The Disciple Contemplates the Mother | Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis

The Disciple Contemplates the Mother | Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis | An excerpt from The Way of the Disciple

Because a Christian disciple is above all a Christ-bearer, there exists a deep and indispensable relationship between Jesus' disciples and the Mother of Emmanuel. By an ineffable design of his grace, God has appointed us to be the visible manifestation of Jesus Christ in the world, the visibility of him who is the Son common to the living God and the humble Virgin of Nazareth. It was she who first made him visible among us, this Virgin whose childbearing, in Isaiah's promise, is inseparable from her Son's labor to "save his people from their sins".[1] We, too, should carefully take to heart the angel's words to Joseph: "Do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit."[2]

Now, this communion with the Mother of Jesus, far from being an eccentric and misguided departure from the purity of the Gospel, is precisely that to which the Lord Jesus is calling us if we would follow him perfectly.

When in Luke 11:28 Jesus proclaims the great beatitude: "Blessed . . . are those who hear the word of God and keep it", surely he intends a great deal more than simply the observance of specific commandments. For the "Word of God", used in the singular and in such a solemn proclamation, must refer above all to Jesus himself as eternal Son of the Father, especially in the context of an anonymous woman declaring Mary's womb to be blessed for having borne him as Savior. Likewise, the Greek word [phulassontes] in this same context conveys much more than simply "observing" or "keeping": indeed, its full range of associations extends to "defending", "cherishing", "fostering' safeguarding", all meanings directly relevant to the conception, bearing, and rearing of a child.

"To keep the Word of God", as Jesus enjoins, cannot at bottom mean anything other than allowing the Holy Spirit to implant the Son of the Father in the womb of our Souls, and then for us to give birth to this Word into the world in union with Mary, the historical Mother of Jesus and the perennial Mother of the Church. The kerygmatic birth of Jesus into the world from the womb of the apostles' faith cannot be a substantially different birth from the historical one that took place in Bethlehem, for there is only one Christ Jesus. The "keeping of the Word of God" in this sense is in full harmony both with the Father's proclamation at the Transfiguration ("This is my beloved Son ... ; listen to him"[3]) and with Mary's advice to the guests at Cana ("Do whatever he tells you!"[4]).

Both the Father and the Mother point to the incarnate Word with love and pleasure. The Holy Spirit conceives him in us, and the Word, bent on redeeming us, points to himself as revelation of the Father. Mary is the purely human form of the divine will to save.

To be a Christian and a disciple, then, means becoming Christ-bearers in the world in the most radical and literal sense. However, such a visible presence and communication of the total Jesus through us cannot occur without our being in constant communion with both the Father and the Mother of Jesus, the two origins of his divine and human life. The Holy Spirit cannot accomplish the fullness of redemption in us, cannot effect the conception of the Son of the Most High within us–and we cannot become another Mary, the Christian vocation in a nutshell – unless we seek the company of her through whom and in whom he is permanently present, not only among the choirs of angels in union with his Father and their Spirit, but also visibly and humanly in his Church and within the landscape of this world, so wretched yet so graced.

"Every one who believes that Jesus is the Christ is a child of God, and every one who loves the parent loves the child."[5] This is the descending order of love in John: If you love the parent, you must also love the child, which here refers both to Jesus himself and to those begotten by faith in his messiahship, Must we not also hold this order of love with regard to Jesus' human Mother? If we love Jesus as Son of the only Father, can we avoid, without a grave breach of all decency, loving his only Mother? We love Jesus for the sake of the Father, and we love Mary for the sake of Jesus and the Father, and thus our love for her is not based on whim or mere sentiment, but on the firm foundation of God's own trinitarian Being and of the economy of redemption he has wrought.

"Going into the house [the Magi] saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him."[6] It is impossible to find Jesus in isolation from the two essential communities to which he belongs by his nature as incarnate Word. In his divinity we cannot embrace him apart from the community of the Holy Trinity; and in his humanity we cannot approach him apart from the family through which he enters our race and shares our human condition to the full. "What God has joined together, let no man put asunder."[7]

As the Magi find him "with Mary his mother", they "fall down and worship him". Note well two things here: first, that they worship only Jesus, but, at the same time, that in bowing down in adoration before him they must necessarily incline with reverence in the direction of the Virgin Mother who is holding him out to them and to the world. Thus, worship of Jesus is inseparable from deep reverence for the Mother by whose obedient faith he has come into the world and made himself available for our own adoration. Mary's faith has thus made it possible for us to adore God incarnate!

We surrender our whole being in worship to him alone and, through him, to the Father. But, in so doing, we render an homage of deep gratitude and love to her who first believed and, through her faith, has made our finding of Jesus possible. Nor is this finding of Jesus with his Mother limited only to his babyhood, when he physically had to be held and presented to the world by his Mother's arms. His dependency on his Mother is a sign of the manner of humiliation and weakness whereby the Word has chosen to redeem us, and this kenotic existence persists all through his work of redemption and into our own spiritual lives today. Therefore, we must never forget that, since all the works of his divine love become efficacious through the means of his human body, emotions, will, intellect, and Heart, consequently the Mother who gave him the gift of her humanity is also continuously present in his every work even when she is invisible to us.

Especially at the moment when he sheds all his blood on the Cross, we must remember that this very blood has no other source than his Mother's body. His Father gave him the will to die for us, but Mary gave him the body and the blood to perfect and consummate the sacrifice. Mary alone gave Jesus the blood with which to drown man's sin!

We must meditate deeply on the mystery of natural human motherhood, femininity, and childhood in order to develop on that basis the full understanding of how God chose to redeem us. And a major part of that mystery is the manner in which a child–and this Child most especially, since he has no human father!–derives all its being from its mother. Is it not striking indeed that both in Genesis 3:15-16, when God promises a Redeemer who would "bruise" the head of the serpent, and in Revelation 12:9, when the "ancient serpent" is finally thrown down to earth, it is a woman and a mother who plays an essential role alongside the central activity of the male Child, both as his individual Mother and as Mother of the race of his followers?

How could these two towering moments in the history of revelation–immediately after the Fall and immediately after the final victory over Satan–be divorced from the Incarnation, Golgotha, and Pentecost, pivotal events all three where the Woman Mother is likewise indispensably present? How, after contemplating all of this, could anyone say that Mary is in no way different from any of the rest of the redeemed?

Such an assertion would appear to be a grave violation, not only of orthodox Catholic teaching, but of explicitly revealed scriptural truth. Denying Mary a divinely decreed uniqueness in the work of redemption surely must result in a very skewed and prejudiced theology. Often it would seem that persons holding such an opinion are primarily motivated by an implicit but unrelenting anti-Catholic polemic, ingrained in generations of Protestant believers since the sixteenth century; but with a paradoxical result: that the defeat of a paramount Catholic dogma should be more important than accepting the full truth of revelation.

The Child's dependency on his. Mother, of course, does not contradict what is equally true: that a child grows to maturity and becomes in many ways independent of his parents. However, because we are here dealing with the conception of a Child as a result of divine initiative, and with the corresponding response of faith by a Woman, it would seem that the forces radiating from Mary's first act of faith must extend outward, not only to the actual birth and early nurturing of Jesus, but indeed to his whole subsequent existence, including the events of the Resurrection and of the Savior's present reign in glory.

A conception out of pure power and goodness on God's part, and pure faith and sinlessness on the Mother's part, must surely produce a great deal more than simply a nine-month pregnancy and physical birth! Indeed, it is the beginning of the Body of the Church, the dawn of the Kingdom of God on earth and in heaven. Mary's act of faith and love, as the indispensable condition for the redemption, urgently concerns and involves each of those who have ever or will ever believe and become followers of her Son.

"A voice came out of the cloud, 'This is my beloved Son; listen to him.'"[8] "His Mother said to the servant, 'Do whatever he tells you."[9] Both the heavenly Father and the earthly Mother do one thing only: point to their common Son, Jesus, and command us to obey his word. Thus, the so-called "mediation" of the Blessed Virgin Mary can be properly understood only in terms of her unceasing response to and active cooperation with that coming to her of the Holy Spirit that resulted in the Incarnation. Saint Paul's "until Christ be formed within you" [10] cannot occur without her mediation. For, if she was necessary for the historical Incarnation, the source of all redemption, how is she to be less necessary for Christ's coming to us by the interior grace of regeneration?

The mystical application to us of the reality of the redemption must correspond in every way to the historical coming of the Son of God and Mary, for it was precisely for this, TO BE BORN IN US, that he came. And does it not contradict the divine economy and will that he should become incarnate in us without the cooperation of the Mother, when her active response to God was a necessity for the historical Incarnation? Can we give our individual and ecclesial fiat to God's invitation while totally divorcing ourselves from her on whom God himself paradoxically chose to depend in order to become one of us? Would such an option not be trying to undo the redemptive wisdom of God because we think we have found a wholly uncluttered, more direct, "purer", and 'more divine" way, like the Gnostics of all ages?

Why, out of an alleged zeal for safeguarding the uniqueness and all-sufficiency of God's redeeming action, would one want to confine God, after his work of redemption on earth, to a splendid isolation and solitariness he did not have before or during the historical process of salvation? He ceaselessly engaged patriarchs, kings, prophets, and all manner of insignificant people like ourselves to collaborate with him in mankind's salvation. Above all "in the fullness of time", he involved a whole cast of characters in the drama of redemption-from John the Baptist, Zechariah, Elizabeth, Simeon, Anna, the Magi, the shepherd, and Joseph to the apostles and disciples and holy women of his entourage. Each of these had a special and irreplaceable part to play in helping to communicate God's grace to man. -

God, it would appear from Sacred Scripture, chose to redeem us, not out of a radical divine solitariness, but by involving many persons as collaborators with his divine purpose. This is perhaps most clearly illustrated when John the Baptist objects out of humility and a recognition of who Jesus is to Jesus' own request that John baptize him: "John would have prevented him, saying, 'I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?"'

But to this perfectly logical theological objection Jesus responds paradoxically: "Let it be so now; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfil all righteousness."[11] Does not this emphatic for us not contain the whole divine and human synergy God envisioned for our redemption-that sinners should cooperate in their own process of being redeemed?

If all of this is true–if God, that is, chose to redeem us by appointing many collaborators in his mission-what shall we say of the Mother, the obedient Virgin full of grace made by God in his providence to be the sheer and perfect ground out of which would grow the flower of our redemption, the fruit that would nourish us unto life everlasting? Shall we say that she was an "instrument" or "means" momentarily needed to carry out an ulterior divine design but left behind after she had served her function?

To say this would be to misunderstand completely the nature of motherhood in general and of this motherhood in particular, since the parent-child relationship can never be reduced to mere passing "functionality", and it would be unworthy of God in the extreme merely to use and then discard a person. No: God knew what he was doing when he chose to save us by sending his Son among us as a man, by selecting and preparing a Woman who would bestow her humanity on his eternal Son just as he was the sole source of his divinity. If Mary had ceased playing an active and essential role in our redemption the moment she had conceived and given birth, we would have to expect that Christ's humanity at some point again detached itself from his divinity, having been "united" to it only functionally, as a temporary arrangement.

But this Gnostic enormity undermines and subverts the sacred indissolubility of the Incarnation. The logical paradox of "Mary, Mother of God", solemnly proclaimed at the Council of Ephesus in A.D. 431, when the Council Fathers reaffirmed what the Church had believed from the beginning, is of one piece with the other two fundamental paradoxes without which there can be no Christian faith: Jesus Christ, two natures in one Divine Person; and the Blessed Trinity, three Persons yet one God. The mystery of the Holy Theotokos underlies the whole mystery of our redemption-from the Son's conception in her womb by the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit to our own conception in the womb of the Marian Church, "until Christ be fully formed in us".

If Mary is once "Mother of God", can she ever stop being that? Or can she continue being that without our feeling tremendous gratitude and love for her who thus is the Bearer of our beloved Redeemer?

A major aspect of the mystery of the Incarnation is that, starting from the central doctrine of Christ's true, full, and irreversible humanization, we may then infer a number of important truths that need not be explicitly spelled out in Scripture, since they are really contained within the fullness of the already revealed central Mystery of Christ. For instance, the normality of Jesus' hidden life and childhood: by their nearly total silence concerning this part of Jesus' earthly life, the Gospels are in fact telling us that Jesus lived a very ordinary human life for nearly thirty years, almost the whole of his earthly existence.

Something similar may be said about his relationships. Scripture nowhere calls Mary explicitly either "Lady" or "Queen", titles which the Catholic tradition has joyfully ascribed to her since very ancient times. But Scripture is full of allusions to queens who are mothers of kings, and Scripture also tells us that Mary is the Mother of Christ who is eternal King of the ages. Therefore, if Mary is the Mother of our Lord (Dominus), then she is truly "our Lady" (Domina), and if Christ is King, then she, too, must be Queen, for this is required by the very nature of these biblical titles, which are relational in nature. What are we to call the mother of a king if not the "queen mother", and what would be the point of calling Jesus a king at all if, although he very much has a mother, we oddly want to limit the implications of that title by applying it only in one direction, that is, by stressing the fact that a king has subjects who must obey and serve him, but not as well that he has a mother to whom he owes his human life and who stands by his side, always supporting him and loving him in all his works and decrees?

And Christ does not disdain so to share his lordship and kingship, because he did not disdain to lay aside even his divine glory in order to share our nature. if he had, he would not have become man in the first place and entered this necessary nexus of relationships. Christ is not a sealed eternal capsule fallen to earth ready-made from heaven. Christ is the seed of the Word planted by the Father in the womb of Mary, that fertile earth that gave nourishment and growth to the seed of the Word, that we may eventually eat of the fruit of the Tree of the Cross.
When the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons, And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, 'Abba! Father!' So through God you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son then an heir.... So, brethren, we are not children of the slave [Hagar, but also Eve, the "mother of all the living"] but of the free woman [Sara, but above all Mary, the "woman" at the head of the text].[12] Twice in Luke (1:38 and 48) Mary calls herself the maidservant, the handmaid, the slave of the Lord. To be the Lord's slave is the essence of Mary's being a freeborn woman, in keeping with her Son's manner of reigning as King by serving. The Mother of the King who is a suffering servant reigns, like her Son, by serving as the sorrowful Mother: "And Simeon ... said to Mary his Mother: 'Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising Of many in Israel, and for a sign that is spoken against (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also)." [13] When and where, we may ask, will this momentous prophecy be fulfilled? Surely at the foot of the Cross, at the crucial hour when every disciple becomes Mary's son, by the will of her Son, and she becomes the Mother of all believers.[14]

We Christians are indeed "children of the promise" made to Mary: "You will conceive ... and bear a son.... Of his kingdom there will be no end. . . . And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her from the Lord." [15] Mary's deepest identity as perfect believer, in the infancy narrative in Luke, should be seen in connection with the explicit mention at the beginning of Acts, after the Resurrection, at the other end of the work of redemption, of her presence among those who believed. [16] The Holy Spirit who descends upon the whole Body of the Church at Pentecost, with Mary present, had first descended upon her singly at the Annunciation. Thus, Mary is the living archetype, the living link, historically and mystically, between the mystery of the Incarnation arid the mystery of Pentecost.

In giving her fiat at the outset of the work of redemption, she is both accepting God's gift of redemption for herself and prefiguring-and hence making possible-the act of faith of the whole Church still to come.

Now, if being God's servant is the very essence of Mary's identity as first among believers and as Mother of the Church, is this servant, the Mother of the King and hence herself Queen by divine appointment, going to be left with nothing to do in the Kingdom of Heaven? Mary, an idle heavenly Queen? Or is she not rather going to spend her eternity of bliss interceding for her children, having learned such fidelity toward mankind from the eternal Father himself? Indeed, for as long as there is one soul to be redeemed on earth, Mary will spend herself saying to Jesus what she said to him at Cana, "They have no wine", and to us, "Do whatever he tells you."[17]

In the parable of the talents we hear the Lord speak thus to the good servant: "Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master."[18] Since the parable is clearly a portrayal of the final judgment and the Kingdom of Heaven, we are surely to think that the "I will set you over much" must refer, at least in part, to the work of loving intercession that the saints in heaven will engage in as part of their life of eternal praise. For, how could they become separated by divine bliss from the continuing work of the divine mercy on earth? And, if this is true of all the blessed in heaven, is it not A the more true of the good and faithful Servant of the Magnificat, she who is also the Queen of Heaven because she is the Mother of the Savior and King?

Surely it was this keen awareness of Mary's exalted character in God's sight, and of her queenly mediation before her Son, the King of Heaven and earth, that made a humble Elizabeth exclaim with loud and wondering exultation: "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?[19] Should not our inmost heart, too, leap up for joy whenever we feel the approach of the Mother of our Lord, since we know that she never comes to us alone, without bringing into our lives Jesus, the blessed fruit of her womb, who is as inseparable from her as she is from him? There is nothing that Mary does without its being undertaken under the impulse of the original and ever-active grace that filled her from the beginning, the grace that drove her with haste into the hill country of Judah to help her cousin. In this passage Luke has marvelously portrayed for A time the fundamental role in humanity of Mary as Christ-Bearer and ready intercessor, who comes to our aid even without our bidding.

Just as we say that love, grace, and spiritual realities in general increase by being given away, so, too, may we say something similar about Christ's sole, unique, and all-sufficient mediation before the Father: The more it is participated in, the more brightly and richly does it shine in its effects. For Christ's work of redemption, his suffering, and his Cross from the outset were meant to be shared. He exhorts us to take up our cross and follow him, to watch with him as he watches in torment, to go after him so that he will make us fishers of men. He affirms that whoever listens to us is really listening to him, that he sends us out as the Father had sent him out, that he loved us and so gave himself up for us so that we, too, ought to love one another as he has loved us. . . "I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me":[20] such is Saint Paul's unsurpassable summary of our participation in the work of redemption.

What is all of this, what indeed is the life of prayer, if not the practical form of our own redemption as a result of our participating in Christ's saving work? To begrudge the saints, and above all Blessed Mary, the intercessory and mediating role assigned to them by God himself in his election of them would be like looking at love, truth, and goodness as if they were material realities that must not be divided lest we end up with less and less of them.

But Love wants to be imitated and participated in. And our love wants to be united with our Beloved. And so–in and with and through the power of Jesus and at his invitation–we are to do what we see Jesus himself doing: working, suffering, praying, interceding, dying, and rising for the life of the world. It is for this that Christ came to involve us in his saving work. And the first one to believe and, thus, cooperate with him efficaciously in his work is the all-pure and all-loving Mary, Mother of Emmanuel "God-with-us".


[1] Mt 1:21.
[2] Mt 1:20.
[3] Mt 17:5.
[4] Jn 2:5.
[5] 1 Jn 5:1.
[6] Mt 2:11.
[7] Mt 19:6 = Gen 1:27.
[8] Mk 9:7.
[9] Jn 2: 5.
[10] Gal 4:19.
[11] Mt 3:14-15.
[12] Gal 4:4-7, 31; emphasis mine.
[13] Lk 2:34-35; emphasis mine.
[14] Cf. Jn 19:25-27.
[15] Lk 1:31, 33, 45.
[16] Cf. Acts 1:14.
[17] Jn 2:3, 5.
[18] Mt 25:21.
[19] Lk 1:42.
[20] Gal 2:20.

Related articles:
The Medieval Mary | The Introduction to Mary in the Middle Ages | by Luigi Gambero
Immaculate Mary, Matchless in Grace | John Saward
Assumed Into Mother's Arms | Carl E. Olson

Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis received his Ph.D. in Comparative Literature and Theology from Emory University. His areas of interest include liturgy and liturgical texts, Georg Trakl's poetry, the Gospel of Matthew, French and German poetry of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Greek and Roman classics, and Dante. He is the author of Fire of Mercy, Heart of the Word, a two-volume commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, Love's Sacred Order: The Four Loves Revisited, and The Way of the Disciple. He has also translated numerous works for Ignatius Press, including several books by Hans Urs von Balthasar.

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