problem of our time to be the “death” of God through means such as “materialism, individualism, utilitarianism, and hedonism”-all of which lead to “the eclipse of the sense of God”. (Evangelium Vitae 23). But how did a created world ever forget its Creator?
I suggest it came about when we began minimizing the role of motherhood. In neglecting the Mother we soon forgot the Child. From there, the logical progression follows by which the world can abort its children, murder its defenseless, and promote genetic manipulation by which it may choose the various physical-and perhaps someday intellectual.aspects of those “privileged” to be conceived, “allowed” to be born, and “cultivated” to adulthood. Such a sexless world no longer needs nor wants a mother.
Might we not say that Mother Mary experiences the thrust of another sword into her heart with each abortion, each infanticide, each premature withdrawal of food and life-sustaining procedures, each case of euthanasia, each senseless damage to another’s soul through scandal? It is into this kind of a world that the Holy Father, last August 20, sent forth two million young people with the grave commission to promote and live out an authentic culture of life.
In Paul’s “bridal motif” of Ephesians 5, he establishes the relationship of the “bride” of the Old Testament with Israel and the “bride” of the New Testament with the Church. The Church, therefore, becomes a collective subject, not an individual person but rather a subject made up of many persons, both men and women. The Holy Father points out that it is “in this love of God which is expressed in the Redemption, the spousal character of this love reaches completion in the history of humanity and of the world” (MD 25). The “giving” or “feminine” element, so necessary to spousal love, becomes a symbol for all that is “human” in the Church. Perhaps nowhere is this more clearly expressed than in the witness of women religious who vow their entire lives to God in spousal commitment.
To better understand this, we turn our attentions to the Holy Father’s apostolic exhortation concerning consecrated life and its mission in the Church, Vita Consecrata. Given March 25, 1996, this papal exhortation likens religious in the Church to “icons of the Transfiguration,” for it is through their lives of radical consecration to God that his light shines so clearly on all his children. With Mary, virgin and bride, a religious woman is called to spousal receptivity. “Thus the Church fully reveals her motherhood both in the communication of divine grace entrusted to Peter and in the responsible acceptance of God’s gift, exemplified by Mary” (VC 34). A woman’s virginal love becomes a source of particular fruitfulness by fostering the divine life in the hearts of all people.
I began this article with a simple look at the beauty of a mother’s smile. Allow me to end with a simple look at the Eucharistic Child’s smile in Bethlehem. Jesus’ first incarnate look was directed not on the people whom he had come to save, not on Joseph or the shepherds, not even on his Mother Mary, but on his Father. From that gaze, we follow him as he turns to look at us. In seeing us, he sees his Father. No wonder that adoration is at the heart of the Christmas mystery. In each moment of Eucharistic union-whether receiving Communion or in moments of adoration before Love himself-the Lord looks back at us and enables us to see ourselves as images of God.
As the Catechism teaches, the vocation of humanity is to show forth the image of God and to be transformed into the image of the Father’s only Son (CCC 1877). Let it be always our greatest joy to look upon the face of Jesus and to reflect back to him the face of the Father, who first gazed upon the humble virgin Mary and sent an angel to call her “blessed.”
By: Sr. Joseph Andrew Bogdanowicz