On Monday I celebrated the newly instituted feast of Mary, Mother of the Church. I think it is a beautiful title, but I would take issue with what various Catholic news agencies are reporting, eg “The title dates all the way back [sic] to the Second Vatican Council”, or with bishops ascribing the idea of Mary, in her perfection, as a type and model of the Church to Blessed Paul VI.
The idea of Mary as Mother and image of the Church actually originates with St Ambrose in the 4th century. Seen in that light, the Council is fulfilling its express desire of being like a good householder who brings forth treasures old and new from her storehouse. In that light, it is a good example of the promised return to the sources, but to suggest therefore that the idea originated with Vatican II is an example of the hermeneutic of rupture spoken of by Benedict XVI.
Ambrose’s writings came at a time when he was trying to counter two great heresies, Arianism and Manichaeism. The first denied the divinity of Christ, the second his humanity. As has always been the case with Mariology, Ambrose recognised that the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity was an essential expression and safeguard of a true understanding of Christ’s Incarnation as the integration in one divine person of two natures, one divine and one human. Jesus is from “above”, conceived of the Holy Spirit, and he is fully man because he takes his human nature from “below”, from Mary.
To celebrate Mary as Mother of the Church invites us then to affirm that the same is true of the Church. Following Ambrose, Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium reasons that the Church is like Mary in that she imitates Mary’s love for God, and receives the revelation of his word in faith, and “brings forth sons which are conceived of the Holy Spirit and born of God to a new and immortal life”, through the sacraments. “She herself is a virgin who keeps in its entirety and purity the faith she pledged to her spouse.”
Mary, Mother of the Church, then, as the model and pattern of the Church in her perfection, reminds us that our own discipleship is predicated on a divine vocation, prepared and enabled by grace to live lives of holiness attuned to a divine, redeemed vision of the human nature which she shows us can do impossible things under the reign of grace. When Mary asks the Angel, “How is this possible, since I am a virgin?” Ambrose says she is expressing the desire to cooperate by knowing how, not expressing a doubt as to whether it is possible. In the same way, for example, the Church might legitimately ask how is it possible for a couple in a second union or a those in a same-sex relationship to live lives of continence and chastity and so return to the sacraments.
But a “how is it possible?” – which is in reality a questioning as to whether something revealed is desirable according to a vision of the human person that derives from some other source than revelation – is something that quickly empties discipleship of meaning. “How can this be?” is a statement of rebellion, of the hopelessness of the universal vocation to holiness proclaimed forcefully by the same Council, unless the question is lived with the same self-abandonment to God’s will as Mary’s.
For Mary is the pattern and model of hope in God’s Word, even in her suffering at the foot of the Cross, a suffering which was possible for them both only because Mary gave Jesus a flesh which is capable of suffering and dying. She is a pattern of
the Church’s maternal sympathy for the sufferings of all for whom discipleship involves great cost.
Her own passion is inseparable from that of Jesus. She is Mother no less on Calvary than she is in Nazareth, though it costs her such pain. As Mother of the Church then, she reminds us that her children cannot shirk suffering, for lived with Jesus it has redemptive value and unites us in his Resurrection. Only in consenting to it is its fruitfulness revealed, and this consent is on the basis of faith, not emotion, which naturally seeks to avoid it. This feast, then, reminds us that the Church receives her identity and her mission from above, not from below. Her fruitfulness comes through her faith in the power of the Almighty to bring life in ways which the world cannot conceive.