"...for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit" (Matthew 1:20)
Our gospel lesson for this Sunday is Matthew's account of the nativity of Jesus the Messiah (Matthew 1:18-23), a part of our story that brings us into an encounter with our teaching about the one whom the Church has long known as St. Mary the Virgin, or, even more classically, Theotokos (Greek for “Mother of God”).
I won't normally address our doctrine about Mary in our regular Sunday worship because it's a topic that requires more than we can do in a single sermon. However, questions abound in our parish about Mary and the Nativity, so what follows is what I hope will be helpful to some wondering if there really is something about Mary. A warning: I don't see this as a question that invites simple answers, so I won't pretend I can offer the parish something serious about the virgin birth that is easy to digest in one reading. In what follows, I invite you instead to read and reflect deeply on the question in all its complexity, as the early Church so evidently did.
Our diversity is reflected well in our thinking about Mary. Many of us grew up as Roman Catholics, and learned at an early age to appreciate the subjective Marian piety that was heavily influenced by traditions stemming from the Middle Ages. Some of us were cradle Episcopalians or mainstream Protestants whose approach to Mary was respectful but more objective and rooted in respect for the Biblical and creedal witness about Mary, and, I believe, more in keeping with the Marian piety of the ancient Church. Still others of us are uncomfortable with Mary altogether because it is hard for us to get our minds around the whole concept of a virgin with child. In this latter group are many who briefly lose their voice or suffer sudden fits of coughing whenever we confess, in the Nicene Creed, “he came down from heaven, was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary" and whenever we read the lessons for the Fourth Sunday of Advent.
It turns out that the symbol of Mary the Virgin is of extraordinary theological significance. Our traditions about Mary first became necessary in order for us to contemplate the concrete humanity and divinity of Christ, and those traditions originally developed as part of our doctrine about Jesus the Messiah. But Mary was important even before those great debates that led ultimately to the Nicene Creed, for the ancient Church foreshadowed the role Mary plays for us theologically today in their reflecting on what it means to be the Church commissioned by the Messiah.
They spoke of the Church consistently in metaphors that spoke of Mary’s role with respect to Jesus: these metaphors were the virgo ecclesia [virgin Church], the mater ecclesia [mother Church], the ecclesia immaculata [immaculate Church], and the ecclesia assumpta [assumed Church]. In doing so, they were saying something quite profound: the Church exists only in relation to Jesus the Messiah but is not identical to Jesus the Messiah; furthermore, the Church finds its subsistence in Jesus the Messiah, “the subsistence of the bride who, even when she becomes one flesh with Christ in love, nonetheless remains an other before him.“
One of the traditional names for the Church is the “Body of Christ.” That claim has a special intensity when we share in faith one cup and loaf in remembrance of the Messiah ("Christ" is our English form of the Greek Christos, which, in Hebrew, is transliterated Messiah). But the great mystery of the Eucharist to which we refer when we say, “Body of Christ,” is understood rightly only in terms of a unity that celebrates real reciprocity. And this unity with Christ that celebrates reciprocity is especially visible in the mystery of Mary: the mystery of the young woman who - freed from fear by grace - said “Yes!” to God, and, in so doing, “became bride and thus body.”
To reflect on Mary seriously, we must first recall that the salvation that is freely given by God is given in history through the union of the Messiah and Church. The Messiah commissioned a fellowship of disciples (the Church) and it is through this fellowship (koinonia) grounded in the Messiah that the Messiah - grace itself - is embodied in the world. But here Church is understood as the bride and the Messiah as the bridegroom, so that the Church is the union of the creature with its Creator in spousal love. Given this metaphor, Mary, in the moment of her “Yes!” to the father, is Israel saying “Yes” to the Father. But that “Yes!” was also a “Yes!” to the Son. Thus, Mary, in that moment, is symbolically the Church in union with the Father through her relationship to the Son. But she was not merely the Church in symbol, for she was concretely these things, too, in her person. She said "Yes" with her body, knew the Son with her body, enfleshed the Son with her body. Mary represents all creatures, summoned to respond to God in freedom, who respond to God in love.
It is surely significant that Mary responds magnificently as a woman. It is fashionable these days to deny the particularity of our sexuality, as though being male and female means that we are “merely different.” But we are human only insofar as we are bodily, which means only insofar as we manifest maleness and femaleness (here I refer to our created sexuality and not our socially constructed gender roles). So it is important that Mary’s relation to the Messiah is not merely spiritual, but intensely biological. Her relation to the Messiah is incarnational: her flesh, her person, and her relation to God are inseparable.
Thus, we can say there is indeed something about Mary. First, at the moment of her “Yes!”, she is Israel manifesting in a deeply personal way the spousal love of the Covenant that God always intended, and she is therefore also the Church in both symbol and person, saying “Yes!” to the Son. Second, she is all these things incarnationally: her relation to the Messiah is not abstractly spiritual, but is a unity in which her flesh participates concretely in the Messiah's flesh, as the Church is called to participate concretely in the Messiah's flesh. Finally, because of these two characteristics, Mary manifests a third: her relation to her son, the Son, penetrates her heart, thus reminding us that the faith of the Church is located in the deepest roots of our being.
For more reflection on Mary, see Mary: The Church at the Source by Joseph Ratzinger and Hans Urs von Balthasar (2005), which is my primary resource for this article.
Sun, December 19, 2010
by Fr Craig David Uffman filed under