2. Mary and our image of God
2. Mary and our image of God
Part 1 - Mary disciple and mother Download PDF
Part 2 - Diana of Ephesus to Mary of Galilee Download PDF
Part 3 - Mary refuge of sinners Download PDF
Part 4 - Mary mother of mercy Download PDF
Part 5 - Mary the liberator Download PDF
Part 6 - The maternal aspects of God Download PDF
Part 1 - Mary disciple and mother
Throughout history Mary, the mother of Jesus, has been the source of endless fascination for Christians. In the years since Vatican II we have seen Mary celebrated as a woman, as one who journeys by faith as we do, as a role-model for feminists – or its opposite, and even as a challenge to patriarchal religion. Mary has been the topic in two major writings by popes, Marialis Cultus (1974) and Redemptoris Mater (1987). Many times and cultures have demonstrated different appreciations of this unique figure in our Christian tradition. From the fifth century came the feast of her Dormition or ‘falling asleep’. In our century has she fallen asleep in our faith life, our liturgy, our homilies, or is she in the process of awakening in us and for us?
Disciple and Mother
Throughout history Mary has been honoured as the New Testament disciple par excellence of Jesus, who was also his mother. Along with her personal involvement in the birth of Jesus is her own lifelong journey of faith through a life that was most certainly not an easy one. It peaks of brutal oppression and the displacement of flight and exile. Since early times there have been distortions when Mary slipped the bounds of creature-hood and either competed with her Son as mediator or even replaced him. Vatican II corrected this with a healthy reminder that Mary’s role is seen to be not separate from the mystery of Christ and the Church but rather integrated within them, one with the human race in need of salvation.
Given this balance, hard won as it was, several issues remain unresolved at the level of Mary in an ecumenical context, the declining interest in the figure of Mary especially in the Western world while other areas continue an ever growing Marian emphasis as though Vatican II’s corrective never took place. One reason for this needs consideration, the symbolic force of her figure as a female representation that bears images of God otherwise excluded from mainline Christian perception of God as Father, Son and Spirit, Sandra Schneider’s ‘Two men and a bird’.
Can a Mother forget her child?
Images of God as female are, arguably necessary for the full expression of the mystery of God but are suppressed from official formulations. Not surprisingly, these have migrated to the figure of this woman. In devotion to her as a close, compassionate mother who will not let one of her children be lost, we have mediated a most appealing experience of God. Mary, it may be argued, has embodied aspects of divine reality best symbolised in female form. For multitudes of believers the person of this woman has functioned to reveal divine love as merciful, close, interested, always ready to hear and respond to human needs, inspiring trust, and profoundly attractive. This has happened to a degree not possible when one thinks of God simply as a ruling male person or persons.
We need to take a further step beyond identifying the issue. It is to retrieve those elements in the Marian symbol which properly belong to the divine reality and them as God imaged as female. If Mary reflects the feminine face of God, then Marian theology and devotion have a contribution to make towards the crucial task of imaging God in inclusive fashion. This incorporates doctrinal, ecumenical, and feminist interests. Two positives that emerge would be imaging God as a female acting subject and retrieving Mary as a genuine woman whose life was a journey of faith. All women have an unsurpassable dignity as human beings made in the image of God, a truth that struggles to come to expression in theory and practice, and is demanded as an act of justice.
Three positives that emerge would be first a more adequate theology of God; then the Marian tradition itself would be redirected and refreshed; and finally one obstacle to the Church becoming a community of equal disciples would be diminished. The holy mystery of God transcends all images and concepts, but God’s created world, of nature and humanity, women and men, can separately or together, serve as metaphor, analogy, or symbol pointing to, naming, and evoking the divine mystery. Clearly the Christian tradition’s patriarchal bias has short changed the fullness of religious language and images of the divine. Teilhard de Chardin was convinced that the cult of Mary served to satisfy an “irresistible Christian need” in the Church, namely, the need to correct “a dreadfully masculinised” conception of the Godhead.
We need to recognise honestly how much our God language is the result of patriarchy and is subject to reform, to give back to God what belongs to God and allow the figure of Mary to no longer bear the burden of keeping alive female imagery of the divine. Scripture, doctrine and liturgy reflect the Marian tradition but this is not to say that Mary represents the feminine dimension of the divine, or that certain human characteristics are presented as masculine or feminine. The flaw in such an approach is evident when one considers that Mary no more reveals the feminine dimension of God than Jesus reveals the masculine dimension of God. God does not have a feminine or masculine dimension, or an animal dimension (a mother bird protecting her young), nor a mineral dimension (God is my rock).
Female imagery of God has the capacity to represent God not only as nurturing, although certainly that, but as powerful, initiating, creating-redeeming-saving, and victorious over the powers of this world. If women are created in the image of God, then God can be imaged in female metaphors in as full and as limited a way as God is imaged in male ones, without talk of feminine dimensions or sides or traits reducing the impact of this imagery.
The path that lies ahead of us in retrieving images of the divine from the Marian tradition, the Mary-God connection, will take us through history, the development of theology, prayer and poetry, art and literature through the ages. Out of this journey emerged a consensus that there is indeed an intrinsic relationship between the figure of Mary that has developed in the Christian tradition and the idea of God which we will explore in future.
Johnson, E. A. (1989). Mary and the Image of God, in Donnelly, D. Mary, Woman of Nazareth. Paulist Press: Mahwah, NJ.
Published in the Marist Messenger, 31 August 2015
Part 2 - Diana of Ephesus to Mary of Galilee
The Early Centuries
Early Christian history, pre-Constantine, has found similarities between early church cult of Mary and the pervasive cults of the great mother. Readers of Jean Auel’s popular ‘Earth’s Children’ series would be familiar with the cult in the Mediterranean world into which the church was moving. Little is known about how elements of the Hellenistic cults of female deities gathered around the person of Mary but similarities and differences are simply a matter of historical fact.
The church was not fashioned in a vacuum but absorbed many of the assumptions, verbal and visual imagery, and rituals of the surrounding culture into its own theology and liturgy. This affected not only the presentation of Mary, but also Jesus Christ, the martyrs and saints, and even the sacred mystery of God.
Christian veneration of Mary adapted elements from the popular mystery cults and substituted itself – historically in the fourth century, and psychologically in the human spirit – for cults wherein female deities played an absolutely central role. Church officials allowed this assimilation of pagan elements for two reasons: it was an excellent missionary strategy in a world where female deities were so highly honoured, and it reflected a sacramental view of reality in which, once ‘baptised’ and purified of its ancient content, any symbol could evoke God revealed in Christ.
But the question remained; among the people was such purification actually accomplished or whether in a form of syncretism the cult of Mary simply continued the veneration of the maternal power of the female deities.
From Diana to Mary
Adaptation took place in numerous ways. Places in nature where female deities had been honoured with pilgrimages and prayer became associated with Mary; grottoes and springs, mountains and lakes, shrines and temples to the goddess were rededicated to Mary the mother of God. Outstanding examples have been found in Rome, Athens, Chartres, and Ephesus (it being no accident that the doctrine of Theotokos – Mary, Mother of God) was proclaimed enthusiastically in the same city where people in the time of Paul demonstrated in favour of their great goddess Diana [Acts 19:23-41]).
Artistic symbols of the goddess accrued to Mary: her dark blue cloak, many leveled crown, link with the moon and stars, with water and wind. The iconography of Mary seated with her child facing outward on her lap was arguably patterned on the pose of Isis whose attributes were sung in terms many of which applied to Mary – all holy, merciful, wise, universal mother, giver of fertility and blessings of life, protector of pregnant women and children, of sailors at sea, and all who call on her in need.
The Black Madonna
The still-venerated statues of the black Madonna at Le Puy, Montserrat, and Chartres are derived from ancient black stones connected with the fertility power of maternal deities, black being the colour of subterranean and uterine fruitfulness. Adapted into the iconography of classic Gallo-Roman mother goddesses, this symbolism was conserved in the sculpted image of the black virgin.
Another striking example in central Sicily is a church to Mary built over a temple dedicated to Ceres/Demeter and her daughter Persephone. Until Pius IX ordered it removed, an ancient statue of the goddess and her child had been used to represent Mary and the infant Jesus, despite the fact that the sculpted child was female. In the fourth century there was a sect, the Collyridians, made up mostly of women, who worshiped Mary as divine, offering sweet cakes before her throne as had many before them to the great mother. Epiphanius, bishop of Salamis (d.403) stepped in with, “The body of Mary is holy, but she is not God… Let no one adore Mary.”
For all the real differences in structure and content between the Christian faith and the mystery cults, the evidence is strong that there was a process of assimilation and adaptation of ideas and verbal and artistic imagery in the case of the emerging cult of Mary. While remaining independent, Christianity used the rich symbols of paganism purified of their ancient content to express its own revelation and capture the hearts of new believers accustomed to the power and good will of the female deities. Marian symbolism incorporates the imagery and language about divine reality flowing from the veneration of the great mother in the pre-Christian Mediterranean world.
On a more orthodox note
Accompanying this development was the voice of the Church Fathers. The earliest Mariology outside the New Testament was found in the citations from the writings of Ignatius of Antioch (c. 112 CE). Mary is mentioned within the texts on Jesus where the reality of Jesus’ human nature issues from the human nature of his virgin mother Mary who shows the ordinary stages of motherhood: conception, pregnancy, and birth.
Mary is the human instrument of the completed human nature of Jesus Christ. Justin Martyr (100-165 CE) saw Mary as participating actively as the new Eve in the history of salvation and contrasts Mary/Gabriel and Eve/serpent. The two women as virgins-become-mothers are the foundations of his Marian theology. Irenaeus of Lyons (140-202 CE) was to develop the Eve/Mary parallel, emphasizing the obedience of Mary in contrast to the disobedience of Eve, with Mary as ‘untying the knot of Eve’s disobedience, loosed by the obedience of Mary’.
Mary is involved with Christ, the restorer and the perfection of the original project of God’s creation. Irenaeus was to go beyond the new Eve and saw her as an image of the church, and a special cause in the history of salvation.
Sources - Johnson, E. A. (1989). Reconstructing a Theology of Mary, in Carr, A. Mary Woman of Nazareth. Paulist Press: New York.
Buby, B. (1996). Mary of Nazareth, Vol.III.Alba House: New York. Published in the Marist Messenger, 29 September 2015.
Part 3 - Mary refuge of sinners
Scholasticism vs. Popular Piety
Medieval Europe saw extensive growth in popular devotion along with some more learned thinking about Mary. Yet by the sixteenth century her figure had taken on attributes of divinity, this time taken not from the ancient goddess but from the Christian Trinity itself. The Protestant Reformation was rightly critical of this development and Catholic reformers sought to correct it. A more recent perspective has perceived in it all a quest for religious experience through the feminine image, an experience not available through the idea of God at the time.
It was a complex time with Hellenistic thought patterns producing a scholastic system in which the female/maternal was and had to be totally absent from God. Basic to this was the idea that the maternal was passive and receptive while God was pure act, and only the active power of the masculine/paternal could be allowed to enter the notion of ‘him.’
Salvation by a Thread
On a popular level medieval devotion to Mary may be attributed to theology’s emphasis on the transcendent justice of God that made it impossible for God to forgive sin without demanding satisfaction, very much in line with the influence of the theology of St Anselm. God is imaged as a righteous judge and sinners felt that their salvation was a precarious thing with the temptations of Satan ever-present and the danger of eternal torment in hell very real. In this scenario, the divine saving quality of mercy found its expression in the womanly figure of Mary, who could be trusted as a mother to understand her children’s sinful inadequacies, and plead their case before her son.
Alongside theology’s distortion was the social reality of the hard and dangerous life lived by great numbers of people who found in their mother someone who would be interested and help not only with the blessing of salvation but with everyday earthly blessings as well. As a result enormous veneration was poured out towards Mary with multiplication of feasts, prayers, relics, titles, works of art, shrines, cathedrals, pilgrimages, stories of miracles.
In the process Mary not only paralleled and even outshone God the Father but also God he Son. Anselm was to write, “So God the Father of all created things, and Mary is the mother of all recreated things.”
Rewriting Prayer and Scripture
This re-creation theme entered into the rewriting of psalms in which Mary was substituted for God as the acting subject of divine deeds to be praised by the recipients: Palm 96 which praises God was now expressed as, “Sing to Our Lady a new song, for she has done wonderful things. In the sight of the nations she has revealed her mercy; her name is heard even to the ends of the earth”.
Even the standard hymn of divine praise, the Te Deum, was refashioned to honour Mary: “We praise thee, O Mother of God; we confess thee, Mary ever Virgin… Thee all angels and archangels, thrones and principalities serve. Thee all powers of heaven and all dominions obey. Before thee all the angelic choirs, the cherubim and seraphim, exulting stand. With unceasing voice every angelic creature proclaims thee: Holy, holy, holy, Mary Virgin Mother of God”.
In time, Mary was gifted with the infinite knowledge and understanding, the power of God over earth, heaven and hell. What the Bible said of God the Father was said of Mary: ‘she so loved the world that she gave her only son’ (John 3:16). She could be prayed to as ‘Our Mother who art in heaven’, and be asked to ‘give us each day our daily bread’. Of course, there were moments of critical reflection that insisted that these and similar honours belonged to God who had so honoured Mary. Yet this kind of devotion to the mother of God was actually devotion to God the Mother, the ultimate mystery of the creative and re-creative God glimpsed in female form.
Mary, Mother of Mercy
It was in the area of the redemptive activity of Jesus that Mary’s parallelism with divine reality grew strong. While Jesus was acknowledged as gracious Saviour, his function of judging often overshadowed the quality of his mercy, which was in turn attributed abundantly to Mary. St. Bonaventure taught that the kingdom of God was divided into two zones, justice and mercy. Mary had the better part because she was made queen of mercy, while her son was king of justice, and ‘mercy is better than justice.’ Out of this rose the dreadful portrayal of Mary depicted as restraining Christ’s wrath, placing back into his sheath his sword which was raging against sinful humanity.
As the period progressed, Mary went from being merciful mediatrix with the just judge to being sharer of common dominion with Christ through the pain she suffered on Calvary, and then to power over the mercy of Christ whom she commanded by her maternal authority. Theologians of the Middle Ages wrote of her what the Bible wrote of Christ: in her was the fullness of the Godhead (Colossians 2:9); of her fullness we have all received (John 1:16); because she emptied herself God has highly exalted her, so that at her name every knee should bow (Philippians 2:5-11).
Parallels between Mary and Christ in nature, grace and glory, in virtue and dignity, resulted in the figure of Mary assuming divine privileges. All power as co-redemptrix, mediatrix, queen and mother of mercy resided in Mary as a maternal woman, who could be trusted to understand and cope with human weakness better than a testy God the Father or a just Jesus Christ. In her person she represented ultimate graciousness against divine severity.
In putting together this somewhat negative assessment of distortions in Mariology, my purpose has been to help us understand where we have come from. This is an important goal given both the imminence of Pope Francis’ Year of Mercy and the Synod on Family. The great mercy of God, the merciful Christ, a merciful Church, and a merciful Mary are in harmony rather than opposition.
Source - Johnson, E. A. (1989). Mary and the Image of God, in Donnelly, D. Mary, Woman of Nazareth. Paulist Press: Mahwah, NJ.
Published in the Marist Messenger, 1 November 2015.
Part 4 - Mary Mother of Mercy
From Jesus to Mary
Medieval times left an image of divine severity that was countered by ultimate graciousness represented Mary as recipient of the sinners’ basic trust and affection. Despite the abuses that led to such a perspective, late medieval Mariology demonstrates the capacity of female imagery to model the redemptive activity of God. What had happened was the transfer to Mary of Christ’s attribute of mercy; the figure of Mary functioned as a female image of Christ’s mercy. Mediatrix offered a female icon of Christ’s role as intercessor. Mary’s unfailing compassion and will to save modeled the good news of salvation in the figure of a woman.
While the distortions were very real, yet that they happened demonstrates that the Marian tradition breaks the boundaries of biblical and traditional faith, compensating for an over-masculinised and harsh concept of God. Post-reformation Roman Catholic tradition did develop from here to clarify the priority of God and the centrality of Christ in the mystery of salvation. Yet there was still room to attribute to Mary an important function in the revelation of God’s love.
Mary, Mother of the Redeemer
Ten years before Vatican II, Edward Schillebeeckx in an influential work, reasoned that while God’s love is both paternal and maternal, the latter quality cannot be explicitly clarified through the male Jesus. Thus God chose Mary so the maternal aspect of divine love might be represented in her person. All that is tender, mild, simple, generous, gentle, and sweet in God is manifest in her.
As partner to Christ she expresses in her figure as woman God’s maternal redeeming love: Mary is the translation and effective expression in maternal terms of God’s mercy, grace and redeeming love which manifested itself to us in a visible and tangible form in the person of Christ, our Redeemer. [pp. 113-114 Mary, Mother of the Redeemer. Sheed & Ward. 1964 ed.].
The interesting feature of the quotation is the number of active verbs to express a relationship that Mary represents which expresses something of God which Schillebeeckx thinks cannot be seen as coming to light in Jesus Christ. The need to express the feminine and maternal aspect of divine love needs expression through the revelatory capacity of the figure of this woman. I do not think we would treat the topic in the same way today, given a better understanding of Christology and male and female identities, but the issue itself stands as testimony to the need for something more than is expressed in a patriarchal view of the revelation of God in Christ and the fulfilling of that need in the person of Mary.
Schillebeeckx’s reduction of the feminine to the maternal and of the maternal to mildness and sweetness is highly questionable in light of the experience of the reality of women’s lives and of feminist reflection. Yet Schillebeeckx was searching for envisioning God’s saving reality in all its fullness. His approach was shaped in the context of counter-reformation Mariology, expressing aspects of divine saving reality in the figure of Mary.
Ecumenism and Vatican II
In the ecumenical climate since Vatican II a more precise analysis of the function of Mary has become the focus of attention. Theologians such as Rene Laurentin, Yves Congar, and Cardinal Suenens have paid careful attention to the Protestant critique that in the Catholic tradition the action and experience of Mary has substituted in a particular way for the action and experience of God the Holy Spirit. Catholics have said of Mary that she forms Christ in them, that she is spiritually present to guide and inspire, that she is the link between themselves and Christ, and that one goes to Jesus through her. But are not these precisely the roles of the Spirit of Christ?
In addition, Mary has been called intercessor, advocate, defender, consoler, and counselor – precisely the roles which belong to the Holy Spirit in John 14:16 and 26; 15:26; 16:7. Leo XIII said that, “Every grace granted to man has three degrees in order: for by God it is communicated to Christ, from Christ it passes to the Virgin, and from the Virgin it descends to us. (Iucunda simper #5). Is not this a dislocation of the Holy Spirit who is essential to the Trinitarian gift of grace?
What Protestants universally attribute to the action of the Holy Spirit was attributed to Mary, a critique that is basically substantiated. Marian development occupied spaces left vacant by undeveloped study of the Holy Spirit in post-tridentine theology. It is also indicative of a lack of attention to the Scriptures in the pre-Vatican II church.
The Gospels show the obvious primacy of the Spirit where Mary is over-shadowed by, filled with, made fruitful by, and enabled to prophesy in the power of the Spirit. The privileged sign and witness of the Holy Spirit in the community of the Church is the person of Mary. From the time of the Church Fathers the Holy Spirit was pictured as Mother in early Syriac Christianity.
The Spirit’s image was that of the brooding or hovering mother bird, mothering Jesus into life at his conception and into mission at his baptism, and bringing believers to birth and mission in the waters of baptism.
An early memory I have of an altar picture is that of the mother pelican cutting her breast with her bill to shed the nourishing blood to feed her chicks (the sixth verse of Aquinas’ hymn, Adoro to devote, refers to this legendary feature – Jesus, pelican of mercy). The motherhood image eventually accrued to the church itself (‘holy mother church’).
Source - Johnson, E. A. (1989). Mary and the Image of God, in Donnelly, D. Mary, Woman of Nazareth. Paulist Press: Mahwah, NJ.
Schillebeeckx, E. (1964). Mary, Mother of the Redemption: The religious bases of the mystery of Mary. Sheed & Ward: NY.
Published in the Marist Messenger, 29 November 2015.
Part 5 - Mary the Liberator
As it Was
We finished the last piece with the motherhood of the Spirit that was expressed in prayer:
As the wings of doves over their nestling,
And the mouths of their nestlings towards their mouths,
So also are the wings of the Spirit over my heart.
This motherhood image shifted to the Church as holy mother and to Mary as she became the bearer of profoundly important characteristics of God.
Throughout the three periods we have looked at (historical origins, medieval over-development, and post-reformation systematisation), connections have been made between the figure of Mary and the idea of God in both popular piety and theological reflection without any hard and fast distinction between the two. In each period the figure of Mary has taken on characteristics of the creating, saving and sanctifying God, the three aspects we associate with Father, Son, and Spirit.
In Latin American Catholicism, massive devotion to Mary is one of its most persistent and original characteristics. In contemporary liberation theology, the enduring devotion of powerless, defeated, and poor people to the dark-skinned, sorrowful Madonna who sings her liberation song, the Magnificat, signals Mary’s identification with the oppressed in the name of God. This expressly validates the dignity of each downtrodden person and draws out energy for resistance against dominating powers.
Our Lady of Guadalupe
The liberation of the downtrodden is accompanied by the liberation of a restrictive idea of God. Devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe involved resistance by conquered people not only to the European invaders, but to the male God in whose name they conquered. As with the origin of the Marian cult in the fourth century, analysis of this Mexican cult supports this contention.
The place of the original apparition was the site of an ancient temple dedicated to Tonantzin, the Indian virgin mother of the gods. The flowers and music of the vision were part of Tonantzin’s temple worship. The dark skin of the woman and the language she spoke, the colours she was wearing and the celestial symbols surrounding her were all reminiscent of the goddess of the defeated people. Yet it was not Tonantzin who was appearing, but the virgin mother of the Christian God.
The figure of Our Lady of Guadalupe set within the complex of Christian doctrine combined the Indian female expression of God, which the Spanish tried to wipe out as diabolical, with the Spanish male expression of God which the Indians found incomprehensible as everything in their vision of the cosmos had a male and female component. Each understanding of God was expanded by the other, enriching the very understanding of the selfhood of God.
The cult of Our Lady of Guadalupe mediates the compassionate reality of God in the form of a woman. The figure of Guadalupe is a living focus of female imagery of the divine.
The Human Embodiment of the Holy Spirit
That the Holy Spirit came upon Mary in a unique way is clear from the Annunciation account. The union is so profound that the Spirit can be said to have taken flesh in the Virgin Mary, who in turn personifies the Spirit. As such, her figure as a woman is a revelation of characteristics usually associated with the Spirit of God, such as all-encompassing warmth and love, immediate presence, inspiring energy, intimacy, and care for the weak and little ones.
Over time the image of a remote and judgmental patriarchal God became set. Mary became the beloved ‘other face’ of God, the figure who bore the life-giving, compassionate, caring, saving, and closely intimate qualities so characteristic of the Abba whom Jesus preached. While the distinction was maintained between adoration of God and veneration of Mary, on the affective and imaginative level, the Catholic child experienced the love of God and the saving mystery of divine reality in the figure of this woman. The divine was spoken of in female terms, images and symbols.
A compassion-oriented Mariology is directly related to an over-emphasised masculinised image of God, and functions as a remedy for what is lacking in such an image. Clearly now those qualities should be transferred back to the God who is their source so the divine reality is compassionate, intimate, and caring, and is to be imaged in both female as well as male representations. Again, we see the timely call for a Year of Mercy that puts before us such a God –such a Mary – and, we hope with Pope Francis, such a Church.
Source - Johnson, E. A. (1989). Mary and the Image of God, in Donnelly, D. Mary, Woman of Nazareth. Paulist Press: Mahwah, NJ.
Published in the Marist Messenger, 31 January 2016.
Note – the first apparition occurred in 1531. The feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe is 12 December.
Part 6 - Mary the Maternal Aspects of God
In drawing this series to a conclusion there are a number of points to be made. An over-riding one is that it makes no sense to use Mary as a cover for defective notions of God, Christ or the Spirit. The female imagery that belongs to Mary as a woman and mother has its source in God and is a challenge to a Church that calls itself a mother: maternity with its nurturing warmth and fierce protection; compassionate love; power that empowers, heals, and liberates; all-pervading presence; and energy that recreates the earth.
God as Mother: The Old Testament uses metaphors of birthing and maternal care to describe the unbreakable covenant love of God. This has been carried onto the figure of Mary, but is traced back to the maternal face of God, a God that is creative and generative of life, willing the young to live, be nurtured and fed, receiving care and sympathy. Warm, indispensable mother-love flows from God the Mother to all Her creatures. John Paul I stated that “God is our Father but even more God is our Mother.” Maternity itself is predicated of God equally with paternity.
Divine Compassion: The Hebrew word for mercy is ‘rhm’, a term linguistically related to ‘rehem’, a word that means womb or uterus; it is both a mode of being and the locus of that mode. To speak of divine compassion evokes God’s ‘womb-love’ for the ones she has carried and shaped from her own flesh. The Gospels witness to the mercy of God made present in Jesus and we see that in the image of the mother bird gathering her chicks under her wing (Mt 23:37-39). But the medieval Church split the kingdoms of justice and mercy and placed the latter in Mary’s hands, making her more approachable than Christ. The Hail Holy Queen is a classic expression of this trend.
‘Mother of Mercy’ is a title worthy of a God committing us to live lives of mercy in a broken, needy world. Our God is the Mother of Mercy who has compassionate womb-love for all her children. Compassion is primordially divine and is a vital need of all God’s and Mary’s children.
Divine Power and Might: It is not a power that dominates but a strength that seeks to protect and to save. A persistent sense is felt that Mary’s power is not restricted by the demands of ecclesiastical law or bound by the power of the Satan or even by male God figures. Father Colin, founder of the Society of Mary, had a wise line about saving people if not with the law, then without it. He said, ‘Rome was very useful to me on this point. It was there that I learned the maxim: “Law was made for man.” If I cannot save him with the law, I shall try to save him without it.’ (A Founder Speaks, #162:3). This is graphically illustrated in the medieval icon of the Madonna of the Protective Mantle in which, under her draped, out-stretched arms, huddle a family, a religious order, a king, and even a whole town’s people. There they find protection from plague, war, temptation, or even God’s eternal judgement.
All this as imagery of the divine makes us realize that the power of God is neither destructive, aggressive, overbearing, nor is it bound by law, but is an expression of unbounded love that operates wisely and justly in a form of advocacy for suffering humanity. Like the woman who lost the coin (Lk 15:8-10), Mary powerfully seeks and finds what is lost, imagery of a female figure of ‘might and mercy’ that most accurately belongs to the being of God.
The indwelling nearness of God as Spirit: The eternal love of the Father manifested in history through the Son “comes close to each of us through this Mother and thus [makes for] more easy understanding and access by each person” (St. John Paul II). This emphasises the sense of the divine presence surrounding and pervading humanity through the power of the Spirit, closer to us than we are to ourselves, holding fast to all born of the Spirit and continuously creating them into life and finally enfolding them into God’s eternal presence. Rather than Mary being the figure who makes a distant patriarchal God close, an adequate theology of the Spirit makes clear that God is inexpressibly near. God in creation is evoked in the image of a woman, matrix of all that is gifted with life.
God as source of recreative energy: ‘May is Mary’s month’ and all that is swelling, bursting, and blooming so beautifully (in the northern hemisphere) does so under her aegis. Marian symbols entwined with earth and water, vines, flowers, eggs, birds, and young animals evoke her connection with fertility and the motherhood of the earth. The theme of overturning ancient sin and beginning again, so connected with Mary’s pregnancy, finds its parallel in springtime renewal of the earth. God is ever young and imaginative, taking joy in creating and recreating all that exists. Like Mary herself these are five points to treasure in our hearts as symbols that place Mary in relationship to both a living God and a living humanity.
Source - Johnson, E. A. (2004). Truly our Sister. Continuum: New York.
John Paul II. (1979). Redemptor Hominis. Vatican: Rome.
Society of Mary. (1975). A founder speaks: Spiritual talks of Jean-Claude Colin. Tipolitografia Dapco: Rome.
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