Cantalamessa: The Mother of Christians, our mother

“We can now ask ourselves what it would actually mean for us to take Mary into our homes.”

Mary, the Mother of Believers
Fourth Sermon, Lent 2020

“We were all born there”

With this meditation we continue and conclude our contemplation of Mary in the pascal mystery. The theme of our reflection is the word Jesus addressed from the cross to his mother and to the disciple whom he loved:

When Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing near, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!’ And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home. (Jn 19:26-27)

We concluded our considerations on Mary in the mystery of the incarnation last Advent with a meditation on Mary as the Mother of God. Now we shall conclude our reflections on Mary in the paschal mystery by contemplating her as the Mother of Christians, as our mother.

We must immediately state that we are not dealing with two titles and two truths on the same level. “Mother of God” is a solemnly defined title; it is based on a real maternity. It has a close and even essential connection with the main truth of our faith, that Jesus is both God and man in the same person, and, finally, it is a title received by the Church at large. “Mother of the faithful,” or “our mother” indicates a spiritual maternity. It is not so closely connected to the main truths of the faith. We can’t say it has been a truth held by all Christians, everywhere and always, but it reflects the doctrine and devotion of some Churches, especially the Catholic Church.

St. Augustine helps us to immediately grasp the similarities and differences between the two maternities.

Physically, Mary is only the Mother of Jesus, whereas spiritually, in that she does God’s will, she is both his sister and mother. She wasn’t a Mother in spirit of the Head, who is also the Savior, from whom rather she was born, but she certainly is a mother in spirit to us, the members, because by her charity she cooperated within the Church in the birth of the faithful who are members of that same Head.[1]

In this meditation, we should like to aim at bringing to light all the richness, and Christ’s gift, enclosed in this title so that we may use it not only to honor Mary by attributing to her yet another title but to edify our faith and grow in the imitation of Christ.

Like physical maternity, spiritual maternity takes place in two different acts and moments: conception and birth. Neither on its own is sufficient. Mary experienced both of these moments: she spiritually conceived us and gave us birth. She conceived us, that is, welcomed us, when—perhaps even at the moment of her calling at the annunciation and certainly afterward as Jesus gradually advanced in his mission—she learned that her son wasn’t like other sons, a private person. He was the Messiah around whom a community was being formed.

All of this was, therefore, the time of conception, of a heartfelt yes. Now, beneath the cross, it was the time of travail. Jesus, at this moment, addressed his mother as “Woman.” Even if we can’t be certain, but knowing that John the evangelist, besides being direct in speech also made use of allusions, symbols, and references, these words make us think of what Jesus said: “When a woman is in labor, she has pain, because her hour has come” (Jn 16:21), and of what Revelation says: “a woman . . . was with child and she cried out in her pangs of birth” (Rev 12:1-2).

Even if this woman was first of all the Church, the community of the new covenant giving birth to the new man and a new world, Mary was nevertheless personally involved as the beginning and the representative of this community of believers. At any rate, the comparison between Mary and the Woman was accepted by the Church very early on—already by St. Irenaeus, a disciple of St. Polycarp, one of John’s disciples, when he saw Mary as the new Eve, the new “mother of all the living.”[2]

Let us now turn to John’s text to see if there is any reference to what we have been saying. The words of Jesus to Mary, “Woman, behold your son,” and of those to John, “Behold, your mother,” hold a direct and real meaning. Jesus entrusted Mary to John and John to Mary.

Yet this is not the full significance of the scene. Modern exegesis, which has made enormous progress in understanding the language and expressions of the Fourth Gospel, is even more convinced of this than the Fathers were. If you simply read the passage straight through, only as his last testamentary disposition, it would appear, it has been said, as a fish out of water or, rather, as clashing with the rest of the context. For John, the moment of death was the moment of the glorification of Jesus, the final fulfillment of Scripture and of all things.

Therefore, given the context, it would be straining the text if we were to see only a private and personal significance and not, in accordance with traditional exegesis, a more universal and ecclesial significance linked in some way to the woman in Genesis 3:15 and in Revelation 12. The ecclesial significance is that the disciple was not simply representing John but the disciple of Jesus as such, that is, all his disciples. The dying Jesus gave them to Mary as her sons just as Mary was given to them as their mother.

The words of Jesus often describe something already present, they reveal what exists; at other times, instead, they create and bring into existence what they express. The words of the dying Jesus to Mary and John are of the second type. This is similar to when he said, “This is my body,” and Jesus made the bread his body; when he said, “Behold, your mother” and “Behold, your son,” Jesus made Mary John’s mother and John Mary’s son. He didn’t just proclaim Mary’s new maternity, he instituted it. It doesn’t, therefore, come from Mary but from God’s Word; it is not founded on merit but on grace.

Beneath the cross, Mary therefore appears as the daughter of Zion, who after the death and loss of her sons received a new and more numerous family from God, but by the Spirit and not the flesh. A psalm, which the liturgy applies to Mary, says, “Behold, Philistia and Tyre, with Ethiopia—‘This one was born there.’ Of Zion it shall be said, ‘This one and that one were born in her. . . .’ The Lord records as he registers the peoples, ‘This one was born there’ ” (Ps 87:4-6). And it is indeed true, we were all born there! It shall be said of Mary, the new Zion, this one and that one were born in her. Of me, of you, and each person, even of those who do not know it yet, it is written in God’s register, “This one was born there.”

But haven’t we been “born anew . . . through the living and abiding word of God” (1 Pet 1:23)? Haven’t we been ‘‘born of God” (see Jn 1:13), born anew of “water and the Spirit” (Jn 3:5)? This is all very true, but it doesn’t take away from the fact that in another sense, subordinate and instrumental, we are also born of Mary’s faith and suffering. If St. Paul, as Christ’s servant and apostle, could say to his followers, “I became your father in Christ Jesus through the Gospel” (1 Cor 4:15), how much more can Mary say, I became your mother in Christ? Who has more right to use the apostle’s words, “My little children, with whom I am again in travail” (Gal 4:19)? She gave us birth anew beneath the cross, because she had already given us birth a first time, in joy and not in suffering, when she gave the world the “living and abiding word,” Christ, in whom we are born again.

Therefore, just as we applied to Mary beneath the cross the lamentation of the ruined Zion, which had drunk the chalice of divine wrath, now, trusting in the power and endless richness of God’s word, which goes well beyond exegetical schemes, we apply to her the hymn of Zion rebuilt after exile, as, full of wonder, it gazes upon its new children and exclaims, “Who has borne me these? I was bereaved and barren, . . . but who has brought up these?” (Isa 49:21).

The Marian Synthesis in Vatican Council II

The traditional Catholic doctrine on Mary, Mother of Christians, was newly expressed in the constitution on the Church of Vatican Council II, where Mary’s role is inserted into the wider theme of the history of salvation and the mystery of Christ. It states that

Predestined from eternity by that decree of divine providence which determined the incarnation of the Word to be the Mother of God, the Blessed Virgin was on this earth the virgin Mother of the Redeemer, and above all others and in a singular way the generous associate and humble handmaid of the Lord. She conceived, brought forth and nourished Christ. She presented Him to the Father in the temple, and was united with Him by compassion as He died on the Cross. In this singular way she cooperated by her obedience, faith, hope and burning charity in the work of the Saviour in giving back supernatural life to souls. Wherefore she is our mother in the order of grace.[3]

The council itself undertook to explain Mary’s maternal role by stating:

The maternal duty of Mary toward men in no wise obscures or diminishes this unique mediation of Christ, but rather shows His power. For all the salvific influence of the Blessed Virgin on men originates, not from some inner necessity, but from the divine pleasure. It flows forth from the superabundance of the merits of Christ, rests on His mediation, depends entirely on it and draws all its power from it. In no way does it impede, but rather does it foster the immediate union of the faithful with Christ. [4]

Besides the titles “Mother of God” and “Mother of the faithful,” the council also used the terms “type” and “exemplar” to illustrate Mary’s role:

By reason of the gift and role of divine maternity, by which she is united with her Son, the Redeemer, and with His singular graces and functions, the Blessed Virgin is also intimately united with the Church. As St. Ambrose taught, the Mother of God is a type of the Church in the order of faith, charity and perfect union with Christ. [5]

The novelty of this teaching on Mary is, as we know, its inclusion in the constitution on the Church. As is inevitable in such cases, it was not without suffering and conflict that the council deeply renewed the conventional Mariology of the last centuries. Mary is no longer treated separately, as if her role were as an intermediary between Christ and the Church. She has been linked again with the Church, just as in the days of the Fathers. As St. Augustine said, Mary is seen as the most noble member of the Church but still a member of it and not outside or above it.

Mary is holy, Mary is blessed, but the Church is more important than the Virgin Mary. Why? Because Mary is part of the Church, a holy and exceptional member more than all others but, nevertheless, a member of the whole body. And if she is a member of the whole body, it follows that the body is more important than a member of the body.[6]

Immediately after the council, Paul VI further developed the idea of Mary’s maternity for believers and solemnly and explicitly honored her with the title “Mother of the Church”:

To the glory of the Virgin and for our solace, We proclaim the most Holy Mary as Mother of the Church, of all God’s people, both the faithful and pastors, who invoke her as their most loving Mother. May this most gentle name make the Virgin ever more honored and invoked by all Christians.[7]  

“And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home”

It would now be fitting to move on from the contemplation of certain titles given to Mary or specific moments in her life to a practical imitation of her: to consider Mary as a figure and mirror of the Church. However, in this matter, where we have seen Mary as our mother, the practical application is somewhat different. Obviously it doesn’t consist in imitating Mary but in accepting her. We must imitate John by taking Mary into our lives from this moment on. That is all there is to it.

“The disciple took her to himself” (eis ta idia). We don’t think enough of the significance of these few words. They contain information of great importance, which also has a historical basis, as they were written by the person involved. Mary passed the last years of her life with John. What the Fourth Gospel says of Mary at Cana in Galilee and beneath the cross was writ­ten by someone who actually lived in the same house, and it would be impossible not to acknowledge the close relationship, if not the same identity, that existed between the disciple Jesus loved and the author of the Fourth Gospel. The words “and the Word became flesh,” were written by someone living under the same roof as Mary, in whose womb this miracle had been fulfilled, or at least by someone who knew her and lived in the same environment with her.

Who can tell what it meant to the disciple Jesus loved to have Mary with him in his home day and night, to eat with her, to have her listen to him when he spoke to his disciples, to celebrate the mystery of the Lord with her? Is it credible that Mary lived within the circle of the disciple Jesus loved without having had the slightest influence on the slow, intense, and thorough work of meditation that went into the compilation of the Fourth Gospel? It seems that in ancient times Origen at least sensed the secret that lies behind this fact, to which scholars and critics of the Fourth Gospel and those researching its sources usually give no consideration. In fact, Origen wrote:

John’s is the first flowering of the Gospels, and anyone who had not rested his head on the heart of Jesus and had not been given Mary as his mother could not grasp its meaning and depth. [8]

We can now ask ourselves what it would actually mean for us to take Mary into our homes. I think this is the right place to mention Louis de Montfort’s sober and fruitful spirituality on entrusting ourselves to Mary. It consists in doing all one’s actions through Mary, with Mary, in Mary and for Mary, so as to enable us to do them with greater perfection through Jesus, with Jesus, in Jesus and for Jesus.

We must deliver ourselves to the spirit of Mary to be moved and influenced by it in the manner she chooses. We must put ourselves and leave ourselves in her virginal hands, like a tool in the grasp of a workman, like a lute in the hands of a skillful player. We must lose ourselves, and abandon ourselves to her, like a stone one throws into the sea. This must be done simply and in an instant, by one glance of the mind, by one little movement of the will, or even verbally.[9]

But wouldn’t this be usurping the place of the Holy Spirit in Christian life, since it is by the Holy Spirit that we are to be led (see Gal 5:18)? Isn’t it the Holy Spirit who prays and intercedes for us (see Rom 8:26 ff.) so that we become like Christ? Isn’t it written that Christians must do everything in the Holy Spirit? It has been acknowledged that the error of attributing, at least tacitly, things that are really the function of the Holy Spirit in Christian life to Mary existed in certain forms of Marian devotion prior to the council.[10]

This was due to the lack of a clear and active consciousness of the role of the Holy Spirit in the Church. The development of a strong Pneumatology does not in the least make it necessary to reject the spirituality of trust in Mary. It just helps to make it clearer. Mary is precisely one of the privileged channels through which the Holy Spirit guides souls and leads them to imitate Christ, and this is because Mary is part of God’s Word and is herself a visible word of God. On this point St. Louis Marie Montfort was ahead of his time. He writes,

God the Holy Ghost being barren in God—that is to say, not producing another Divine Person—has become fruitful by Mary, whom He has espoused. It is with her, in her, and of her, that He has produced His Masterpiece, which is God made Man, and whom He goes on producing in the persons of His members daily to the end of the world. The predestinated are the members of that Adorable Head. This is the reason why the more the Holy Ghost finds Mary, His dear and indissoluble Spouse, in any soul, the more He becomes active and mighty in producing Jesus Christ in that soul, and that soul in Jesus Christ.[11]

The saying ad Jesum per Mariam (“to Jesus through Mary”) is acceptable therefore only in the sense that the Holy Spirit leads us to Jesus through Mary. Mary’s created mediation between us and Jesus can be seen in all its importance if its subordinate role as a channel of the uncreated mediation of the Holy Spirit is clearly understood.

We can use an analogy to understand this. Paul exhorted his followers to do as he did: “What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, do” (Phil 4:9). It is clear that Paul had no intention of placing himself in the role of the Holy Spirit; he simply believed that imitating him was complying with the Spirit, as he believed that he also had the Spirit of God (see 1 Cor 7:40). This holds a fortiori for Mary and explains what “to do everything with Mary and like Mary” actually means. With Paul, and more than Paul, she can truly say, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor 11:1). In fact, she is our model and teacher simply because she is the perfect disciple and imitator of Christ.

In a spiritual sense this is what taking Mary means: taking her as companion and counselor, aware that she knows better than we do God’s wishes for us. If we learn to consult Mary and listen to her in all things, she will really become our incomparable teacher in God’s ways, guiding our inner selves without the din of words. This is not an abstract possibility but a real fact, experienced today, as in the past, by numerous persons.

“Your hope will never depart from the hearts of men”

Before concluding our contemplation of Mary in the paschal mystery, close to the cross, I wish to dedicate yet another thought to Mary, model of hope. A time comes in life when we need Mary’s faith and hope. When God no longer seems to listen to our supplications, when he seems to belie himself and his promises, when he lets us experience defeat after defeat and the powers of darkness seem to triumph all around us and all becomes dark within, like the darkness that day “over all the land” (Mt 27:45). When, as one of the psalms says, he seems to have “in anger shut up his compassion” (Ps 77:9). When you are facing this hour, remember Mary’s faith, and you, too, cry out as others have done, “Father, I no longer understand you, but I trust in you!”

Perhaps God is asking us right now to sacrifice our “Isaac,” like Abraham—the person, the thing, the project, the foundation, the office that is dear to us, that God himself entrusted to us and to which we have dedicated our lives. This is the occasion God is offering us to show him that he is dearer still, more so than his gifts, even than the work we are engaged in for him.

God said to Abraham, “I have made you the father of a multitude of nations” (Gen 17:5). And after Isaac’s test he said, “Because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only-begotten son, I will indeed bless you, and I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven and as the sand which is on the seashore. And . . . by your descendants shall all the nations of the earth bless themselves, because you have obeyed my voice” (Gen 22:16-18). Now he says the same thing and even more to Mary: I shall make you mother of a multitude of nations, mother of my Church! In your name all the generations of the earth will be blessed. All generations will call you blessed!

One of the fathers of the Reformation, John Calvin, while commenting on Genesis 12:3 (“All the families of the earth will find blessing in you”), says that “Abraham will not only be an example and a patron, but a source of blessing.”[12] This could make St. Irenaeus’s affirmation understandable and acceptable to all Christians, which says, “Just as Eve, by disobeying, became cause of death for herself and the whole human race, so Mary, by obeying, became cause of salvation for herself and the whole human race.”[13] Mary too is not only an example but a cause of benediction, albeit instrumental, by grace not by merit.

The Bible tells us that when Judith, after risking her own life for her people, returned to her city, the people ran together to meet her, and the high priest blessed her and said, “O daughter, you are blessed by the most high God above all women on the earth. . . . Your hope will never depart from the hearts of men” (Jud 13:18-19). Let us address the same words to Mary: You are blessed above all women! Your hope and your courage will never depart from the heart and memory of the Church.

Let us now recapitulate Mary’s presence in the paschal mystery by applying to her, with all due distinctions, the words St. Paul used when summing up Christ’s paschal mystery, which he intended to be the pattern of every Christian life:

Mary, though she was the Mother of God,
did not count her privilege
as something to hold on to,
but emptied herself,
calling herself a servant,
and living in the likeness of all other women.
She humbled herself and stayed hidden,
obedient to God, till the death of her Son, and a death on a cross.
Therefore God has highly exalted her
and bestowed on her the name,
which, after Jesus, is above every name,
that at the name of Mary
every head should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess
that Mary is the Mother of the Lord
to the glory of God the Father. Amen!

[1] St. Augustine, Of Holy Virginity, 5-6 (PL 40, 399).

[2] St. Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses, III, 22, 4.

[3] Lumen gentium, 61.

[4] Ibid., 60.

[5] Ibid., 63.

[6] St. Augustine, Sermons, 72A (Denis 25), 7 (Miscellanea Agostiniana I, p. 163).

[7] Paul VI, Closing Discourse of the 3rd Period of the Vatican Council, November 21, 1964 (AAS 56, 1964, p. 1016).

[8] Origen, Commentary on the Gospel of John, I, 6, 23 (SCh 120, pp. 70-72).

[9] St. Louis Marie de Montfort, True Devotion to Mary, n. 259, trans. Frederick William Faber (rep. ed., London: Catholic Way Publishing, 2013), p. 16; see also nos. 257-258.

[10] See Heribert Mühlen, Una Mystica Persona (Paderborn: Schöningh, 1967).

[11] See De Montfort, True Devotion, n. 20,  p. 25.

[12] John Calvin, Le livre de la Genèse [The Book of Genesis] (Geneva: Labore et Fides, 1961), p. 195. See Gerhard von Rad, Genesis. A Commentary (London: SCM Press, 1972), p. 160.

[13] St. Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses, III, 22, 4.

Raphael Benedict

Raphael Benedict is a Catholic who wants nothing but to spread the catholic faith to reach the ends of the world. Make this possible by always sharing any article or prayers posted on your social media platforms. Remain blessed

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